Simon Doubleday

The Book of Games

In his the prologue to his Libro de los juegos (Book of Games) Alfonso explains that because God wished people to be happy, and to have a means of overcoming their troubles and cares, they invented a variety of games. These ranged from jousting and throwing javelins, to fencing, wrestling, running, and jumping. The book itself, however, focuses on three games in particular: ‘tables’, dice, and the princely game of chess.

Skill at chess, both in Castile and in al-Andalus, was a sign of refinement and sophistication. One exotic variation that Alfonso loved to play was Grant acedrex or Great Chess. Played on a board with one hundred and forty four squares, it featured a veritable menagerie of birds and beasts, including crocodiles, giraffes, rhinoceroses and lions.

The Book of Games is richly illustrated, and some scholars see its portraits as realistic depictions of individuals at the royal court, including Alfonso and his family. The people who appear in these portraits are highly diverse, including women, dark-skinned Africans, and Muslims. One thirteenth-century motto stated: “all the world’s a chessboard”.