The Rebel Pawns of the Sierra Chess

 Miguel Villa  9/20/2004  9 comments 

A report from the Sierra Madre.

My first encounter with the Sierra Chess game was some years ago when I travelled by the region called La Sierra Madre Oriental, in Mexico.  I arrived at a little village in the heights of the mountainous zone in the middle of a cold day.  I was thirsty and dying for a drink.  Fortunately the cantina was the only place with the doors open, although it was quite gloomy.  A mixture of cigarette smoke floated in the weak light.  There were few people, all separated in groups.  At one side three men were at a table staring at each other like statues with their hats on front of them and the hands hidden, as if in a sort of prayer.  In another table, a fat, bored woman was listening to the news on a radio.  In a corner, a couple of old men, whose doings I couldn't see at first.  And behind the long and lonely bar, the bartender staring at me.  I asked him for a tequila, and after a couple of minutes we were talking the usual.

What brings you to this lonely place? he asked.

I told him that I was going to the colonial city of Guanajuato to meet my ex-wife.  He laughed briefly and rather sadly.  He muttered the word silly and started to clean glasses with a melancholy expression.  Then he said that the village was almost a ghost town and the people were leaving since the casino was closed.

Much of the people that remain are those that you see here, and a silly prostitute that sleeps too much. He signalled upstairs.  Oh, and the silly preacher that insists this place needs him, he said tediously.  Since I'm not very religious, I didn't care for this information and asked him for another tequila.  But he added in a naive tone, He is with the prostitute, of course.  It was in that rather queer moment when I turned and saw the wooden chessboard between the couple of old men.  As I have some interest in the matter, I approached to see the game.

Check, check, check, one of the players said vehemently with a baritone voice, and the other, a pale old man with swallowed cheeks and a white suit, turned down his king.  They started slowly to rearrange the pieces while I sat nearby.  I noted that the pieces were of that curious Mexican chess set in which the king is like a President with a 1920's styled suit, the queen as Fox-Trot dancer (seemingly the President's lover), the bishops as bodyguards (it was a lay country in the days the chess set was designed and religious characters were not appropriate), the knights as generals, the rooks like the National Palace, and the pawns as revolutionaries.

Carlos Torre Repetto always had with him one of these boards, the baritone voiced old man said to me, without turning to see me.  I told him that it was the second board of the type that I have ever seen, and that it indeed was a very fine board.

Did you know him? I dared to ask.


Carlos Repetto Torre.

Oh not at all, I'm not that old, he said and smiled showing a big and healthy set of teeth for a man of his age.  Then he offered me a cigar with a firm gesture and the white dressed old man gave me a light and said, Do you want to play? I'm a little bit tired of losing to this old cheater.

I accepted and took his post.

You do know the rules, right? the baritone voiced old man asked me.

Sure, I said.

For the rules could be slightly different in Sierra Chess (Ajedrez de la Sierra)

What do you mean?

Oh, lets play.  That's the best way to learn.  Trial and error, as the old Aztecs used to say, he said and moved his king pawn two squares forward.  To tell the truth I don't exactly remember the moves, but I have an idea of them.  So I pushed my king pawn to e5.  Next my opponent moved his knight to f3 and I protected with Nc6.  Then suddenly, he took my c6 knight with his f3 knight.  That was the first oddity.

I looked at him in search of an explanation, but as there was none I decided not to ask and to continue the game, whatever the rules were.  Maybe because I was taking pleasure in the game and all of the situation.  After that I had the idea of posting the pieces in an attacking manner, but my intention was always retorted by a surprising countermove.  I ended by laughing at every one of these strange moves.  Pawns moving to the sides and backwards?

So, this is Sierra Chess? I asked with more of the sudden happiness that I was experiencing.

Sierra Chess, repeated both old men.

They were also good chess players, the Aztecs, the white dressed old man said at one moment.

You mean after the Spanish conquerors came? I asked, watching how my opponent changed the colour of his dark-squared bishop.

No, before that.  Of course it was called different and they used carved bones and rocks.

I never heard of that, I said.

While my opponent was pondering one of his moves, I placed the cigar in the ashtray and let the sweet smoke roll out of my mouth like a thick night fog.  It seemed to be a funny smoke and I looked with attention at the cigar.

Do you like it? These are from my private 'ammunition', said the baritone old man proudly.

I told him that it was very good, but that it had a strange sweet flavour.

Oh, they have a little amount of marijuana, he said in a natural way.  I have a little tobacco company.  Not here but in the next town.  I just come here for the local whores.  But there are no more of them.  Isn't that just my luck.  I still come here to play with this stubborn old man, he nodded to this companion.  We add some quantity of 'stuff' to make them tasteful, he explained, and his g2 bishop rebounded in h3 to end in g4.

