Alquerque was draughts

 In a treatise on games commissioned by Alfonso, king of Castile and Leon, completed in 1283, there is a description of a board game called Alquerque de doze. Alquerque is a game with the leap capture. Its rules were incompletely given, but there is a consensus about alquerque among board game experts: this ancient game was played without promotion and so can be considered as the ancestor of draughts  [e.g. Parlett 1999:243-247]. "At some unknown time and place in medieval Europe alquerque developed into draughts", wrote Parlett [1999:250]. If the reconstruction is consistent with the medieval reality, draughts cannot be older than the late days of the 13th c. If it is not, alquerque was draughts, but played on a lined board, see the diagram. So it is evident that the reconstruction of alquerque determined the view on the origin of draughts. In this chapter I'll prove that the common reconstruction is wrong: alquerque was played with promotion.



Two older names for draughts in France, Italy and Spain

 I begin with a subject which at first sight has nothing to do with alquerque, but this is deceiving.

 French, Italian and Spanish sources from the 16th or/and 17th c. mentioned two names for draughts. I give a limited number of references.


French references

(1) le ieu de merelles = damspel (Le jeu de merelles = draughts)

[Mathias Sasbout, "Dictionaire François-Flameng", Anvers 1579]

(2) le ieu des merelles = Damspiel, giuoco di dama, Scruporum ludus (Le jeu de merelles = damspiel (draughts), giuoco di dame (draughts), to play with pieces)

[Levinus Hulsius, "Dictionaire François-Allemand-Italien-Latin", Francofort 1631]

In France today draughts is a game on a chequered board. The French lexis had several words derived from the game name merelles with a sense related to the concept of 'square of the gaming board'.  See quote (3), taken from an English lexicographer (a pair of tables is a gaming box):

(3) marelle = a square in a chess-boord, or on the backside of a pair of tables

[Randle Cotgrave, "French-English dictionary", London 1611]

In the 14th c., the game merelles was played in two ways: with 2x9 pieces where one can use dice: morris, or without dice with the leap capture and 2x12 pieces:

(4) Mais à douze prent sans faillir celle qui puet oultre saillir dessus l'autre par adventure. A cest gieu n'a on des dez cure (When there are twelve pieces one picks up the piece that can jump over another piece without any hesitation. This game is played without dice)

[Jean Lefèvre, "La vieille", c. 1350]

See Stoep 2005:121-124 for details and more French references.


Italian references

In 1575, the lexicographer Filippo Venuti defined two senses of the game smarella:

(5) Gioco (...) smarella nove = ludere calculis discoloribus novenis (The game of smarella with nine pieces = to play with nine pieces of different colour)

Giuocare alla smarella (...) = ludere calculis discoloribus duodenis (To play smarella = to play with twelve pieces of different colour)

[Filippo Venuti, "Dittionario volgare, & latino", 1575]

Apparently, the last mentioned version of smarella was played on a chequered board, for in 1567 Oratio Tescanella, in his "L'institutioni oratorie di Quintiliano", added a drawing of the board on which the game he called merlaro and giuoco delle dodici tavole, (the game with twelve pieces), was played: a chequered board (8x6 squares), see right.

(6) quel gioco, che i siciliani chiamano marella, e gli spagnuoli el juego de las damas (The game that Sicilians call marella and the Spaniards juego de las damas)

[Pietro Carrera, "Il gioco de gli sacchi", 1617]

See Stoep 2005:125-126 for details and more Italian references.


Spanish references

7) El ingenio à juego de marro, de punta, ò damas (The intelligent game marro, or damas)

[Unknown author, Valencia (?) 1547]

(8) Libro del juego de las damas vulgarmente nombrado el marro (Book about damas, usually called marro)

[Pedro Ruiz Montero, Valencia 1591]

(9) Libro del juego de las damas, pro otro nombre el marro de punta (Book about damas, with another name marro de punta)

[Lorenço Valls, Valencia 1597]


See Stoep 2005:127 for details and more Spanish references.


 It is evident what happened. In the Romance speaking countries draughts was played under the name of merelles (France), marella (Italy) and marro (Spain). Then in French the game name dames rose. This name was borrowed by its two sister languages. During a transition period the old and the new name were used together, afterwards the new name pushed aside the old name.


How old is draughts in France, Italy and Spain?

