Russian draughts were born thousands of years ago. For anyone who might find that odd, we suggest taking a look back fifteen centuries in the past to see how people have changed the game and how the game has changed people since antiquity.
Describing the life story of draughts has proved to be a difficult task. It’s not easy to find such literature as textbooks, combinations and endgame studies. As for its history, the game was created so long ago that it never occurred to anyone to compile a biography of the game, and now it has evolved so much that it would be virtually impossible to do so. Even a brief glance back at the history of draughts requires digging through volumes of old books and electronic megabytes. We were aided greatly in this endeavour by Russian draughts grandmaster Viktor Golosuyev’s book The Ancient and Mysterious Game and the tremendous work of science fiction writer Dmitry Skiryuk, who for several years has been dissecting board games in his LiveJournal. With their help as well as other sources, we will attempt to tell the story of how this truly ancient and mysterious game has evolved.
From shepherds to aristocrats
For as long as humanity has existed, it has always done two things: fought for territory and procured food. Now picture this: the ‘infantry’ of two armies advancing towards one another and ‘consuming’ each other along the way with the one who manages to strike the enemy in the rear producing the greatest advantage for the ‘commander’. Sound familiar?
On the walls of the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs as well as ancient Greek and Chaldean monuments, scientists have found drawings featuring a board with figures and people sitting in front of them. In some places, they even managed to find the remains of what was drawn on the walls. Following the assumptions of scientists, Grandmaster Golosuyev says these were most likely playing kits. The boards were lined in a particular way. The figures had different forms. These findings established that dice were at one time a mandatory attribute of the board game, i.e. the figures were moved depending on the toss of a dice. This means the creators of the game were counting on luck as far back as 3,000 BC.
But mankind continued to evolve. During excavations of Troy, Egypt, China, Italy and India, scientists found game sets with no dice. Only a lined board with figures. According to Dmitry Skiryuk, this means that at some point people removed the element of luck from the game. Calculations were made solely based on intellect. Thus, roughly 5,000 years ago a game likely appeared that is considered one of the earliest progenitors of modern battles on a lined board.
It has generally had the same name in different languages: ‘Mill’ (although the contemporary version is better known as different variations of ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ in English). Researchers have long associated the very nature of the game – figures of two different colours positioned on a field – with a pasture on which two herds are grazing, as if two shepherds are pushing along their livestock and taking over different sections of the meadow. This association combined with the game’s clearly ‘agrarian’ name suggests that herders and tillers were among the first intellectual players of this game.
The essence of ‘Mill’ can be imagined based on its similarity to the well-known game of tic-tac-toe: figures must be positioned on a lined board within the cross lines so that they form a line of three pieces – a ‘mill’. Then you can ‘devour’ your opponent’s figure and take over his ‘meadow’ as a result. A person who only has two figures left can no longer build a ‘mill’ and is regarded as the loser. Skiryuk says analogues to ‘Mill’ have been found almost everywhere: on the territory of present-day Greece, Germany, Madagascar, France, Sweden, Iceland, Turkmenistan and Bangladesh. The entire ancient civilised world apparently revelled in the game of ‘Mill’. On boards that were round, square and triangular. With three, six and nine pieces.
But was it only the ancient world? Different variations of ‘Mill’ made their way to the Middle Ages and were extremely popular. Aristocrats ordered boards from the finest types of wood and decorated them with precious stones. By this time, playing kits consisted of board that were lined on both sides: lines on one side and black and white boxes on the other side. And three sets of figures: for ‘Mill’, for che…
Stop. We skipped a few thousand years ahead. Let’s return to antiquity.
A game of warriors
In their disputes about the origin of draughts, researchers agree on one thing: it is impossible to determine the exact time when draughts appeared. Some believe that draughts are a ‘derivative’ of chess. But chess has only been around for a millennium and a half. Meanwhile, archaeologists have found 64-square boards on which people played by moving identical figures in a diagonal pattern during excavations of settlements that date back to 2,000-3,000 BC. The only argument that can be made by proponents of the ‘chess’ theory is that modern 64-square draughts ultimately took shape in the twelfth century, so officially they are roughly six hundred years younger than chess in that sense. As for 100-square draughts, one could say that they are still in their youth since they only took shape at the start of the eighteenth century. But if the birth of draughts is attributed to the Common Era, then what similar game were our ancient ancestors playing?
Well-preserved ancient Greek vases often depict an image of two people sitting opposite one another hunched over a small table. Skiryuk notes that Egyptians knew nothing of axonometric projection, so the table depicted in these pictures has a view from above and we can see that it’s a board divided into 64 squares. And this was 2,000-3,000 BC!
This was most likely an ancient game known as petteia that can be considered one of the progenitors of chess. The rules have been handed down to us in the works of ancient philosophers: 8, 16 or 30 pieces and the goal is to lock in the opponent’s figures and not let them advance.
