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Hostage Chess and HostageMaster: John Leslie

Hostage Chess and HostageMaster: John Leslie

In Hostage Chess, captured men are freed by captive-for-captive exchanges, then parachuting back into the fight. The contest feels much like playing Shogi, the great chess game enjoyed by millions in Japan.

  • “I believe Hostage the most interesting, exciting variant that can be played with a standard chess set.” – Grandmaster Larry Kaufman, who is strong at Shogi
  • “Fascinating, exciting, extremely entertaining.” – Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett, seven times Canadian Chess Champion
  • “Play is rarely less than exciting, sometimes with several reversals of fortune. Dramatic mates are the rule, not the exception.” – International Master D.B.Pritchard, author of “The Encyclopedia of Chess Variants” and of “Popular Chess Variants” (it gives an entire chapter to Hostage).
  • “With only a few rule changes, a marvelously exciting variant on the classical game.” – International Master Lawrence Day
  • “Chess is not yet played out, but it is no longer possible to perform at a high level without a detailed knowledge of openings. In Hostage Chess creativity and imagination flourish, and fun returns.” – Peter Coast, Chess Champion of Scotland
  • “Every bit as intriguing as standard chess. Beautiful roads keep branching off in all directions and sharp-eyed beginners sometimes roll right over the experts.” – FIDE Master Robert Hamilton

In the forests of Hostage Chess, paths divide far faster than in the standard western game, so the weak often ambush the mighty. Even when a novice faces a very strong player, fighting typically remains fierce right up until there’s a checkmate. Draws are almost unknown. The website tells you the rules. It also lets you download the free book “Hostage Chess” and the computer program “HostageMaster”, which is free as well. “HostageMaster” plays against humans or against itself on the game board that it puts on your computer screen. It’s entertainingly aggressive.

The Two Main Rules

Starting with all the normal laws of western chess, Hostage Chess adds others about hostages, which means men that have been captured and imprisoned. Hostages can be ransomed, “paid for”, then at once parachuting back into the battle.

The prisons are at the side of the board, each near its owner’s right hand. To pay for a man in the enemy prison, you let a man out of your own prison.

There are airfields as well, each near its owner’s left hand. Any men in those airfields were sent there when let out of prison, so don’t need to be paid for. They are paratroops ready for action.

Rule #1: To rescue a man from the enemy prison, PAY by releasing from your own prison something OF EQUAL OR GREATER VALUE.

[VALUES run from PAWN upwards to KNIGHT-OR-BISHOP, then ROOK, then QUEEN. So, for instance, you could rescue a pawn by releasing an imprisoned rook. Or you might rescue a bishop by releasing a knight, because that’s equal in value.]

Push the released man forward into your opponent’s airfield. Then at once parachute the man you have rescued onto an empty square.

Rule #2: Anything in an airfield waits there until a turn is used for parachuting it.

Here’s how it works. Playing as in normal chess, two beginners reach a position in which Black has captured a bishop while White has captured a knight.

Instead of using his turn as in standard western chess, White decides to use Rule #1. He releases the black knight from the prison near his right hand, pushing it forward into his opponent’s airfield (marked by a double line). Since knights and bishops are of equal value, releasing the knight allows him to rescue the imprisoned white bishop, which must immediately parachute back onto the board. He uses the parachuting bishop to attack Black’s queen, as in the next diagram:

White’s turn has ended. The black knight has been pushed into Black’s airfield, to “buy” the white bishop. The bishop had to parachute at once, as Rule #1 said. Able to drop onto absolutely any empty square, it landed right up against the enemy queen. Should Black capture it? There’s a far better move — a move using Rule #2. The airfield knight is available for parachuting, and this looks the correct moment for using it to attack White’s king as shown below. Checkmate!

The Full Rules of Hostage Chess

To the normal rules of western chess, Hostage Chess adds these new ones:
(1)    Each player owns two areas at the side of the board: a prison for “hostages”— captured enemy men—near the player’s right hand, and an airfield near the player’s left hand.

