The chequered origins of chess in Peru: the Inca emperor turned pawn

The chequered origins of chess in Peru: the Inca emperor turned pawn

The first native South American to learn and master the game of chess was the Inca Atahualpa — taught by his Spanish executioners.

As you’ll recall, after being taken hostage in one of history’s most brazen ambushes, the Inca ruler offered his kidnappers “a room filled with gold as high as their arms could reach” in exchange for his life.

Over the months, as tons of the precious metal was ripped from temple walls and shrines across the four corners of the empire and melted down, Atahualpa was allowed to reestablish his court in prison, as long as he ordered his people to accept Spanish rule. Once the treasure was delivered, he was garroted to death.

Atahualpa’s match of wits over the chess board with his Spanish captors was poignantly portrayed as fable in the 2005 short film “Atahualpa,” directed by Jimmy Entraigües and Ivan Garcia.

The most famous account of Atahualpa’s education of the game comes from Ricardo Palma (1833-1919), the 19th century Peruvian author and scholar.

Palma took advantage of his position as director of  Peru’s National Library to develop a literary genre known as “tradiciones,” short stories mixing history, fiction and hearsay to chronicle life in Peru across several centuries:

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The Inca Chess Master

Ricardo Palma "Tradiciones Peruanas" (Peruvian Traditions)
EL INCA AJEDRECISTA Se sabe, por tradición, que los capitanes Hernández de Soto, Juan de Rada, Francisco de Chávez, Blas de Atienza y el tesorero Riquelme se congregaban todas las tardes, en Cajamarca, en el departamento que sirvió de prisión al Inca Atahualpa desde el 15 de Noviembre de 1532, en que efectuó la captura del monarca, hasta la antevíspera de su injustificable sacrificio el 29 de agosto de 1533. Allí, para los cinco nombrados y tres o cuatro más que no se mencionan en sucintos y curiosos apuntes (que a la vista tuvimos, consignados en rancio manuscrito que existió en la antigua Biblioteca nacional), funcionaban dos tableros, toscamente pintados, sobre la respectiva mesita de madera. Las pieza eran hecha del mismo barro que empleaban los indígenas para la fabricación de idolillos y demás objetos de alfarería aborigen, que hogaño se extraen de la huacas. Hasta los primeros años de la republica no se conocieron en el Perú otras piezas que las de marfil, que remetían para la venta los comerciantes filipinos. Honda preocupación abrumaría el espíritu del Inca en los dos o tres primeros meses de su cautiverio, pues aunque todas las tardes tomaba asiento junto a Hernando de Soto, su amigo y amparador, no daba señales de haberse dado cuenta de la manera como actuaban las pieza ni de los lances y accidentes del juego. Pero una tarde, en las jugadas finales de una partida empañada entre Soto y Riquelme, hizo el ademán Hernando de Soto de movilizar el caballo, y el Inca, tocándole ligeramente en el brazo, le dijo en voz baja: – No capitán, no… ¡El castillo¡ La sorpresa fue general, Hernando, después de breves segundos de meditación, puso en juego la torre, como le aconsejara Atahualpa, y pocas jugadas después sufría Riquelme inevitable mate. Después de aquella tarde, y cediéndole siempre las pieza blancas, y al cabo de un par de meses el discípulo era ya digno del maestro jugaba de igual a igual. Se comentaba en los apuntes a que me he referido que los otros ajedrecistas españoles, con excepción de Riquelme invitaron al Inca; pero este se excuso siempre de aceptar, diciéndoles por medio del intérprete Filipillo: -¡Yo juego muy poquito y vuestra merced juega mucho¡ La tradición popular asegura que el Inca no habría sido condenado a muerte si hubiera permanecido ignorante en el ajedrez. Dice el pueblo que Atahualpa pago con su vida el mate que por su consejo de veinticuatro jueces, consejo convocado por Pizarro, se impuso a Atahualpa la pena de muerte por trece cotos contra once. Riquelme fue de los trece que suscribieron la sentencia. Ricardo Palma (Tradiciones Peruanas)

Tradition has it that the captains Hernando de Soto, Juan de Rada, Francisco de Chavez, Blas de Atienza, and the treasurer Riquelme gathered every afternoon in Cajamarca in the room that served as a prison for the Inca Atahualpa from November 15, 1532, when the emperor was captured, until two days before his unjustifiable execution on August 29, 1533.

