The Chess Variant Pages



by Dr. René Gralla, Hamburg/Germany

Chess-players tend to think of their chess as being the one and only authentic version of the eternal game. But that is a misconception: In fact that very version of chess that is nowadays common in those circles of activists that play under the auspices of FIDE is nothing more than just a new variant of chess.

The classic version of chess that has been longer in practice than the modern FIDE Chess that has been the Arabic "Shatranj". The game that is supposed to have developed from Indian "Chaturanga" has first appeared in Persia around the 7th century A.D.; and Shatranj remained immensely popular for the next nine (!) centuries, not only throughout the Arab world, but everywhere where people played chess back then. In comparison to that the mainstream chess of today is around for just five hundred years only.

So what is the real chess? If we are looking for "the real thing" and if we are bent on to care only for the original version of chess then we should start to consider to revive the one and only true chess: the "Shatranj".

That would be a difficult task, of course, taking into account the notorious immovableness of hard-core FIDE-Chess-players. But now the good news is: We do not need to tackle the very tricky task of putting new life into "Shatranj" since "Shatranj" is very much alive - by wearing the bright tropical colours of "Mak Rook Thai", the traditional chess throughout the main parts of South-East Asia.


In the Kingdom of Smiling Siam the heritage of "Shatranj" has survived by having been transformed into the rules of "Mak Rook". Let's first have a look at the rules of "Shatranj". We follow so far the Dutch expert on chess variants, the Utrecht-based Hans Bodlaender at .


The initial array of the pieces is similar to that of contemporary FIDE Chess. With two exceptions: "Elephants" (abbreviation: "E"), Arabic "Alfil", replace the modern Bishops; and "Vezirs" (abbr.: "V"), called "Firzan", replace the nowadays "Queens". And the positions of King and "Vezir", the predecessor of the "Queen" of FIDE Chess, are reversed with regard to the initial battle order of nowadays play. The diagram below demonstrates the starting-out position in Arab Shatranj.
Setup Shatranj Coordinates of White Army:
King d1; Vezir e1; Rooks a1 / h1; Knights b1 / g1; Elephants c1 / f1; Pawns a2, b2, c2, d2, e2, f2, g2, h2.
Coordinates of Black Army:
King d8; Vezir e8; Rooks a8 / h8; Knights b8 / g8; Elephants c8 / f8; Pawns a7, b7, c7, d7, e7, f7, g7, h7.

The King, the Rooks and the Knights move the same way as their successors do in nowadays FIDE Chess. Please note, however: Unlike to modern international chess there is no castling option in Shatranj. The Pawns march the same way as the Pawns of FIDE Chess do. But there are two modifications: There is no initial two-step Pawn move - consequence: there is no "en passant"-capture option - , and those Pawns that manage to reach the opponent's last rank can be promoted to Vezirs only.
There are only two pieces that totally differ from their counterparts in modern chess. The "Vezir" (abbr.: "V") - the predecessor of the modern "Queen" - can only walk one step diagonally per move. The "Elephant" (abbr.: "E") - the predecessor of the modern "Bishop" - leaps to the second diagonal square on the given diagonal where that unit is positioned; the first diagonally adjacent square on the diagonal of the Elephant is out of reach for that unit.


Now let's proceed to Thai Chess. Again we are following Hans Bodlaender at .

The opening set-up is very similar to Shatranj - and to modern international chess too - , apart from two modifications. White King and White "Queen" - the companion of the King of Thai Chess is called "Met" in Thai language - have their positions reversed: That is different to modern chess and a 50-per cent-modification of the starting-out position of Classic Arab "Shatranj"; in "Shatranj" the Kings and Vezirs of both (!) armies have their positions reversed with regard to the initial array of FIDE Chess. Moreover the Pawns of Mak Rook Thai march into battle from advanced positions: row no. 3 (White) and row no. 6 (Black). Please see the diagram.