 I give an argument for the claim that merelles, marella and marro had got their sense of 'draughts' already for ages. There were a lot of expressions based on the singleton of draughts in the medieval French language, merelle. This metaphorical use disappeared together with the French game name merelles, which was ousted by the game name dames in the 15th c. Owing to a lack of references we cannot find out when this metaphorical use of merelle started, the earliest records date from the 11th c. Obviously, draughts in France did not undergo fundamental changes between the 11th and the 15th c. Such a fundamental change would have been the introduction of promotion, a change which would have given the game an entirely different character. For this reason I conclude that in France draughts was played in the 11th c.

 If draughts was known in France in the 11th c., there can be less doubt that the game was known in the neighbouring countries Italy and Spain too; it is a law that cultural treasures are disseminated sooner or later. If you want me to give examples I refer to the dissemination of reformed chess in the 16th c. or the dissemination of cards in the Middle Ages: within a few decades these games had penetrated into the farthest corners of the European continent.

 There is an unanswered question: why did the French, Italians and Spaniards need a new name for draughts? Read further.


The Spanish board game alquerque

 Attention for alquerque now.

 Several post medieval sources divulge the nature of alquerque: they identified the game with draughts.

 In his work of 1538, titled "Latinae linguae exercitatio", Juan Luis Vives wrote 25 dialogues for people wanting to become familiar with Latin. In one of the dialogues he referred to the game calculi discoloribus, played with twelve white and twelve black pieces. Later he added a Spanish translation:

(10) Este juego ya me enfada, (...) juguemos al alquerque (This game [the game they are playing] is annoying me, let us play the game of alquerque).

Vives' dialogues were published by a Frenchman in 1573; in his translation of this sentence he gave alquerque as jeu de dames, 'draughts':

(11) Ce ieu commence à m'ennuyer, (...) iouons aux dames

[Benjamin Jamin "Les dialogues de Ian Loy Vives", Paris 1573 (Westerveld 1997:112)]

(12) Jugaban el juego del alquerque, o de las damas (They played alquerque or draughts)

[Fr. Diego Durán, "Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana e Islas de la Tierra Firme" (ms. c. 1570, ed. Mexico 1967 (Westerveld 1997:118)]

(13) Damas, jeu de dames = juego de alquerque

["Den grooten dictionaris (...) Duytsch, Spaensch en Fransch", Antwerpen 1639]

 We see a familiar pattern: the old name alquerque and the new name damas both meant 'draughts', and the older name was ousted by the newer name (in the 17th c.). Just like happened with the older name for draughts in France and Italy and with a second older name for draughts (marro) in Spain. Other references to alquerque reveal why the new name for draughts, French dames, was thought up and why the old names disappeared: the old game was played on a lined board (what we call an alquerque board today, see the board at the top of this page), the new game on a chequered board, see the reproduction of Valls' book on the game damas. See references (14)-(16).

(14) De cómo estando preso conversava Atagualpa Ynga con don Francisco Pizarro y don Diego de Almagro y con los demás espanoles y jugava con ellos en el juego de axedrés que ellos les llaman taptana ([I tell you about the way] the arrested Inca Atagualpa conversed with don Francisco Pizarro and don Diego de Almagro and the other Spaniards and played with them the chess game they called taptana)

[Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala "Nueva crónica y bien gobierno" (Westerveld 1997:123)].

The chronicler illustrated the scene, which took place in 1615, with the drawing below of an alquerque board [Westerveld 1997:123].


Playing alquerque in 1615


Taptana is a word the Inca's used; the Spanish name for the game is alquerque, a dictionary said:

(15) alquerque = comina, o taptana

[F. Domingo de Santo Tomas "Lexicon vocabulario de la lengua general de Peru", Valladolid 1560 (Westerveld 1997:116-117)].

 The alquerque board was also drawn in the work of Juan Luis Vives of 1538 I just mentioned. I repeat his Spanish translation of a Latin sentence:

(16) Este juego ya me enfada, (...) juguemos al alquerque (This game is annoying me, let us play the game of alquerque)

["Exertation linguae", Basel 1555 (Westerveld 1997:119)].



 What have I found? I discovered that in a relatively short period after the Middle Ages draughts was played under two names, but that the new name, in French dames, in Italian dama, in Spanish damas, ousted the old name. I know why the new name was invented: the old medieval game of draughts was played on a lined board, the new game on a chequered board. And I can explain why the old name disappeared: draughts on the lined board was superseded by draughts on a chequered board, no one played the old game any more.