Ancient Egyptians had another game as well called sidjah in which opponents had to alternately place 12 pieces each on a 25-square board, but the middle square was prohibited. The goal was the same: to lock in the opponent’s pieces and remove from the board, or ‘kill’ them. The person who had the most troops left was declared the winner.
The players depicted on the antique cases are people dressed as warriors who do not take off their helmets or put down their spears even for a game. These were no longer peaceful shepherds navigating their ‘herds’ in search of ‘grass’. As mankind developed, intellectual games became reserved for warriors. Now the two armies were battling it out on a board.
The evolution of petteia and sidjah led to the emergence in the Roman Empire of a game known as ludus latrunculorum. Latro means ‘warriors’. That’s precisely what the game was called: ‘a game of soldiers’. Whereas the battles on the board among the Greeks could often have an artistic nature, the militant Romans enshrined the militaristic spirit in the title. Moreover, the ability to play ludus latrunculorum was equated with military prowess.
Golosuyev suggests the board was lined with 49 squares in a 7x7 configuration. The black and white pieces were most likely placed on the cross lines instead of in the squares. But even then – back in Ancient Rome! – variations of ludus latrunculorum appeared on an 8x8 board and with 12 pieces for each player.
Skiryuk cites one highly curious discovery: he found an engraving from ‘Queen Mary's Psalter’ dating back to the beginning of the fourteenth century that depicts players sitting at a table. It is titled: ‘A young man and woman playing draughts’. Draughts! But the board in the picture has a strange 5x6 format board that is divided into squares of the same colour. It does not resemble a draughts board at all. It was most likely ancient Roman ludus latrunculorum. Does this mean that in fourteenth-century Europe people continued to play this ancient game, but now called it draughts? If so, this once again confirms the affinity of the two games.
From the Vikings…
The era of ancient warriors gave way to the era of pirate raids. Sea battles also left their mark on ‘war-like’ games. But more so, they affected the progression of these games. The Vikings picked up the games along with everything else they plundered, but the previous masters of these games did not always have time to teach the invaders the rules. The Vikings added their own rules and spread the game to the parts of the world where they were carrying out new raids. This is how the hnefatafl, or tafl, family of games was born. Unlike the ancient versions of the game, the pieces from these versions have passed down to us because they were made from the fruits of the Vikings’ labour: amber, precious glass and semi-precious stones.
The era itself along with the Vikings’ view of hierarchy left their mark on the rules of the game. One of the pieces was declared to be the king and the rest of the guards were charged with protecting him. You would attack the opponent and lock in his piece with two of your own. Saving the king meant getting him to the other edge of the board unscathed. The board was asymmetric and there were different rules for black and white. Black won when the white king was surrounded, and white won if the white king managed to escape. Everything was asymmetrical, uneven and full of injustice. Just like in the harsh life led by the Vikings.
The Vikings brought this game to Ancient Rus as well where it would be called ‘bogatyr tables’.
Hnefatafl has had different variations over time, including Lapland, Norman and Saxon. The ancient Scots, Cornish, Irish and Welsh all made their own changes to the game. New names emerged such as brandub, tableboard and gokstad board. But the uncoloured board divided into squares by lines remained unchanged.
Several researchers, in particular Russian draughts theorist Davyd Sargin in his book The Antiquity of Draughts and Chess Games, note one very important aspect of the ancient and Norse versions of draughts that perfectly illustrates how the rules of the game depended on the players’ ideas of nobility and military prowess. It was only possible to ‘kill’ an opponent in these games with a direct blow upon getting as close as possible, i.e. the neighbouring square. Just like in a real battle on land or at sea.
‘The East is a delicate matter’
Along with the northern, European branch of the very same ‘Mill’, there was another branch of the game developing concurrently – the Arabic branch. The game was called al-qirkat, or ‘fortress’, and was played on a 5x5 board with the pieces moving along the cross lines. Arabs brought the game to the Pyrenees. Golosuyev writes that a game called qirkat is mentioned in the biography of the Persian poet Al-Ahvasi, who died at the beginning of the eighth century. In Spain, al-qirkat was Europeanised together along with its name, and ever since then we have known it as alquerque.
At this point, we need to recall the ancient game of ‘Mill’ that has so amazingly been preserved this whole time. As Golosuyev points out, the board for alquerque comes from combining four mills with three pieces in each one. Thus, through ‘Mill’ ancient alquerque became entrenched with 12 pieces and a board with 16 squares each of which was divided diagonally. Before the battle began, the players threw a dice to determine which colour would go first – black or white.