In each turn you do only one of three things:

(a)    you move just as in standard western chess

or else (b) you “make a hostage exchange and drop”, not needing to get the other player’s permission for this; first you “rescue” just one man from your opponent’s prison by pushing a man WHOSE VALUE IS EQUAL OR GREATER from your prison into your opponent’s airfield, and then you parachute (“drop”) the rescued man onto an empty square

or else (c) you parachute just one man from your airfield onto an empty square.

(2)    VALUES run from PAWN upwards to KNIGHT-OR-BISHOP, then ROOK, then QUEEN. So, for example, by pushing an enemy knight from your prison into the enemy airfield you can rescue a knight, bishop or pawn from the enemy prison.

(3)    A bishop can parachute onto absolutely any empty square, so parachuting can place a player’s two bishops on squares of the same color.
Pawns cannot parachute onto first or eighth ranks.

Pawn jumps from the second rank, and acts of castling, may involve men that reached their squares by being parachuted onto them, no matter where they were positioned before they became hostages.

A pawn that reaches the fourth rank by parachuting cannot be captured “en passant”.

(4)    A pawn can promote only by changing places with a queen, rook, bishop or knight in the enemy prison (the pawn’s owner chooses the piece for this changing of places if more than one piece is available). Unless the prison contains such a “promotion piece”, a pawn one step away from promoting is totally “frozen”. Unable to move forward, it cannot even give check, or attack a square so as to prevent castling.

This has two important consequences:

a) A frozen pawn is said to “pseudo-check” a king instead of genuinely checking it. However, when your king is in pseudo-check you cannot legally capture any queen, rook, bishop or knight. That’s because this would “unfreeze” the pawn, putting the king into a genuine check, since now your prison would contain a piece with which the pawn could change places.

b) A genuine check by a pawn sometimes becomes a pseudo-check through an exchange of hostages — an exchange that suddenly “freezes” the pawn by leaving no queen, rook, bishop or knight in the enemy prison.

Not a rule, but VERY STRONGLY RECOMMENDED: Use things like saucers, small plates or beer-mats as the airfields. Then you’ll be able to see at a glance the difference between paratroops and prisoners.

Notation for Recording Hostage Chess

Normal chess notation with the following additions:

  • N*c7 means a knight from an airfield parachutes onto c7.
  • (B)N*c7 means an imprisoned bishop goes to the enemy airfield and a knight is rescued, the knight then at once parachuting onto c7.
  • P*g3, often shortened to *g3, means a pawn from an airfield parachutes onto g3.
  • (R)P*g3, often shortened to (R)*g3, means an imprisoned rook goes to the enemy airfield and a pawn is rescued, the pawn at once parachuting onto g3.
  • g8=N means a pawn steps forward to g8, promoting to knight by changing places with a knight in the enemy prison. gxf8=R means a pawn on the g-file captures on f8 and promotes to rook by changing places with a rook in the enemy prison.

Scenes from a Game

The game starts with the following moves:    1 d4 d5    2 Nc3 e5    3 dxe5 d4 4 Nf3 dxc3    5 Qxd8+ Kxd8    6 Bg5+ Be7    7 bxc3 Nc6    8 Rd1+    So far, no use has been made of parachuting (very often called “dropping” so that men that parachute become “drops”).

