Variations on a Theme

It’s a bit of a surprise to me how many websites cater to chess players — yet how few of them show any interest in, or even awareness of, chess variants. Other than Chinese and Japanese chess, of course. One reason it’s surprising is because standard chess has been so very thoroughly explored. You’ll never memorize all the opening variations, okay? Plus, your computer can beat you. So why not move outside the box?

One of the best known and most playable chess variants is usually called Capablanca chess, after the grandmaster who championed it in the 1920s. But in fact this variant is far older, dating back to at least the 17th century. Capablanca chess adds two new pieces to each army, and of course the pawns placed in front of them. It’s played on a 10×8 board.

The two new pieces go by various names — marshal and cardinal, equerry and archbishop, whatever. I’ll stick with marshal and cardinal. These pieces are analogs of the queen. The queen combines the moves of the rook and bishop. In the same way, the marshal combines the moves of the rook and knight, and the cardinal combines the moves of bishop and knight. The conceptual symmetry is appealing, and the pieces are easy to understand. Also, they’re powerful.

The main question is where to put them in the starting position.

Capablanca placed them between the knights and the bishops, but this has an unappealing side effect: The pawn diagonally adjacent to the marshal is unprotected. Here’s a better alternative:


The marshal is the horse’s head on a squat rook; the cardinal is the horse with a little bishop’s cross. This particular screenshot is from ChessV, a Windows program that plays a number of Capablanca variants. This layout, which happens to come from a version called Ladorean chess, has the interesting property that the opposing bishops face one another. They also aim squarely at the center of the board. The knights are near the center, which is also good, as they can threaten enemy center pawns after only a single move.

Many Capablanca variants feature “flexible castling.” The king can move two or more squares toward the rook, which then hops over it. On a wide board, this is a sensible rule change. Other than that, it’s just plain old chess.

I suspect games like this haven’t become more popular because of the shortage of physical hardware. If, God forbid, you want to play against a human opponent rather than the computer, what are you going to do? Everybody has a chess set, but who has a Capablanca set gathering dust in the hall closet? You can’t even buy them. I’ve been looking around the Web for an hour, and there’s nothing. There are nice photos of a couple of chess sets with alternate pieces, but the links to where you can buy them are dead.

I’d make a set — something simple, with flat round pieces like checkers — but I’m not a crafts sort of person. I could do little cardboard squares with hand-drawn symbols on them, but that’s sort of ugly. To create anything more elegant, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Plus, which hand-drawn symbols to use? Suppose you have a game with pieces called archers. Creating a symbol suitable for an archer (perhaps using a computer drawing program) is easy enough, but such a symbol would be useless next month when you find yourself playing a variant that uses cannons or dragons instead of archers.

A software solution for displaying a board and symbols is tempting, but a software game board isn’t much good if you’re playing against a human opponent sitting across the table from you. Not until the next generation of iPads, the ones with the 15-inch display surface.

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