The Elephant in Chess

As the game of chess converged from its roots (Chaturanga and Shatranj) to the modern game we have today, the Elephant piece finds its way evolving into the Bishop.

The bishop’s predecessor in shatranj (medieval chess) was the alfil, meaning elephant, which could leap two squares along any diagonal, and  over
an intervening piece.
An alfil (or elephant) bishop chess piece comes from the Arabic word al-fil (?????), al-fil from the Persian, meaning “elephant” and elefante in Spanish also marfil meaning ivory.

The definition of marfil [ Arabic mar-al-fil , elephant bone ] refers to the tooth enamel of vertebrates.

The War Elephant was first employed in India.
A war elephant was an elephant trained and guided by humans for combat.
Their main use was to charge the enemy, breaking their ranks by trampling them.
A division of war elephants is known as elephantry.
This practice spread out across southeast Asia and westwards into the Mediterranean.
Their most famous use in the West was by  Pyrrhus of Epirus, Greek general Born 319/318 BC and by Hannibal (247 – 183/182 BC) Punic Carthaginian military

In this era, This War Game Elephant was the chariot as previously mentioned that evolved into the modern Rook. The Rook was known as the Chariot in the Indian Chaturanga at first and was represented by the elephant figure. Considered the division of heavy infantry in the game.
It was also known as the Ratha (Sanskrit ‘, Avestan ra?a) the Indo-Iranian term for the spoked-wheel chariot of Antiquity.
It possesses powerful movement abilities, and is typically used in defense as well as for quick strikes to the opponent’s position from a distance.

As war got more technical and city walls and castles were being attacked new weapons and strategies were needed. As the game got more technical more pieces were applied to the game.


Chinese chess Xiangqi
Elephant game
The Elephant is a piece used in Xiangqi (Chinese chess).
It is also called Prime Minister, as the words for Elephant and Prime Minister in Chinese (Xiang) sound the same.
This piece most likely evolved from the Alfil of Shatranj.
To better explain why, I will not focus much on the Chinese game (Xiangqi)  because it is a totally different battle field than that of Chess,
including a river and two palaces.

This game board looks to have been created as a preparation for a future battle between two thrones divided by a river.

Nothing ever evolves to simplicity.Things evolve to reach an apex not a mutation or variants of.
Therefore chess could not have evolved from Xiangqi. It is Xiangqi that has the qualities of chess adjusted to a new battlefield.

In comparison chess has the smaller board with simpler rules to follow than Xiangqi.
Generally when something is copied, other items are added to suit the needs of the person making the changes.

One important question does arise from this and all opinions…. How is Xiangqi related to CHATURANGA a game much older and simpler than chess?
Surely it can not be said that the Chinese game had no evolution and it just came into existence  as is, and that it is the other game boards that copied it.

Chess has its Origin and it is not Chinese.

The elephant as an old world iconic war piece is found in many war games .


All images are copyright of the photographers and Random Acts.
Images are copyright of the photographers and Random Acts.

One Reply to “The Elephant in Chess”

  1. Aaah..what a nice blog !! full of information & very nice way it has been written. Evolution has always been an interesting topic, when it comes chess & chess pieces it becomes more interesting than anything else. The decoration by nice photographs should be applauded. I have also read the blog on “Rooks, Towers,Castles and Chariots.” that is fantastic too but this current blog looks better in every aspect. Thanks to Ernesto for this superb blog. Very nice !!

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