Coordinates of White Army:
King d1; Met (Thai Chess-"Queen") e1; Rooks a1/ h1; Knights b1 / g1; Thai Chess-"Bishops" c1/f1; Pawns a3, b3, c3, d3, e3, f3, g3, h3.
Coordinates of Black Army:
King e8; Met (Thai Chess-"Queen") d8; Rooks a8 / h8; Knights b8 / g8; Thai Chess-"Bishops" c8 / f8; Pawns a6 , b6 , c6 , d6 , e6 , f6, g6, h6.

The King (abbreviation: "K"), the Rook (abbr.: "R") and the Knight (abbr.: "N") move the same way as their predessors do in Shatranj and as their colleagues do in nowadays FIDE Chess. Plus one first common feature to Shatranj: Neither Classic Arab Chess nor Traditional Thai Chess approve of the castling option.
The Pawns in Thai Chess (abbr.: "P") march and strike just the same way as the soldiers of Shatranj and the infantrymen of FIDE Chess do. The soldiers of Shatranj can only be promoted to Vezirs, and a corresponding rule applies to the Pawns of Mak Rook Thai: They can exclusively rise to the status of "Met" which is the corresponding piece to the "Vezir" of Shatranj. One special feature of Thai Chess: Since the Siam Fighters start out at row no. 3 (White) and row no. 6 (Black) - that is the peculiarity of Thai Chess -, so there is no need for the possibility of an initial two-step Pawn move. Consequently the initial-two-moves-option does not exist in Thai Chess - that corresponds to Shatranj - , and there is no room for the "en passant"-capture option. Besides from the foregoing Thai Chess speeds up the process of promoting Pawns: They can already rise to the rank of "Met" after having reached the 6th row (White) or 3rd row (Black); that distinguishes Thai Chess from both Shatranj and FIDE Chess.
The 1:1-replica of the "Vezir" of Shatranj is the "Met" of Mak Rook Thai. The "Queen" of Siam Chess - abbreviation: "Q*" - moves the same way exactly as the Vezir does move in Shatranj, that is to say: only one step diagonally per move.
The "Bishop" of Thai Chess - abbreviation: "B*" - is not a 1:1-copy of the "Elephant" of Shatranj. But the reduced mobility of that piece leads to the conclusion that this piece, if we assess the operational capabilities of the Siam-"Bishop", can be categorized to be closer to the "Elephant" of Shatranj than to the FIDE Chess-Bishop: The Southeast-Asian "Bishop" has the capability of either moving one square diagonally or one square straight forward per move (which surprisingly corresponds to the "Silver General" in Japanese Shogi, by the way). To sum it up: The slow-motion actions by Thai Chess-"Queen" - that is to say: "Met" - and by Thai Chess-"Bishop" lead to the assessment that it is the Traditional Thai Chess of all variants of chess that has preserved until today the rhythm of the Big Easy from the Oasis: that relaxed Arab Shatranj that is gently rolling on, from eternity to eternity.


Our synopsis has demonstrated in the foregoing that playing Thai Chess is a little bit like riding back on the axis of time - back to the Golden Age of Arab Chess. Whenever you sit down at the board of Mak Rook Thai then you will spiritually get very close to the great masters of Shatranj like al-Adli (ca. 820 - 870 A.D.) and as-Suli (ca. 880 - 946 A.D.) who have fought their epic battles at the Caliphes' Court of Baghdad. One basic checkmate-constellation is a show-room case that depicts the deep-rooted kinship between Classic Arab Chess and Traditional Thai Chess. That is the famous "Checkmate of the Arabs" (see diagram) .
White: Ka1; Nf6 ; Rh7;
Black: Kh8

A constellation like the foregoing is the typical final highlight of matches in Thai Chess since, as there are no omnipotent Queens on the board of Mak Rook, the players have to try to get along with the material they have.

Therefore it is no surprise that the "Checkmate of the Arabs"-constellation happens fairly often in Thai Chess (which has been the case in Arab Chess too, of course, since it is the scenario of Shatranj where the "Checkmate of the Arabs" derives its name of).

