The History of Chess Bishops (And Why They Have a Cut on Top)

Chess pieces come in many intricate designs. But it’s easy to recognize a traditional chess set because of the particular stylization of the pieces. The bishop, in particular, is an interesting piece, both symbolically and in terms of its design.

The History of Chess Bishops (And Why They Have a Cut on Top)

The bishop represents the Church, so there’s a lot of complex symbolism wrapped up in this one chess piece.

But even if you don’t know the symbolism behind the bishop in a chess set. You’ll find that your eye is drawn to the piece due to the interesting cut at the top. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the chess bishop and why that cut is at the top of the bishop piece in the classic chess set, read on!

We’ll be covering everything you need to know about the history and meaning behind this fascinating piece.

The Chess Bishop’s Origins 

Have you ever wondered where the chess bishop came from?

It’s easy to take things for granted and not question their origins when they have been around for centuries. As is the case with chess pieces. However, the origins of the bishop chess piece are particularly interesting. 

Something even experienced chess players might not know is that in the original game of chess (which was called Shantranj), there was actually no bishop.

Instead, the place of the bishop was occupied by a piece called the alfil, otherwise known as the war elephant. The piece itself was frequently carved into the shape of an elephant and rider. 

As you can imagine, hand-carving chess pieces into this intricate shape was time-consuming. And so, gradually, the design of the piece changed so that it looked more similar to what we now know as the bishop.

The design was not identical, though. This new piece featured a cut that slanted downward to a collar under the head to represent the trunk of the original elephant. 

Bishops Vs. Elephants 

Although the bishop evolved from the original elephant or alfil piece from Shatranj, the two pieces are not the same. For example, they do not move in the same way. 

While the bishop in chess moves diagonally for an unlimited number of squares until interrupted by another piece. The Shatranj alfil was only able to move diagonally for two squares. 

However, it had an additional move that the chess bishop does not.

In Shatranj, any piece on the square next to the alfil (diagonally) could be jumped over by the elephant. Allowing it to move two squares diagonally despite the path being obstructed. 

The usefulness and value of the alfil was also different to the value chess players assign to the bishop today.

While the bishop in chess can be more or less useful depending on individual gameplay. The alfil was actually considered the weakest piece on the board (with the exception of the pawns, of course).

Interestingly, the firz, which we now know as the queen, was also considered a weak piece in Shatranj. 

How The Bishop Came About 

You might be wondering how the alfil evolved to become the piece that we all know as the chess bishop. 

The bishop emerged in the year 1200 AD (roughly) with the new variant of the game, which was known as Courier Chess.

The first known description of the bishop and its movements can be found in a book called Treasury of the Sciences. This was written by author Muhammad ibn Mahmud-al-Amuli. 

It is speculated that the bishop was introduced because, during the 13th century, there was a general consensus that the alfil was simply too weak.

It could not move far enough to be truly effective and its ability to jump over a piece did little to make up for its limited range.

The decision to extend the range of the alfil so that it would move similarly to the rook (castle) but ‘obliquely’ also took place in Japan.

With that being said, the bishop that we would recognize as a chess piece today didn’t come onto the chess scene until the 1700s.

It was referred to as the ‘messenger’ or the ‘runner’ in Germanic languages first due to its ability to move long distances on a diagonal. But in Iceland, the word ‘biskup’ was used, which means bishop. 

This piece was linked to the church as early as the 12th century, though. Since the Lewis Chessmen had already made the connection by this point, claiming that the piece was symbolic of priestly realms. 

The Bishop And The Mitre Hat 

When you look at the bishop piece on a chess board, your eyes probably immediately go to the piece’s hat. That’s because the hat is by far the most intricately carved part of the piece. 

The bishop’s hat in chess is designed to resemble the mitre hat. As initially seen in the Staunton Chess set (the set that has set our expectations for what a traditional chess board looks like). 

The History of Chess Bishops (And Why They Have a Cut on Top) (1)

However, while the English quickly adopted the term ‘bishop’ for the piece along with the relevant symbolism. Not all nations felt the same way about the meaning behind the piece.

For instance, French chess players interpreted the hat as the kind of hat a court jester would wear. So consequently, the piece in French was referred to as ‘le fou’.

The Romanian word for the piece had a similar meaning (‘the madman’). 

In Slovakian and Czech countries, it was called ‘the archer’. Throughout some parts of Russia, ‘the elephant’ has remained the most accepted term for the piece. But in Morocco, the piece is known as ‘the camel’.

In Lithuania, the hat is thought to denote the piece as a ‘rikis’ (a military commander). 

The Bishop’s Cut 

As you can see from the numerous interpretations of the symbolism of the chess bishop’s hat. The simple cut on the top of a bishop chess piece is more complicated than most of us would assume at first glance. 

However, if you’ve ever wondered why there’s a cut on the bishop’s hat in chess, now you know. It’s because the piece originally resembled an elephant. And the cut was made to symbolize the elephant’s trunk in an effort to make carving the pieces less time-consuming and difficult. 

With that being said, the connection between this piece and the church is not well-known in all parts of the world.

The Bishop

As we mentioned earlier, different countries interpret the cut on the bishop’s hat differently. With some seeing it as a representation of a jester’s hat and others attributing a military connection to the cut.

Other places in the world, such as some parts of Russia, have even retained the initial connotation of the war elephant. Whereas some countries have maintained the animal symbolism, but changed it to a camel.

Depending on where you are in the world, you may encounter different perspectives on the ‘bishop’ piece. And this is worth remembering when having discussions about the game.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What Does The Bishop Do In Chess?

The bishop piece in chess can move diagonally either forwards or backwards.

Is The Bishop Better Than The Rook?

Bishops are typically better than rooks at the beginning of a chess game. In the middlegame, the rook becomes more powerful. But towards the end of the game, the bishop gains power again when it comes to the minor pieces.

Is the Bishop More Powerful Than A Knight?

In situations where the chess board is open (when there are no pawns left) the bishop may be more powerful than the knight because the need to jump over pieces is minimized and the bishop can move further.

However, where there are many pawns creating obstacles on the board, the knight will be more powerful. 

Final Thoughts 

The bishop did not exist in the original chess game, Shatranj. Instead, the game had a piece known as the alfil, or war elephant. Which could only move 2 squares diagonally with the ability to jump one piece. 

Initially, the cut on the top of the piece was introduced to replace the elephant’s trunk to make carving the pieces easier.

Then, the alfil was a weak piece, it evolved into the bishop between the 12th and 16th centuries thanks to Courier Chess and the Lewis Chessmen. The new bishop piece could move further. 

Not all countries associate the bishop with the clergy, and may call it by other names, but the movements of the piece are the same.

Jenna Ostria
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