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Historia Ecclesiastica

Squares All Chequered

On chess and the Church.


When the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, the popularity of the game of chess, which the Muslims had adopted after the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, spread quickly throughout southern Europe. According to the oldest myth that explains the invention of chess, King Hashrān of India asked his sage Qaflān to invent a game that would illustrate a human being’s dependence on destiny and fate. Qaflān conceived of nard, a board game between two players whose roll of the dice determined how their respective pieces move. When King Balhait, who succeeded King Hashrān, learned that the fatalist traits of nard were not in concert with his religious beliefs, he encouraged his subjects to adopt a new game of skill that appealed to the value he placed on free will and intelligence. King Balhait soon discovered, however, other uses for the board and pieces of this game he often played against the wisemen in his court:

He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies (eleven planets and the twelve zodiacal signs), and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movements of troops.

An iteration of the game that originated in India emerged in Persia during the fifth century. Chatrang was an adaptation of the Sanskrit word chaturanga. Both words, according to the chess historian H.J.R.Murray, are “in their respective languages the ordinary names for the game of chess.” In the twelfth century, Abraham ibn Ezrah, a Jewish scholar of religion, astronomy, mathematics, and astrology, who was born in Navarre, wrote a poem titled “The Song of Chess”:

I will sing a song of battle

Planned in days long passed and over.

Men of skill and science set it

On a plain of eight divisions,

And designed in squares all chequered.

Two camps face each one the other.

And the Kings stand by for battle,

And ʼtwixt these two is the fighting.

Bent on war the face of each is,

Ever moving or encamping.

Yet no swords are drawn in warfare,

For a war of thoughts their war is.

The most influential proponent of the game of chess in the Middle Ages, however, was Alfonso X el Sabio (“the Learned”), who was the king of Castile from 1252 to 1284. He commissioned a book about a variety of games, including chess, titled Libros de acedrex, dados e tablas, also known as the Libro de los juegos or Book of Games. The book consists of seven parts and one-hundred fifty miniatures that illustrate the text.

One reason for chess’s popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages was the game’s allegorical moral instruction. One of the oldest chess moralities is Quaedam moralitas de scaccario, whose authorship is attributed to the Franciscan theologian John of Wales. Unlike similar authors, John depicts a world of depravity, whose inhabitants, as represented by the pieces, are, with the exception of the king and the rook, bereft of virtue. All of the earliest chess moralities, including his, portray the game as a window into the soul of the players, as Jenny Adams observes: “Although used initially as a representation of social order, chess by this point has become a test of an individual’s virtue. If any person—the text has now conflated the player and the reader—falls into sin, he will lose both the game and his soul.”

Jacobus de Cessolis, an Italian Dominican, allegorizes the chess board as a city in Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum. Adams notes the impact of Jacobus de Cessolis on the body politic in the late Middle Ages:

Upon the game’s arrival in Europe in the late tenth century, medieval cultures deliberately turned it into a representation of their own social milieu(s). By the late thirteenth century chess had become so popular and so well known that Jacobus de Cessolis had little difficulty harnessing its allegorical power, and he drew on the game’s mimetic qualities in order to model the workings of a contractually based political order. In doing so he provided a way for people to think about their identities as individuals and as citizens. If the Liber’s allegory allowed a player the fantasy of ultimate power over the game, its exempla reminded individuals of their responsibility to the political community.

Ruy López, the sixteenth-century chess master who wrote The Art of the Game of Chess, eschews Cessolis’s chess-as-city allegory and chooses instead to address the game as if it were a military campaign: “We have always refuted that opinion and teaching, demonstrating here that the board represents not a city but a battlefield with two kings, whose warriors are prepared to do battle.” Murray notes that chess resembles a war because war is the “most effective school for teaching the value of administration, decision, prudence, caution, arrangement, strategy, circumspection, vigour, courage, force, endurance, and bravery.”

During the second half of the fifteenth century, chess moralities do not for the most part provide the explicit moral instruction of earlier treatises. The advent of the rules of modern chess inspired their authors to focus more on how to play the game: Two of the earliest treatises on modern chess are the Göttingen manuscript, a Latin text that begins with a description of twelve openings and concludes with thirty problems, each of which is followed by a diagram and a solution, and Repetición de amores y arte de ajedrez (Repetition of love and the art of playing chess), by Luis Ramírez de Lucena, who dedicated his book to Prince John of Asturias, the only son of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. The authorship and date of composition of the Göttingen manuscript are the subject of dispute among chess historians.

