Vida, Rabelias and Kochanowski

Author: Yuri Averbakh

Jan Kochanowski ( 1530 - 1584 ) François Rabelais (1494 - 1553 ) Marco Gerolamo Vida ( 1490- 1566)


At the beginning of the ХVI century, in Italy, there first appeared the poem "Scacchia Ludus" (The Game of Chess). Written in classical Latin, with obvious inspiration from Virgil, it was devoted to the new chess, so-called to distinguish it from the slow mediaeval form. In 1525, probably in Florence, the poem was printed without the author's name. In the introduction, Hilary Bertulli said the poem was sent to him in Basel by his friend Don Juan, and that everyone who read it liked it, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, with whom he had played chess.

Evidently, the poem delighted everyone who knew Latin and could read it, such as the intelligentsia, teachers and university students, and also spiritual people of all levels, because within 2 years, a second edition was published in Rome, with the author's name on it, under the title «Scacchia Ludus». The poem appeared in a collection, along with other works by the same author. Because the two editions of the poem were very different, in his time the historian von der Lasa, having studied the first edition in detail, claimed that the poem was written sometime earlier. This followed from the fact that in the opening lines, Vida expressed the hope that it would become the favourite relaxation of the son Lorenzo of the Great Julian Medici, who together with his brother Giovanni was involved in the difficult task of expelling the French from Italy. Because peace with the French was concluded in 1513, von der Lasa concluded that the poem was written no later than early in the year 1513.

In the poem, the author describes in detail a game of chess, played by Apollo and Mercury, in the presence of some of the other gods of Olympus. First, Vida describes to the reader the names of the pieces, explains how they move and take one another. Evidently, Vida had trouble finding classical Latin equivalents for the Italian names for rook and bishop. In the first edition, the rooks are called cyclops, and the bishops Centaurs, armed with bows and arrows. In the second edition, the rooks are shown as elephants with towers on their backs, and the bishops as elephant-archers. It is likely that he found the elephants in Livy.

Although Vida's verse sounds very artistic, the description of the game has a rather ironic and even comical tone. The fact is that during the battle on the board, the gods conduct themselves like quite ordinary and not very scrupulous people: they try to take moves back, play bad moves, take advantage of outside advice, and even try to sneak captured pieces back onto the board. In the course of the game, the poet effectively teaches the reader the ethics of the game – touch-move, spectators should watch the game in silence, and do not have the right to interfere in the game, etc.

The game itself is described in some detail and quite beautifully, so that I have no doubt it was a game which had really been played. When I first became acquainted with the text of the poem in English (in Goldschmidt's translation), I had the idea of reconstructing it move by move.

It is easy to see that Apollo, who was White, opened 1. d2 - d4, and Black replied 1. ... d7-d5. After a few moves, White played с2-с4, and Black replied d5xс4. So we can see that it is the earliest game in chess history, in which the Queen's Gambit Accepted was played. Later, White "overlooked" the fork Nb4-с2, attacking king and rook, and lost the latter. 

However, from the way the author describes the battle on the board, it is rather harder to translate this living poetical story into the dry notation of chess. And I was not able to do this, although the end of the poem is quite clear – Black's king and queen mate the lone white king, and Mercury emerged as the winner.

It must be said that this poem decided the fate of the poet to a large extent. Vida published it when he was 23. It is well known that he taught jurisprudence, theology and philosophy in Padua, Been and Mantua. As far as we can tell, Vida intended to become a cleric and take monastic orders. However, it seems that the life of a monk did not suit him, and he went to Rome in search of happiness. He managed to come to the notice of Pope Leo X. Here we must add that the name Leo X was that chosen by the man elected Pope in 1513, who was none other than Giovanni Medici! He was considered an art expert and was a lover of chess. Vida gave him a manuscript of his poem. The Pope liked it, and as a token of gratitude and support for the young poet, he made him Prior of the Church of St Sylvester in Frascati, and also suggested that he write a history of Christianity in verse. So Vida set to work.

The years passed. After dying in 1521, Leo X was replaced for a short time by Adrian VI, and the latter by Clement VII. Popes came and went, but they all valued the poetical talent of Vida and favoured the poet. Therefore, he gradually rose through the church hierachy, until in 1532 he bacame Bishop of Albi.

Collections of religious poetry gathered by papal prelates, who regarded themselves as God's representative on earth, were published regularly, and found their way to Catholic monsteries in Western Europe and in every one of these volumes, together with religious poems, the chess poem appeared, from which it was quite possible to learn the game. The popularity of Vida's poem is shown by the fact that in the XVI century alone, his books went through 30 editions, not counting translations.

