Why Chess Bishops Have A Cut On Top: A Brief History

If you’ve ever taken a close look at the pieces on a chess board, then you will notice that they are all (except for the pawns) quite stylized. One piece that particularly catches the eye is the bishop, which in the modern game, is meant to represent the power of the church in the king’s army. But why does it have a cut in the top of the piece? What’s that for?

Why do chess bishops have a cut on top? There are two schools of thought on this: The first is that bishops used to be war elephants in the forebear of chess known as Shatranj. The second is that bishops in certain Catholic faiths wear hats called mitres, and the cut on top of the chess piece makes it look like one.

Both groups have a point so let’s look a little deeper.

Why do chess bishops have a cut on top? - ChessPulse.com
Why do chess bishops have a cut on top? – ChessPulse.com

The Origins Of The Chess Bishop

There was no bishop in the original chess variant known as Shatranj. Instead, there was an “alfil” that is a “war elephant”. In many early chess sets, the piece was depicted as a carved elephant with a rider sat on top of it.

However, this would have taken a lot of time and energy to create and as Shatranj became more popular a more specific piece was created. This looked very much like, though not identical to, the modern bishop – the head of the piece had a cut all the way down to the tiered collar below the head and it would have cleaved the head in two.

This was meant to symbolize the elephant’s trunk and the opening of that trunk was the split in the head of the piece.

When Is A Bishop Not A Bishop? When It’s An Elephant

The Shatranj alfil was not the same as a chess bishop though and the alfil could only move two squares diagonally, it was also able to jump over a piece in the square between it and the target square. Though this isn’t the case in the variant of chess known as xiangqi (in that variant, the intermediary square must remain empty).

However, we are not entirely sure if the piece always had this move as the Shatranj rules available to us are rather more recent than the game itself.

What we do know is that it would have been called a “hastin” or, maybe, a “gaja” when it was invented as the inventors of the game would have been using Sanskrit and alfil is an Arabic name. Both of these words meant “elephant” in Sanskrit.

The Weakest Pieces In Chess

The alfil and the “firz” (which would later become the queen, and which had a similarly reduced set of moves available to it in Shatranj) were the weakest pieces on the board other than the pawns. The alfil in Shatranj may only reach one fourth of the squares on the board!

When Shatranj reached Persia, it became known as the “pil” and that was then corrupted to “fil” (the direct Arabic equivalent of the Persian) before having “al” (an Arabic word meaning “the”) attached to the front.


In some European tongues, including Spanish, the piece remains known as the “alfil” but there’s no doubt that the original alfil move set has been long forgotten in all varieties of chess and the piece now has free reign to move as far down a diagonal as possible as long as it is not blocked. It can thus, reach a half of all the squares on the board.


The Emergence Of The Bishop

It became a bishop in the year 1200 A.D. or thereabouts. The first bishop piece was found in a chess variant called Courier Chess. This new piece and its move set was described in the book “Treasury of the Sciences” by Muhammad ibn Mahmud-al-Amuli as moving “like the rook but obliquely”.

Strangely, the Japanese appear to have reached a similar conclusion about the alfil being too weak a piece at around the same time and invented a bishop there too in the 13th century.

However, the name “bishop” didn’t arise until the 16th century. In Germanic tongues it’s called a “runner” or “messenger”. It’s only Iceland which uses the word “biskup” (same as bishop) that appears to have pre-dated the 16th century use of “Bishop”.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that the piece hadn’t been connected to the clergy until this point, in fact, it’s clear that the Lewis Chessmen (created in the 12th century) had linked the piece to priestly (or higher) realms.

The Bishop And His Hat

So, now we turn to the second reason that a bishop might have a notch in the top and that is it bears a relationship to the mitre hat. This is absolutely factual. It is clearly depicted in the Staunton Chess set which is, perhaps, the defining chess set of the modern era and if you have only ever seen a single chess set the odds are very good that it was a Staunton set, such its ubiquity.

Thus, the name “bishop” stuck in English. However, it’s worth noting that not everywhere sees that figure in the same way that the reverent English did. The French, for example, thought that the notch symbolized the hat of a court jester! They call this piece “un fou” which means “the jester”.

Romanians saw the piece in a similar light and their word for the piece translates into English as “the madman”. In the Czech and Slovakian parts of Europe they call it “an archer,” some Russian dialects have it as “an elephant” (close to the original piece’s identity”, and if we go farther afield in Morroco they think it’s a camel and the Lithuanians say it’s a military commander known as a “rikis”.


The Complexity Of The Bishop’s Cut

Yes, it turns out that the bishop is a complicated piece and that even the etymology of the name “bishop” is not straightforward. However, it does make things much easier when answering our original question of “why do chess bishops have a cut on top?”

The answer is clearly that for English speakers that it began as a war elephant and evolved into a bishop and you can find the classic styles of chess pieces in the Staunton set, he didn’t start from scratch and reimagine each piece.

But that for non-English speakers the ties between the piece and the clergy are far, far less evident and that in some places the war elephants (as in Russia) still hold sway and there the notch has not changed its meaning one jot.

And in others we have fools, camels, commanders, and more and thus, the notch may symbolize many different things.

The Final Thing About Bishops

The good news, however, is that while they have many names, the bishop serves the same purpose on the board in all games of chess and that is to move diagonally and capture diagonally. It is no longer as weak as it was when it was an alfil and, in fact, it can be a very powerful piece in the hands of an experienced player.

Every chess player has a bitter story about losing substantial material to a bishop fork.


Conclusion

Why do chess bishops have a cut on top? There’s definitely truth in the old war elephant story as the bishop didn’t exist in Shatranj but war elephants did. Thus, the original pieces were shaped like the trunk of one of these war elephants and the slash across the top was meant to symbolize the opening of the trunk.

However, there’s no doubt that the modern chess pieces have evolved and the most popular set of pieces by far in the modern game is the Staunton Set. This has a bishop and not a war elephant and the hat that the bishop wears would be a mitre. Its design is clearly drawn from the early Shatranj game though. Thus, why do chess bishops have a cut on top? It’s because they are war elephants in clergy hats.

Scroll to Top