This story about the evolution of draughts (checkers) is based on my description of the evolution of draughts, my hypothesis of the birth of draughts, my reconstruction of the birth of Polish draughts and experimental play by the computer.
Four thousand years draughts
A primitive board game with the leap capture existed already forty centuries ago. People in Africa moved stones or shells on lines drawn in the sand. Just like we do, they took a piece by leaping over it. This game was not yet draughts, for the pieces moved in any direction and the game did not include promotion. Draughts was born between 2000 and 1500 BC, when an African devised the promotion. From this moment on moving and taking backwards was only permitted with a piece which had penetrated into the opponent’s base row. The new game was played on a latticed board with 25 points, the two players each started with 12 pieces, see the plate below. This board was incised into the roofing slabs of the temple of Luxor, built on the western side of the Nile about 1500 BC.
Draughts: from the Middle East to Athens and Rome
The pharaoh’s from Egypt played this game some 3500 years ago. The king was little powerful, played only one point into any direction. It was a short king, like the king in current American checkers or English draughts. Capturing was not obliged, a player might prefer not to take. In addition to draughts, the ancient Egyptians played morris (in the same way as we do) and a forerunner of tables (backgammon).
Just like in our days a civilisation produced goods other people needed. So traders travelled to other parts of the world, with their board games. According to the philosopher Plato the Greek borrowed their board games from Egypt. Among these games was draughts. It is unknown in which age draughts reached Athens, but the Greek played the game in the 5th c. BC, under the name Five lines game. The name is obvious: count the lines of the board above. Draughts was so common and so popular, that the game passed into proverbs. If someone had to abandon a favourable position, the Greek said: “He must give up the holy line”. This holy line was the horizontal centre line of the draughts board. Obviously a singleton on this line could not be taken, may be only by a king of by an attack of two enemy singletons simultaneously.
The ancient Greek and ancient Romans are always bracketed together. Ancient Rome, did it play draughts? Yes. The Roman name for the game was Twelve pieces, again an understandable name, see the classic draughts board above. The first draughts player whose name we know is Publius Mucius Scaevola, living in the 2nd c. BC. He was said to be able to play blindfold. As one of the fathers of the Roman civil code, which influenced the modern western legislation, and as a member of the Collegium Pontificum, a sacred college with both a political and a religious authority, he was one of Rome’s most reputable citizens.
There are no allusions to a holy line in the classical Roman literature, neither in the literature from later times. Did the Romans play their own draughts variety, or has it been a minor game, unlike in Greece?
The incorporation of Roman laws is only one example of Roman influence on Europe. Three countries in particular assimilated Rome’s culture: France, Italy and Spain, Romance, i.e. Latin speaking countries. One of the treasuries they received was draughts. In the 6th c. AD or earlier the Latin name of the game was changed into Game with pieces. There was a second board game with this name: morris, which proves draughts and morris were often played together.
A new king: before the 8th c. AD
This Latin name “game with pieces” was borrowed by Arab tribes. Only the name, alquerque, for they must have been familiar with both draughts and morris. Before the 8th c. AD, an Arab draughts player thought up a new promotion rule: the king acquired a greater freedom of move. The long king was born. In the 8th c. AD the Moors, Arab people, conquered Spain. Their draughts, more lively and speedy than the Roman game with the short king –as computer simulations prove- conquered the territory too. In the 13th c., Alfonso X, king of Castile and Leon, ordered a description of the board games played in his environment. At his court, chess and tables were the most fashionable games, both profusely explained and illustrated. Draughts was disposed of in a short, sloppy sketch of the rules. Fortunately, the responsible clerk added a drawing of the current board with the opening position: still the Egyptian draughts board.
Draughts transferred to the chess board: 14th c.
In France between 1000 and 1500, may be earlier, draughts was very popular given the dozens of expressions based on the game. This popularity might be responsible for an innovation, made in the 14th c.: a French draughts player started to play draughts on the chess board. This innovation met with approval, so much that draughts on the chequered board was given an own name: French jeu de dames, meaning “game of the dams (dikes)”. Draughts players from other countries on the continent adopted this custom together with its name, but English players preferred the name Checkers, literally “game on the chequered board”.
Introduction of the huff: 15th c.
In the 15th c. a new innovation, probably again made in France, changed the character of draughts: capturing became obliged on the penalty of the huff. An odd practice, this huff: a player overlooks a capture and his opponent takes the piece in question off the board, brings it to his lips and blows. The game with the huff received its own name, in French Forcé, in English Draughts, literally “moving a piece”.
Spanish draughts players adopted this rule, but they extended it with the multiple capture: multiple take precedes single take.
As we have seen, the Spanish game is Arabic, the variety with the long king. This long king incited Spanish chess players to replace their “short” medieval queen with a “long” queen, the piece with the move of our days. The name of this new queen reminds of its origin: dama, taken from the Spanish word damas, ‘draughts’. At the 13th c. court of king Alfonso draughts may have been a minor game, but two centuries later it undoubtedly was far from minor, because it could influence on chess.
