Sunday, March 11, 2007

Exchange variation

Unlike my chess, my Spanish is improving: I can even work my way through a chess book, albeit slowly and with the help of a dictionary and grammar guide. Learning the names of the pieces was easy enough: alfil, caballo, torre, dama, rey, peón, though I doubt I'll change the initials I use when I'm writing down my moves. (Not, with my handwriting, that anybody can tell what they are anyway.)

I was confused by some of the verbs that chess books use, until I realised that unlike English, where Black and White are singular, the colours are used in a plural form: las blancas y las negras. (That's another source of confusion: B, which for thirty-five years has indicated that I have the Black pieces, now means White.) So now, rather than White resigns, third person singular, las blancas se rindieron, third person plural (and a reflexive and irregular verb). Las blancas se han rendido demasiados veces, when I have had the white pieces this season.

Paradoxically, when you're trying to read a foreign language, it's not the words you don't know that are the problem - you can look them up. It's when you know all the words in a sentence and still don't understand. What, for instance, did la calidad mean in a chess book? I knew that calidad means quality (I often use the word when referring to the service we don't get from Madrid book distributors) but what did it mean here? Eventually I realised that la calidad is what is said in Spanish when, in English, we say the exchange. Rook for bishop. Rook for knight.

It's a strange word to choose - in either language. Indeed, I'm sure I can remember being just as puzzled when I first came across the English word, possibly when reading My Sixty Memorable Games or one of the other books that I read a million times when I was a kid. The exchange. Why? Why does that particuarly denote rook for minor piece? Even now, thinking about it, I don't know why they chose that word. Nor do I know who chose it, or when they did so, or what people used to say beforehand.

I've had a short trawl of the internet for assistance, but Wikipedia has nothing to add and neither does Chess History. It's possible the Shorter Oxford Dictionary would tell me what I want to know - or some of it - but most readers of this blog are probably rather closer to such a dictionary than am I.

So, two questions. First, I'd like to know what terms other languages use for the transaction. I know Spanish and English - what do the French say, the Germans, the Russians, everybody else? Second, I'd like to know the etymological history of the term in English. All accurate information gratefully received.


J'adoube said...

Sorry. My Spanish is limited to taco and burrito.

ejh said...

A curious comment, since Spanish is one of the only two languages about which the posting does not ask.

Tom Chivers said...


f. in Chess, of pieces captured. to force the exchange: to play so as to compel your opponent to take one piece for another. to gain, win, lose the exchange: to take or lose a superior piece in exchange for an inferior.

1823 CRABB Technol. Dict. s.v. Chess, Exchanges..often give the adversary an advantage. 1848 H. STAUNTON Chess-Players Handbk. (ed. 2) 21 When a player gains a Rook for a Bishop or a Knight, it is termed winning the exchange. 1865 Househ. Chess Mag. 34 This move loses, at least, the ‘exchange’. 1878 H. E. BIRD Chess Openings 105 Black gains the exchange, and should win.

ejh said...

Staunton seems the first relevant reference there, but he's telling us the term was already current.

jonathan b said...

Also, to state the obvious, the OED definition isn't quite right because winning Queen for Rook isn't known as winning the exchange it's only winning rook for Bishop or Knight.

Goran said...

In Serbian we also use term "quality" to say Rook for Bishop or Knight. It's written kvalitet.

I forgot what was in Russian.

Goran said...

Just remembered I have "Small chess dictionary" by Averbakh.

French - Qualite
German - Qualitat ("a" is aumlaut and pronounced as "e")
Russian - Kachestvo (don't know what it means)

ejh said...

From what I can find with a little fiddling about on the internet, it also means quality.

If that's so, I wonder:

a. if that's what it's called everywhere except the English-speaking countries ;

b. if the original use of the term was in French and other languages copied it ;

c. if the English term exchange post-dates the French la qualité ;

d. if English ever used the quality but found it unsatisfactory and adopted the exchange instead?

Anonymous said...

Exchange is plain English : one for another. So to win the exchange is to gain,ie Knight for Rook. If you trade lower, ie Rook for Knight, then you also exchange, but lose the exchange.
The English derivation & meaning seems plain.
Quality seems to already judge the transaction,whereas exhange just states the transaction and adds win/lose to qualify it

an ordinary chessplayer said...

I know it's poor form to post in abandoned threads, but this one is too interesting to pass up.

If memory serves, P. H. Clarke had a chapter "An Exchange of Quality" in his book 100 Soviet Chess Miniatures. I think he stated that quality is used in every language except English.

I don't know why English adopted a different word. I would guess some stuffy Briton got, as they say on the ranch, a wild hair across his a**. Nor do I know which language first used quality, but my guess is Italian. Anybody know what was used in the old Arabic texts?

I put these next definitions out there expecting to be corrected (if indeed anybody ever reads this). But, be kind. I am not a librarian.

quality (n.) (in whatever non-English language) = a one-to-one trade of pieces having different values.

exchange (v.) = to trade, one-to-one, pieces having the same value.

exchange (n.) = 1. the act of exchanging (see verb). 2. (archaic) the same as quality; when not capitalized can mean Queen for Rook, amongst other exchanges.

Exchange (n.) = an exchange (2) of Rook for Knight or Rook for Bishop; always capitalized in this sense.

minor Exchange = an exchange (2) of Bishop for Knight; fairly modern, anyway it would have just provoked an argument in much of the 19th century; not sure if there is a convention of minor or Minor.

Comment Moderator said...

Thanks for that. It's not been missed. I'll try and research further.