Chess in Bornu, Nigeria


MAN, London, No. 89, 1939, pages 31-32.

Editor’s Note: The author indicates that he wrote this paper while living in "The Residency" in Minna, Nigeria. It is assumed then that Mr. Harris was an official headquartered in the then British Colonial Office known as "The Residency".

Map of Africa

[Page 31] In MAN 1934, 48, is an article by Dr. Meek on Chess in Bornu, Nigeria. In that article Dr. Meek makes the statement that "the moves were the same as our own." Recently I showed this article to Mr. G. H. Betts of the Bank of British West Africa, Minna, who had formerly been stationed in Maiduguri, and who is himself a keen chess-player.

Mr. Betts does not agree that the moves in the Bornu Chess game are the same as our own, and has written to me as follows on the subject:

As regards the Bornu game of Chess (Tsatsarandi) I should like to make it quite clear that the moves of the pieces are not identical with our way of playing the game. The moves of some pieces correspond, but others do not. In 1936 I ascertained that there were only two men left alive in Maiduguri, who knew how the game was played, and one of them has since died. The sole survivor was formerly an Ajia (headman) of a village east of Dikwa and is now quite an old man. I learnt from him exactly how the pieces moved.

The King (Mai), the Knight (Fer), and the Castle (Kaigamma) move exactly the same as in our game. The Queen (Chiroma) can only move one square at a time and so moves like a King, except that its movement is even more restricted as it may move diagonally only. It has therefore the choice of only four squares for any one move and so, having to remain perpetually on its own colour, cannot threaten the opposing Queen.

The Bishop (Bintu), like our own piece, moves diagonally only, remaining on its own colour; but even when placed on the center of an unoccupied board, it has only four possible moves and they are the four diagonal squares next but one to itself. If another piece is situated on one of the diagonal squares adjacent to it, the Bishop may 'jump' that piece to reach the next square. The first move in a game, therefore, might be King’s Bishop to R3 or Q3.

[Page 32] Pawns (Gollo) move as in our game except that the initial doubling move is unknown. Castling is not played, nor is the 'pawn-en-passant' move. All the details of mating, discovered checks, etc., are the same as played in our game.

I have just received from the Resident, Bornu, a letter forwarding the following interesting note by Mr J. T. Adamson. Cadet:

Bornu Chess Game (Tsatsarandi) - I made enquiries as to whether there were any exponents of the game now extant. There appear to be only two. Ono of these is named Abba Bukar, a relative of the Shehu of Bornu; the other is a Village Head in Anno District. The latter is rather in his dotage and is not too sure of the moves of the pieces. The former, however, is very much all there and plays a good game. He is much too good for the Village Head of Anno. I watched several games between these two, and have played about half a dozen games with Abba Bukar myself with varying success.

The names of the pieces are as follows:

Rook Waziri Dala
Knight Ma daiki Fer or Kaigamma
Bishop Alkali Bintu or Ligari
Queen Chiroma Maina
King Sarki Mai
Pawn Talakawa Tala or Gollo


The King, the Knight, the Rook move as in our game. The Queen and the Bishop move as stated by Mr. Betts. However, according to Abba Bukar, the Pawn in its initial move can move either one, two, or three squares. This is not in accordance with Mr. Betts who states that the initial double move of the pawn is unknown. In other respects the pawns move as in our game, except that when the pawn reaches the eighth rank, it cannot be promoted a Queen, Rook, or Bishop, or Knight, as in our game. This greatly diminishes the value of the pawn in the end game. Castling is not played, nor is the pawn-en-passant move.

All the details of mating and discovered checks, etc. are same as in our game. To inform an opponent, that he is in check, the player hisses like the proverbial snake.

The rules in our game relating to touching the board before one has decided on one's next move do not seem to apply in Tsatsarandi. Abba Bukar invariably gained confidence by placing the index finger of his right hand on the square to which he intended to move his piece. When in a tight corner he was not above knocking over a few pieces during this maneuver and replacing them in more advantageous positions.

He often broke the rule about altering and taking back a move once he had moved his piece. In addition, whenever I was pondering over a move he would waive his hands above the board and chant passages of the Koran to distract my attention. This is seemingly all in the game though it would mean his disqualification under our rules. I would describe Tsatsarandi as ‘all-in’ chess and may the devil take the hindmost.

Last update July 19, 2010