Yakutat and Aleut chess:
indigenous Alaskan chess variants?

by Lex Kraaijeveld
From Variant Chess, Volume 3, Issue 26, Winter 1997-8, pages 113-114
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In his impressive 1913 work A History of Chess , H. J. R. Murray briefly discusses the possible existence of two indigenous Alaskan chess variants: Yakutat and Aleut chess. Murray mentions them at the end of the chapter on variants from Central and Northern Asia, of which he states that “this branch of chess reached its final limit in Alaska.”

Murray`s knowledge on Yakutat chess comes from Stewart Culin`s work Games of the North American Indians , published in 1907. Figure 1089 of this book shows 19 pieces, allegedly from a set of 22, with varying, mostly abstract, shapes. One piece resembles the head and neck of an animal. Some look like pawns, but it is impossible to indicate what piece might be a knight, bishop, king, etc. No two pieces are exactly the same.

Culin does not give any details on the size of the board, initial set-up of the pieces, rules of movement, etc. Given the scantiness of the evidence, Murray is careful in drawing any firm conclusions and says that “the shapes of the pieces show no trace of European influence and compel me to place this game beside those treated in the present chapter”.

Murray had even less information on Aleut chess: “M. Savenkof states, on the authority of A. N. Maximof, that the inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands play chess. He quotes Benjaminof`s Among the Aleutian Islanders ”.

Despite the lack of any firm evidence, the existence of an unusual form of chess played by the Yakutat has more or less slipped into some writings on chess variants as an established fact.

With 84 years having passed since the publication of Murray`s work, and with the opportunities offered by the Internet nowadays, I decided to try and unearth a bit more about these possible chess variants.

Yakutat Chess?

With help of the Alaska State Library, I managed to get in contact with Dr. Frederica de Laguna, a professor of anthropology and one of the leading experts on Alaskan ethnography. She very kindly sent me all the information she had on the Yakutat game.

A full set apparently consists of 25 pieces, 12 ‘men', 12 ‘women' and one extra piece (in case of loss?). Pieces are carved to resemble objects, living things and persons and each of the pieces has a different name (just to give some examples: ‘whale tail', ‘cover for the smokehole', ‘one on top of another'). Play is on the white squares of a chequered 8×8 board, one player playing with the ‘men', the other with the ‘women'. Initial placement and moves are similar to checkers and with each move the player names the piece he intends to move.

It may well be that the three-dimensional shape of the checkers in the Yakutat game has been influenced by chessmen, but without further evidence the existence of Yakutat chess (as opposed to Yakutat checkers) appears to be a myth.

Aleut Chess?

All I managed to find was a 1933 book by W. Jochelson: History, Ethnography and Anthropology of the Aleut , which allegedly contained some information on chess played by the Aleut. I owe the Carnegie Institution in Washington my thanks for sending me a photocopy of the relevant pages. Jochelson gives a diagram of the board and initial set-up:

He states that “Chess was without doubt adopted by the Aleut from the Russians”. He bases this conclusion on the Aleut names of some of the figures, which are clearly derived from their respective Russian names: Queen – férsix` (Russian ‘fers', from the Persian); Bishop – slúnax` (Russian ‘slon', elephant); Knight – kúnax` (Russian ‘kon', horse) and Rook – lúdkax` (Russian ‘ladya', boat). However, the King is called álix` (‘old man') and the pawn layakúcan (‘little boy'). The only other bit of information regarding the rules of the Aleut game given by Jochelson is that “the movements of the figures are the same as with us”.

The first odd thing about Aleut chess as it is described by Jochelson is the board`s dimensions: 7×8; unlike any regional variant. The second thing is the initial set-up of the pieces: as the starting postions are not the same for white and black, this suggests that the players are free (within certain constraints?) to choose the starting positions of their pieces as they see fit. In this, Aleut chess most resembles Burmese chess.

In summary, there doesn`t seem to be any evidence for a variant of chess played by the Yakutat. On the other hand, Alaska does appear to have an indigenous chess variant. However, given the rather strange characteristics of the Aleut game as described by Jochelson, it would be good if some more and independent information on Aleut chess could be obtained.

The author requests that any communications concerning this article should be sent to: Lex Kraaijeveld, Flat 4, Wood Hall, Woodhall Lane, Sunningdale, Ascot, Berks, SL5 9QW, or by e-mail to : a.kraayeveld@ic.ac.uk.

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