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Chaturanga for four players

In the end of the 19th century, researchers thought that this game was the original predecessor of chess, and that it was three thousand years old. In the beginning of this century, the now common assumption was taken (e.g. by Murray in his History of Chess) that this game is a variant of Chaturanga for two players. The game is assumed to come from India, from a time around the tenth century after the birth of Christ. The game is featured in many books, both those on the history of chess, as books on chess variants, e.g., Gollon's book. Pritchard in his Encyclopedia of Chess Variants calls this game Chaturaji. We discuss several, slightly different variants of this game. Of these, the modern variant (mentioned by Gollon and Murray) is probably by far the most playable and entertaining.

Basic variant

The game is played on a board of eight by eight squares. The squares are not checkered. The game is played by four players, who form two teams of two players. However, rules allow to win individually, and partnerships may be quite loose. The player with the red pieces plays with the player with the yellow pieces, and the player with the green pieces plays with the player with the black pieces.

Opening setup

Players have each one king, one elephant or rook, one knight, one boat, and four pawns. The opening setup is displayed below. Players move clockwise: starting with red, then green, yellow, black, etc.

Black: King a5; Rook a6; Knight a7; Boat a8; Pawn b5, b6, b7, b8.

Red: King e8; Rook f8; Knight g8; Boat h8; Pawn e7, f7, g7, h7.

Green: King h4; Rook h3; Knight h2; Boat h1; Pawn g1, g2, g3, g4.

Yellow: King d1; Rook c1; Knight b1; Boat a1; Pawn a2, b2, c2, d2.

Moves of pieces

The king, rook, and knight move as in orthodox chess. Pawns move as in orthodox chess, but have no initial double move, and more complicated promotion rules. Pawns move in the expected direction, i.e., every pawn must move 6 times to get to their final rank. There is no castling.

The boat jumps two squares diagonally. All pieces take as they move, with one addition special case, called the triumph of the boat. When a boat moves to form a square of four boats, then he takes the other three.

Look at the following example.

Boats on d4, d5, e5. A boat on g7 moves to e5.

When the boat on g7 moves to e5, then it takes the other three boats with this move. This special case is unlikely to happen.

Promotion rules

Promotion rules are complicated. The type of piece to which a pawn can promote, when it reaches the last rank, depends on the field where it comes: one looks to which type of piece is on that row/column on the initial position, and that is the type of piece the pawn promotes to (but see also below!) To be precise:

  • On a1, a8, h1, h8, a pawn promotes to boat.
  • On a2, a7, b1, b8, g1, g8, h2, h7, a pawn promotes to knight.
  • On a3, a6, c1, c8, f1, f8, h3, h6, a pawn promotes to rook.
  • On a4, a5, d1, d8, e1, e8, h4, h5, a pawn promotes to king.

However, when a player owns three or four pawns, a pawn may not promote. Also, when a player has one or two pawns, he may promote to knight and rook. Only when a player owns one pawn and at most one boat, and no other pieces except his king, the pawn may promote to any type of piece (depending on the square, as above.)

In all cases, when a pawn reaches the final rank but may not promote, then the pawn stays as a pawn on the square on the final row. As soon as he may promote, the pawn is changed into the respective piece. In the mean time, the pawn can be taken.

About kings, wins and losses

Kings can be taken as any other type of piece. The player who loses his king may not move. His pieces remain on the board and can be taken. When his partner takes another king, then kings can be exchanged. The players who receive their kings back put these on an empty square of their own choice. A king that is taken for the second time is definitely lost, and cannot be exchanged anymore. The exchange can be demanded by the player who took the second king, but not by any other player.

A player that moves his king to the starting square (called throne) of another player wins a single stake. The game continues then. (One can get only one such stake per opponent.) When a player moves his king to the throne (starting square) of his partners king, then he takes command over the pieces of the partner, (hence he moves twice per round). Who moves his king to the throne of an opponent, and with doing so also takes this king, wins a double stake. (This mainly would happen in the variant with dice.)

When a player has lost all his pieces except his king, the game is a draw. When such a draw happens by moving a piece to an opponents throne, the stake for this moving is still given.

When only one king is left on the board, then this player wins the game (a single stake). When he has taken all other kings with his own king, he wins a double stake. When this has happened on their thrones, he wins a fourfold stake.

Variant with dice

While the game, described above, can well be played without dice, it is assumed that the common form was to play it with dice.

Each turn, a player throws with two (long) dices, that could give as outcome a 2, 3, 4 or 5. When the player throws a 2, he may move with his boat. When a player throws a 3, he may move with his knight. When a player throws a 4, he may move with his rook. When a player throws a 5, he may move with his king or pawn.

A player can make no moves, one move, or two moves in a turn. When his dice are unlucky enough to make moving unable (for instance, when a player throws a double-four on his first move), then he cannot move, and his turn is lost. In other cases, a player could use one, or both his dice rolls. When throwing a double, a player may move the same piece twice, or move two different pieces, if possible.

A player may decide not to use part or all of his roll, if he thinks that this is better for his position.

Variant for gamblers

The Arabian Abu'r-Raihan Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Beruni who lived from 973 to 1048 wrote several books, including one about India. In this book, he describes a somewhat different variant of 4-handed Chaturanga. The game here has a large element of gambling in it.

The description below is based on my own interpretation of certain texts, given by Murray in his History of Chess.

Pieces and opening setup are the same as in the games, described above. Each player plays for himself.

Players throw with two six-sided dice, and move, similar as above: with a 1 or 5, the king or a pawn is moved; with a 2 the boat is moved, with a 3 the knight, and with a 4 or 6 the rook (elephant). As before can a player make 0, 1 or 2 moves, as he, and the dice wish.

Each piece has a certain value. The king has value 5, the elephant has value 4, the knight has value 3, the boat has value 2, and pawns have value 1 each. Each player keeps all the pieces that he has taken, and gets these paid at the end of the game from the respective owners, for a price per point which was agreed upon at the start of the game.

However, when a player has taken all three opponents kings, while his own king is not taken, then he gets paid the total value of all opponents pieces, which is 54. He still has to pay his own pieces, which is at most 13, so he wins in this case at least 41.

Kings are taken as any other piece. When a king is taken, the player continues with his other pieces as normal. When long enough, nothing interesting has happened in the game, the players should decide on ending the game, and pieces are paid out.

Modern variant

At least until the end of the 19th century, a variant of 4-handed Chaturanga was played in several parts of India.

The game is played without dice. Pieces move as in the games described above.

Players form two teams of two players. Red and yellow form a team, and green and black form a team.

Kings are not exchanged. The first team that has taken both opponents kings wins the game.

Some rules are not clear. My suggestions: a player can still move his pieces after his king is taken. Pawns promote to any of the three types: rook, knight or boat, as wished by the player, and not depending on the number of pieces still owned by that player.

Written by Hans Bodlaender.
WWW page created: 1995. Last modified: February 9, 1998.