Fairy Chess: not at all what you think

I am not a very good chess player. My younger brother once beat me in three moves. He was 15 at the time. But I have a healthy respect for the game, its concept and strategy, and I relish books where chess plays an integral role (Katherine Neville‘s The Eight and Eloisa JamesDesperate Duchesses / This Duchess of Mine come immediately to mind). But most of all I love the pieces. I own three different Lewis Chessmen replicas.

But I had never heard of Fairy Chess. It was only through accidental Googling that I came across it at all. It makes perfect sense that chess set makers would create a fantasy chess set, and the imagination immediately runs off with all the rook and the queen can be. And even though I really don’t play (see above about my chess career prospects), I now want this set (pictured above) rather badly.

Of course the knight would be a unicorn. Or course fairies would battle in the air, suspended above a meadow and stream. Of course.

But this is not Fairy Chess at all. This is a chess set where the characters are made up of Fairy characters. Fairy chess is much much different. Fairy chess is not conventional chess, and I imagine my wonderful Lewis Queen with her hand to her cheek in shock over the bastardization. Fairy Chess is a variant of traditional chess, known in Fairy Chess circles as Orthodox Chess, sometimes in the form of a game, but mostly it’s comprised of chess problems.

Original Staunton chess pieces, used in traditional chess competition.

I didn’t know chess had problems, but it makes perfect sense, since chess is essentially strategic battle math. And in military situations, new weapons and tactics are always being created. Hence Fairy Chess pieces. In fairy chess, instead of six pieces, each with its limited power (except for the queen which has the compound power of both the rook and the bishop), there are upwards of 1200 pieces, with more being invented all the time. And these pieces have power. Some examples (via the Fairy Chess Piece wikipedia entry, and at ask.com):

A Chancellor has the powers of both the knight and the rook, and is sometimes instead called Empress.

A Basilisk moves as a queen, but can immobilize any piece within a knight’s move of itself, including an opposing Basilisk.

A Crooked Bishop moves like a bishop, but takes a right-angle turn after each step. Not to be confused with the Reflecting Bishop which can bounce off the edge of the board in mid-move and continue its diagonal.

The Grasshopper has all the power of a traditional queen, except that she must hop a piece and come to rest on the square immediately beyond.

A Kraken can leap to any square on the board, including the one it is on — which means that this piece, known as a Universal Leaper, can essentially do anything, including allowing for a move to be passed.

An Archbishop is a knight and a bishop, and an Amazon is a knight and a queen.

A Nightrider is apparently one of the most popular fairy pieces, and rightly so: it can make an unlimited number of knight moves, provided there are no pieces in the way.

And then there is a Rose which required four sentences and a diagram to explain its power. The description of what it can do looks like math. And I like math. But after three reads, while I feel confident in reporting that it can move both counterclockwise and clockwise, I still do not truly understand what the Rose can do.

There are classes of pieces: leapers, riders, hoppers, locusts, and marine pieces. There are zeros and there are dummies and they are not the same. There are pieces that are documented back to the 15th century, or as recently as 1985, or by some recognized Fairy Chess legend. How to book guides written by such experts exist, such as the one by Anthony Dickens (at right), now many decades old, but are largely out of print, and can run into the hundreds of dollars.

A Chess variant with 24 different pieces on a 16 x 16 board — seemingly unrealistic, but the same density than for Orthodox Chess:
— 1 Unicorn, 1 Dragon Woman, 1 Diablo, 1 Star, 1 Rhinoceros, 1 Buffalo, 2 Cannons, 2 Bulls, 2 Bows, 2 Camels, 2 Antelopes on 1st row,
— 1 Lion, 1 Gryphon and 14 Centurion on 2nd row,
— 1 King, 1 Queen, 2 Buffoon, 2 Ships, 2 Bishops, 2 Knights, 2 Rooks, 2 Machines, 2 Elephants on 3rd row,
— 16 Pawns on 4th row.
© la diagonale du fou

And sometimes the boards are sized differently, and/or the allowance of number of pieces per player is different from orthodox chess. Calling Fairy Chess “The Mother of all Battles,” La Diagonale du Fou, an Abstract Strategy Games & Kites Club (Đà Nẵng City – Việt Nam) presents the board at right, and a gorgeous set of actual pieces and stunning board. I am particularly entranced by the design of the Dragon Woman piece (follow above link and scroll down), who may move like an orthodox Rook or an orthodox Knight (a woman must have her options.)

A video game involving Fairy Chess came up in my research — In the Japanese manga series, Fairy Tail, written and illustrated by Hiro Mashima, one of the villains uses a chess-like game board to symbolize an ongoing battle with the protagonists of the story, with pieces representing each of his lieutenants and opponents (Fairy Tail Manga: Chapter 84, Page 15. Japan: August, 2008; North America: June, 2010).

Will I play Fairy Chess? Er, no. See above about getting beat in three moves. But I am fascinated.