A few words about the naming of the pieces in his poem. His term «archer» was used in the XVI century in France and went on to the XVIII century in Germany. "Elephant with tower", admittedly, did not last, but the tower itself unexpectedly is retained in almost all the Western European countries: torre – in Italy, tour – in France, turm – in Germany, veza – in Poland. Even in Russia, the new chess brought with it a practically unknown term – tur, meaning "round". And the standard modern chess set, now made in every country in the world, includes a tower in the design of the bishop, as if to remind us of the origin of the name.

Vida's poem played a big role in chess history. It was effectively a poetical textbook of the game. His work helped significantly in the spread of the new chess in Europe.

The poet himself could not have imagined that the poem would play such a role. He called it just «lusum adolescentia» (a youthful frivolity), and considered the main work of his life to be «Christiad» (The Christianiad), the collection of poems devoted to the history of Christianity, which at the command of the Popes he worked on for 14 years. However, it is almost forgotten today, whereas his chess poem still provides pleasure to readers to this day.

At the start of the poem (using the 1925 edition), Vida says that he wrote a poem on a subject no poet had ever written about before. Evidently, he thought that nobody before him had described the game of chess in poetry. This is not quite true. As far back as 1467, the Dominican Francisco Colena wrote a mystical work  «Dreams of Polyphemus», which was printed in Venice in 1499 with illustrations by Rafael himself, and then translated into French in 1546 and English in 1592.

In this work the dreams of Polyphemus are described, and he dreams of some games of living chess. Three games are played, which are presented very schematically, but in the third, it is possible to understand that the opening moves were 1. d2-d4 а7-a5 2. с2-c4, but in contrast to Vida, the queen and bishop move according to the old rules.

It is hard to say whether Vida knew of Colena's work, but there is no doubt that it was the starting point for the description of the three games of chess, and in the fifth book of Francois Rabelais, the pieces moved according to the new rules.

Rabelais devoted two chapters to chess. In the first of these, he describes in detail the rules of the game, and in the second he describes three games, but only one of them in detail. Comparing his description of the rules, and also the text of this game and the game of Vida, it is easy to conclude that Rabelais was familiar with Vida's works, and, perhaps, may even have had them to hand, when he wrote his own work. Of course, he excluded all the comic episodes, because these were unnecessary to him, but overall, the course of the games coincides exactly, as does their finish.

Rabelias' five books were printed in Lyon in 1564, 11 years after the death of the author. Historians doubt that they were written wholly by Rabelais himself. It is believed that the text passed through the hands of one of the Hugeonots. But it is unlikely that many changes were made to the main part, which concerns chess.

Like Vida, Rabelias called the bishops archers. It is certain that this term was used in France in the first half of the ХVI century, but it did not spread. Later, the old name for the bishop, the jester, again came into use. It is interesting that, according to Rabelais, the king could not move to any of the eight adjacent squares, but only to the four vertical and horizontal ones. It may be that Rabelais was simply mistaken, or some special local rule existed in that part of France.

At about the same time as Vida, the poet Francisco Bernadino Caldono (born in 1497) also wrote a poem about chess, and also in Latin. In it he, in particluar, gave useful advice to players, for example, not to bring out the queen too early, or not to give up a bishop for two pawns, as was recommended in the old chess. It is interesting that this advice was repeated in 1561 by the Spaniard Ruy Lopez in his book. Overall, the poem gives a good impression of Caldono, as a chessplayer, but alas, while Vida's poem was spreading all around Europe, Caldono's manuscript only existed in a single copy in Vicenzo's library, and was only published relatively recently, in our day.

Vida's poem was widely known not only around Europe, but also attracted a lot of imitations. And here, in the first instance, one must mention the poem «Szachy», by the Polish poet of the Renaissance era, Jan Kochanowski  (1530 – 1584), the first poet of the country to write in his own language. In his youth, he lived in Italy and obtained his education in one of the universities of Lombardy. It is highly likely also that he became acquainted with chess whilst in Italy. His love of the game lasted all his life, and later, after returning to his homeland, he dedicated an entire poem to it. It was published in Cracow in 1585.

The contents of the poem are as follows: The Danish princess Anna has two suitors for her hand, two noble gentlemen, Bozhuy and Fyodor. Not knowing to which to give preference, and worried that they will decide the argument by a duel to the death, King Tarzes suggests they play chess, adding:

-Decide the argument as in a war:

He who wins will be my son-in-law.

Later, Kochanowski gives the rules of the game, these however, being the rules of the new chess. Thus, for Poles, his poem became a textbook of the new chess and undoubtedly helped in its spread throughout Poland.

