The Chess Variant 
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A review of `Guide des échecs exotiques & insolites, by Jean-Louis Cazaux

K.B.A. Bodlaender

Jean-Louis Cazaux, Guide des échecs exotiques & insolites
ISBN: 2-7027-0628-2, Editions Chirons, 2000-24, rue Monge 75005, Paris
Janvier 2000, 224 pages

For people, interested in chess variants, and able to read French, the book of Cazaux is a very worthwhile contribution to knowledge of chess variants, partly because of a systematic set-up and clear presentation.

Introduction

Cazaux strives with his book three purposes: First, he wants to let an uninitiated public know the immeasurable richness of variants. Secondly, according to Cazaux, French publications on chess variants are hard to access; he wants to fill this gap and with this describe the precise rules of the better variants. Thirdly, he wants to help and inspire inventive minds to develop new variants.

What is a chess variant? Cazaux says that he follows the definition of Pritchard: every game related to, derived from, or inspired by chess (i.e., the orthodox chess) is a chess variant. I think that this definition is too broad and not satisfying: some of the `variants' described by Cazaux are indeed interesting new games but have little in common with the game of chess. It remains a hard task to give a satisfying definition of what is a chess variant.

Cazaux also mentions the large increase of the number of chess variants, nowadays counted in thousands.

Arrangement of the book

After the introduction, ten chapters follow where the following groups of variants are treated: 1. the `ancestors' of the orthodox chess; 2. medieval variants on this; 3. chess games from the Far East; 4. variants of the Asiatic chess games; 5. new dimensions of the chess board; 6. fantasy variants; 7. military variants; 8. geometric differences; 9. three dimensional chess; 10. and finally variants `on the borderlines of chess', which are sometimes combinations between chess and other games, like `les Échecs football'. However, the question is whether we are dealing here with chess variants.

The groups show clearly the historic developments of the chess game and of chess variants, and the geographic variation in forms of chess. Cazaux shows that not only in the last century, but already in the Middle Ages and also in Asia in early times variants have been developed on the known and most widely spread forms of chess (Sjatranj, Chinese, and Japanese Chess.)

Description of the variants

Every chapter starts with an introduction where the - mainly historic - context of the group of variants is described. After this, with the more important variants within a group, a further commentary follows, a clear diagram of the board and pieces, a description of the pieces, and the rules.

Variants in movement of and taking by a specific piece can be seen in different variants, e.g., only `moving', `jumping without taking', `jumping with taking', `shooting' (taking without moving). This together increases the insight of the reader in the movement possibilities and the `taking power' of the pieces. I found the one-dimensional chess variants original.

Comparison of the variants

By the great variation in movement of and taking by the pieces in the many variants it is hard to remember these and obtain quickly an overview. The stylized representation of the movement of pieces as is given with the games Chu Shogi and Tai Shogi (taken from S. Evans, and originally given by G. Hodges) is perhaps, with some modifications, also usable for other variants. Where possible, for a group, a table that gives an overview of the variants could be made with the variants below each other, and the different pieces aside each other.

Playability

Some authors or inventors aim for every increasing numbers of pieces and/or squares, like with Tai Shogi with 625 squares and 177 pieces per player. Such an extreme variant can only be played by a few (or nobody). This is an undesirable development; in my opinion, Cazaux should have made a critical remark about this.

Better is it to introduce with a smaller number of squares and pieces new ways of movement and taking. For instance, the `shooting' (taking without moving oneself) is an interesting variation that can be played well. Also, a zig-zag movement like in checkers can be used very well.

Relations and combinations with other games

From the richness of variants, one sees also resemblances with other board games, like e.g., checkers, go. Perhaps this could have been stressed a little more firmly.

I missed variants where besides chess pieces also cards are used. The use of a die could have received more attention in some variants. The variant `Tandem chess' (or `Double Bughouse') is unfortunately not mentioned.

Another wish

Perhaps a wish that is harder to fulfill: a mention where some chess variants are obtainable and/or directions how one can make such chess variant games oneself (in particular, different chess pieces.)

General appreciation

These comments contain some remarks and wishes. However, the big virtue of Cazaux is that he shows in his book clear insight in the development of chess with its numerous variants in the course of time and urges the reader to think about the course of pieces. Thus: much appreciation!

K. B. A. Bodlaender

See also


This review was written by K. B. A. Bodlaender in Dutch. Translated into English by Hans Bodlaender. K. Bodlaender is the father of Hans Bodlaender.
WWW page created: April 14, 2000.