Tactical Hints

  • Attack, attack!    If, as in a game called “Chessgi” or “Crazyhouse”, captured men just changed sides, immediately becoming available to parachute back onto the board to fight their former allies, then Hostage Chess would be a scene of brutal violence with scarcely any room for expertise. Still, even with the need for captives to be exchanged before they can be used as paratroops, Hostage can greatly reward aggression. If you’re facing a stronger player, attacking may be your only possible path to victory. Beginners can score quite a few wins when they challenge very skilled players, for seeing more than four or fives moves ahead is far harder than in standard western chess: the tree of possible moves expands much faster because captured men keep returning to the board. Stratagems which look excellent to experts may well fail while a weak player’s aggressiveness succeeds.
  • Frequent changes of fortune add to the excitement of this game. Even when far behind in material, hesitate before resigning! Seizing a chance to attack may quickly change a seemingly hopeless situation into a win. Starting with very little, perhaps an airfield pawn and a couple of captured pieces which can be used for buying imprisoned men to drop in support of that pawn, an attack may last for a dozen moves because it keeps being refueled as new material arrives from captures and from hostage exchanges. Don’t worry when you can’t see all the way to the end of an attack. Attacking half-blindly is often much better than waiting to be attacked yourself.
  • Men tend to be far more useful when they are on airfields. An airfield queen, ready to land on absolutely any square, can be much stronger than a queen on the board. A pawn on an airfield is typically as strong as two pawns on the board. An airfield knight is often worth more than a rook on the board. A dropped bishop’s diagonal could be blocked by dropping a pawn, but when a knight drops there’s just no way of obstructing its next move. The knight’s arrival can be devastating, particularly if it lands on a square protected by another knight so that if it’s captured the other knight can at once replace it. And although early castling is often a good idea, many games end with successive knight- drops attacking castled kings.
  • “Drop where your opponent wants to drop” is an important principle. Just sitting on a square can be very helpful when it makes a hostile paratrooper unable to land there.
  • Having prisoners does give you useful “cash” to buy imprisoned men through hostage exchanges, men which you at once parachute back into the battle, but remember that whenever you decide to exchange hostages you’re choosing to give your opponent an airfielder. Also that a man in your prison will be a bomb which drops on your head if your opponent makes a hostage exchange that buys it, so you need to think twice before capturing even a pawn. And look for whether you can usefully force your opponent to capture one of your men so that you can at once buy it back for bombing purposes.
  • You may be able to prevent a hostage exchange that would get you bombed disastrously. Suppose, for instance, that you buy a bishop sitting in your opponent’s prison, and that this leaves nothing in that prison with which to purchase a knight that sits in your prison. You’ve now stopped the knight being used for bombing you.
  • Capturing a queen allows you to pay for absolutely any man your opponent has imprisoned; you might even use it as payment for a mere pawn, then parachuting the pawn in some lethal fashion; yet in most situations it would be unwise to use it for buying anything less than a queen, so it just sits in your prison like dead wood. There’s one way, however, in which having imprisoned a queen might be very useful, for now your own queen might be able to rush around destructively without fear of being captured because you’d at once follow its capture with a queen-for-queen hostage exchange, the queen returning by air at the head of a mating attack.
  • Rooks tend to be less useful than in standard chess since they never have a nearly empty board to sweep across grandly as in a standard-chess endgame — the battlefield instead keeps filling up as fast as it empties because men return to it by air. In fact, the main reason for preferring capturing rooks to capturing knights is that a captured rook is cash for buying a knight, whereas a knight cannot buy a rook.
  • In general, bishops are slightly weaker than knights. Admittedly, it can be useful that bishops parachute absolutely anywhere; you’re allowed to drop a bishop onto a black square, for instance, even if you already have one on another black square; yet it’s often poor to have your bishop pair patrolling only half the squares of the chessboard. Bishops do, however, “skewer” nicely. A skewer attack may be in two stages. Imagine that you use a bishop to skewer your opponent’s queen and king. The queen can’t move since this would put the king into check, but a hostile pawn parachutes just in front of the bishop to block its attack. Well, the bishop captures the pawn; the queen captures the bishop; and then the bishop returns by air to renew the skewer. It’s now right up against the queen.
  • Dropped pawns can trap enemies, or “fork” them, or appear on seventh ranks with good chances of getting promotion. They can block the lines of queens, rooks or bishops, or force those pieces to move to inferior positions. They can be sacrificed, maybe one after another, to draw kings into danger.
  • Be sure you understand the rule that a pawn can promote only by changing places with a piece in the enemy prison; the fact that this sometimes “freezes” seventh-rank pawns; and how what look like checks may therefore turn out to be “pseudo-checks”. Exploiting these points can deliver an unexpected punch — the following swift defeat, for example. A player’s king is checked by a seventh-rank pawn, thanks to there being a knight in his opponent’s prison. That prison contains nothing else. Seeing this, the player decides to transform the check into a pseudo-check. He releases a prisoner to buy the knight, thus freezing the pawn by leaving it nothing with which it can change places, and now the knight drops with checkmate.
  • It can be a winning advantage to have men near the enemy king. Just marching your army forward tends, however, to end in disaster. It invites paratroops to land on all those empty squares you’ve created behind your front lines.
  • Games can be short, particularly when a player puts blind faith in standard openings from the pages of the western chess-books. Commonly, however, by about the ninth move we see the start of an intriguing struggle as captured men begin returning to the board, a struggle which lasts for many further moves but only rarely gets as far as move fifty. As soon as prisons or airfields obtain more than just a few inhabitants, matters become explosive. Games then often end with a flurry of checks, but maybe the checks will fail; the player who made them will now probably be pelted by material that has accumulated on the enemy airfield.
  • Games hardly ever become draws, neither player seeing how to make progress. Draws by perpetual check occur only about once in sixty cases. Hence almost always there’s a loser, but when not even the strongest players can expect to see far down this game’s rapidly dividing pathways you can lose without feeling bruised. Win or lose, Hostage is fun.