Introduction of the backward capture and the 100 squares board: 16th c.
Two further innovations took place more northwards: in Holland. The first renewal was the introduction of the backward capture of the unpromoted piece, the second renewal the introduction of the 100 squares board. The renewed game received a peculiar name: Polish draughts. In Dutch the word Polish meant ‘queer, strange´. One century later, between 1670 and 1690, the variety arrived in France. The misleading name inspired the Paris player Manoury, author of two draughts books (1770 and 1787) to a romantic legend about the birth of Polish draughts. This kind of legend always puts an invention on native soil, and so Manoury told his readers that Polish draughts was invented in Paris about 1725 and that a French officer was involved. A second leading man, from Poland, contributed so much that the officer magnanimously proposed to call the new game Polish draughts. “Historical truth”, assured Manoury, just like the author of a historical novel with concocted stories and concocted personages and just like a novelist basing his story on mysterious left papers.
Manoury managed a coffee house, where Paris draughts players met. His Café de l’École was respectable, though he did not receive Paris’ upper crust. The coffee house, risen in the second half of the 17th and prospering in the 18th c., was a more or less distinguished meeting point for the better classes. Board games, before mostly hidden behind the curtains of the living room, were played in public. Draughts, in medieval France extraordinarily popular, was also in the 16th and 17th c. France’s most favourite board game. In the French 18th c. coffee house, chess, tables and draughts seem to have been equally popular. It is remarkable, however, that no less a person than Philidor, admired because of his gifts as a composer of music, as a player of blindfold chess, as a brilliant chess player and as the author of a beautiful chess book, complained about the influence of draughts on chess. “Many a gentleman, even chess masters, are confusing chess with draughts, both in France and in Germany: they don’t do any effort to catch the enemy king in a mating web, but try to have their pawns promoted to win by brute force”, he grumbled. Like many of his artistic and intellectual compatriots Philidor played draughts too, he even composed draughts problems. As a child of his time, Philidor was not able to resist the spirit of his age, the 1740’s. He broke the common strategy to attack with the main pieces with disregard of the pawn, on the contrary emphasizing the strategic value of the pawn. Just in a time when chess was played with the draughts strategy, chess champion and draughts player Philidor advised to consider a pawn as a link of a chain, not to isolate a pawn because it becomes weak, and to cover the pawns by the main pieces, particularly the bishops. Like links of a chain: this is exactly how the pieces in draughts advance, avoiding an isolated position, covering each other.
In the 15th c., chess borrowed the long queen from draughts. In the 18th c., chess developed a new strategy, inspired by draughts. One of chess’ most characteristic features is the promotion. When chess was born, about 500 AD, draughts with its promotion rule was played for more than 2000 years. There cannot be any doubt: the first chess queen was a copy from the short king in Roman draughts.
Abolition of the huff: 19th c.
The huff always was a rule for contests, for quickies in coffee house or sitting-room. A composer, a player exploring the borders of the combination –possible by the introduction of the obliged capture in the 15th c., earlier draughts problems did not exist- could the huff rule set aside. For this reason there was a great difference between combinations in practical play and combinations invented in the study. See for an example this composition by William Strickland (England). White wins as follows: 1. 12-8 3x12 2. 14-9 5x14 3. 13-9 6x13 4. 15x6 2x9 5. 17x3 26x17 6. 21x5. The huff rule prevents a combination like this to be executed in a real game. Black takes 3x12 and 5x14 but refuses the capture 6x13. His piece on square 6 is huffed, but he wins one piece.
In the 19th c. railways and roads were constructed, allowing people to travel and to arrange meetings. Dutchmen visited France to play draughts against French players. The national honour was at stake, so that both sides did their utmost to win. The players in question played a strong game and were eager to show their capacities. They saw deep, discovered combinations to knock down the opponent, but the rule of the huff blocked them. And soon in official Polish games the huff was abolished, late 19th c. The British islands followed one century later.
From now on checkers/draughts was a game uniting both strategy and combination. The most sophisticated variety is Polish draughts, with its 100 squares board, the long king, the multiple capture and the backward take of the singleton.
Social decline: late 19th c.
Civilisations rise, shine and sink away. In ancient Greece poets dedicated lines to draughts, in ancient Rome it was played by one of the most reputable citizens, only two centuries ago it was a gentlemen’s pastime. About 1900 chess outstripped draughts, so much so that draughts socially slid down. In Germany and Belgium draughts lost its status of gentlemen’s game and was grouped as a children’s amusement; in Spain and England it almost vanished. In France and the Netherlands it lost ground but survived, though it is now considered as rather simple, a game college people should better not play; chess, a game of unfathomable depth, is more appropriate for them.
The books tell us that draughts is a young game, owes its promotion to chess and was always played in the shadow of chess. Contemporary inquiries lead to an entirely other view. In the social climate of today, however, it is psychologically difficult, if not impossible, to accept this as historical truth.