Draughts or Checkers — A Brief History

Checkers, or Draughts, are two different names for the same board game. One is more commonly used in England, while the other is most common in America. Curiously, in this case, it is the former colonies of England which uses the older name for this seemingly simple game. By the mid-nineteenth century, tournament-level checkers was played around the world, with the first world championship awarded in 1847. However, during the Regency, draughts was still mostly an amusing pastime which was enjoyed by many people, across all classes.

What is in a game name . . .

The roots of Checkers goes back into ancient times. The earliest known version of this game was found during an archaeological dig in Ur, which was in southern Mesopotamia, an area which is now in modern-day Iraq. That game set was dated to 3000 B. C. The British Museum has a selection of ancient Egyptian game boards with squares of alternating light and dark colors in their collections. Plato and Homer both mentioned playing Egyptian board games which involved leaping to capture the opponent’s game pieces. Similar leaping capture games were known to have been played by the Trojans, and later, by the ancient Romans.

The Middle Eastern board game, Alquerque, which is believed to have derived from the Egyptian leaping capture board game, was brought to Spain by the Moors, then gradually migrated into the south of France. Some game scholars believed that a hybrid of Alquerque and Chess was developed in the early Middle Ages, in France, which was the direct ancestor of Checkers. In particular, the larger chessboard was chosen over the smaller Alquerque board. The opposing game pieces were set facing each other on opposite straight sides of the board rather than the points of the board as in Alquerque. But this was still a leaping capture game, not the custodial capture employed in Chess.

The concept of crowning, that is, topping a game piece "man" with an additional piece of the same color to make it a "king," is first recorded as being in use in France in the thirteenth century. The rule which required that an opponent’s piece be captured whenever an opportunity presented itself was also introduced in France, about 1535. This form of the game became known as Jeu forcé (force play) and was nearly identical to the game which later migrated to England. Another form of the game, which did not require the capture of an opponent’s piece at every opportunity, was known as Le jeu plaisant de dames (the pleasant ladies game) and became the basis for the Continental and later, the international version of the game.

The "force play" version of the French game had become popular in England before the sixteenth century came to a close. At that time, this new game was known as Checkers, due to the checkerboard pattern on the game board. The pieces and game board needed to play Checkers were available in a wide array of materials, from very costly to quite inexpensive. Game boards and pieces could also be hand-made at minimal expense, for those who could not afford to buy a set. Therefore, Checkers could be played by anyone, from any class. Many taverns and coffee houses set up one or more checkerboards where their customers could play Chess or Checkers, along with other amenities they offered to attract customers. Members of the aristocracy, the gentry and the middle classes all played Checkers in their homes.

Checkers was played throughout Britain well into the seventeenth century by members of nearly every class. As the century progressed, more and more people decided to emigrate to the new colonies which were being founded in America. Many of these people took Checkers with them, continuing to play the game in their new homes far away from Britain. Meanwhile, back in the mother country, as the seventeenth century came to a close, the game once known as Checkers, for the checkerboard pattern on the game board, was becoming known as Draughts, because the game pieces were dragged or moved over the board. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the name Draughts was in common use across all of Britain. However, in the American colonies, those who played the game still called it by its original name, Checkers. Thus originated the divergence of the two names between what would become two separate countries.

Draughts could be a simple and amicable game played between friends, a way to pass the time while engaging the mind. In fact, there were multiple versions of Draughts which were played in England. Unlike some games, these different versions were not isolated to certain locations. The same players might play different versions of Draughts on different occasions. All versions of Draughts were actually games of strategy and logic. In 1756, the mathematician, William Payne, wrote An Introduction to the Game of Draughts: Containing Fifty Select Games, Together with Many Critical Situations for Drawn Games, and Fine Strokes : the Whole Designed for the Instruction of Young Players, in this Innocent and Delightful Amusement. This was the first book in English written about Draughts, and the Dedication and Preface was written by Samuel Johnson. In this book, Payne included fifty different games, for each of which he provided every move.

Payne’s book remained the standard reference on Draughts for most of the eighteenth century, being reprinted several times. But as the new century opened, other authors began to offer rule and instruction books for Draughts players. In 1800, Joshua Sturges published Guide to the Game of Draughts: Containing Five Hundred Select Games, Together with One Hundred and Forty Striking Situations, Exhibiting Games Drawn, and Won, by Critical Strokes; Comprising Almost Every Possible Variety which the Board Can Display, and Rendered Plain and Familiar to the Learner, By Clear Arrangement and Exploratory Directions. Like William Payne’s seminal work, this new book on Draughts also included a number of games laid out move by move. It appears to have run to multiple editions. Then, in 1813, Richard Payne, who may or may not have been a relative of William Payne, published Game of Draughts with Rules and Directions. Like the other books, this one listed a number of games, with the specific moves for each game.