So the fact that the "Checkmate of the Arabs" is a common pattern in Thai Chess can be considered as being a clear indicator for the deep-rooted relationship between Thai Chess and Arab Chess.

In many cases it is just the threat of a fancy variation of the "Checkmate of the Arabs"-constellation that can decide countless games in Thai Chess. See the following example of a match of Mak Rook that has been played in the German Diaspora of Thai Chess: between two "Farang" (Thai language; in English: "foreigners") that have tried to unravel the mysteries of that fascinating variant of chess by a series of test matches.


White: Torsten Mendel
Black: Dr. René Gralla
Training competition; October 19th, 2003; Hamburg/Germany, Café "Transmontana"


1.e3-e4 f6-f5

If that would have been FIDE Chess, that response would have been called "Fred Defence": 1.e4 f5 pp. ... .

2.Nb1-d2 Ng8-f6 3.f3-f4 Nb8-d7

Black resorts to the "High Horse Defence" - with the Knight f6 being the "High Horse".

4.Ng1-e2 ...

In contradiction to Black's "High Horse Defence", White has chosen the "Low Horse"-battle order- with the two "low" Horses sitting on d2 and e2.

4. ... Q*d8-c7 5.B*f1-f2 e6-e5 6.f4xe5 d6xe5 7.B*f2-f3 Q*c7-d6 8.g3-g4? ...

White would have liked to exchange the g-Pawn at the right flank against the more central Black Pawn f5. In principle an exchange like that is favourable to the party that trades off the Pawn on the flank against the central Pawn. The problem in this case here: The exchange does not materialize since Black's f-Pawn simply moves on one step further, thus transforming that infantry unit into a thorn in White's flesh.

8. ... f5-f4 9.Rh1-f1 g6-g5

Back-up for the Black's outpost on f4.

10.c3-c4? ...

Still shocked after 8. ... f5, White breaks out of step: Without being forced to do so, 10.c4? ...creates a horrible weakness on d4.

10. ... B*c8-c7 11.B*c1-c2 c6-c5?

Now it is Black's turn to blunder: Does it make any sense to weaken square d5?!

12.B*c2-c3 B*c7-c6 13.b3-b4 Ra8-b8 14.Ra1-b1 b6-b5

The counter-blow.

15.c4xb5 a6xb5 16.b4xc5 Q*d6xc5 17.Q*e1-f2 Ke8-e7 18.Kd1-c2 B*f8-f7 (diagram)

White: Rb1 // Rf1 ; Kc2 // Nd2 // Ne2 // Q*f2 ; Pa3 // B*c3 // Pd3 // B*f3 // Ph3 ; Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Pf4 ; Pb5 // Q*c5 // Pe5 // Pg5 ; Pc6 // Nf6 // Ph6 ; Nd7 // Ke7 // B*f7 ; Rb8 // Rh8

Both White and Black have linked their Rooks. But Black has a slight spatial edge; worse, the position of White King on White's left flank is less secure than the central position of the commander-in-chief of the Black Army.

19.Ne2-c1 B*f7-e6 20.Rf1-e1 Rb8-a8

That reveals the weakness of White's left flank - where, to make things more difficult for Mr. Mendel, the White King has tried to find refuge.

21.Rb1-b3 ...

Last-minute-defence for White Pawn a3.

21. ... h6-h5

Encirclement on large scale: Black exploits the absence of heavy armour at White's weakened right flank.

22.Q*f2-e3?!? ... (diagram)

White: Nc1; Re1 // Kc2 // Nd2; Pa3 // Rb3 //B*c3 // Pd3 // Q*e3 // B*f3 // Ph3 ; Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Pf4 ; Pb5 // Q*c5 // Pe5 // Pg5 // Ph5; B*c6 // B*e6 // Nf6 ; Nd7 // Ke7 ; Ra8 // Rh8

A bold sacrifice. White wants to eliminate Black Pawn f4 by offering a trade-off against White Met. That would be a very bad bargain in FIDE Chess, whereas it is quite common in Thai Chess to initiate exchanges like that. Unfortunately Mr. Mendel has overlooked something ...