The earliest account of a game of chess between two players who move the king and the queen according to the rules of modern chess is in the late fifteenth-century Catalan poem “Scachs d’amor” (“The chess game of love”). This poem, which consists of sixty-four stanzas, describes how Francí de Castellví i de Vic, a nobleman and poet from Valencia, who represents the character Mars in the game, checkmates Narcís Vinyoles, a poet and politician from Valencia, who plays the game as Venus. Bernat Fenollar, a professor of mathematics at the University of Valencia, is the character Mercury, who establishes the rules of the game and provides commentary. The following stanzas describe each player’s first move:


(King’s pawn to the fourth house)

The fields assigned and all the men at ready,

The great warrior, with his red standard,

Decided to move as soon as required

Taking Love as the name for the battle;

He moved towards the field of the beautiful

The most valiant pawn in conquest:

He moved two paces towards her.

By this move the King discovers Reason

And opens the road of Will.


(Queen’s pawn to the fourth house)

The gentle Lady, not lacking in spirit,

Carrying the green banner of Hope

And shouting: “Glory, glory covers

My people with all blessings!”

Her pawn, courteous, well-tempered

Moves up, because Beauty opens,

In the game of love, the first step.

With a humble gesture for defense,

Her heart was pierced with the thrust of love.

After each player moves a piece, Fenollar addresses the context of the game at that moment:


(He says that a piece touched must be played)

The first rule you must abide by

Is, in this game, that a piece once touched

Firmly, admitting neither debate nor confront,

By any player, true, must be played.

It falls to reason: for a lover’s thoughts

Having chosen, cannot freedom afford

Or doubt, but take full submission.

Thus the saying: “Courage and folly

In every move, as once done, done it is!”

Fenollar’s narration also provides the reader with a comprehensive account of the rules of chess in Aragon: “He tells us, for example, that the pawn can be taken in passing; that the King when moved for the first time can leap to a third square, provided he does not cross a square commanded by an opponent, but that he cannot leap out of check or take when leaping, . . . that one Queen cannot take another, and that to lose the Queen is to lose the game.” The feminist author and historian Marilyn Yalom notes that the queen’s transformation into the most powerful piece on the board coincided with the rule of Isabella as queen of Castile and León, and then as queen of Spain in 1492:

It was during this period that “new chess” featuring the formidable queen came into being. A militant queen more powerful than her husband had arisen in Castile; why not on the chessboard as well? This may have been the thinking of those players from Valencia who endowed the chess queen with her extended range of motion. Perhaps they even hoped to win favor from the queen by promoting the chess queen. Yet it is just as likely that those Valencian players unconsciously redesigned the queen on the model of the all-powerful Isabella.

Yalom also cites Isabella’s proclamation ceremony as queen of Castile and León in Segovia as an example of the demeanor of the “Warrior Queen.” The popularity of chess throughout Europe, especially in Spain and Italy, continued to grow throughout Ruy López’s lifetime.

Rodrigo “Ruy” López was born in 1530 in Zafra, a small town in southwestern Spain, where his parents, who were successful merchants, raised him. López studied for the priesthood in Salamanca, and after ordination he returned to Zafra, where he served as pastor at the Church of Santa María de la Candelaria. His next assignment was in Madrid as the confessor and royal advisor to King Philip II. As a connoisseur of chess, King Philip II promoted the game in his court, and it did not take long for López to become known as one of Europe’s greatest chess players, and the best chess player in Spain.

During López’s lifetime, two of the most accomplished chess players were the Italians Giovanni Leonardo da Cutri and Paolo Boi. When López traveled to Italy on ecclesiastical business in 1560, Pope Pius IV, who was a chess enthusiast, also extended a special invitation to López to visit him in Rome. While there, López played and defeated Leonardo and Boi. López returned to Italy in 1573 and, once again, defeated Italy’s best players, including Leonardo, whom he defeated two times, and Boi. López’s reign as Europe’s unofficial chess champion would end in 1575, however, the year that King Philip II organized the first International Grandmaster Chess Tournament at El Escorial. The only participants were the Spaniards Ruy López and Alfonso de Cerón and the Italians Leonardo Cutri and Paolo Boi. Leonardo defeated Boi to win the tournament, and López finished in third place. Leonardo’s winnings included one thousand ducats, an ermine cape, and, at his request, two gifts to his hometown of Cutro: it did not have to pay taxes for a period of twenty years, and henceforth it would be known as the “City of Chess.” King Philip II also rewarded Boi handsomely, bestowing on him official appointments in Italy that paid very well and a letter in which the monarch recommended Boi to Philip’s half-brother, Don John of Austria.

