Columbus and Chess

by Bill Wall


The first voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) to the Americas was mainly due to a game of chess.  Both King Ferdinand (1479-1516) of Aragon and Queen Isabella (1474-1504) of Castile (Isabel da Catolica) were avid chess players.  And the power of the queen as a chess piece may have been inspired by Queen Isabella.  At the time of Queen Isabella’s reign, new rules such as castling, two-square pawn advance, en passant capture, and the queen becoming the most powerful piece in tribute to Queen Isabella.


Columbus first tried to get the city of Genoa to finance a sea voyage across the Atlantic to India.  They rejected it.

Columbus next turned to King John II (1455-1495) of Portugal in 1485.  A committee that looked into the project rejected the idea, although the king favored it.  Christopher then sent his brother, Bartholomew (1461-1515), to England to see if they would finance the trip.  Bartholomew was captured by pirates, and it was some time before he obtained his release.  He finally got to England and the king actually approved of the voyage, but it was too late.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to finance the sea voyage by then.  Columbus then appealed to several dukes in southern Spain, but they did not have the funds.  He then set out for France, but met a friend of the royal family who encouraged Columbus to write to Queen Isabella for an audience.  Columbus first approached the royal family in 1485, but the struggle with the Muslims prevented any financing.


During the siege of Malaga in 1487, Ibrahim al-Gervi, a Muslim assassin, entered a tent where a richly dressed couple was playing chess.  The assassin, believing them to be King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, pulled a dagger beneath his cloak and attacked the two chess players.  Guards quickly arrived and killed the attacker.   His body was later hacked to pieces and catapulted over the wall into Malaga.  The two chess players were Beatriz Fernandez de Bobadilla, keeper of the queen’s wardrobe, and Alvaro de Portugal, brother of the duke of Braganca.  He was seriously wounded in the attack.    King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were in the neighboring tent and were unharmed.


During this time, Columbus was in Salamanca, Spain, where Lucena would go to college and write and publish the first modern European chess book.


On January 2, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had just conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. 


In Cordoba, at Alcazar castle and the Alhambra palace, Christopher Columbus met with Queen Isabella in April, 1492, and tried to convince her of financing a sea voyage to India across the Atlantic Ocean as well as give him a title.  Isabella turned Columbus down on the advice of her Catholic confessor, Juan Perez. 


Legend has it that King Ferdinand still had not made up his mind yet about financing the voyage.  According to a letter written by a soldier named Hernando del Pulgar, King Ferdinand was engaged in a game of chess on the afternoon of February 4, 1492.  Ferdinand was playing a game of chess with Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca (1451-1524), Spanish archbishop and a member of the king’s court, when the king was interrupted by a page about a request to resolve a question concerning the bestowing of a title on Columbus before the start of his sea voyage.  Ferdinand was in no mood in being interrupted as he was losing.  He may have been on the verge in canceling the whole voyage out of annoyance. 


But, as fate would have it, Ferdinand had found himself with a winning combination, but didn’t know it.  Hernando del Pulgar, who was observing the game, saw the winning moves and whispered it to Isabella, who was working on a piece of embroidery next to the king.  Hernando told Isabella, “If his Highness play correctly, he wins, and Fonseca cannot outlive four moves.”  The queen then leaned toward her husband and told him that he had a possible checkmate.  The king reexamined his position and found that his wife was correct.  He won the game and was in such as good mood that he agreed that Columbus should make the voyage with the title “Admiral of the Fleet.”  


Columbus had actually left town in despair when Ferdinand intervened.  Columbus was headed north on his mule to appeal to the king of France.  A royal messenger was sent to bring Columbus back.  Columbus had just crossed a small bridge near Granada, about six miles from the royal court.  Columbus returned and insisted on a few conditions:


First: That he be made Admiral of the Seas.

Second: That he be made Viceroy and Governor-General of all the new territories that he discovered.

Third: That he be given 1/10 of all gold, silver, precious stones discovered.

Fourth: The he receive 1/8 of the profit from his voyage.


The king and queen accepted Columbus’s terms unconditionally.  The royal family did not really expect that Columbus would return from his voyage.  The royal family paid 16,000 ducats, or about $64,000 for the voyage.


On April 17, 1492, an agreement was made between Columbus and the royal family of Spain in Santa Fe to take on the voyage of discovery.  On April 30, 1492, Columbus was given three small ships (Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria) and 70 men.  They sailed on August 3, 1492 from the harbor at Palos, Spain.  Columbus rode on the Santa Maria.  In the captain’s cabin was a chess set, the first that crossed the Atlantic when they saw land near the Bahamas on October 12, 1492.  Some of the crew may have been chess players and played during the voyages.  The Spaniards were the foremost chess players of Europe.


Around 1497, Luis Ramirez de Lucena (1465-1530)  wrote <em>Repeticon de amores y arte de axedres</em> (Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess).  It is the oldest preserved book on modern chess.  The book is dedicated to Prince Don Juan, or Prince John (born in 1478), the heir to the Spanish throne.  He was the only son of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  He died on October 4, 1497, dating the book to 1497.