22. ... h5xg4 23.h3xg4 f4xe3=Q* 24.Re1xe3 Q*c5-d4

... since that fork by Black Met inflicts a lot of damage.

25.B*c3xd4? ...

One goof leads to the next one. It would have been better to move White Rook out of reach from Black Met first - by, say, 25.Re2 ... - , and then cash in at least one Pawn for Thai-"Bishop" by 25. ... Q*xc3 26.Rxc3 ... .

25. ... e5xd4 26.Re3-e1 B*e6-e5 27.Nc1-e2 Nd7-c5!

Now Black's attack on White King will soon become fierce - by trading in Black's Pawn d4 against White's Pawn a3. And Black's tank-force - supported by Black cavalry - breaks through.

28.Rb3-b4 Ra8xa3 29.Ne2xd4 B*e5xd4 30.Rb4xd4 Ra3-a2+ (diagram)

White: Re1 ; Kc2 // Nd2; Pd3 // B*f3; Rd4 // Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Ra2; Pb5 // Nc5 // Pg5 ; B*c6 // Nf6 ; Ke7 ; Rh8

Black enforces the trade-off of one Rook which is favourable for Black, of course, because Black is leading by one Horse against White's Surplus-Pawn. Mr. Mendel should not even dare to think of trying to avoid the trade-off since the consequences would be a disaster: If 31.Kc3? ..., then: 31. ... Rha8, and the attack is overwhelming.

31.Kc2-d1! ...

The alternate 31.Kc1? ... leads to: 31. ... Ra1+ 32.Nb1 ... (32.Kc2? Rxe1) 32. ... Nb3+ and 33. ... Nxd4.

31. ... Ra2-a1+ 32.Kd1-e2 Ra1xe1+ 33.Ke2xe1 Rh8-h1+ 34.Ke1-e2 Rh1-h2+ 35.Ke2-e3 ... (diagram)

White: Nd2; Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3; Rd4 // Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Rh2; Pb5 // Nc5 // Pg5 ; B*c6 // Nf6 ; Ke7

Now Black could further simplify the game: by the trade-off 35. ... Rxd2 36.Kxd2 Nb3+ 37.Kc3 Nxd4 38.Kxd4 ... . But Black prefers to corner White King on e3 - for he wants to strangle White by the menace of a "Checkmate of the Arabs"-constellation.

35. ... Nc5-e6

Black Horse spies on the great square f4.

36.Rd4-b4 Ne6-f4! (diagram)

White: Nd2; Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3; Rb4 // Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Rh2; Nf4; Pb5 // Pg5 ; B*c6 // Nf6; Ke7

And now we see that White King has got stuck in a pocket in the middle of the board - a pocket that resembles to a kind of "Checkmate of the Arabs". But this time in the centre of the board.

Let's have one more look at the basic constellation of the "Checkmate of the Arabs" (diagram).

White: Ka1; Nf6 ; Rh7; Black: Kh8

The typical Rook-Horse-lever by Nf6 & Rh7, that could be in the Thai Chess-match >>T. Mendel vs. Dr. R.Gralla << the combined force of Rook and Horse f4. White Thai-"Bishop" f3 is the last guard against a most horrible check by Black Rook on e2; and if Black succeeds in blocking the last escape route for White King via d4 then Mr. Mendel's army will be paralyzed hopelessly.

37.Rb4-b3 ...

Of course not: 37.B*xf4??? g5xf4+ 38.Kxf4 Rxd2 and winning.

37. ... Ke7-e6 38.Rb3-c3 Ke6-d6!

A trap ... (diagram).

White: Nd2; Rc3 // Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3; Pe4 // Pg4 ; Black: Rh2; Nf4; Pb5 // Pg5 ; B*c6 // Kd6 // Nf6

If White is greedy and wants to equalize materially by hastily swallowing down Black Thai-"Bishop" c6 (39.e5+? Kxe5! 39.Rxc6?? ...) - , he will be finished off by one stroke: 39. ... Nfd5#! .

