The Time of Shatranj and the Aliyat

 Miguel Villa  6/22/2004  16 comments 

An essay on the origins of Shatranj - an ancient precursor to modern chess, originating in Persia.


It is generally said that chess was invented in India, and there are a many legends that relate how this was done.  But the turning point in the history of the game came some time later in another land and by conquerors.  The land was Persia and when the Arabs sized the country in the 7th century of the first millennium they owned also the game, and they named it Shatranj.

It was almost the same Indian game of Chaturanga with some minor changes, and couldn't have came in better hands, as the Arabs were in total expansion in that time and spread the game to the places where they were travelling and conquering kingdoms, reaching even Europe and the Charlemagne court.

In a period of great splendour in the arts and sciences for the Arabs, his cities being amongst the wealthiest of the world, the Shatranj game prospered for centuries under the auspices of the mighty rulers.  It became a popular game in a flourishing culture, and consequently great players surged, tournaments were played and many books were produced.

One of the great players of his time, Al-Adli, wrote in the 9th century A.D. a cardinal book dealing with the various elements of the game.  The book is lost but by Arabic references it is known that was a vast work containing a historical exposition on the roots of the game, Chaturanga; as well as the first classification of players according to strength and skill: the term Aliyat was used only for the top masters and Mutaqaribat for the strongest players that were near to them.  In the section dedicated to chess problems or mansubat, there was a systematic division in won, lost and drawn endings, with hundreds of mansubat. Also in the openings Al-Adli innovated using a classification by positions or tabiya, with names like: Pharao's Stones, The Sword, Flank Opening, the Sheikh's Opening, the Army Opening.

It is logical to conclude that every one of the sections of the book required a deep understanding of the Shatranj game, and that many years and generations of players were needed to make possible that one talented man as Al-Adli recuperated the learnings of years of playing.

And like chess champions today, Al-Adli had his nemesis and finally was defeated in Baghdad by Ar-Razi in a match around 848 A.D.  But his successor did also the same and wrote a book, and so the next Aliyat, and therefore his names and important works have passed into the history.  Some prominent Aliyat and his works are:

  • Al-Adli Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess)
  • Ar-Razi Al-lutf fy ash-shatranj (Elegance in Chess)
  • As-Suli Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess - I) - Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of Chess - II)
  • Al-Lajlaj Kitab mansubat ash-shatranj (Book of Chess Problems)
  • Aliqlidisi Kitab majmu' fy mansubat ash-shatranj (Book of Collection of Chess Problems)

It is easy to see the similarities between Shatranj in its period of prosperity, and modern chess, and this goes beyond the pieces used and the movements, for as today, it involved an entire culture dedicated to the game in the Arab world.  And as today, either the aristocracy and the common people enjoyed playing game after game in his Arab nights, which explains perfectly why the game persisted for a long time, being really a popular game.

What attracted all those people with so different backgrounds, either masters or casual players, in the large and multifaceted Arab world?  The excitement of the battle is for sure one thing present in a Shatranj game, as well as the triumph of strategy and skill.  But it was a different fight as the one we know from a modern chess game.  The reason being the restricted movements of some pieces (if compared with chess), like the Firzan and Fils, whose modern counterparts are respectively the mighty Queen and Bishops; also the baidaqs or pawns were allowed to move always only one square at the time, so entering into the battle was a delayed matter by nature; it was a game of strategy above all.

Today the rescue of an important variation in the chess history could be a perfect reason for playing Shatranj, but there are others like the simple appreciation of a game of deep strategy and different pace of manoeuvre; also of a practical character is the possible development of a strategic approach in a player's ability and style.  But for knowing that for sure it would be necessary the congregation of many players interested in the game, and also a good amount of time to again reach some understanding of the subtleties and possibilities of the game, as the ancient Aliyats once did.

To have a closer look to Shatranj here are some ancient mansubat or chess problems as they were published more than a thousand of years ago.  For better understanding them it is good to have in mind the next differences in the movement of the Shatranj pieces involved in this problems.

  • Firzan (Queen) Moves to the next square in every diagonal
  • Fils (Bishops) Moves two squares diagonally, can leap like a knight

Dilaram's Mansubat

This is a famous Shatranj problem, above all for the tale that accompanies it, that tells about a man that put his wife as first price in a game; however he was about to lose until the final moment when the woman kibitzed 'between lines' that he better sacrificed his two rooks, better than lose her, giving the solution and remaining with his man.  The mansubat also illustrates the advantage of a 'leaping' Fil that can jump over other pieces, and of course the mate is a privilege of Shatranj.

(Start Position) 1. Rh8+ Kxh8 2. Bh3f5+ Kg8 3. Rh8+ Kxh8 4. g7+ Kg8 5. Nh6#

Al-Adli Mansubat

This combinative mansubat first appeared in Al-Adli's 'Book of Shatranj' about 840 A.D.

(Start Position) 1. Nh5+ Rxh5 2. Rxg6+ Kxg6 3. Re6#

Mansubat ad-Dulabiya (Wheel Problem)

In this fantasy mansubat the two Faras (knights) make the Shah (king) go all over the board until they mate.