 The metaphorical use of the French word merelle, meaning 'singleton in draughts', suggests that in France draughts on the lined board was played without changes from the 11th c. (earlier references have not come down to us, the metaphors could be older). We don't dispose of any indication or proof that between the 11th and the 16th c. the rules of the game on the lined board were improved, be it in France or elsewhere. However, read any board games survey or consult any internet site and we hear that medieval alquerque was played without promotion, was not draughts. As Don Quichote I go to battle against mills. Indeed, mills... Let us reread the description of alquerque in the Alfonso manuscript of 1283.


Drawing by Gustave Doré


The text in the Alfonso manuscript

 I give a translation of the Spanish text based on the German translation by Steiger [1943:363,365], the Dutch translation by Westerveld [1997:105] and the English translation by the American investigator Sonja Musser of the University of Arizona [internet].

This is twelve men's alquerque which is played with all its pieces

And we will begin first with the game alquerque twelve, because it is larger than all other alquerque games and it is played with more pieces (...) And it has part of dice in it due to luck, because as with the rolls of the dice that are luck so in alquerque players roll to decide who plays first. And it is played in this manner: on the alquerque board there are to be twenty-five places where the pieces can be placed and there are to be twenty-four pieces. And they put twelve of one colour on one side and the other twelve on the other in a troop formation. And one place remains in the centre to allow play. And the one who plays first has a disadvantage because he is forced to play in that empty space. And the other player moves his piece to the space the first left empty and captures the one that was first to move. That player captures the second player’s piece by jumping over it from one space to another according to the straight lines on the board, and over as many pieces as he could take and the other player does likewise. The one playing first always moves first trying to capture some piece from the other side. And the other player guards himself well from attack because of and by understanding the move that he wants to make so that he guards that piece of his best. And the other does the same thing that his opponent plans to do to him and therefore he is at a disadvantage, the one who plays first. And the one who guards his pieces worse and loses them more quickly, loses. If both players known how to play it, they can both tie the game. These are the alquerque drawings and the way the pieces are placed in their spaces. [followed the drawing of the board at the top of this page].


The reconstruction of the rules

 The description of the rules is minimal. a) The player pushes a piece to an open adjacent point. 2) He captures by a jump. 3) A capture can be continued. This minimum description raises a question. The author explained rule 1) by telling what happens when a game was started. The player who has the opening move can only play in forward or sideward direction. If we continue the game, we come upon a situation where a piece can move in backward direction too. Was this allowed? Board game experts state the piece was allowed to move backwards, but there is no base for this assumption in the text. What is their argument? Following the trail back I come out at Murray, the source of this assumption [1952:65,75]. Why did he consider alquerque a game without promotion? 'Draughts', Murray reasoned, 'is in fact alquerque, but with the idea of promotion added. In French medieval draughts was called jeu des fierges, post medieval draughts jeu des dames, both with the literal sense "game of the chess queens". It is obvious the names fierge and dame were borrowed from chess, and this proves that the idea of promotion in draughts was borrowed from chess. This leads to the conclusion that alquerque was played without promotion.'

 A distressing story, as Murray neglected his duty to make a historical inquiry into the senses of the French words fierge and dame before he came to his hasty and wrong claim, see chapter 2. A game jeu des fierges has never existed; jeu des dames can impossibly mean "games of the chess queens", as the game name is about hundred years older than the French word dame in the sense of  'chess queen'. And Murray simply brushed aside a fact which proves the failure of his claim and which can impossibly be overlooked: that in Spain the new name damas replaced an older name marro.

 The medieval text is neutral about promotion. My conclusion: there is no argument in favour of the claim that alquerque was played without promotion, but there is an argument in favour of the claim that alquerque was played with promotion. And there is a second -linguistic- argument in favour of this last claim.


Alquerque was draughts: a linguistic argument

 The Dutch linguist Nicoline van der Sijs [2000] made a time-consuming inquiry. She collected about 13.000 Dutch free nouns which already existed in the medieval language and asked: "How many words have kept their core sense?" The answer: more than 97%, see Stoep 2005:135-136. In the 16th c., 'draughts', i.e. a board game with leap capture and promotion, was one of the core senses of the word alquerque. There is a chance of more than 97% that in the 13th c. the game was played with promotion too. Of course, alquerque can belong to the c. 2% of words which underwent a change of meaning, it is possible that between the 13th and 16th c. promotion was added, but we don't dispose of proofs or indications this really happened. It is again an argument in favour of the interpretation of alquerque as draughts.