But to return to the subject of the poem. The contest between the two suitors for Anna's hand takes place two weeks later. Bozhuy gets the white pieces, Fyodor the black. From the later lines, it is clear that, like Vida, White begins the game with 1.d2-d4, and Black replies 1. ... d7-d5. Then White follows up several moves later with с2-с4, after which Black captures d5xс4. The further course of the game also follows Vida. We also see here the knight fork Nb4 - с2 and also the same behaviour by the players and arguments between them. However, at some definite moment, the descriptions of the game by Kochanowski and Vida diverge. As we recall, in Vida's version, Black's king and queen mate the bare white king. But in Kochanowski's version, the game is adjourned in a difficult position for Black, who is threatened with mate. The poet, as befits a chess commentator, describes the adjourned position in detail. So much so, that one wants to set up the position on the board.

-The king almost next to the rook

Which itself the corner had took.

The knight on the fifth 'fore the king,

And the pawn to the sixth it did bring.

Next, on its right, another did stand,

Defended by a bishop from its very own land.

Behind the pawn and bishop of Bozhuy

The king the black parade did annoy,

While the threatening enemy rook,

Its aim at the second it took.

And the queen from behind its back,

Did for sure the black bishop attack.

Thus the chessmen their places did take,

And Black the next move he would make.

We will return to the adjourned position later, but for now, let us go on with the subject. The players disappear off to their rooms, and so that nobody can change the position on the board, a guard with a halberd is placed next to it, with anotehr by the door.

And what about Princess Anna? She does not not come to the game, evidently having been forbidden by her father. But is she unconcerned about who will win and become her husband? Of course not! She worries. At night, she cannot sleep and decides, together with her old nanny, to go through the secret passage to the playing hall. The guard recognises her and lets her pass. Evidently, the princess could play chess better than her suitors. Glancing at the board, she quickly realises that Black can not only avoid losing, but actually mate his opponent.

Her sympathies are on the side of Fyodor, who is playing Black. But how can she advise him what to play?

And the princess thinks, and then, loudly, so the guard can hear her, she says these words:

-Of course, the knight in battle is fine,

And the bishop takes its place in the line.

Yet to give up the rook it makes sense,

Then the pawn to the end it shall fence.

If the rook puts its life on the line,

Tearful Anna will be ever so fine.

Now it is all up to Fyodorwill he guess what the princess is saying, and find the right way to play?

Morning comes. Poor Fyodor comes to the resumption. Instead of analysing the adjourned position, he has spent all night crying to the Fates, considering defeat unavoidable.

Sitting sadly at the board, he notices that the rook has been moved, and in his heart, he exclaims: "Who has been here? It is a joke, but not a funny one!".

The guard tells him of the Princess's nocturnal visit and tells him of her words.

Fyodor sinks into thought. "Yet to give up the rook it makes sense". What did the Princess mean by this?  And suddenly it dawns on him.

Having such detailed information about the position and the outcome, I was able to reconstruct the adjourned position without much trouble:


Кg1, Qе7, Rа7 – Кg8, Rh8, Be4, Ng4 p's f3, g3

The finish was:

«The rooks in one jump lands aalongside the king'" – 1. ... Rh8-h1+!

This is the sacrifice the Princess told of,

«And he removes the rook from the square at once"- 2. Кg1xh1

«And the pawn follows him» - 2. … g3-g2+. «He jumps back» - 3. Кh1-g1

«The other pawn advances directly» - 3. … f3-f2. Check and mate!


Кg1, Qе7, Rа7 – Кg8, Bе4 Ng4, p's. f2, g2

Working on Kochanovski's poem was my first historical achievement (at the beginning of the 1960s) and I considered myself the first to have solved this admittedly small, but nonetheless interesting histoical conundrum, which the poet set his contemporaries and those who came later. However, as I was advised by the then editor of the Polish magazine V Litmanovics, this task had been solved 100 years earlier by the Polish researcher M Dedushitski. However, he stopped there, whereas I decided to analyse the position further, and immediately started having my doubts. The adjourned position, even though White threatens mate, by no means looks so hopeless for Black as described so beautifully by the poet. Black's pieces are gathered threateningly around the white king, and can put him away in several ways. Thus, for example, one of these is no less effective than the game: 1. … Rh8-h1+ 2. Кg1xh1 f3-f2+ З. Qе7xе4 f2-f1Q mate.

This analysis at first disappointed me. Could it really be that the poet was so poorly acquainted with chess that the dramatic finale of his poem was based on such an unconvincing position? Somehow, I could not believe this. It is hardly likely that such a weak player would devote a whole poem to the game. Thus, a new mystery arose.