The “HostageMaster Computer Program”

HostageMaster, the magnificent creation of Shogi expert Paul Connors, plays on the on-screen chessboard that it provides. The program is downloadable for free from It will show you how Hostage is played if you tell it to fight against itself at a slow rate. Challenged to play against you, it could well win, even if you gave it only five seconds to think about each of its moves. Although people skilled at standard western chess soon become strong at Hostage, players graded “Expert” at the standard game lose to HostageMaster much of the time if they set the program to its “ten seconds per move” strength while allowing themselves as long as they like for their thinking. At “one minute per move”, however, the program is only a little stronger than at “ten seconds” because the many-branched tree of possible sequences of moves grows far more quickly than in standard chess once multiple possibilities of parachuting arrive. Similarly, the strength at “five minutes per move” can seem little greater than at “one minute”, so that’s a strength that you’ll probably want to reserve for when the program is left playing against itself overnight.

Help at the top of the on-screen chessboard gives a brief statement of the rules. To make sure you understand them, and to learn some tactical tricks, tell HostageMaster to play against itself. Click on Game at the top of the board, then select “Computer plays Both sides”.

How to Move Pieces

A.    To make any move which doesn’t involve exchanging hostages, put your cursor on the piece you want to move, depress your left mouse button, drag the piece to where you want it, and then release the button. Do this even when the piece is being parachuted from your airfield.

B.    To exchange hostages, you must first drag the one that you are rescuing to the square onto which you want it parachuted. If there’s a choice of which hostage you could release to pay for the rescue, the computer will ask you to make the choice. Otherwise it will complete the exchange automatically.

C.    To castle, move the king two spaces towards the rook; the computer will then move the rook. To capture a pawn en passant, just move your own pawn in the usual way; the computer will imprison the victim. [Remember, though, that a pawn that reached its position by parachuting cannot be captured en passant.]

D.    To promote a seventh-rank pawn, move it forward as in normal chess. The computer will then apply the rule that a promoting pawn always changes places with an imprisoned queen, rook, bishop or knight: it will ask you to select the piece if more than one is available.