But the simple rules of the ancient game of ‘Mill’ could never suit the East, which is ‘a delicate matter’ as we know from the film White Sun of the Desert. This ‘delicacy’ fundamentally impacted the evolution of the game. Ancient simplicity, classic nobility and Scandinavian frankness no longer had a place on the board. People learned to move the figures backwards and diagonally. They also started ‘killing’ opponents diagonally and by jumping across the board, no less. If a player ‘spared’ an opponent (failed to notice that he could strike), the person who was ‘spared’ had the right to remove the piece from the board. The game ended when neither opponent had enough pieces left to continue the endgame. The winner was the one who managed to preserve the most ‘soldiers’ on the board.
The rule whereby an inattentive person’s draught could be removed from the board was described as a ‘rule of anger’ in alquerque. Later, in Russian draughts people would begin calling it ‘huffing’. The word ‘huff’ is listed in the Ushakov dictionary as: ‘a draught huffed by a partner’. And even those who know absolutely nothing about draughts use the word ‘to huff’ in Russian.
Of course, the Mauritanian version of alquerque was still a far cry from draughts. But this was a battle of equal armies consisting of 12 ‘warriors’ who not only had to demonstrate courage and tenacity, but also agility, cunning and the talents of a strategist.
Alquerque managed to conquer the world very quickly. Arabs turned it into something exciting, while the Spaniards captivated India and Africa with the game during their sea voyages and conquests, and the conquistadors brought it to America. Judging from scientists’ findings, hundreds of variations began to appear in what were new lands for the game: round, hexagonal and square boards with radial lines or a pattern in the form of a butterfly’s wings. Boards have been found in the form of animals and insects made from whatever materials were at hand. Wherever the ‘board wars’ took place, they reflected the local colour, local mentality and local peculiarities of the battle.
However, the ‘canvas’ remained the same: a plain board with cross lines. But then Turkish draughts emerged with the game ‘Dame’.
‘Dame’ conquers Europe
Dame is what they call draughts in Germany today. In Sweden it’s called damspel. In Spanish and Portuguese it’s damas, in Italian it’s dama and in French it’s jeu de dames.
Ancient Turkish draughts ended up with a 64-square board and each player having 16 pieces lined up in two rows, just not on the edge of the board, but one row in. White starts. You can only move forward in a straight line. You can strike by jumping over an opponent. Hanging a piece is prohibited. A piece that reaches the opposite edge is crowned. And then you can strike at any distance, although once again only in a straight line. We’re getting hot, aren’t we?
Dame underwent changes once it reached Armenia, followed by the Caucasus and then European countries. Features of good old alquerque could still be seen in the game. But then diagonal moves and attacks started to appear followed by the diagonal layout of pieces. The game became increasingly sophisticated and a variety of tactical manoeuvers emerged.
Meanwhile, in France people started playing with twelve pieces positioned diagonally in a mosaic pattern in the exact same way we play today on a 64-square board. Initially the board remained a single colour and was divided diagonally into squares. These were paths along which the draughts positioned in the cross lines would be moved. If a board from that time was divided into vertical and horizontal lines as well, you would have a modern 64-square board. But back then it was essentially unnecessary for the draughts to be black or white since ‘paths’ had been drawn for them.
Sources do not indicate the exact dates when it occurred. We know that in France around the end of the eleventh century and the start of the twelfth century the game underwent a further ‘modernisation’ that proved to be very important. It was around this time, Golosuyev believes, that the game of draughts as we know it today began to take shape. Some amateur suggested placing the draughts on a board for a game that had already been in Europe for roughly three hundred years and been extremely popular for about a hundred years: a chess board. Apparently in France they had begun making the same playing sets that we mentioned in the beginning: three sets of figures and a board lined on both sides – for chess with draughts and for ‘Mill’.
The evolution from ‘Mill’ via ludus latrunculorum, hnefatafl and alquerque made draughts, or dame, a tremendously popular game. It was mentioned in poems and novels such as Boccaccio’s Decameron and Cervantes’s Don Quixote just to name a few. It was glorified by minstrels. The Christian church considered chess to be a form of gambling until the end of the fourteenth century and tried to do everything possible to ban it. Golosuyev writes that it was the same with draughts, although other sources say the church looked upon draughts favourably in Europe.
Classic Russian draughts
There are numerous theories on how draughts found their way to Russia. One theory says they came from Europe via Poland. Another says we owe the emergence of draughts to a trading route that stretched ‘from the Vikings to the Greeks’ and passed through Kiev during the time of Vladimir Monomakh in the eleventh century. A third theory claims that it was Princess Olga who brought draughts from Byzantium in the tenth century, which would suggest that they appeared in Russia long before gaining popularity in Europe. There is also a fourth theory: glass draughts were found during excavations near Kiev that archaeologists have dated to the third and fourth centuries.
