Courier Chess (or the Courier Game) is a strategy board game in the chess family. The original form probably originated in the 12th century and is known to have been played for at least six hundred years. The game was subsequently replaced by a more modern form. It pioneered the modern chess bishop (called the "courier"), and probably played a part in evolving modern chess out of Medieval Chess.
|This article uses algebraic notation to describe chess moves.|
Courier Chess is played on a board of eight ranks by twelve files. Literary and artistic evidence indicate that the board was checkered from the beginning, but that there was no consistency as to which squares were dark. The more frequent practice seems to be that the square at each player's lower-right is white.[note 1]
The winning objective is the same as modern chess – to checkmate the enemy king. The pieces are as follows:
- The kings start on squares of their own colour, at f1 and f8. The same as in modern chess, a king moves one step in any direction, and a player may not place his own king in check. There is no castling.
- Next to the king, on e1 and e8, stands the Rath or Mann (or counsellor or henchman), which moves the same as the king, but may be placed or left en prise (attacked by an enemy piece).
- On the other central file, at g1 and g8, stands the queen, who has the move of the fers (or firzan): one step diagonally in any direction.
- On the queen's other side, at h1 and h8, stands a piece known as the Schleich (or sneak, smuggler, spy, or fool) or Trülle (trull), sometimes depicted as a jester, moving one step orthogonally along a rank or file.
- At d1, i1, d8, and i8 stands the piece that gave the game its name: the Currier (courier) or Läufer, the runner. It moves the same as the modern chess bishop, any number of steps diagonally.
- Next, at c1, j1, c8, and j8, stands the Bischof or bishop (or "old man" or archer). It moves as the alfil (or fil), two squares diagonally, leaping the first square.
- At b1, k1, b8, and k8 stands the knight, and in the corners the rook. They move the same as their modern chess counterparts.
- The second rank for each player is filled with pawns, which, like modern chess pawns, move one step straight forward and capture one step diagonally forward. There is no initial two-step option. The original rule for pawn promotion is unknown. The standard medieval rule was that a pawn reaching the farthest rank was promoted at once to queen (fers).
At the start of the game each player must move his rook pawns, his queen pawn, and his queen two squares forward (see top diagram). Such a two-square leap along a file was called a Freudensprung—English: "joy-leap".
Wirnt von Gravenberg, writing early in the thirteenth century, mentioned the Courier Game in his poem Wigalois, and expected his readers to know what he was talking about. Heinrich von Beringen, about a hundred years later, mentioned the introduction of the couriers as an improvement in chess. Kunrat von Ammenhausen, still in the first half of the fourteenth century, told how he had once in Constance seen a game with sixteen more men than in the "right chess": each side having a trull, two couriers, a counsellor, and four extra pawns. He added that he had never seen the game anywhere else, in Provence, France, or Kurwalhen.[note 2]
Sometime shortly after 1475 someone put the courier on the standard chessboard in place of the old alfil and gave the queen the combined powers of the courier and the rook. This game was so much more exciting than medieval chess that it soon drove the older game off the market. Other improvements were tried out. One was an optional double first step for the pawns. This was at first restricted to the king's, queen's, and rooks' pawns, and then gradually extended to the others.
In the early sixteenth century Lucas van Leyden, in the Netherlands, painted a picture called "The Chess Players" in which a woman appears to be beating a man at Courier Chess. Gustavus Selenus (Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg) in his 1616 book Das Schach- oder Königs-Spiel, mentioned the Courier Game as one of three forms of chess played in the village of Ströbeck near Halberstadt in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. He described it in detail, and gave drawings of the pieces. The names he gave the pieces do not always match the figures in the drawings: the piece called the Schleich is depicted as a court jester. In 1651 Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, gave to Ströbeck a playing board with chess on one side and the Courier Game on the other, and a set of silver pieces. These pieces were lent in the eighteenth century and never returned, but there is a set of wooden pieces. In 1821 H. G. Albers reported that Courier Chess was still played in Ströbeck, and that some pieces had gained more powerful moves, but a few years later other visitors found that it had been abandoned.[note 3] In 1883 the local chess club revived it. Playing sets based on Lucas van Leyden's painting are commercially available.[note 4]
Albers attempted to popularize the game in Germany in 1821 with updated rules. The starting setup is the same as for medieval Courier Chess. The king, queen, courier (remember, the German word for a chess bishop), knight, and rook have their modern powers. The bishop (or archer) can move one square diagonally, or leap diagonally to the second square. The fool, standing beside the queen, moves one square in any direction. The sage, standing beside the king, combines the powers of the fool and the knight. The pawn moves like the modern pawn, except that after reaching the farthest rank it must remain there for two moves before taking up its new career as a piece. Castling is permitted, if all squares between the king and the rook are vacant, the king has not been checked, the rook is not en prise, neither has moved, and no square between them is under attack. The king moves to the bishop's square, and the rook leaps over him to the courier's square, in either wing. The rule on stalemate has not been preserved; the subject was unsettled in Germany well into the nineteenth century.
Subsequent attempts to modernize Courier Chess include Courier-Spiel (Gollon, 1972 or earlier) and Modern Courier Chess (Paul Byway, starting 1971). An attempt has recently been made to make this game fully compatible with FIDE modern conventions: Reformed Courier-Spiel.
- See The Chess Variant Pages website http://www.chessvariants.org/historic.dir/courier.html. Murray 1913, p. 392 (citing Selenus, Gustavus, Schach- oder Königs-Spiel, Leipzig, 1616) gives the contrary rule.
- Kurwal(c)hen / Churwalchen = historic German name for the Romansh-speaking region around Chur (see also de:Churrätien)
- The Chess Variant Pages website at http://www.chessvariants.org/historic.dir/courierspiel.html mentions H. G. Albers, 1821, and George Hope Verney, Chess Eccentricities, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1885.
- The website http://courierchess.com contains a large image of Lucas van Leyden's painting.
- Bell 1960, 1979, p. 62
- Bell 1960, 1979, p. 63
- Murray 1913, p. 438
- Murray 1913, pp. 483–84
- Murray 1913, pp. 776–77; Eales 1985, p. 72
- Murray 1913, Chapter XI
- Murray 1913, p. 852
- Verney, p. 154
- Murray 1913, p. 853
- Bell, R. C. (1979) [1st Pub. 1960, Oxford University Press, London]. Board and Table Games From Many Civilizations. Vol I (Revised ed.). Dover Publications Inc. ISBN 0-671-06030-9.
- Eales, Richard. Chess: The History of a Game. Hardinge Simpole Publishing, Glasgow, 2002. Previously published by B. T. Batsford Limited, 1985.
- Gollon, John. Chess Variations: Ancient, Regional, and Modern. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., Rutland, Vermont, 1968, 1974.
- Knowlton, Rick. "Courier Chess" article in The Chess Collector, Vol. 28, N. 1, 2009, pp. 13–17, online at Courier Chess
- Murray, H. J. R. A History of Chess. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1913 et seqq.
- Pritchard, D. B. (2007). The Classified Encyclopedia of Chess Variants. John Beasley. ISBN 978-0-9555168-0-1.
- Verney, Maj. George Hope. Chess Eccentricities. London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1885, photographically reproduced online at