I was starting to get an idea of the game and made some lateral pawn moves deep in the position of my adversary knowing that I would be able to get them back at will, but at this point my opponent announced a checkmate in five ended my rebel pawns attack.  Both old men laughed and I did the same.  I was indeed in a very delightful mood.

A very bad game, said a pleasant female voice from behind my shoulder.  I turned to see her and laughed again with no apparent reason.  By this moment I realized that the proportion of marijuana was maybe not so little as the old man had said.

Besides, Aztecs did not played chess, she said with a sardonic gesture.  She seemed to have been sleeping recently, but was a beautiful girl.  She must have been twenty something.

Now, let me show you how this is played, she said, and took my place.

The baritone old man offered me another cigar but this time I declined.  I was more interested in the girl.  She and the old men played six games in a row alternating places.  She had an intelligent stare, and she was winning everyone of the games.  She defeated them another four times and then the old men were so exhausted that finally give up and went to the bar to drink with the bartender.  In the other table the three men were starting to rise the voices in a violent manner.  My mind was a little more clear now and we and the girl remained at the table in silence.

Do you like it? she asked.  I looked at her lovely eyes.

It's an interesting game, but I still don't understand some parts.

It's very easy, it's about raiding the board.  I could teach you if wish, she said.  She appeared quite honest.  After some moments we accorded to go to her room in search of a pleasant environment for the learning matter.  She closed the board and I was taking the pieces, when a mature man, dressed with the garments of a Catholic priest, came rapidly down the stairs and grabbed the girl by the hand.  I noticed he was carrying a suitcase.

Will you come with me? he asked with intensity.  The girl appeared to be very calm, but suddenly she kicked the priest and released his hand; she also told him to go to hell and other sweet words, and then ran upstairs crying.  The priest followed her and again grabbed her hand before she went too far, and they started to discuss again.  There were more shouts and kicks, and in the middle of all the mess I thought that my role in such a tormented relation was rather unnecessary.  To make the things worst, the three men appeared affected too by the violent atmosphere and they also started to argue; the only difference was that they were using guns and I saw their hands very close to them.  The two old men had finished their drinks and were walking hurriedly towards the door.  The suit dressed old man gave me a signal and I followed them out of the place.

The last thing I saw was the couple going upstairs, very close to each other, and the three men tapping nervously at their guns under the table; the bartender cleaning glasses and the fat woman sleeping pleasantly.  After that the baritone old man gave me a ride and we left that lost town in the Sierra Madre.

I would surely forgot all the matter, if not because some time ago I meet a girl when she and some of her friends came to the used car business of my uncle, where I was working at the time.  The girl happened to be a relatively unknown singer of a local music group.  It was an easy sale for they were really interested in any big truck to carry some of their instruments.  But while I was arranging the legal papers, I saw the girl playing a game of chess with a guy of her crew.  I recognized instantly the king moving like a knight.  After a few moments I was again playing a Sierra Chess game.  In fact there were two of them.  She played fast and seemed to be a veteran player and she had no mercy of my rookie condition.

Where did you learn to play? I asked.

I was a member of a local club in my neighbourhood, but that was a lot of time ago, she said.

I see.  We should play another pair of games some of this days.  I like the game, I said.

And she said she will call me later.  Anyway, I understood more of the Sierra Chess and was able to make a list of the rules and also the record of both games.

Here are the games with some repetitive comments in order to clarify the odd moves and the boring rules at the end.

[Event "Used Car Match"]
[Date "2003.09.17"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Salesman"]
[Black "Singer"]
[Result "0-1"]

1. h4 g5 2. hxg5 Bf8xg5 Taking via the open path of g7 3. f4 A protected pawn at 2 leaps from the knight on g1 3... Bf6 4. Nf3 e5 5. fxe5 Nb8xe5 A 2 leap move passing by the empty square c6 6. Nxe5 Bxe5 7. d4 Bg7 8. e4 f5 9. exf5 Ng8xf5 Via e7 or h6, both empty squares 10. Bd3 Nf5xh1 Passing by g3 in 2 leaps 11. g2xh1 Qe7 12. Na3 d5 13. Bf4 Be6 14. Bxc7 c7 was protected for the king in a knightly manner, but was attacked twice by the a3 knight and the f4 bishop 14... Be6f6 15. Bc7xf6 Taking via the open path e5 15... Ke8xf6 A knightly move by the king 16. Ke1f3 Raf8 17. Na3xa7 Taking the unprotected pawn in two leaps 17... Kf6d7+ 18. Kg3 Qg5+ 19. Qg4+ Qxg4+ 20. Kxg4 h5+ 21. Kh4 h5g5+ A lateral move and the pawn is protected by the bishops on f6 or h6 22. Kg4 Rh4+ 23. Kg3 Bg7f4+ A twisted check the bishop passed by the empty square e5 24. Kg2 Rh2+ 25. Kf1 Rxh1+ 26. Kg2 Rxa1 27. Bb5+ Kd7b6 28. a4 g5h5 29. b4 h4 30. a5+ Kb6a8 31. a6 The b7 pawn is pinned for if it closes the bishops path to the king 31... h3+ 32. Kf3 Bd6+ Winning the knight for the black bishops has a path to it 33. Kf3g5 Bd6xa7 Taking via b8 34. Kg5xh3 Rxa6 35. Bxa6 bxa6 36. c3 a6b6 37. Kh4 b6c6 38. Kg5 Ka8c7 39. Kg4 d5d6 40. Kg5 c5 41. bxc5 dxc5 42. d5 Kc7xd5 43. c4+ Ke5 44. c4d4+ Ba7xd4 Black wins for white has no pieces. 0-1

