Courier chess

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Courier chess is a chess variant that dates from the 12th century and was popular for at least 600 years. It was a part of the slow evolution towards modern chess from Medieval Chess.

8a8 black rookb8 black knightc8 black upside-down bishopd8 black bishope8 black upside-down kingf8 black kingg8h8 black fooli8 black bishopj8 black upside-down bishopk8 black knightl8 black rook8
7a7b7 black pawnc7 black pawnd7 black pawne7 black pawnf7 black pawng7h7 black pawni7 black pawnj7 black pawnk7 black pawnl77
6a6b6c6d6e6f6g6 black queenh6i6j6k6l66
5a5 black pawnb5c5d5e5f5g5 black pawnh5i5j5k5l5 black pawn5
4a4 white pawnb4c4d4e4f4g4 white pawnh4i4j4k4l4 white pawn4
3a3b3c3d3e3f3g3 white queenh3i3j3k3l33
2a2b2 white pawnc2 white pawnd2 white pawne2 white pawnf2 white pawng2h2 white pawni2 white pawnj2 white pawnk2 white pawnl22
1a1 white rookb1 white knightc1 white upside-down bishopd1 white bishope1 white upside-down kingf1 white kingg1h1 white fooli1 white bishopj1 white upside-down bishopk1 white knightl1 white rook1
Courier chess position after traditional starting moves (medieval rules).

Medieval rulesEdit

Courier chess is played on an 8x12 board (i.e., 8 ranks by 12 files). Literary and artistic evidence indicate that the board had always been checkered, but that there was no consistency as to which squares were light and which squares were dark. The more frequent pattern is that the square at the bottom right corner was light, just as in modern chess.[a]

The winning objective is the same as western chess: to checkmate the opponent's king. The stalemate rule is unknown; the subject was unsettled in Germany late into the nineteenth century.

8            8
7            7
6            6
5            5
4            4
3            3
2            2
1            1
The back rank pieces from left to right are rook (a), knight (b), bishop (c), courier (d), sage (e), king (f), queen (g), schleich (h), courier (i), bishop (j), knight (k), rook (l). The forward rank pieces in columns (a)–(l) are all pawns.
  • The kings start on squares of their own color, at f1 and f8. Just as in western chess, the king moves one square in any direction, and a player cannot place their own king in check. There is no castling.
  • Next to the king, on e1 and e8, stands the sage or mann, which moves just like the king, but can be captured.[1]
  • On the other central file, at g1 and g8, stands the ferz, or queen, which moves one square diagonally.
  • On the queen's other side, at h1 and h8, stands a piece known as the schleich (or fool, thief, jester, smuggler, spy, or trull) moving one square orthogonally: the move of the wazir.
  • At d1, i1, d8, and i8 stands the piece that gave the game its name: the läufer, or courier, or runner. It moves like the modern chess bishop, any number of squares diagonally.
  • Next, at c1, j1, c8, and j8, stands the bishop, or archer. It moves as the alfil, two squares diagonally, leaping the first square.
  • At b1, k1, b8, and k8 stands the knight, which moves just like the modern chess knight: One square orthogonally, followed by one square diagonally, leaping the squares.
  • In the corners, at a1, l1, a8, and l8 stands the rook,[2] which moves the same as its modern chess counterpart: any number of squares orthogonally.
  • The second rank for each player is filled with pawns, which, like modern chess pawns, move one square forward and capture one square diagonally forward. Unlike in modern chess, pawns cannot double advance on their first move, therefore the en passant rule does not apply. The pawn promotion rule is that a pawn reaching the furthest rank is promoted to a queen (ferz).[3]

The old rule for first moves is that 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 joyleap, and was not available after the starting moves.[4]

Modern rulesEdit

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 (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.[5] The rule on stalemate has not been preserved; the subject was unsettled in Germany well into the nineteenth century.[6]

Subsequent attempts to modernize courier chess include 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 (Clément Begnis, 2011).


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.[7][b]

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.[8] This game was so much more exciting than medieval chess that it soon drove the older game off the market.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[c] In 1883, the local chess club revived it. Playing sets based on Lucas van Leyden's painting are commercially available.[1]

Illustration of Courier chess pieces by Gustavus Selenus from the book Das Schach-oder Königs-Spiel (1616). Depicted are the king, queen, rook, archer (or bishop), knight, pawn (or soldier), courier, man (or sage), and jester.
The Chess Players by Lucas van Leyden (c. 1520)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ See The Chess Variant Pages website Murray 1913, p. 392 (citing Selenus, Gustavus, Schach- oder Königs-Spiel, Leipzig, 1616) gives the contrary rule.
  2. ^ Kurwal(c)hen / Churwalchen = historic German name for the Romansh-speaking region around Chur (see also de:Churrätien)
  3. ^ The Chess Variant Pages website at mentions H. G. Albers, 1821, and George Hope Verney, Chess Eccentricities, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1885.


  1. ^ a b The website has information about the history of Courier chess, including a large image of Lucas van Leyden's painting.
  2. ^ Bell 1960, 1979, p. 62.
  3. ^ Bell 1960, 1979, p. 63.
  4. ^ Murray 1913, p. 438.
  5. ^ Verney, p. 154.
  6. ^ Murray 1913, p. 853.
  7. ^ Murray 1913, pp. 483–84.
  8. ^ Murray 1913, pp. 776–77; Eales 1985, p. 72.
  9. ^ Murray 1913, Chapter XI.
  10. ^ Murray 1913, p. 852.
  11. ^ Murray 1913, p. 484. "A painting in the Königliches Museum, Berlin, said to have been painted in 1520 by Lucus von Leyden, shows a game of Courier in progress."


  • 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. |volume= has extra text (help)
  • Cazaux, Jean-Louis; Knowlton, Rick (2017). A World of Chess. Its Development and Variations through Centuries and Civilizations. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-9427-9.
  • Eales, Richard. Chess: The History of a Game. Hardinge Simpole Publishing, Glasgow, 2002. Previously published by B. T. Batsford Limited, 1985.
  • 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.
  • Verney, Maj. George Hope. Chess Eccentricities. London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1885, photographically reproduced online at [1]

External linksEdit