Kalah: A Commercial Count and Capture Game

Kalah board

This commercial wooden board game was donated to the Museum in 1972. The game was first made available to the public in the 1950s.

This natural wooden board is 59.3cm long x 13cm wide x 2cm thick. The playing surface includes two rows of 6 (6.5cm diameter) depressions, with a larger storage area at each end. Beans or seeds of an unknown type were included for use as counters in the game. Some of these were painted, others were natural.

How Kalah is played

The intent of the game is to accumulate as many playing pieces as possible in the large oval KALAH to each player's right.

Player diagram 1

To begin playing, the two players sit on opposite sides of the board and deposit three playing pieces in each of the twelve round pits Each player in turn picks up all the pieces in any one of their own six pits and puts them one by one in each pit around to the right. If there are enough playing pieces to go beyond that player's KALAH, these pieces are distributed in the opponent's pits (except in the opponent's KALAH). All pieces placed in an opponent's pits now belong to the opponent.

If the player's last playing piece lands in that player's own KALAH, that player gets another turn. (See illustration above. Player A has emptied Pit A3. That player's last playing piece landed in that player's KALAH.) If the last playing piece lands in an empty pit on that player's own side, that player captures all of the opponent's playing pieces in the opposite pit and puts them in that player's KALAH together with the capturing piece. (See illustration-Player A would empty pit A6 to capture playing pieces opposite A3 and deposits them and the capturing playing piece in A's KALAH where they remain until the end of the game.) A capture ends the move.

TO KEEP SCORE: The round is over when all six pits on one side are empty. The other player adds the remaining pieces in the pits to his KALAH. The score is determined by who has the most pieces. (Example: Each player starts with 18 pieces. At end of the round Player A has 5 extra pieces, and has won by five.) Use the convenient bead score tally on each side of the board to keep score. The first player to reach 40 points ends the game.

KALAH becomes more and more challenging by starting with 4, 5, or up to 6 playing pieces in each pit.

When the game was added to the Museum collection, the manufacturer was contacted for archival information about the game. One document made available was a page describing an early computerized version of the game of Kalah - circa 1960. The following was received by the Museum from the Company in 1970.

It is a strange anomaly that the newest electronic marvel - the Digital Computer - has been programmed to play the oldest counting game. Engineers and mathematicians who have been developing a mechanical brain are fascinated by the manner in which this simple "game of intelligence" enables them to watch the evolution of automatic thinking.

A demonstration of a computer playing Kalah with a human expert was the sensation at a recent computer convention in New York City. Eminent scientist and mathematicians saw a mechanical device displaying the attributes of human intelligence. Simple rules for this ancient "pebble game" are quickly understood by onlookers. The game Ii purely mathematical and the method of playing follows the orderly processes of science. Moves are not haphazard or based on chance. Nor do they follow random ventures into space as in the case of chess or checkers.

The use of six counters in the game for adults creates so many variables that no mathematician can compute the possible number of variations. They are so great that probabilities are against there being two identical games in a lifetime. For this reason the game becomes alluring for mature people. It has an exceptionally long interest span.

Kalah not only induces children to like arithmetic, but also makes them think. The method of playing - distributing counters one by one to the right - confirms the habit of moving from left to right as when reading or writing. The rules are so simple that they can be quickly explained to pre-school age children who usually start with only one or two counters in each pit. They learn the principles of elementary arithmetic as part of a fascinating game which appeals to all ages. It is one of the few table games that parents REALLY ENJOY PLAYING with children.

Small children learn to count without using their fingers; to distinguish units from multiples; and to acquire other mathematical concepts in a natural way while playing their favorite game. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are all used in determining the number of counters to be used in the twelve pits, or in computing the score. Calculation is also required to anticipate where the last counter will land at the end of a single or series of plays.

Kalah becomes a valuable pastime and children play it day after day without supervision. Grown-ups become so attached to it that they buy beautiful boards made of finest cabinet woods which last a lifetime.

Another document received was a newspaper reprint with photographs of the owner of the Kalah Game Company with elementary school students playing the game. This document includes a discussion of Time Magazine's 1963 article about the game and subsequent educational use in the teaching of mathematics.

1963 Press Release


Champion photograph

CHAMPIONS ALL: William J. Champion, center, of Holbrook, owner of the Kalah Game Co., is flanked by Ira Burnim, left, and Joseph Stentiford, right. The boys, both students or the Coolidge School. are finalists In the battle for the school's Kalah Championship.

The historian Herodotus once noted that, "a cultural heritage may be lost once and yet be retrieved by someone of persistence and dedication...

In the year 1905, William J. Champion, a graduate of Yale University and now a resident of Holbrook, came across an article concerning the ancient game of Kalah, a game which closely complies with the modern approach to mathematics.

According to an article which appeared in Time Magazine, the issue of June 14, 1963, "Champion began tracing its (Kalah) migrations and permutations. He found an urn painting of Ajax and Achilles playing it during the siege of Troy; he found African chieftains playing for stakes of female slaves, and maharajahs using rubies and star sapphires as counters. He finally traced it back some 7,000 years to the ancient Sumerians, who evolved the 6-12-60 system of keeping numerical records."

Mr. Champion has taken his knowledge of this game and made it available to the public by producing Kalah games ranging from inexpensive to high priced custom-made models. John Haggerty, a seventh grade teacher at the Coolidge School, read the Time article and became intrigued with this educational-diversionary aid.

Mr. Haggerty explained that he has "found that this ancient game of Kalah not only induces very young children to think quantitatively but also develops intuitive decision, so necessary in problem solving." He also went on to say that, "it helps pupils to think computatively. The method of play - distributing counters one by one to the right - confirms and structures the habit of moving from left to right as in reading and writing."

It was only natural that Mr. Haggerty develop a deep interest in this mystic pastime and its patron. He made contact with Time and Mr. Champion and eventually a meeting was set up between the two men.

It was Mr. Haggerty's idea that the game could be used as an aid in teaching the fundamentals of mathematics. The fundamental processes in math come into play during the game and the use of reason is vital to victory. The element of chance is absent and involves nothing but skill.

Interest in Kalah reached its peak at the Coolidge School during the past month when 32 students engaged in an elimination competition for the Kalah Championship of the school.

On Thursday, Dec. 12, the final round of competition was held in the school auditorium between Ira Burnim of the seventh grade and Joseph Stentiford of the eighth grade.

With Mr. Champion presiding over the game and 350 students watching a projected image of the contest on a screen while Mr. Haggerty explained the moves, the two boys matched their skills with Ira Burnim coming cut on top 40-26.

In summing up the advantages of the game, Mr. Haggerty explained that, "small children learn to count without using their fingers; to distinguish units from multiples; to assess special array in a physical order of objects as well as to acquire other mathematical concepts in a natural way while playing an interesting and absorbing game."

Reprinted from Melrose Free Press, Dec. 19, 1963

KALAH GAME CO., 27 Maple Avenue, Holbrook, Massachusetts

Last update February 5, 2010