But White is on the alert:

39.Nd2-f1 Rh2-a2 40.Rc3-c1 B*c6-c5!

White: Rc1 // Nf1; Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3; Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Ra2; Nf4; Pb5 // B*c5 // Pg5 ; Kd6 // Nf6

One more trap: 41.e5+!? Kxe5! 42.Rxc5+ ... (42.d4+?? B*xd4#) 42. ... Ndf6+!!, and now White must trade in his Rook against the Black Horse in order to prevent mate.

41.Nf1-g3 B*c5-b4!?! (diagram)

White: Rc1 ; Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3 // Ng3; Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Ra2; B*b4 // Nf4; Pb5 // Pg5 ; Kd6 // Nf6

Black tries to tempt White to eat the poisoned b-Pawn: 42.Rb1 B*c5 43.Rxb5? ... (I. 43.d4 Ra3+& 44. ... B*xd4; II. 43.e5+ Kxe5 44.Rxb5?? Nfd5#) 43. ... Nfd5+! 44.exd5 Nxd5+ 45.Ke4 Nc3+ & 46. ... Nxb5.

White declines that offer.

42.Ng3-f5+ Kd6-d7 43.Nf5-d4(??) ...

But now White could have tried 43.Rb1 ... .

43. ... Ra2-a3

Black presses on White Pawn d3 - and Black Horse f4 demonstrates its might and glory.

44.Rc1-d1 B*b4-c5!! (diagram)

White: Rd1 ; Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3 ; Nd4 // Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Ra3; Nf4; Pb5 // B*c5 // Pg5 ; Nf6 ; Kd7

That square is worth one Pawn.

45.Nd4xb5 Ra3-b3!

Black forces White Horse back to d4 - making complete the encirclement of White King by his own men.

46.Nb5-d4 Rb3-b2! 47.Rd1-c1 ... (diagram)

White: Rc1 ; Pd3 // Ke3 // B*f3 ; Nd4 // Pe4 // Pg4 ;
Black: Rb2; Nf4; B*c5 // Pg5 ; Nf6 ; Kd7

Now "une petite combinaison", as Capablanca would have said.

47. ... Nf6xg4+! 48.B*f3xg4 B*c5xd4+ 49.Ke3-f3! ...

If 49.Kxd4?? ... , then: 49. ... Ne2+ & 50. ... Nxc1, of course.

49. ... Nf4xd3 50.Rc1-g1 Nd3-e5+ 51.Kf3-g3 B*d4-e3! (diagram)

White: Rg1 ; Kg3 ; Pe4 // B*g4 ;
Black: Rb2; B*e3; Ne5 // Pg5 ; Kd7

White King is trapped. Pay attention to Black Horse spying on square f3 that could eventually lead - in collaboration with Black Rook on the 2nd row - to a "Checkmate of the Arabs" once more again.

52.Rg1-f1 Be3-f4+ (diagram)

White: Rf1 ; Kg3 ; Pe4 // B*g4 ;
Black: Rb2; B*f4; Ne5 // Pg5 ; Kd7

That's it: 53.Kh3 Rb3+ & 54. ... Nxg4 and winning.

53.Rf1xf4 g5xf4+ 54.Kg3xf4 Ne5xg4 55.Kf4xg4 Kd7-e6 56. Resigns 0:1

Though the "Checkmate of the Arabs"-constellation has never been executed for real in the foregoing match, just the permanent threat of that knock-out has forced White into the defensive.


The constellation of the famous "Checkmate of the Arabs" that is key to winning strategies and - tactics both in Shatranj and in Mak Rook Thai, that is a clear indicator for the deep inner relationship between those two important variants of chess.

The heritage of Shatranj has been preserved in the realm of the King of Siam. It is now up to the historians to further scrutinize that most astonishing finding.

Until then we can only say: AMAZING SHATRANJ - AMAZING THAILAND.

Dr. René Gralla, Hamburg / Germany

Written by Dr. René Gralla. Webpage made by Hans Bodlaender
WWW page created: March 16, 2007.