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:
The Inca Chess Master
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 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!”
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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Tags:chess in Peru, Inca history
Authored by: Rick Vecchio
Website:Peruvian Travel Trends Blog
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.
Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, likely learned to play chess during the nine-month imprisonment he experienced before being condemned to death by the Spaniard who conquered Cajamarca, Peru, in 1532. Even though this episode’s veracity maintains unclear, it has spread so widely that it has become an almost indispensable aspect in current characterizations on this indigenous leader of the Spanish conquest of the New World. Instead of trying to confirm or reject absolutely its authenticity in historical terms, this Master’s thesis prefers to focus on the cultural dimension reached by this topic. Hence, this work firstly draws the itinerary of the formation of what I call the Atahualpa ajedrecista (The Chessman Atahualpa). Basically, this road map chronologically links the testimonies (original manuscripts, historical narrations, novels, poems, websites, and other cultural representations) that, from the colonial period until present day, refer to this image. Secondly, this research paper analyzes and compares the different and occasionally deliberated uses that have been done of this image throughout the last five centuries. On the one hand, the particular meaning that two well-known Spanish conquerors, Gaspar de Espinosa and Pascual de Andagoya, gave to the Atahualpa ajedrecista is especially significant in order to reinforce their personal and specific interests. On the other hand, this work reflects how, since Ricardo Palma published his short story “Los incas ajedrecistas,” this image has turned into a very powerful symbol for the pro indigenous and nationalistic discourses that proliferated in the Andean region, and South America in general, since the beginning of the twentieth century. The brief but crucial comments made by Espinosa, Andagoya and the reputed chronicler Pedro Cieza de León are the testaments on which I base my objection about the validness of Olaf Holm’s point of view. In the mid-fifties, and in the unique academic work that had been written on this topic so far, he categorically denied that Atahualpa ever played chess. Apart from keeping that door open, I promote a postcolonial view of this subject, as it takes part of the Andean collective thinking that still condemns the Spanish conquest that caused the extinction of the Inca empire and its culture.