This may come as a surprise to players who consider the square board to be the game’s authentic archetype, but the circular version is not the modern day “gimmick” that people might be tempted to take it for.
There is reliable historical material which suggests that circular chess goes back a very long way. And it is even thought that the great Ala’addin would have been familiar with the game in early 15th century India.
According to one contemporary scholar, round chess underwent a brief revival in London and in Calcutta, India, in the late 18th century.
There is evidence to support the claim that circular boards were in use during the Byzantine period. The earlier roots of round chess are unclear but the principles are believed to have been known to great theoreticians and tactical geniuses of the 12th century.
Surviving references to circular chess include the Cotton Library manuscript “Cleopatra B ix” which is held in the British Library. This may be the document that is referred to in a pamphlet printed for London publisher G.G.J.& J. Robinson from AD1789, the year of the French Revolution (extracts pictured above, left and below).
“Chess Vol II” (signed “Sloan”) not only describes Circular Chess but includes a speculative sketch of a board, with a numbered guide.
The author wrote: “It will be found in playing that the power of the Castle is the double of that of the common game, and that of the Bishop only the half; the first having sixteen squares to range in, and the last only four.
“Other peculiarities may possibly be discovered by such as are curious to try it, and thus much may suffice as a clew.”
The author wrote: “This Circular chess-board had probably lain dormant till 1789, when I found it in a French manuscript of four hundred years old, in the British Musuem. It is not mentioned in any other book.
“Several of these boards have latterly been made in London, and a great number in Calcutta, although I have not learnt that the game has been much played.”
The story goes that the game was played using the same moves as square chess of the time. Bishops were elephants moving two squares diagonally. Pawns moved one square forward and the Queen (or General) was restricted to one diagonal move at a time.
Circular Chess Society president David Reynolds was inspired to re-introduce circular chess in Lincoln after stumbling across a sentence in a 19th Century book, “A History of England”, in a second-hand bookshop. There is also a reference in Joseph Strutt’s “Sports and Pastimes of the People of England”, published in AD1801.
An informative summary of the development of chess comes from historian Bill Wall, who writes:
“In AD 947 Muraj adh-dhahab (Fields of Gold) by the Arabic historian Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn al-Husain ibn Ali ibn Ali ibn Abdullah al-Masudi (AD 888-956) was written in Arabic. It was a history of chess in India and Persia.
“al-Masudi is known as the Herodotus of the Arabs. He was the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work. He wrote a 30-volume history of the world.
“He described 6 different variants of chess, including Astrological Chess, Byzantine round chess, Circular Chess and Cylinder Chess.
“He wrote about chess wagers in India, with the loser losing money or a finger or hand or more. He described the use of ivory in India to make chess pieces.”
Read the full article “Earliest Chess Book and References” at the following site: http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lab/7378/oldtexts.htm
Championship regular challenger George Jelliss writes that Byzantine Round Chess was known to the great Ala’addin (who is celebrated in Christmas pantomimes). In real-life, he was the lawyer and chess adviser to the Tartar leader Timur (aka Tamerlane), who conquered Samarkand, in around AD1400.