Chapter 28

28. About the relation between chess and draughts
 Until about 1960 I played chess and draughts, from that time on chiefly draughts. Towards 1970 I got interested in the history of draughts after I had bought the book of my fellow-Dutchman Wendel Kruijswijk (1966). He did not tell anything new: he worked up the ideas of the English chess and board game historian Harold Murray (1952). I call Murray’s vision on the relation between chess and draughts the old story.

The old story
 “In our time chess is an important and popular board game, draughts is nothing”, Murray (1915) established in the 1910s. Without any research he carried this further to the past: it has always been like this. “And look”, said he, again without any research: “Draughts players borrowed a lot from chess. They play their game on the chess board, the doubleton (king) in draughts is a copy of the chess queen and they copied the promotion from chess”.
Murray found the pillars under his claim in the language. “The present names for draughts on the European continent are borrowings from French; the French name is jeu de dames”. And he claimed: “Dames is the plural of dame, the French name of the chess queen”. His conclusion: “The literal meaning of jeu de dames is game with chess queens”.
On these two assumptions (popular chess against unpopular draughts and the naming of draughts) Murray built a nice story: chess is the mother of draughts.







The new story (1)
 Some Dutch draughts players with whom I shared interest in the history of draughts, it was in the 1970s, were impressed by Murray’s etymological explanations. In the beginning I was impressed too, but this changed when I started an almost unending quest: to check Murray’s etymology. It was in the summer of 1975. I did a study of Dutch linguistics and literature which took me, with interruptions, eleven years ‒with a wife and two daughters a man is (was?) supposed to provide a house and an income‒, and every teacher warned his/her students for a hasty etymology, such an explanation demanded serious study. With their instructions and examples I learned the etymological practice.
In 1977 I knew it for sure: Murray’s etymology was far off the target. In 1983 I knocked on the door of a professor linguistics of the University of Leiden: if I could make a doctoral research under his wings. He took me to the room with etymological dictionaries. Dutch, Portuguese, German, French, Spanish… after each dictionary my guide looked more sceptically: they told him Murray was right. Two Italian etymologists saved me: the etymon of the Italian game name dama could impossibly be the name of the chess queen.
He looked to the ceiling, thought some seconds, half a minute. I waited. “Write a paper, I give you six months”. I replied: “I’ll not disappoint you”. “An argumentation why the old etymology is wrong is not enough”, added the man who would become my promotor, “you are obliged to propose an alternative etymology”.
Anyhow, after a second eleven years ‒a wife, two daughters and some pets you know‒ I had to account for a professorial gathering. The claim I defended: “The French game name jeu de dames does not go back to the French word dame = chess queen but to the word dam = dike, dam to stop the water” (chapter 3).
There were additional catches. One of them was the etymon of the French word dame = chess queen: this appeared a new meaning of a word from the jargon of French draughts players (chapter 4).
These etymologies sweep one “buttress” under Murray’s defense away. However, he had a second iron in the fire: dominant chess against unpopular draughts.

The new story (2)
 My dissertation was a linguistic study. Therefore there was no room for the sociological research question if chess has really been the dominant board game it was according to Murray and other chess historians indeed. Nevertheless my linguistic investigations yielded enough ammunition to blow up the claim of that dominant chess, see chapter 14 and chapter 16. The flaw in Murray c.s.’ work is that they proclaimed from the rooftops that chess has always been so popular but did not make any inquiry. How to say it kindly?: I don’t understand it.

Chess queen and draughts king
 “Look how striking”, said Murray. “The original chess queen had a limited range. In the 15th c., chess players extended the range”. He pointed to draughts. “It is remarkable that the first variety of draughts had a doubleton (king) with exactly the same range as the old chess queen and that in a later development the doubleton got an extended range either”. And he concluded: “Draughts players followed developments in chess, this is certain”.
My ivestigations point to a reversed evolution. First, not chess has been Europe’s great board game. Secondly, the long doubleton in Spanish draughts seems to have been the source of inspiration for the new 15th c. chess queen, see chapter 5. Thirdly, the name for this chess queen was taken from draughts (chapter 4). And fourthly, research suggests that draughts can be older than chess (chapter 27). Can be: we should not be certain about the reconstruction of a past that is lying so far behind us.
Schaakbord01Dambord oud





Another new story?

Now by all appearances draughts seems to be older than chess, the question rises whether chess could have borrowed the rule of the promotion from draughts. It is difficult to believe that such a remarkable rule was invented in two different civilizations.
Several authors consider chess as an assembly of elements from older board games. The Swiss Ulrich Schädler [2004:136] asked critical questions to three of the defenders of this claim (the Frenchman Jean-Lous Cazaux, the German Gerhard Josten and the Canadien Myron Samsin). I introduce here a new element in this discussion.
Whether we can discuss about a possible contribution of draughts or not depends on the culture where chess came into being. Is it India, as I often read, there cannot be a discussion at all, as there is nothing known (to me) about the presence of line draughts in India between 1 and 500 AD. However, is chess an Indian invention indeed? Egbert Meissenburg’s contribution [2003] makes me doubt. What seems certain is that the game was played in 6th c. Persia (Iran), and then we approach the area of distribution of draughts in Europe: Westerveld [2015:344-9] mentions discoveries of board for line draughts in Turkey and Syria.

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