06 December 2006

Four-player Chaturanga?

While reading 'The Immortal Game, A History of Chess' by David Shenk, a passage on the birth of chess caught my attention.

After what might have been centuries of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia sometime during the fifth or sixth century. It was a two-player war game with thirty-two pieces on a sixty-four-square board [...] Chatrang was a modified import from neighboring India, where an older, four-player version of the game was known as chaturanga -- which itself may have been a much older import from neighboring China. (p.17 & 18)

...Shenk's claim didn't square with my understanding of the early evolution of chess, which I documented in a recent introductory article...

The Origin of Chess

...'India - Chaturanga: It is not surprising that the earliest evidence of chess is also the murkiest. Forbes believed that the game called chaturanga, which means 'quadripartite' in Sanskrit, referred to a four-player version of the game using dice and was mentioned in the Puranas, which he dated to 3000 B.C. Murray showed that the four-player version came after the two-player version, discarded the notion of dice, and refuted the dating of the Puranas. This left literary evidence pointing to 620 A.D.'

One of my sources was 'The Oxford Companion to Chess' by Hooper and Whyld.

chaturanga, the earliest precursor of modern chess that can be clearly defined. [...] On account of the false trail laid by Forbes, the ancestor of chaturanga was once thought to be four-handed chess, no evidence of which exists before the 11th century.

Forbes became notorious for several factual errors. The same source says that he is 'now ignored'.

Forbes, 'Duncan (1798-1868), Scottish writer on chess history, professor of oriental languages. [...] Regarded by his contemporaries as a monument to scholarship, Forbes's history is now ignored.

Shenk provides extensive notes on many of his facts, but gives nothing to support the statement about four-player chaturanga. If he is right, this is new information that upsets the historical foundation that H.J.R.Murray built.


David said...


Thanks for your post. It appears I've made a terrible blunder, even as I went to great lengths to get my facts straight. I will be sure to correct this (and any other errors you find) in the next edition.


David Shenk

Mark Weeks said...

I was wondering whether I should contact you about the discrepancy, but it's no longer necessary. Four-player chaturanga aside, congratulations on your book's commercial success. - Mark