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    The King Isn't Dead After All!
    The Real Meaning of Shah Mat or the Lesson of the Commode
    by Jan Newton
    (September, 2003)

      SHAH MAT       

    Like millions of other chessplayers, I've always thought that shah mat ("check mate" in English) means "the King is dead".

    This explanation of the term is all over the internet, stated as fact on website after website. People have heard (or read) it so often, they have naturally assumed that it must be so. But while researching the origins of chess over the past four years I have occasionally seen shah mat described as something else. So, what is the true meaning of shah mat? In the mysterious way these things work, one night when I couldn't sleep I found myself wondering just that. I fumbled my way in the dark to my den, turned on a light, and pulled the dictionary off a bookcase.

    I was on my way to looking up "check mate" when I stumbled across "commode" instead. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read:

    com mode/ n [F, fr. commode, adj., suitable, convenient, fr. L commodus, fr. com- + modus measure – more at METE) (1688) 1: a woman's ornate cap popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries 2 a : a low chest of drawers b : a movable washstand with a cupboard underheath c : a boxlike structure holding a chamber pot under an open seat; also : CHAMBER POT d : TOILET 3b[1]

    Well! I was utterly and completely shocked! I'd had no idea a commode was something women used to wear on their heads! This episode proved to me just how treacherous words can be. I had always thought a commode was a sort of chest of drawers, or what people used to call a chair-over-a-chamber-pot, the precursor to our modern-day toilet. If I ever found myself wondering what it meant to "discommode" someone (pull someone out of a dresser drawer? Push someone off the toilet seat ("Hey, buddy! Get outta my way") - it was not a question I considered of earth-shattering significance in the greater scheme of things and therefore I never bothered to dig deeper. But now I knew what it really meant to be "discommoded"!

    I put the dictionary away and went back to bed. I didn't fall asleep immediately, but laid staring up at the ceiling, imagining scenes of a dastardly late 17th or early 18th century varlet (wearing a long, curly wig with nits and lice jumping about) terrorizing the local maidens by threatening to discommode them! What could be worse than having one's commode ripped off one's unsuspecting head, especially if one was having a bad hair day? I totally forgot about checking the definition of "check mate". I recovered from the shock of discovering what "commode" really means, but I pondered the significance of how the usage and meaning of words change over time. As someone who routinely researches in the backwaters of ancient history, I have to keep this problem constantly in mind. It is difficult enough dealing with language evolution in one's native tongue; when attempting to decipher a foreign language, the difficulty is all the greater because a non-native speaker is unlikely to be aware of colloquial nuances and "slang" terms. How easy it would be to err.

    Bearing in mind the uncertainties of translation that language can often embody, one day I ventured forth on the great wide internet to see what I could find out about shah mat.

    My first stop was a Google search under "the King is dead". While this produced many websites about Elvis, nothing in the first few pages of search results had anything to do with chess. I moved on to a search for "shah mat". A small sampling of the findings from that search:

    Comment in a story about Kasparov's historic match against Deep Blue[2]:
    Chess is, after all, a form of war. The word comes from the Persian cry, Shah Mat! -- the king is dead. (Emphasis added).

    From an article on the history of chess at "YourDictionary"[3]:
    The culmination of this bloodless substitute for bloodletting is the murder of the enemy king, although the modern game ends euphemistically with the checkmate. This term, too, can be traced through a millennium to Persia. Shah mat "checkmate" means 'the king (shah) is dead,' where "mat" is related to the Latin stem mort- "death" found in "mortuary." (Emphasis added).

    Entry under "Shah" in the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (online)[4]:
    SHAH, the title of the kings of Persia, the full title being pads/zak, i.e. "lord king," Pers. pati, lord, and shah, king (see PADISHAH, the Turkish form of the word). The word shah is a much shortened form of the O. Pers. kksayatkiya, probably formed from khsayathi, might, power, kksi, to rule. The Sanskrit kshatram, dominion, is allied, cf. also "satrap." From the Pers. shah mat, the king is dead, is ultimately derived, through the Arab. pronunciation shag, "check-mate," then "check," "chess," "exchequer," &c. (Emphasis added).

