“Another Form Of Chess” Revisited

After an expanded version of my thoughts on Another Form Of Chess was published in The British Chess Magazine I received an interesting email from Paul Byway, a strong (formerly 2300) British player who edited Variant Chess Magazine from 1999 to 2004. I think he offers some knowledgeable insights, particularly with regard to the forgotten Courier Game which was played for at least SIX CENTURIES:


Dear Nigel,

I read your piece with great interest; the response was disappointing but not surprising. Neville Twitchell seems not to be aware that Chess has undergone repeated experimentation since we got it from the Islamic world; even today they are trying “change without change” by giving 3 points for a win. However, I may have something for you.

When young I was given Murray’s “The History of Chess”, and reading through it I was detained here and there by particularly interesting nuggets. One of these was XiangQi (Chinese Chess). Too many years later, when I realised I wasn’t going to reach the heights I decided to go for width instead and took an opportunity to play. Eventually I discovered a parallel universe of grandmasters, elo ratings, opening theory etc. based around a dominant country (China) plus satellites (East Asia). I ended up scoring 3/8 (much too flattering) in the World Championship at Macao 2007. XiangQi is a good game in the form of a skirmish, but not as good as Chess – which can be more.

“The History of Chess” offered more than that though!

There are any number of “large” chess games. At present Gothic Chess and Grand Chess have minor followings I believe (there are others). The efforts of J.R. Capablanca (20c.) and H.E.Bird (19c.) are well enough known and they make the same mistake as many others – they are seduced by elementary algebra. They notice that Q=R+B and promptly invent X=R+N, Y=B+N, and even Z=R+B+N. This is too much and the game is decided by tactical error. I chose a different path – the Courier Game.

According to “The History of Chess” the Courier Game is first recorded in a poem of 1202 AD and was finally reported extinct (in BCM) by a couple of early 19c travellers. At least one painting (“The Chess Players” by Lucas van Leyden) and one drawing show the Courier Game. Such longevity in a “large” chess is unique; it exceeds the span of modern International Chess. I suspect the game slowly lost ground to the modernized 8×8 game – and the 30 Years War in its heartland probably didn’t help. My idea was to reform the game along the lines that led from Shatranj to Chess. I actually like Chess, and wanted more of the same – new tactics and wider strategic horizons. My explorations have been extensively recorded in the pages of “Variant Chess” (now, alas, defunct). A brief description:-

Board 8 ranks x 12 files. 4 extra pawns each and the usual chess pieces on
a1, b1, d1, f1, g1, i1, k1, l1. 2 “new” pieces on c1/j1 and e1/h1.
The Courier was a powerful new piece, but today we know it as the Bishop. The medieval Bishop (Alfil) was also present so I have swapped the names; too confusing otherwise. The Bishop can hardly be other than on d1/i1 (won’t do for it to point directly at R or B for instance).

The Alfil has been upgraded (to Courier) and jumps (N fashion) to the second square orthogonally as well as diagonally. Where the N covers 8 squares of opposite colour in the second ring, the Courier covers the 8 same colour squares in the second ring. It starts on c1/j1. More than twice as powerful as Alfil and can lose a move. Covers 1/2 the squares of one colour, can’t be exchanged with opponents Courier (unless created by promotion!). Covers alternate files, with implications for P promotion. Developed from rank 1 to 3; outpost on 5; attacks 3 pawns on 7; can’t touch the 8th rank. In this game N for C is a minor exchange (a significant detail enriching a game – in XiangQi Cannon for Horse is the same). C is more mobile but much more inflexible than N. To my surprise its value doesn’t really drop off a cliff until only a couple of other minor pieces each are left. N is definitely not a global piece on this board, but C can reach to the other wing with one horizontal shift.

The central section has been symmetrized (compared to the original Courier Game). On e1/h1 we have the fers (the medieval queen). Moves one square diagonally; might say its a one stop B but its character is more like a N – can’t lose a move. Originally there were fers and wazir (moves one square orthogonally and so less mobile than F).

I don’t agree with you on the double P move. In this game (MCC – Modern Courier Chess) any piece that moves only 1 square has a double move option when unmoved. So, the usual rule for pawns. The F can move 2 (but not to capture) from the opening position once the way is opened by a P move. Thus F can deploy on the 3rd rank in one move (I feel this is an important point) but moves 1 sq. thereafter. It’s not as slow as one might think. F can hang around to defend the K but an intriguing discovery is the power of a F march up a diagonal propelled by B or Q (echoes of R+P).
No castling for the K but it has the “leap” which is is the same double move option. As usual, not out of, through or into check.

Major pieces Q,R,B
Minor pieces N,C,F
Values P=1 ; F=1.5 ; C=2 ; N=2.5 ; B=3 ; R=5 ; Q=9 (my initial estimate, but it seems to hold up well as a rough guide).

I’m in the middle of a game by e-mail in which the present balance is N+C v. B+F – it doesn’t seem too far out – and we have exchanged several material balances so far over 40 moves.
Position gains in importance over material – quite a lot of wood in the wrong place doesn’t help. Material imbalance is more common (cheap pieces can be sacrificed with a light heart, and piece values are close).
I have composed a number of endgame pieces, some pointing up a situation where the result changes merely because of board size.

I guess beginners books still soon get to the point where they say: occupy the centre. Well, we stick at that point. Just what is the centre in MCC? What form does the opening take? I’m currently at the point of realising that, perhaps, my initial theories were inadequate!

Happy New Year,

Here’s the picture in question, thought provoking stuff: