The History of Checkers from 3000 BCE to Modern day
Checkers is one of the oldest and longest lasting games of all time. The Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and even Ancient Sumerians all had games that resemble modern checkers to some degree. You may be surprise by how similar many of the reconstructed rules for the game of Latrones are to the modern version of checkers you've played online from your phone. Civilizations rise and fall but checkers, it appears, lives on forever.
Ur in Iraq
Checkers’ story begins in the ancient Sumerian city-state, Ur, in what is modern day Iraq, where archeologists believe to have discovered a checkerboard used for a very early version of the game. The details and rules of play of this game are, of course, unknown but the artifact dates to 3000 BC, making it the earliest evidence of a checkers like game in play.
Alquerque in Ancient Egypt
Alquerque also known as Quirkat, is an Arabic game dating to around the 10th century A.D. widely considered to be the parent of modern Checkers. The game was played on a 5 by 5 board with players starting their pieces on two rows closest to them. Capture rules were roughly the same as in modern Checkers and included multi-captures and forced captures.
The Moors invasion of Spain caused the game to spread to both France and Spain where the game was renamed from Quirkat to Alquerque and rules recorded in the spanish book Libro de Los Juegos. By 1100, French players had adapted the game to be played on chess boards using Backgammon pieces.
Petteia in Ancient Greece
The Greeks played a version of checkers they called Petteia (πεττεία) which translates to English as “pebbles” or “stones.” Many classics of the western canon make offhanded references to the game including Homer’s Odyssey.
Plato mentions Petteia in The Republic, “bad Petteia players, who are finally cornered and made unable to move by clever ones.”
Aristotle, in his Politics, writes “a citizen without a state may be compared to an isolated piece in a game of petteia.”
The game is also mentioned in Polybius’s Histories which were written during the Hellenistic period.
Latrones in Ancient Rome
The game of Latrones, also known as Ludus Latrunculorum, was a 2 player strategy game popular in Ancient Rome. It’s thought by many historians to be a variant of the Ancient Greek Petteia. Some surviving sources describing the mechanics of play have allowed game historians to reconstruct what the rules of the game may have been.
Latrones boards resemble a checkerboard with small squares laid out in a grid pattern. These boards varied in size, artifacts have been uncovered that range from 7x7, 7x8, 8x8 etc. Each person had a number of stones, possibly 10-20 each, which were used as game pieces. The basic rules, according to Ulrich Schädler's reconstruction, allowed the players to take turns moving a piece to an adjacent square or to hop over squares if the square already had a piece on it. Multiple hops are allowed within a single turn which closely resembles capturing in modern Checkers. Pieces which are surrounded on two opposite sides by enemy pieces are considered alligatus and cannot be moved. A player can remove an opponent’s alligatus piece during a subsequent turn. The game is won when a player only has one piece remaining that can be moved, either because they are alligatus or were removed entirely from the board.
It’s striking to see the influence latrones has had on Checkers as it is currently played. The rules for how to win are practically the same and the hopping behavior is clearly a precursor to multi-captures.
The French take credit for introducing the modern form of Checkers that is played today. Crowning, the checkers rule that allows pieces that have fully traversed the board to move backward, was in use by the 13th century and by 1535 the game was played in its modern form, although it was called “Fierges” at the time.
Competitions became commonplace in the 19th century as checkers was taken more seriously. The first ever World Checkers Tournament was played in 1840 in Scotland and won by Andrew Anderson. The following year a man named James Wyllie took the top prize. Anderson and Wyllie would continue besting one another in a famous rivalry that lasted until Anderson’s retirement from competitive play in 1847.
Over time, through dedicated study of the game, it became clear that most games would end in a draw if played by skilled opponents. The final match between Wyllie and Anderson, for example, resulted in 9 wins for Anderson, 6 wins for Wyllie and 31 draws. To compensate for this new reality, variations of the game were created to make it less easily prepped for with the goal of reducing draws.
2 and 3 Move Checkers
These variants have the same rules as standard American Checkers but randomizes the starting position of the board. Board positions are randomly selected from the set of all possible positions reachable within 2 moves in 2 move checkers or 3 moves in 3 move checkers after excluding positions that start with a piece already captured.
11 man ballad
11 man ballad takes a different approach from 2 or 3 move checkers and starts the board with a piece randomly removed from the fronted two rows on each side. Each side independently has a piece removed so the board is not necessarily mirrored (and in fact will not be 7 times out of 8). 11 man ballad also follows the rules of 2 move checkers and begins the game with a randomly selected starting position 2 moves in. If the