(Start Position) 1. Na4+ Kb7 2. Na5+ Kc8 3. Nb6+ Kd8 4. Nb7+ Ke7 5. Nc8+ Kf7 6. Nd8+ Kg6 7. Ne7+ Kg5 8. Nf7+ Kf4 9. Ng6+ Kf3 10. Ng5+ Ke2 11. Nf4+ Kd2 12. Nf3+ Kc3 13. Ne2+ Kb3 14. Nfxd4+ Ka4 15. Nc3+ Ka5 16. Nb3+ Kb6 17. Na4+ Kb7 18. Nbxc5+ Kc8 19. Nb6+ Kd8 20. Nb7+ Ke7 21. Nc8+ Kf7 22. Nd8+ Kg6 23. Ne7+ Kg5 24. Nf7+ Kf4 25. Ng6+ Kf3 26. Ng5+ Ke2 27. Nf4+ Kd2 28. Nf3+ Kc3 29. Ne2+ Kb3 30. Nd2+ Ka4 31. Nc3+ Ka5 32. Nb3+ Kb6 33. Na4+ Kb7 34. Na5+ Kc8 35. Nb6+ Kd8 36. Nxc6#

Armies at war

Finally another mansubat by Al-Adli, with the tale of a white army devastated by disease and obliged to pact peace, the black Shah orders his Firzan to bring the white Shah to his presence, but the lazy Firzan sends 2 Baidaqs to carry out the order; angry the black Shah executes his Firzan and the White Shah afraid at seeing the cruelty of the black decides to launch a final attack.

(Start Position) 1. Nxg7+ Kd8 2. Nxf7+ Kc7 3. Ne8+ Kb7 4. Nd8 Ka6 5. Nc7+ Ka5 6. Nb7+ Ka4 7. Qb3 Ka3 8. Bc1#

Shatranj links and playing sites:

You can play Shatranj by correspondence here on, with the option of using an unchecked board and elephant-shaped Fils; also the easy rules of the game. A java board to play against a machine online. A magnificent article on Shatranj with nice graphics. Bill Wall's site on Al-Adli. An article with historical references and 3 mansubat (in Spanish) The rules of Shatranj, and the option to play by mail.


 cleverman 6/23/2004 

Very very interesting!!

 refutor 6/24/2004 

i really enjoyed this article, i knew little/nothing about shatranj before this

 Philip 6/24/2004 

Magnificent work Miguel, thank you so much!

 Tulkos 6/28/2004 

very good background to shataranj!

 nasmichael 7/2/2004 

This is a superior article that breathes new breath into the venerable predecessor of our game. To revisit it may give new ideas to our senior players, and perhaps incorporating some elements of the old style may revivify our current mode of play at top levels.

 ReyFeroz 7/4/2004 

Muy Bueno !

 surfnsuds 10/10/2004 

Really interesting. I hope to try using my cavalry that way. Very effective!

 Spohn 11/27/2004 

Awesome article! I love how the knights are always the ones used in those puzzles to walk the king (around the whole board 3 times in one case)

 Open Defence 2/15/2005

I thought Shatranj originated in India!! :-(

 fabio75 5/11/2005 

It is a very interesting article, but it could be more complete if it would be explained the evolution of shatranj till the birth of modern chess rules.
It is usually said that modern moviment of queen, pawn and bishop was applied since 1470 about, and this "variant" of shatranj, played in medieval Europe, is the final result of many changes that started in fourteen century ( 1300 ) in order to make the game quicker: infact in medieval Europe the game with shatranj rules, was too slow since chess was played for bet ( as i have read on some web sites ).
So is it possible to consider shatranj the early european medieval chess, in its original and ancent rules ?

 Space 7/23/2006 

 longshanx 1/10/2007 

Anyway, do you know how the other openings (except Mujannah and Mashaikhi) look like?

 nasmichael 3/11/2009 

Many thanks for this article. I read it a long time ago, have referred people to it several times for understanding, and I hope to play a few of these games in the near future.

 GoranPrpic 2/15/2012 

I imagined myself being fortunate enough to have access to a Time Machine. I stopped circa the time and place of these "Chess/Shatranj" enthusiasts and spent some incredible time talking with these people. Thanks for the adventure!

 startstek 3/24/2013 

Great article, great Mansubat and a great game!

 The_Bishop 10/20/2021 

As-Suli was the greatest Shatranj player of all time. This game is the true original ancient game of Chess and it's so amazingly deep and funny. Rules are simple and very clear, without weird exceptions. Yes, the opening seems too slow to modern Chess players, but it's a matter of points of view, for the Shatranj players there's no opening at all in modern Chess, because it looks just like an immediate fight. Many strategic concepts are similar to modern Chess, but in Shatranj they are a bit more complex imho.

Other than Mujannah and Mashaikhi another important opening system (or tabiya) is the Sayyal (the torrent system) - which is probably one of the most tactical - aiming for a pawn outpost in f5 (the torrent pawn). Several other tabiyat exist, but they aren't like a sequence of moves to memorize, each tabiya can (and need to) be modified accordingly to the opponent's play, so basically leading to a vast tree of variations.

The major pieces are Rooks and Knights, often cooperating to deliver beautiful checkmates. However I think the real key for a good strategy are the minor pieces (pawns, Elephants and Ferz), sometimes hard to master for us modern players. As a link I would like to add to the list a new Youtube channels: 

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