The Chess Variant Pages

Letterbox: January 2000

The letterbox is a monthly posting of various emails and letters we receive here at If you would like to send us an email to appear on this page, please indicate somewhere in the body of your email that you'd like the letter to appear here. Also indicate if you'd like your email address mentioned at the end of the letter.

For January, we had a letter from Lee Tomkow, an author who has invented a chess variant that was designed to be incorporated into his novel. I thought the idea was very interesting and certainly much different than the typical chess variant ideas submitted to these pages. Two replies follow the letter, which were in response to my questions, the emails of which I unfortunately did not save.

We also have a letter from Michael Jameson, detailing a systematic approach to creating a 'taxonomy of chess variants'. All are encouraged to provide feedback to Mr. Jameson.

A Novel Chess Variant

January 26, 2000

Hello Gentlemen,

I have found your site wonderfully engrossing in many aspects, not least the date of the first chess variant web site. This particular time span coincides with a chess board I commissioned whilst working in India. The board is made from white marble, then the squares (10 by 10) are inlaid lapis lazuli and malachite (to represent land and sea). Surrounding the playing field, the board is then designed for the spiritual mind of the game, this section is decorated with an inlay of cornelian, mother of pearl, lapis, and malachite formed into flowers (commonly known as pietro douro ref. the Taj Mahal, this board was commissioned in Agra). On opposite sides there are two large inlaid flowers, one from cornelian to represent the sun and the other is mother of pearl to represent the moon. These decorative touches come into subliminal play during the game in session, ie the pieces that are taken don't just simply sit on the sidelines until the next game they in theory go to paradise.

The game itself is played the regular way with the difference being that there are obviously two more pieces per player (4 counting the pawns which I will come to shortly).

The extra pieces that I had specially designed, whilst working in China, Xi'an to be exact, and carved from jade to match the rest of the pieces, are actually ships, one per player that start on the blue lapis squares on the outer additional squares next to the rooks (the original pieces being laid out in the regular manner with the corners being taken by the ships, rather than the rooks) The ships represent commerce, trade, colonisation etc, their move is two squares in any direction always remaining on the blue. They do not move like the knight, ie can straddle over pieces, the coast has to be clear so to speak. Their opposite number on the green squares I have chosen a coin, to represent the universality of common ingredients between opposing nations, they too move the same way as the ships but remain on the malachite (the land route). The teams are essentially islands with sea and trade routes. Tha pawns rather than being uniform with their other eight colleagues are instead the chinese characters of longevity also carved from jade, they also move the same way as pawns.

Some other rules I have tried to apply included not taking a piece that is of a lower class, a rook couldn't take a pawn or a knight couldn't take a ship etc. I have also given the new pieces names which I will tell you about next time.

The birth of this idea came from a novel I have been writing for almost eight years and I decided it must be cast in stone. I know I am too late for your contest but would welcome feed back from your good selves or your readers. I have researched the history of both chess and backgammon and have included some of my ideas into the story line of my novels (as yet unpublished).

I don't know if you have come across this variant, I know I haven't, so from ignorance I may claim this as my own variant invention. If you want to know more about this set with photographs I can mail them to you. I'm sorry I missed the competition, I have only just gotten a computer and only just today found your web site which compelled this e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you at some time.

Regards Lee Tomkow

Hello David,

Thank you for responding so promptly and for following the plot. The case of the queen wasn't really a problem as much as deciding how the moves of the ships/coins had been (a few months of deliberation on that matter).

Your question is answered this way, when it comes to taking, the psychology of your opponent is more important. For example (bear in mind I do not have a chess partner), I decided that taking would only be the last resort, an absolute necessity when all diplomatic maneuvers had been exhausted. If you are playing a ruthless opponent then to be sure any piece is open to being taken and the queen is no different, as Marx said 'a little cut on the cheek is preferable to bleeding from head to toe' (I always found the pointless need for attrition lacked the subtlety of creative checking). Therefore, the queen is looking at taking her own kind or higher, ie, another queen or the kingdom. She will have nothing to gain by taking the spirit of the knight or even becoming a bishop or a sailor(if you get my drift).

The higher level of diplomacy if kept to a strict adherence of piece recognition brings the mind to consider every move a potential battle rather than a minor skirmish. The queen likewise gains significantly when used as a (nuclear ?) deterrant whereby she can block the aspirations of a smaller piece (kidnapping, immigration control, etc rather than the taking of a life and sending to paradise an unworthy).

As you can see I have tried to bring an international UN(ish) feel to the table. Choosing the thinking for your pieces is something to consider for yourself before start of play - is it east versus west, Hekmatyar v. the Taliban, India v. Pakistan, Grenada v. the US etc, etc ? As I said in my previous e-mail, is it a conquest for colonising or is it to open a trade route, compare US v. Cuba (present), to British Empire (AKA East India Tea Co.) v. India ca.1700's.The politics of the game can be more interesting. The rook can be seen as global expansion, extending the borders as though each move follows the contours of a continent. Abstract ideals I know but rewarding. Consider a bishop as a missionary, is he to be the Conquistador Aquirre or Mohammed, or Joseph Smith ?