[Event "Used Car Match"]
[Date "2003.09.17"]
[Round "2"]
[White "Salesman"]
[Black "Singer"]
[Result "0-1"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nf3xc6 Taking in 2 moves and passing by the empty square d4 3... bxc6 4. Na3 Nf6 5. d4 d6 6. Bd3 exd4 7. Na3xd4 Passing by b5 7... g6 8. g4 h5 9. g4h4 A lateral move 9... Bg7 10. Rg1 Bg7xd4 The knight was in the 4 squares range of the bishop that jumps above his own knight 11. Bc1xd4 Also this bishop was in the 4 squares range that turned in the e3 square 11... Nf6xh2 A 2 leap move by the knight passing by g3 12. Rg2 To avoid been taken by the knight in 2 leaps 12... Ng4 13. Rg1 Nh2 14. Ke1g2 Nh2xg1 White decides it's OK and the black knight takes passing by f3 15. Kxg1 Rg8 16. Kg1h3 A knightly move by the king 16... Bb7 17. f4 c5 18. Be3 c4 The pawn is protected by Bb7 passing either at a6 or d5 19. Be2 f5 20. Qd4 Qe7 The queen has a 4 squares range and now aims at e4 21. exf5 gxf5 22. Rg1 Kf7 23. Rxg8 Rxg8 24. Bxc4+ Bb7xc4 25. Qxc4+ d6e6 A lateral pawn move 26. Bc5 Qf6 27. Bxa7 Rg4 28. Ba7xc7 Taking via the open paths of b8 or b6 28... Qxh4# The white king is certainly in the 4 squares range of the queen, black mates. 0-1

Finally, the general rules explaining those games could be stated as follow:

  1. The pawns can move one step forward, backward and at the sides, or two forward only at the beginning .  They can take diagonally in the four directions of the next squares, like an 'X'
  2. The bishops can move at maximum four squares diagonally, can change the direction if there is an available path and can leap over pieces.  Also can change the colour of square at a lateral or vertical immediate empty square.
  3. The knights are allowed to make one or two leaps passing by an empty square in the first leap.
  4. The king moves a square in every direction and also like a single knight move.
  5. The queen has a maximum of four squares extending in every direction.
  6. There is no castling and no en passant.
  7. Checkmate, stalemate and a bare opponent king are the ways to win.

*Thanks to Mr. Pony for his time in reviewing my English phrases in this report.


 Austin Lockwood 9/20/2004 

A fantastic story Miguel Villa…

 Austin Lockwood 9/20/2004 

In the second game, isn't 11... Nf6xh2 check? (double knight leap)

 Philip 9/20/2004 

LOL somehow I think you need a revolver and a jug of hard whisky to play this game!

 MiguelVilla 9/20/2004

I asked myself about that move, Austin. But since the game happened I came to the conclusion that is the last position of the knight what counts for a check, and a 2-leap distance only a posibility.
I guess I should have included that in the rules. Tough this game has many strange moves that I still need to understand, like the bishops twisting diagonaly. In fact such a game should be subject to analysis to see if it can be seriously played.

 Austin Lockwood 9/21/2004 

Because the pieces have such an extended range, I was wondering how easy this game would be to play? In orthodox chess it's possible to see potential moves and pieces enprise (sometimes!) instinctively, I don't think that this would be the case here. Also I would guess that a take of some kind was probably possible on most moves.

I will try it out OTB when I can find an opponent!

 aliwood 9/29/2004 

Well written, that is an excellent piece.

 Austin Lockwood 10/13/2004 

Additional information about this chess variant is here:

 langhab 10/29/2008 

i was kinda hoping for schemingmind to adopt this variant...

 pallab 12/8/2008

excellent reading!

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