The History of Chess in Africa

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It is widely accepted that chess has its origins in the ancient Indian game of chaturanga some fifteen hundred years ago. What is often ignored is the significant role that Africans have played in the chess world, from ancient times up to the present day.

 In celebration of Black History Month, Chess Institute of Canada is publishing a series of pieces about the Black history of chess, as well as a series of profiles of notable chess players from Africa and the wider diaspora. The intersections between Black history and the world of chess are well worth exploring. In this first piece, we will dive into the early history of chess in Africa, and how Africans have contributed to the early history of the game.

There are many board games that have African origins. For example, senet, a game favoured by the Egyptian royalty, is depicted as being somewhat chess-like, though it is far older than chess itself.

A depiction of an Egyptian royal playing senet, a game believed to have significant spiritual importance for the ancient Egyptians.

It is generally believed that senet is rather more like the Royal Game of Ur, and therefore more likely a predecessor or inspiration for backgammon. Other African games, like mancala and wari, have truly ancient origins and remain popular to this day. Given the widespread popularity of sophisticated games of competition, it is not at all surprising that chess was welcomed in Africa.

Disappointingly and not surprisingly Africa, the cradle of civilization, has long been ignored in the history books. At its peak, the Persian Empire was among the strongest empires that the world had ever seen. The Persians, of course, had encounters and conflicts with the peoples of India and there encountered and became enamoured of chaturanga, which they adopted and called chatrang. The rise of the Muslim world coincided with the decline of the Persian Empire, culminating in the Muslim conquest of Persia. With this, the Muslims took chatrang, and, with a few modifications, adopted it as the game shatranj, which is the immediate predecessor to modern chess.

And it was here that chess first entered Africa, where it joined other games like senet, mancala and wari. The rules of shatranj were very similar to the rules of modern chess. Any person watching a game of shatranj being played a thousand years ago would immediately recognize it as a sort of chess. Most of the pieces moved in the same way as the modern game, and the ultimate goal—checkmate—has never really changed.

Shatranj became a popular pastime everywhere it was introduced, and was generally tolerated in the Muslim world because it was not a game of chance, but of skill and intellect. The earliest accounts we have of a player displaying their talent by playing blindfold chess are of a Black African judge named Sa’id bin Jubair, in about the year 700 CE.

Playing pieces for senterej, the Ethiopian version of chess.

A little-known part of the African history of chess is a game called senterej. The name is obviously similar to shatranj, but this is the chess-like game that has been played in Ethiopia for over a thousand years. It has slight differences from the modern game in terms of how some pieces move, and in the initial setup of the pieces, but it is notable for two reasons. Senterej is one of the only versions of shatranj that is still played today, although its popularity has waned in recent decades.

One feature of senterej and shatranj is the interesting opening phase. In modern chess players fight for a certain position. In these earlier forms of the game players would begin play from the starting position and make a series of legal moves (sometimes without taking turns!) to arrange their pieces in a way they felt gave them an advantage (rather like two armies assembling their forces prior to battle). What we would consider “normal” play would only start when the two forces engaged and captures were possible.

Senterej differed from chess in its appearance as well. The pieces are not black and white, but rather green and gold. The board is not checkered, but lined, typically with blue lines on a red background.

We should note two important masters of senterej. One is Taytu Betul, a high-born woman who became Empress of Ethiopia, and founded its capital city, Addis Ababa in 1886. The last master of senterej, Mikael Imru, passed away in 2008, after a long career of political service, including being Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in the 1970s.

Today senterej, as other earlier forms of chess, have been largely supplanted by the modern game of chess. And so we see that chess in Africa has come full circle. Shatranj, and national versions of the game such as senterej were played in Africa long before the game was known in Europe. In fact, it is through the African continent that this game was introduced to Europe, as is suggested in the featured image in this piece, of North African Moors playing the game.

Today the popularity of chess in Africa and throughout the diaspora is exploding, as has been documented in many films, books and other works. This is also evidenced by the increasing number of Black International Masters and Grandmasters in Africa and around the world. Since 1998 the African Chess Championship has been held annually in different cities throughout Africa and has contributed significantly to the rise of the game.

This article is part of a series of pieces exploring chess in the context of Black History Month. Click on Black History Month to learn more about Black chess players, the African history of chess, and other issues relating to chess and race.

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