During his first sojourn in Italy, in 1560, López read Libro da imparare giocare a scachi (Book of how to learn to play chess), the first Italian chess treatise, whose author, Pedro Damião, whose Italianized name was Pedro Damiano, was a Portuguese chess player. López wrote Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del axedrez shortly after he returned to Spain, no doubt inspired by his disgust with Damiano’s treatise:

In addition to what has been said about ways to play and to arrange the games, I try to illustrate the specifics of Damiano’s errors, as well as the mistakes of others who are unable to teach effectively how to play the game of chess. The chapters that follow consist of detailed explanations. I will begin by showing the offenses and defenses that are common to games that begin equally. Then, I will discuss Damiano’s offenses and defenses, including his errors, and propose ways to improve the offense and the defense. Last, I will illustrate the many ways a player who has an advantage can arrange his game. In addition, I will explain Damiano’s errors and propose corrections.

López does not conceal his disrespect for Damiano’s book: “There are other blunders in this game about which I write. It seems that Damiano designed it asleep.” In spite of its perceived shortcomings, there were eight editions of Damiano’s book in the sixteenth century alone and two more in the seventeenth century. In addition, there were translations of it in French, German, and English. López’s book, on the other hand, appeared in Italian in the second half of the sixteenth century, and variants of this free translation later appeared in French and German.

While the openings that López suggests in books two, three, and four are well known as the “Ruy López,” the relatively small number of editions and translations may be attributed to the presence of material from other sources, as Murray notes: “The first book treats of the origin and utility of chess, with many quotations from Cessolis, Reyna’s Spanish translation of which had appeared as recently as 1549. . . . The second book contains a miscellaneous collection of Openings, and was probably in MS. before the visit to Italy.” In addition, Murray observes that López wrote his book with “dangerous rapidity—dangerous because it resulted in a list 8 pages long of misprints and other errors—and his book was published not long after his return to Spain in the spring of 1561 (the privilege is dated the last day of February, 1561).” Murray also calls into question the originality of López’s advice to players in book one: “The advice to players in the first book is divided into thirty-six paragraphs. There is very little that is really new in the first eighteen of these: in the main they are taken (without acknowledgement) from Damiano. The advice to place your opponent with the sun in his eyes if you play by day, and with the candle at his right hand if you play by night, is in Lucena, and was probably a trick well known to Spanish players.” Finally, Murray points out López’s dependence on Francisco Bernardino Caldogno’s poem “De ludo scachorum” (“On the game of chess”): “The advice not to sacrifice Knight or Bishop for two pawns, unless you can see a certain victory as a result, is in Caldogno’s poem.”

Nonetheless, the popularity of chess all over the world is due in no small part to Ruy López’s book. In addition to its impact on European chess, López’s book shaped how chess was played in the New World, where it reached new heights in post-colonial America. Cuban world chess champion José Raúl Capablanca was a disciple of Ruy López. chess historian Isaak Linder notes that Capablanca’s preparation for important matches and major tournaments centered on the Spaniard’s openings: “But already during his preparations for his match with Lasker and for some of the major international tournaments of the 1920s and 1930s, he carefully studied opening theory and, particularly, the theory of the openings he employed most frequently, the Queen’s Gambit and the Ruy Lopez.” In Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges includes “A translation with prologue and notes of the Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del axedrez by Ruy López de Segura (Paris, 1907)” on Menard’s list of “visible” lifework in the short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The Hispanist Sergio Gabriel Waisman astutely equates Menard’s translation of Ruy López’s book to Cervantes’s creation of Don Quixote: “Also, since Ruy López de Segura founded the modern system of chess around 1560, translating/rewriting his text is, in a way, analogous to rewriting/translating Cervantes’s text if we think of Cervantes as the founder of the modern system of the novel.”

In part two, chapter sixty-two of Don Quixote, Cervantes offers this opinion on translations:

But despite all this, it seems to me that translating from one language into another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side out, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.

I am the first person to translate The Art of the Game of Chess into English. Giovanni Domenico Tarsia published the Italian translation in 1584. French editions are from 1609, 1615, 1636, 1665, and 1674. Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg, published the German translation Das-Schach-oder König-Spiel under the pseudonym Gustavus Selenus in 1616. Stéphane Laborde published an abbreviated French translation in 2015. Fewer than ten copies of the original 1561 edition exist today.

Ruy López dedicates his treatise to García de Toledo Osorio—who was the tutor and steward of Prince Charles, King Philip II’s eldest son—in part to ensure that the prince, whom López notes is a chess enthusiast, will read it. Since this time, the name Ruy López has been synonymous with one of the more popular ways to begin a chess match.

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Michael J. McGrath is professor of Hispanic studies at Georgia Southern University.