I don't know if this all makes sense to you. A typical game begets a story of its own in epic proportions.

In response to how this fits in with my novel, the game was originally described in the cabin of a Turkish captain- a Barbarossa type who fought his opponents on the chess board rather than with a cutlass. I then transferred the game and rules to a Chinese monastery where an accolyte is trained by a Sun Tzu (the Art of War) type. The board then takes on a life of its own when it is then discovered by the main character of the novel who is a present day Crypto-Historian. Already the reader will know of its history and origins and will be rooting for the hero who doesn't know how the rules are designed. This is a highly complex novel inspired by V. Nabokov, T. Mann, Sir Richard Burton, a cast of thousands and a little of myself. As you can imagine the research has taken me a few years as well.

Hello David,

The game is played in the regular "mechanical" form, simply put, the additional pieces add the extra dimension to the classic challenge of chess. It is as if this piece was taken away from the present form some time in history, I am simply replacing it.

The additional information I provided was to assist you in the way of thinking when playing chess. This method was something I gathered from Kasparov when he was playing Deep Blue. I replayed the Deep Blue games myself and read the interviews with Kasparov after each game - I read between the lines, and joined up some of his statements. I don't have the interviews at hand but will find them for you. This influenced me greatly. Anyway, the 'code' for my game if you like was one variation on the theme of like taking like or above, the consequences of taking can be interpreted into political, spiritual or mechanical actions or indeed all of the above. The previous e-mail sets your mind to considering each move as a friend or foe situation (even though the traditional game is foe/foe).

Begetting an epic is in reference to my novel in which each move becomes the story itself (you may want to read Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense). I tend to use many literary connections within my game, where even this e-mail is begotten from the cabin of a Turkish Captain.

The reasoning for the begotten epic is from the difference between the prosaic form of chess moves reporting when you read K6, QB7 etc etc. Instead I write the moves in story and reportage form that can easily be replayed but with the moves coloured in. An example paragraph reads: (from the middle of the game) "The Lapis King sends out his Bishop to view the threat from the Malachite Rook, and to judge its importance to the Malachite Family. The Malachite Rook, seeing what is at stake looms in on the Lapis Ship as well as remaining a threat to the Lapis Knight and potentially the Lapis Longevity."

Very strange I know but I can then use this as scaffolding for a story plot. Nothing was taken in the above example but enough threats raises the pulse to what is possible.

Finally I have no objections to you printing up my e-mails, feel free to edit, add my e-mail address if you like (notice the change of address, the last was too slow). If any readers are interested then to be sure we can have further dialogue through your web site. It's possible I may write something for you in the future but first I want to see the lay of the land. I'll make up some prints of the board and the pieces in a few days when I get back into the darkroom, until then visualise a ten by ten board with alternating blue and green 1 inch squares with the traditional pieces setup but with a coin in one corner and a ship in the other each with their own pawns, then play as you would but with the moves set out for the additional pieces as I mentioned.

I hope I have been able to clarify things for you. Or have I made things worse ?

Regards Lee

[For those interested in corresponding with Lee his email address is (email removed contact us for address) --Ed.]

Toward a Taxonomy...

Association for Church Editors

- to improve the quality of service provided for readers by local church editors -

The ACE is an educational charity formed on 17.11.99 in St Albans which now publishes board games such as Rose Chess (qv.) for fun but also to further its aim to improve the quality of life.