If it happened now, I could solve it very quickly, but at the time, it took me a long time.

The whole point is that this position is not from the new chess, but the old, mediaeval version. Although at first, the poet gave the new rules of chess, the poem was written at a time when in Europe, both versions of the game were equally common. In addition, this position is actually a simplified version of one of the most well-known mediaeval problems, being known as "Dilaram's mate".

Here, for example, is the version given in the "Bonus Socius" collection. This collection of problems was compiled at the beginning of the ХIII century.


Кh5, Rа2, Bd5, Nа3 p's:b6,с6 – Ка8, Rg1, Rg8

Mate in four.

After 1. Nb5+ Кb8, we have virtually exactly the position from the poem, with colours reversed, in which White gives mate by 2. Rа2-а8+! Etc. The only difference is that the white king is in mortal danger, and is threatened with mate from both sides.

But the classical position of Dilaram's Mate is the following:


Ка5, Rh1, Rh6, Bh3, Ng4,  p's: f6,g6 – Кg8, Rb2, Rb8

White wins.

This is the Arab Mansuba puzzle, taken from eastern chess. It was composed earlier, in the IХ - Х centuries. Mate here is given by sacrificing both rooks.

1. Rh6-h8+! Кg8xh8

2. AhЗ-f5+ 

The piece on h3 is an Alfil, the Arab bishop, the predecessor of the modern bishop, which can only move two squares diagonally, and, like the knight, can jump over anotehr piece.

2. ... Кh8-g8 

3. Rh1-h8+ Кg8xh8

4. g6-g7+ Кh8-g8

5. Ng4-h6x.

It was possible to delay the mate by one move, by sacrificing the rook on h2, but the task was to win, rather than give mate in a specified number of moves.

In later Arab, Persisn and Indian manuscripts, the romantic legend of Dilaram is also given. Here is one version of it, taken from an Arab manuscript of the ХVI century:

«Dilaram was the favourite wife of an Arab Vizar. Without her, his heart knew no peace, and so he called her Dilaram, which means 'easy heart'. The Vizar enjoyed relaxing with chess and once, whilst playing a strong opponent, he became so enraged that, as a stake, he risked the most precious thing he had – his favourite wife. The game went badly for the Vizar, and he found himself in a desperate position, apparently unable to defend against mate. Dilaram was watching the game through a transparent curtain, which separated the women's half of the house from the men's. And at the critical moment, she cried out in desperation, 'Sacrifice both rooks and save Dilaram!' And the Vizar took her advice and won."

As you see, the end in Kochanowski's poem is amazingly close to that in this legend. It is highly likely that he knew of this famous problem, and of the legend of Dilaram. With the help of chess, we have managed to solve a deep literary  question regarding the degree of originality of the Polish poem. Some critics consider "Szachy" not an independent work, but virtually a translation, and in conclusion, we offer its final lines:

I have copied Vida's intelligent odes,

That floated so long in Italian waters,

Speaking so well of that war,

Which neither bow nor sword did need.

In describing the rules of the game, Kochanowski definitely turned for help to the Italian poet, and even used several episodes from Vida. For example, all the incidents between the players can be found in the Italian also. However, the end of the poem, its dramatic finale, was done independently of Vida. Here, the Pole turned to the legend of Dilaram. The fascinated poet evidently even forgot that he had begun his description with the new rules of chess, whilst the finale of the game was taken from one played under old rules, replacing the rook with the new queen. And he hardly would have thought that this allowed other solutions.

It is precisely because of the finale that Kochanowski's poem can be considered a fully original work.

Kochanowski describes so beautifully all the twists of the chessboard battle that many researchers consider that he was using his own experience and personal feelings, connected with love and chess. Thus, the Polish writer Mecislav Yastrun developed this theme in his book «Poet and Courtier». In it, he describes a chess game between a poet from Chernolesya (as Kochanowski was sometimes called) and another courtier, an Italian called Vetello. Both were very interested in a beautiful female courtier and competed for her over the chessboard. One can add after returning home from abroad, Kochanowski was for a time in the service of the Polish king Sigismund II of August, as "Secretary of his Royal favour". However, this service was a burden to him and he most of all loved his personal freedom. The poet returned to Chernolesye and spent the rest of his life there.

So the result of our researches is as follows: The works of three great humanists of the Renaissance – the Italian Vida (1490-1556), the Frenchman Rabelias (1494-1553) and the Pole Kochanowski (1530-1584) turns out, thanks to chess, to be connected, and undoubtedly assisted the spread of the game's reforms in Europe.