29. Medieval draughts: capturing
In his his “La vie estimable du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel” (1532?), the French writer François Rabelais included a list with games (for example quoted by Mehl [1990:493-5]. Rabelais mentioned two names for draughts, viz dames and forçat, variant forces.
The game name forçat, anglicized as perforce, was once mentioned in an English work: “The French garden for English ladyes and gentlewomen to walke in” (1605), written by Peter Erondell. See also Jeanneret & Depaulis 1999:18. According to the American woman Juliet Fleming [ELH, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 1989), pp. 19-51] the textbook was only a pretense to dish up male readers erotic stories with a woman as the main character. ELH is the name of a journal published by the John Hopkins University in the American city Baltimore. Erondell mentioned three names for draughts: draughts, perforce and pleasant [Stoep 2007:119].
Just like perforce, pleasant is an occasional translation, the French name is plaisant.
Pierre Mallet said in his book: “Draughts is played in two ways; one variety is called forçat, the other one plaisant [1668:321]. Plaisant is variety with the free capture: a player can take if he wants but is not obliged. “A childish game”, wrote Mallet [1668:324]. He is the last one who made mention of free draughts.
Partial obligation to capture
Mallet: “Before two Frenchmen start a game of draughts, they must agree on the variety: free or obliged capture [1668:324].
What is called perforce by Erondell and forçat and forcés by Rabelais, is called blazen in Dutch. Very probably, the rule was introduced in the 15th c., where is unknown. It was played with the rule we call huff.
Half a millennium long, draughts was played with this rule. A player that overlooked he had to capture ‒or did not want it because he would lose several pieces‒ was huffed: his opponent took the piece that had failed to take, huffed it, i.e. pouted his lips, blew and put it besides the board. I don’t know whether also a doubleton (king) could be huffed.
The huff is a clever way to prevent the opponent can scot-free refuse to capture because you threaten to make a combination. Played by two players who take their time to consider their moves, the character of draughts changed: you had to think better than before. The introduction of the huff proves that this kind of player existed. And the rather deep endgames in the 16th c. Spanish draughts books should be the result of a long-lasting period of serious study.
In these endgames, the obligation to capture goes one step further: capturing is obliged. In these endgames the obligation to take goes one step further: capturing is compulsory. However, only in compositions; games in the family circle or in coffee houses were played with the huff until the early 20th c., in tournaments, at least on continental Western Europe ‒I don’t know about other parts of the world‒ until the late 19th c.
This rule enriched the game highly: originally draughts is a strategic game, by the introduction of the full obligation to take it became a game of combinations too. Especially draughts on the 100 squares board is a game where any position can be full of combinations. In Holland is a competition for clubs with promotion and relegation; in four divisions ten clubs, in the lower divisions more, with ten players defending the colors of their club. Each round there are many victims of a combination, in the highest class too, and after a round the computer shows how many combinations were executed and how many combinations were missed.
The huff was not limited to France, England and Spain. A Dutch book with proverbs for instance said in 1550: Hij kan poffen en blazen, a saying based on the huff; its meaning is He is an able man.
France 18th c. A draughts player is furious because his opponent is huffing his piece, his dame. He is quite unaware of his wife, his dame, who is “huffed” by her lover.
Huffing was not the only bizarre custom. In France, said Quercetano (1722), a player who had lost a game without having made a doubleton (king) had to scratch with his nails the underside of the board. And if your opponent allowed you to take back a wrong move, you had to kiss the piece in question. 17th c. English chess players did something like this: a player had to kiss the bottom of a piece that made a capture against the rules.
The huff was also in use in the game rithmomachia, played in Europe between the 11th and 17th c., see the description in Cazaux & Knowton [2017:218] and in Parlett [1999,2018:336]. Is it possible to answer the question whether rithmomachia, a difficult game for nerds that need much calculating, did give the rule to draughts or whether draughts, a game for everyone, gave the rule to rithmomachia? No. However, is it not reasonable to assume that the popular game influenced the less popular game?
The huff was borrowed by morris players too (Spain early 17th c.) [Schädler & Calvo 2009:303].
My linguistic investigations bore only one kind of fruit: in de Middle Ages, draughts was a very, very popular game. The medieval puzzle manuscripts, however, contain puzzles on the chess, the tables and the morris board. Draughts puzzles are lacking, does this take the edge of my research results? Certainly not. Of course there were no draughts puzzles: they exist by the grace of full obligation to capture, and everything points to it that the full obligation to capture is a post-medieval rule. The Spanish endgames of the 16th c. were too late to get a place in the medieval manuscripts with puzzles.