E.    The computer pushes back any move when it would be illegal, for instance because you’re trying to advance a seventh-rank pawn when there’s no imprisoned piece with which it could change places, or because you haven’t noticed you’re in check.    ..Important: When you think it’s illegally disregarding a check, or moving a king into check or castling across check, this will be because you’ve forgotten that a seventh-rank pawn is totally frozen, able to deliver only a harmless pseudo-check, when there’s no queen, rook, bishop or knight in the enemy prison. Again, the computer sometimes won’t let you capture a queen or a rook or a bishop or a knight because the capture would change a pseudo-check to your king into a genuine check (and of course you aren’t allowed to put yourself in check). Or it may startle you by changing a genuine check into a pseudo-check through an exchange of hostages which leaves no imprisoned queen, rook, bishop or knight to make a genuine check possible.


Clicking on Game and View at the top of the board gives you various possible commands. Until receiving new instructions, the computer will expect you to play White while it plays Black, allowing itself five seconds to think about each of its moves. While it’s thinking, the little box at the base of the HostageMaster screen is shaded RED; when it’s your turn to play, it’s shaded GREEN.

Using the Game menu you can do many things:    (i) Click on “New game”. (ii) Adjust the computer’s strength by giving it more time or less time for its thinking. The adjustment is possible only when the little box is shaded GREEN.    (iii) Tell the computer “Move now” (the shortcut for this command is pressing your space bar) whenever you grow impatient.    (iv) Choose “Computer plays White” or “Computer plays Black”. For playing Black you’ll probably want to flip the board: go to View to do this.    (v) Specify “Computer plays both sides” and enjoy watching a fascinating contest.        (vi) “Computer plays neither side” lets you play against a friend. The machine will make sure that no illegal moves are played.    (vii) You can change what you’ve specified by “Computer plays …” at any time when the machine isn’t thinking. For instance, you could discover whether a quick checkmate was available by saying “Computer plays both sides”.    (viii) Say “Undo move” (the shortcut for this is LEFT-ARROW) to go back to the previous move. The undone move is deleted from the computer’s memory only if you make another move instead; otherwise “Redo move” (RIGHT-ARROW) will retrieve it. But any undoing of a move means that the “Computer plays ..” specification will be “Computer plays neither side” until you specify something else.    (ix) “Save” can be used to save any position (it doesn’t save the entire game).    (x) “Open” takes you to a folder holding all the positions that you’ve saved.    (xi) “Set new position” lets you drag pieces freely to form any desired position. You can then treat it just as if you’d reached it during normal play.


1.) If any commands stop working, perhaps because you’ve left a game for a while in order to do things on the Internet, put your cursor anywhere on the chessboard and click.    2.) The computer plays its first move (or its first pair of moves if it has been set to “Computer plays both sides”) immediately and randomly, so you may want to use “Undo move” and then play something else instead. Saying “Computer plays neither side” you may even play all the moves of long openings before changing to “Computer plays Black” or “Computer plays White”. But opening moves that are fine in standard western chess would sometimes have worked disastrously in Hostage. 3.) It can be interesting to look over a game, wandering backwards and forwards inside it by left-arrowing and right-arrowing. You may also wish to record the game by left-arrowing all the way back to its start, afterwards right-arrowing through it, pen in hand.    4.) You can investigate alternatives to what was played by undoing a move and replacing it by another, or by giving the computer more time for its thinking, or by asking it to change which army it controls (you might even make it control both armies), or by saying “Computer plays neither side” and then making several moves for each side. But you’ll then have erased the computer’s memory of all the moves that were in fact played after the point at which you started your investigation.

The above Introductions to Hostage Chess and to HostageMaster were by the game’s designer, John Leslie. To give him feedback—perhaps with records of Hostage games that you’ve played—phone him at the North American number 1-250-391-3908, or send letters to 2066 Gourman Place, Victoria V9B 6E1, British Columbia, Canada, or email

PLEASE HELP SPREAD THE NEWS ABOUT HOSTAGE CHESS, AND ABOUT HOW “HOSTAGE MASTER” IS AN OPPONENT FOR FOLK TO PUT ON THEIR COMPUTER SCREENS. Give the news even to friends who aren’t much good at chess. In the thick Hostage forests with their ever-branching pathways, beginners can defeat experts by seizing chances to attack.