ADDRESS: The ACE, 7 Marlborough Gate, St Albans AL1 3TX UK (01-727 865498. Fax 01727812965. (email removed contact us for address)
REF: Taxonomy of Educational Objectives Benjamin J Bloom Ed. with David R Krathwohl and Bertram B Masia (Longman Publ. (c) 1956)
Any taxonomy of chessvariants needs to take account not only of the way in which the version varies from orthodox 64-square cheqwuered (FIDE Rules) chess. It also needs to take account of the game's raison d'etre including its origins, if the taxonomy is to advance the fun to be had be research into chessvariants as well as from playing them. David Howe's review of "3 Man Chess in the round" says, "Thegame workswell and is fun to play", and goes on to recommend it in a wider sense socio-politically!
The existing games in your chess variant pages are listed largely alphabetically, and the inventor's name for that version promoted varies in how well it indicates the game's "phyllum, class, order, family, genus, species, variety". There is also some (probably unintentional) allusion to black magic's use of the word "hex" when all that is intended is an abbreviation for "hexagonal" ! 
The ACE has taken over publication of Rose Chess on a one-to-one basis rather than publish it commercially. But the Association also happens to be able to pick up the tab for promoting the historical perspective connected with the Wars of the Roses which began (1455 and ended (1488) in St Albans, UK in the 15th century ariound the time that the Mercers Company diplomat William Caxton was promoting Gutenberg's invention of the printing process with fusile type, and the church was begining to lend its nomenclature to printing terms such as fonts (the type was stored in the font for safe keeping because there was a heavy lid on the ones at Westminster, St Albans and Oxford as early as 1475). Although the "churchy" perspective is unimportant to creating a taxonomy of chess variants, it is important in the history of the promotion of chess. The Tsars latched onto the aspect that te game was a sort of microcosm of the relationship between church and state which would be widely understood by a wide section of the population. And when this became emphasised too much, as in France, the "bishop" became alluded to as "the fool", or in Italy as the elephant (alfin) with uncanny allusion to the oriental game. 
As you know, the FIDE has fixed orthodox board, pieces and rules for international play, but no chess variant has yet been promoted for a similar role, even though the difference between the rectilinear lattice array of the orthodox board is fundamentally different (and yet the same! see below) to the triangular lattice array. All chess variants either addopt or deviate from one or other array. Chess variants also either are - or are not - symmetrical about at least one axis (the "hinge" of the board between the two players in games for two).
Chess variant pieces either are the same as orthodox ones in design, use and number, or vary as little as possible consistent with the board design but otherwise approximate orthodox chess as far as possible, or play with the idea of difference from orthodox chess pieces altogether in varying degrees. All these variations of board and p[ieces and the use of them ad to the fun of board games as a genre. Even the FIDe now acknowledges this and "fairy chess" is less often used as a term of derision. But there is work to do the establish the FUN element as well as the inherent acceptability of each chess variant as a game in its own right which "works well". A taxonomy might help.
Bloom et al. "intended to provide for classification of the goals" of educational systems worldwide, starting with the USA. They succeeded. This Taxonomy intends to provide for classification of the goals of the creators of, and therefore of the players of, chess variants.  Bloom says, "It is especially intended to help them discuss these problems with greater precision. ... This should facilitate the exchange of information about ... developments and evaluation devices."
STEP 1 - Define the term "goal" of a chess variant creator/player.
Steps 2 ff. - classify these goals.
Finally - classify the games themselves.
Michael Jameson,  ACE Secretary.

REF: David Pritchard Encyclopedia of Chess Variants (Games and Puzzles Publ 1994).
Triangular lattice array board games: see pages 10, 12, 26, 37 (see p.361), 54, 57, 66, 74, 75, 84, 85, 95, 102, 104, 107, 124, 138-145, 147, 158, 175, 179, 198, 199, 210, 214, 221, 228, 229, 255, 257, 258-9, 2790280, 282-283, 285, 297-298, 301-302, 305, 312, 313-314, 321-323, 354, 361, 363 and Shashmaty on p.265.
Concentric but chequered array board games: see pages 36, 66, 215, 258-259, 285-286 and 359.
STEP 1 towards a taxonomy of goals: The broad aim (goal) of a chess variant is to proivide a board game which is just as enjoyable to play as orthodox chess if not more so, even though it is less well known and has fewer players worldwide. More detailed objectives include the whole panoply of socio-psychological interplay between members of a small group (2-12 people). By definition, this taxonomy excludes large groups (13 or more people). The educational paradigm of aims-methods-assessment-aim ... etc. applies when defining a chess variant player's goals, aims and objectives in cognitive and affective terms.
The primary colours, so to speak, are
  • understanding and becoming aware of a new chess variant, already having an understanding of orthodox chess
  • having fun getting better at playing the chess variant by competing with other players and thereby getting to know their strengths and weaknesses in play
  • transferring the lessons learnt in play to real life.
Part f the transference process is gradually to broaden one's horizons to include a wider and wider range of chess variants rather like a linguist learns how more and more languages work, but without necessarily straying from one's preferred chess variant when getting better at playing and even promoting it.
[STEPS 2 ff. - to be covered in a later email! ]
FINAL STEPs: after everything else, the question of developing a taxonomy of the games themselves:
  • Does the variant compare well with orthodox chess with respect to:
  •     awareness of the history of the game of chess worldwide?
  •     ease of play between two players?
  •     fitness of the number and choice of pieces and rules for moving them including the endgame (checkmate)?
  • Does the game work well?
  • Is it fun to play?
  • Are the board and rules similar to orthodox chess within the constraints of as few variations as possible with respect to:
  •     * symmetry of board design about as many axes as possible - for ease of play when setting up the board?
  •     * similarity of choice of pieces?
  •     * rules and their application?

Michael Jameson,  ACE Secretary.

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Written by Lee Tomkow and Michael Jameson. HTML by David Howe.
WWW page created: February 16, 2000.