Many people played this board game during the Regency. Those who lived in Britain would have called it Draughts, while those who lived in the United States would have called it Checkers. Draughts was considered an innocent pastime for people of all classes, ages and genders. However, though it was often played as a simple pastime among friends, it was also sometimes played against an opponent with a wager riding on the outcome of the game. Such games were most likely to be played at a coffee house or tavern. Those who wished to excel at the game may well have purchased one or more books which would help them hone their skills. Nevertheless, the basic rules were simple enough to learn that even children could play the game. Elegant game sets made of costly materials could be had, though it was also possible to purchase a satisfacory game set at a reasonable price. Travel sets were also made for those who might want to play the game while away from home.

Dear Regency Authors, could you make use of the differences in the name of this board game in one of your novels? Perhaps the heroine is from America and suggests a game of Checkers of an evening when the family with whom she is staying is gathered in the drawing room. Will they even understand her? Will one or more of them make fun of her for her use of the American name for the game? Or, during the War of 1812, might an American spy in Britain give himself away during a conversation in a public house by challenging a companion to a game of Checkers instead of Draughts? Could the heroine’s younger brother get himself into financial difficulty by gambling on his games of Draughts at the local public house? On the other hand, might the young man help supplement the family income by playing Draughts for money, having studied all the available books on the subject? And what of those books on Draughts? They were small and relatively inexpensive. Might a spy make use of them to send coded messages to a confederate? Despite the fact that Draughts was a fairly simple game, it could lend itself to any number of plots in a Regency romance novel.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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16 Responses to Draughts or Checkers — A Brief History

  1. Oh that explains a LOT if checkers is draughts, I’ve seen checkers mentioned in American literature, and wondered if it was like draughts at all as it has a chequered board [Laura Ingalls’ father making one by scorching alternate squares on the board for a simply pyrography effect]. I like the idea of a spy giving himself away. I have a vague plot bunny of two reverend gentlemen, friends since school days and separated by distance, carrying on games of draughs or chess by communicating through advertisements in an agreed newspaper and one of William Wickham’s men [he was Spymaster of England] thinking it is a code, and going to investigate, and one of the reverends having a very pretty daughter…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oooh! I like that plot bunny about the two reverends. That plot would work especially well if one or both of them traveled regularly, thus making playing by post too difficult. Might also draw more suspicion from the hero.

      Apparently, those who were very good at checkers, or draughts, could take nearly as long to get through a game as it took chess players. If you need specific moves for your stories, check out one of the books for which I provided links. They have pages and pages of draughts moves listed.


      • I shall be certain to do so. It would be a worthwhile bit of research! Chess I’ve been playing since before I started school, but I’ve never actually played draughts. Othello was all the rage when I was a teenager.!
        heheh why do I have a vision of someone a bit like Georgette Heyer’s Francis Cheviot [who prefers cats to dogs] being the spycatcher and having his sense of omniscience taken down a peg or two…

  2. If spying messages were coincidentally going out from the same neighbourhood, then the spycatcher and the pretty daughter might end up chasing real spies together and being in danger, after of course his initial suspicion that she is only there as a femme fatale to seduce him

  3. Great plot bunnies, all of them!
    I have to admit I had to check in a dictionary first to understand which game you are talking about. In Germany, the game is called “Dame” (in direct translation, it would be “lady ;- )”). So why not having a slightly sinister visitor from Germany in the scene, who insists on calling the game “Dame” – with a meaningful smile toward the lady he is playing the game with. They have agreed that the winner can ask the loser for a special token – the visitor will, of course, ask for a kiss. The visitor then slowly but surely captures the lady’s pieces… Can she still manage to win or will she have to kiss that sinister person?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      An interesting, if slightly scary scenario. There would be much tension as the game unfolds. I do hope the lady wins!

      Then again, if the fellow is in Britain and wants to play “Dame,” the locals may make fun of him, or even suggest he is a man-milliner, since the name “Dame” is derived from the non-force version of the game, known as Le jeu plaisant de dames (the pleasant ladies game). It was much less demanding and easier to play than the English Draughts.



    • nice sinister plot! heh, maybe the lady can lip-read, and the hero can make silent suggestions to her over the head of her opponent before she is at point non plus

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