Did the Knights Templar play chess?

Here we have an image of two Templars playing chess in the Middle Ages.  It’s a well known and heavily reproduced image on the web.  Just one thing vexes me – the Templars were officially forbidden to play the game.

In the Rule, largely devised by Bernard of Clairvaux, it’s quite clear that Templar knights are not to indulge in gaming and chess is specifically off the Templar menu.  Bernard was an austere Cistercian monk who hated the daily pleasures of secular folk and anything that distracted holy men from scripture and contemplation of God.

Chess might also have been frowned on as an ‘eastern’ import – originally from India, it seeped in to pre-Islamic Persia and after the Arab/muslim conquest spread throughout the Islamic world which included, at one time, southern Europe.  The term ‘chess’ is believed to be a derivation from Shah, the title of a Persian king and used by the rulers of Iran up to the 1979 revolution.  Check mate was originally ‘Shah mat’ or ‘the king is helpless’.

By the 1100s, when the Templars come on the scene, the famous ‘Lewis chess’ had been made in Norway and many centuries later discovered by archaeologists on the Scottish Hebrides (originally ruled by Norway) in 1831.  There can be little doubt then that the game was well known throughout the Templar period.

Could Templars have played it to improve their battle strategic skills? Well, the 20th century Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once pointed out (possibly excusing his poor grasp of the game compared to Lenin who loved it) that people who are good at chess are not always good in real battles.  There spoke the commander of the Red Army.

But as anybody who plays chess can appreciate, it does alter your way of thinking.  It’s a great way of forcing you to look several steps ahead to developments that may not always be immediately visible.  So the Templars may have warmed to the game in spite of Bernard’s strict prohibition.

The picture above is from the ‘Libro do los Juegos’ (book of games) published in 1283.  That’s over a hundred years after the death of Bernard.  It may be that over the passage of time, the attitude towards chess changed within the order.

There’s no doubt the church had its misgivings about chess as it became something of an addiction in courtly circles and games were played for money.  But in spite of ecclesiastical grumbling, it was the board game that refused to die.  Indeed, the Middle Ages saw the rules refined to create new names for the pieces and faster openings as sometimes games could last days – rather like cricket.

Gajah, the elephant in the original Indian game, became the bishop and Ratha the chariot became the rook.

2 Comments on “Did the Knights Templar play chess?

  1. Sunny greetings from Cairo, Egypt.
    I can not claim that I am a chess or history veteran, however, being a good reader for Islamic/Arabic states history and a chess amateur at the same time, gives me a chance to comment on this article. I would summarise in few points.
    1- “Shah mat” is not king is helpless! actually is “king is dead” as “mat” in Arabic means “die or dead”. Needless to say that the term is half Persian half Arabic. However, in Egypt we use another term: “Kesh mat” and honestly I did not know exactly what does “kesh” mean? could be another Persian word, Turkish or even Kurd!! Yes, do not wonder many words, terms and expressions moved freely between the three nations.
    2- The elephant is still used till now among Arab players for what you call Bishop! But the Rook is derivative of “Rokh” which is a legendary huge bird like a Phoenix. We use “Rokh” in our chess notation, however, among norms “Rokh” is used to be “Tabya” which is Turkish word means “Tower with a gun” or castle.
    3- Ironical, chess is a forbidden game in many classical books of “Fatwa” [check this” http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fatwa ] and it as treated the same way as dice and backgammon, that is to say gambling games, waste of time and keeps muslims distracted from Quran and contemplation of Allah. “I used your words with little twist”. Nowadays, some “Salfi” muslims, [extremely radical wing of muslims] add to the reasons of forbidding chess, it has a Cross on the top of the King!! Despite these “fatwas” muslims norms and elite continued to play chess, even the top statesmen like the Abasside Khalife Haroun ArRasheed, who sent – I read once – chess set to the French King Charles Martel long time before the Crusaders.
    4- The crucial subject is: when and how chess was baptised and let me say christened ? I won’t ask where because it is obvious, the place is Spain or to be more specific “Castilla” which is the north part of Spain – in Arabic “Quashtalla” that was under the rule of Catholic Kings who for long time had a war versus the South Andalucia – in Arabic Andalus –
    That book “Libro de los juegos” could be the start of that process.
    The none copy righted photo you used is not far from another one : http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/islam/games/ The baptism process was complete I assume by the end of 15th century, worth mentioning that the last Arabic/Islamic kingdom of Granada fell down in 1492.
    5- I knew that the major concern of this blog is not chess, but I found this article coincidently and saw that will be good to give a view from a revered angle.
    The Knight Templars have a very bad reputation in Arab History books, it will be interesting to have some bits and bites from time to time.
    You may like this film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzMfC7XKt2g&feature=related
    1963 version of Kingdom of heaven as I said before from a reversed angle. Do not believe that every thing in this movie, many scenes are imaginary. Finally, I apologize for 2 things, for the poor English subtitles of the movie. I do not know who put them – the original copy has French subtitles – secondly, for the long comment and any unnecessary information that you find boring or inappropriate..

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