Shatranj is a traditional game that first appeared in Persia around the 7th century AD and remained immensely popular throughout the Middle East for the next nine centuries. Shatranj is said to have supported professional players, produced several books and inspired its own body of chess problems or mansubat. And it is likely to be the predecessor of modern chess.
1. Pieces and Movement
Shatranj can be played with a traditional chess set: the start position is similar to that of standard chess, with Alfils replacing Bishops and Firzans replacing Queens.
The game was designed to represent an ancient battlefield. The Baidaq is a soldier, the Firzan is a trusted military advisor (this metaphor is also behind the promotion rule); the Rukh (chariot), Faras (horse), and Fil (elephant) represent advanced ancient military units.
The rules of Shatranj are similar to Standard Chess, with the following exceptions:
- Stalemate counts as a win (if you have no legal move, you lose),
- Bare King counts as a win, provided that your King cannot be bared on the very next move,
- Two bare Kings count as a draw,
- The piece set is changed (alfils and firzans instead of queens and bishops, see above),
- There is no initial two-step pawn move (and of course no en-passant), no castling, and pawns arriving at the last rank always promote to Firzans
There are check and checkmate, and they work just as they do in standard chess.
3. Game hints
Here are some basic suggestions about game play.
3.1. Pieces strength
The strongest piece is of course the rukh (rook). If, following standard chess, we keep the values for the rooks (5 units) and knights (3 units), then the firzan would be worth at most 2 units, the alfil about 1, and pawns between 0.5 and 1 (the central pawns being more valuable than those on the side). The low value of the pawns is caused by the fact that they can only promote to firzans. The low value of the alfils is because each alfil can access only 1/8 of the board.
The tenth-century master As-Suli set out the values thus: rukh: 5, knight: 3¹⁄₃, firzan: 1²⁄₃, alfil: 1¹⁄₄, central pawn: 1¹⁄₄, bishop and knight pawn: between ⁵⁄₆ and 1, rook pawn: ⁵⁄₈.
Each alfil can access only 8 squares on the board, and those squares do not overlap. So it is impossible to (directly) exchange alfil for alfil. One can also consider avoiding squares reachable by one's opponent's alfils while deciding where to place important pieces and pawns. At the same time, one's own alfils can be useful to defend important pawns (this is why some openings leave pawns on d3 and e3).
The game is generally slower than standard chess. In particular, it takes time before the true battle begins: during opening one can develop almost uninterrupted by the opponent for some time. So, the exact sequence of opening moves is not very important; the resulting structure matters. Below are example structures (tabiyas) analysed in traditional literature:
Black can pick the same, or other structure, as white. So, there can be Double Mujannah game (when both players picked Mujannah setup), or Mujannah-Mashaikhi game.
The typical aim of the opening and the early middlegame is to gain space, connect the rooks (second rank is often used for the task), favourably open some file(s), create outposts for the knights, and, if possible, invade the opponent's camp with a rook (or both), supported by knights, and sometimes alfils. Such an attack need not necessarily lead to mate, but frequently lets one win significant material.
Contrary to standard chess, one can often find oneself unable to defend some piece or square in spite of having tempi or even a few available for the task. Except the rooks, all pieces are short range, and it takes time to move them to the other area of the board. Therefore it is important to create a solid structure, where pieces and pawns defend one another. For the same reason, local advantages (having more pieces in some area of the board) are likely to stay for a few moves.
Typical game strategy is oriented rather towards winning material, than creating mate threats (although there are exceptions). Sacrifices happen rarely (if ever). The main tactical (strategical?) theme is to outnumber the opposing pieces in some area of the board to win material there.
Pawn promotion is of lesser value than in standard chess as the firzan is only slightly stronger than the pawn. It make sense to promote pawns, but this is only one of many possible manoeuvres.
The most important endgame concept is constriction (taking away your opponent's moves) in order to achieve a stalemate or bare king victory.
The stronger side should be careful while exchanging, especially with rook exchanges. There is a risk of a situation similar to opposite-bishops chess ending - extra firzan (or a few) does not help if the weaker side dominates on - say - light squares. For the same reason sometimes it is better to keep an unpromoted pawn, if it keeps an eye on an important square - once promoted, it will never change its square colour.
4. Example games
Links to more instructive Shatranj games are welcome
Some example games:
Nice mate in the centre of the board
Rooks invasion - after typical opening black uses open file to invade white position with rooks
Alfils at work - instructive maneouvering game where white particularly effectively uses his alfils (note battle for open file on moves 26 and 37, fork on move 29 and final sacrifice at move 60), also pretty example of constriction strategy in the final part of the game.
Minor piece king hunt - knights and alfil cooperating to construct the mating net.
5. Additional info
This Article on Shatranj was published in the SchemingMind Journal. Read it, you will find a lot of valuable information there.
AncientChess.com is selling chess sets being replicas of traditional shatranj pieces (Nishapur chessmen). See their chess history for some pretty photos, and this page for game rules in their redaction.