Courier chess

Courier chess, played from the 12th century CE on, had kings, queens, bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns… but it also had henchmen, fools, and couriers.

Courier chess
Lucas van Leyden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The pieces of chess have shifted quite a bit between the early versions and the one we know today. The queen used to be weaker (only taking a single step), pawns could not advance twice on their first move, and the bishop used to move exactly two spaces (no more or less, although it was allowed to jump over another piece on the way). The modern bishop move, in fact, was stolen from a different version of chess known as courier chess.

Courier chess was played in Germany, and dates at least as far back as the 12th century CE. It was played on a wide board: 12 spaces long and 8 high. In addition to the standard pieces from chess (including the weaker bishop), you played with the following:

  • Henchman / sage – begins next to the king, moves like the king, but can be captured without losing the game.
  • Fool / spy / jester –  moves like the rook, but only one space at a time.
  • Courier / runner – moves like the modern bishop, diagonally in any direction as far as it can.

Courier chess was a bit funny because it had a set of compulsory opening moves which left three pawns and a queen per side in the middle of the board. I don’t know why they didn’t just call those the opening positions in the first place, but they are forgiven because of the German name for that opening: the Freudensprung (the leap for joy!).

Some time around 1475, someone tried dropping the courier piece onto the regular chess board in place of the old weak bishop. The change improved the game so much that it was adopted into chess proper, and that’s how we got the modern bishop. Courier chess itself died out, and aside from some small pockets still playing it in the 19th century became pretty much extinct.


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