In the room, the five men named and three or four others not mentioned in succinct and curious notes (that we had at hand, set down in an old manuscript preserved in the former National Library) had the use of two crudely painted chess boards, set on a wooden chess table.

The pieces were made of the same clay that the natives used for fashioning little idols and other objects of native pottery, which nowadays are dug up in huacas. Until the first years of the Republic the only pieces known in Peru were those made of ivory, sent by Philippine tradesmen for sale here.

The Last Days of the Inca by Kim MacQuarrie
“During the many months of Atahualpa’s captivity, a number of the Spaniards grew fond of the native emperor, especially Hernando de Soto and Hernando Pizarro.
The two Spanish captains even taught the Inca emperor how to play chess and spent hours with him enjoying a game originally invented in India. Atahualpa soon became proficient and gave chess the name of taptana, or ‘surprise attack,’ thoroughly enjoying the game’s obvious parallels with military strategy.”

The mind of the Inca must have been deeply preoccupied during the first two or three months of his captivity, for even though he seated himself every afternoon alongside Hernando de Soto, his friend and protector, he gave no sign of having realized how the pieces moved or how fortunes changed during a game.

But one afternoon, in the final moves of a match between Soto and Riquelme, Hernando made a move toward putting the knight into play, and the Inca, touching him lightly on the arm, said to him in a low voice:

“No, captain, no… the rook!”

Everyone was surprised. After a few brief seconds of reflection, Hernando played the castle, as Atahualpa had advised him, and a few moves later, Riquelme experienced the inevitable checkmate.

After that afternoon, and always giving him the white pieces to play as a sign of respect and courtesy, Captain Hernando de Soto invited the Inca to play just one match with him, and after a couple of months the disciple was already a credit to his teacher,  playing as his equal.

The notes that I have mentioned tell how the other Spanish chess players, with the exception of Riquelme, also invited the Inca to play, but he always excused himself for not accepting, telling each of them through the interpreter Felipillo:

“I play very little, and Your Grace plays a great deal!”

inca vs spanish chess set
Author Kim Macquarrie writes that Inca Atahualpa gave chess the Quechua name taptana, or “surprise attack,” because of the game’s obvious parallels with military strategy.

Popular tradition assures us that the Inca would not have been condemned to death had he remained untutored in chess. The people say that Atahualpa paid with his life for the checkmate that Riquelme suffered because of his advice on that memorable afternoon. In the famous council of 24 judges called together by Pizarro, Atahualpa was sentenced to the death penalty by 13 votes for and 2 against. Riquelme was one of the 13 who signed the death sentence.

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Authored by: Rick Vecchio

Rick Vecchio, Fertur’s director of development and marketing, was educated at the New School for Social Research and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He worked for Pacifica Radio WBAI and as a daily reporter for newspapers in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. Then in 1996, he decided it was time to realize a life-long dream of traveling to Peru. He never went back. While serving as Peru country manager for the South American Explorers from 1997-1999, he fell in love with Fertur's founder, Siduith Ferrer, and they married. Over the next six years, he worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press. Meanwhile, Siduith built the business, which he joined in January 2007. Now he designs custom educational and adventure tour packages for corporate and institutional clients, oversees Fertur’s Internet platform and occasionally leads special trips, always with an eye open for a good story to write about.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Paul Crawford at 3:27 pm

    I loved reading about the chess in Peru, it is something i am interested in, not just the idea of the game (which i am very rusty at now) but more in the history.
    We have in our house a chess table, not really certain of the full history, my great, great grandfather was an engineer on the Peruvian railway, he played chess to pass away his spare time, to cut a long story short, my mother inherited his chess table, from Peru.
    I was wondering if i sent you some pictures if you would have any idea on its history
    Thank you in advance

  2. Rick Vecchio Author at 5:14 pm

    Hello Paul,

    We’re not experts, but sure! Send us photos and I will ask at the antique shops in Miraflores and let you know what they tell me. I’ll send a secure upload link to your email address.

    Best regards,


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