Whereas in Europe the clergy ‘condoned’ draughts, the Orthodox Church regarded tafl, as draughts were called in Russia, as a demonic pastime along with playing the harp. This, however, did not stop tsars from accepting such gifts from foreign ambassadors as ‘amber tafl with two chess boards’ like the ones received from the Elector of Brandenburg as described by Golosuyev, who notes that a large collection of ancient draughts are on display at the Moscow Kremlin’s Museum of Applied Art and Life.
Take a guess who ended the church’s bans on the game. That’s right: Peter the Great. He loved draughts and ordered others to master the skills of the game as well, making it mandatory for the court. In his novel Peter the Great’s Moor, Pushkin writes about a game of draughts between the tsar and an English skipper. Golosuyev cites entire lists of quotes from Russian classics dedicated to the game in his book. And Gogol’s line, ‘It’s been a long time since I picked up a draughts piece’ immediately comes to Russians’ minds without any prompting.
Remember the ‘rule of anger’ that originated from ancient alquerque? There was a proposal to abolish it in classic draughts in the eighteenth century as various unscrupulous players began taking advantage of it, preferring to ‘huff’ one draught if taking an opponent’s figure meant they were in danger of losing two or three of their own draughts. The rule was only abolished for good in the nineteenth century. Incidentally, 100-square draughts, which first appeared in Europe in the seventeenth century, truly began to flourish after this rule was abolished.
In Russia, classic draughts remained an incredibly popular game until the nineteenth century, but never became a sport in the contemporary sense of the word. It was impossible to hold tournaments because there were no unified conditions for competition. Bets and odds were established immediately before the game as described in Gogol’s Dead Souls, where Nozdryov and Chichikov are arguing specifically about this. The ‘huff’ rule was also applied based on an agreement between the parties. However, there was virtually nothing written about draughts.
The first journal article about draughts in Russia was published by writer Nikolay Karamzin in the early nineteenth century. Chess players were the ones responsible for the first writings about draughts techniques in Russia. In 1827, Saint Petersburg University professor and grandmaster Alexander Petrov created a guide on how to play draughts. In the late nineteenth century, journalist, writer and historian Mikhail Gonyaev published the ‘Charter of the Game of Draughts’. This is when the notorious ‘huff’ rule was officially abolished, and draughts tournaments started being held in accordance with Gonyaev’s Charter. In 1891, a draughts periodical appeared in Russia for the first time as two historians and journalists, Davyd Sargun and Pavel Bobrov, began publishing the Shashechnitsa journal. Both men happened to be chess players, but also major promoters of the game of draughts.
At the end of 1892, Russia held its first draughts tournament. It took place in Kiev and had the status of an intra-city competition in which eleven people took part. But Kiev was a major and highly cultured city in Russia at the time. The tournament ended up having far-reaching consequences. Historian Pavel Bodyansky, who won the Kiev tournament, organised the first All-Russian Draughts Tournament in Moscow two years later in July 1894. The participants included eight draughts players, and first place was shared by Sergey Vorontsov and Fyodor Kaulen, the author of the ‘Kaulen opening’ that draughts players know well. As for Vorontsov, he survived the revolution and took part in tournaments as a Soviet draughts player. His victory at the 1927 Moscow Championship, when he was 71-years-old, became legendary.
Bodyansky was the publisher and editor of the Russian journal Draughts, which historians and draughts players still describe as truly unique: each issue had roughly 50 pages devoted to the game.
The late nineteenth century saw the birth of yet another ‘genre’ of draughts –games played remotely by correspondence. The correspondence tournament lasted for two years – from 1887 to 1889.
The Soviet Union had a Draughts Federation and the first USSR championship took place in 1924. The winner was Vasily Medkov, the author of the ‘Medkov opening’. After this, national draughts competitions became a regular event.
Draughts on a 100-square board
We have not said a word about one particular rung in the ladder of the game’s evolution: draughts on a 100-square board. We only mentioned that such draughts are roughly six centuries younger than classic Russian draughts. According to English chess historian Harold Murray, the board expanded to 100 squares in France, a decision that was reportedly conceived by an officer serving King Philip II. However, Dmitry Skiryuk notes that the book cited by the Englishman does not exist and that in general in the early eighteenth century ‘draughts-100’ was already known as ‘Polish draughts’ in Holland even though no information exists about their geographical connection to Poland. But apparently that officer had the nickname Polonais, or Pole, which actually brings us back to Murray’s version.
In addition to ‘draughts-100’, numerous other variations of the classical game have emerged in modern times: for instance, Canadian draughts on a 12x12 board with 80 squares. In short, the history of draughts continues to evolve. But a classic, i.e. Russian draughts, will always remain a classic.
Text: Irina Tumakova
Photos from Dmitry Skiryuk’s blog