    There were many more of such results. I did, however, find a few references that countered the "king is dead" interpretation of shah mat:

    In an article from the April 25, 2003 online edition of "The Moscow Times"[5], by Carl Schreck (the Moscow Patzer):
    The Russian word for chess "shakhmaty" came to Russia from the Persians via the Arabs. The Persian word for "king" is "shah," and the phrase "shah mat" can be translated as "the king is ambushed." (Emphasis added).

    From the "Online Etymology Dictionary"[6]:
    checkmate – c. 1346, from O.Fr. eschec mat, ult. from Pers. shah mat, lit. "the king is left helpless." (Emphasis added). From the Piececlopedia[7] entry for "King": Our words Chess and checkmate both come from "Shah," the Persian word for King. Checkmate comes from the Persian expression "shah mat", which literally means, as Davidson points out, that the King is ambushed. Although "mat" is also an Arabic word for dead, the expression was in use by the Persians before Chess spread to the Arabs, and it did not mean dead in Persian. Reports that checkmate means the King is dead are mistaken. (Emphasis added)

    While there were many more entries in favor of shah mat meaning "the King is dead", I was inclined to give more weight to the "King is ambushed" or the "King is helpless" translation. I was getting nowhere fast on my initial internet forays, however, and so I decided to try a different approach. I pulled the chess researcher's Bible, H.J.R. Murray's "A History of Chess"[8] off the bookshelf to see what he had to say on the subject. On page 159 (second paragraph) I found:

    Shah is the Middle and Modern Persian form of the Old Pers. khshayathiya, which is found on the cuneiform inscriptions on the rock-face of the cliffs at Behistun. In Pahlawi writing the Huzvarish form malka was used in its place. It has always been the royal title of the Persian monarch. When the Shah in chess was attacked by any other piece it was usual to call attention to the fact by saying Shah, it being incumbent upon the player whose Shah was attacked to move it or otherwise to remedy the check. This usage passed into Arabic, and was adopted in European chess, although with the change in name of the piece it ceased to have any obvious meaning. Indeed in Med. Lat. the word scac in this sense was simply treated as an interjection. When the Shah was left in check without resource, mat or shah mat was said. Mat is a Persian adjective meaning 'at a loss', 'helpless', 'defeated', and is a contracted form of the adjective mand, manad, manid (RAS(2) uses regularly shah manad and manad for shah mat and mat), which is derived from the verb mandan, manidan, 'to remain'.(1) (Emphasis added).

    The "RAS" Murray refers to in Note (2) above means MS. Royal Asiatic Society, Persian, No. 211.[9] Note (1) states: See Hyde, ii. 133, who quotes a number of Persian dictionaries or the form manid; a note by Mirza Kasim Beg in the Journal Asiatique, 1951, ii. 585; Gildemeister in ZDMG., xxviii. 696; and Dozy's Supplement aux dictionnaires arabes, Leyden, 1878. The old view of the pre-scientific philologists that mat was the Ar. verb mata, 'to die' - a view which began to be current at an early period in the life of Muslim chess - has been abandoned by modern scholars.

    Murray had spoken! But I wasn't ready to wrap up my research just yet. I wanted further confirmation from different sources about the meaning of the Pahlavi word mat. I next checked "The Oxford Companion to Chess"[10]. It's entry under "check mate" states, in part: The word is derived from the Persian shah, meaning king, and mat, meaning helpless or defeated. (Emphasis added). Confirmation of Murray by Hooper and Whyld.

    What I did not know and what I could not answer, was how much Hooper and Whyld may have relied upon Murray's scholarship in writing their entry on "check mate". I returned to the internet, where I had found so much valuable information in the past. As my earlier Google search had used "shah mat", I now tried a few variant spellings.

    At the World History Archives[11] I discovered an archived discussion from 1998 on the origin of the Queen.[12] One of the replies[13] stated:

    The term check mate comes from Persian shaah maat, the king is dumfounded/ stymied (and not from Arabic Shah maat, the king died, which is the etymology most dictionaries give). (Emphasis added).

    I then checked a few English-Persian online dictionaries. At[14], a modern Persian dictionary, I typed in the word mat and the English results were "mate", "opaque", "stalemate", and "tire".

    A Comprehensive English-Persian Dictionary (Including the Arabic Words and Phrases to Be Met With in Persian Literature)[15], a classical Persian-English dictionary, stated:

    mat (p. 1136): a mat, He died, he is dead; conquered, subjected, reduced to the last extremity (especially at chess), checkmated; astonished, amazed, perplexed; <-> mat-ash mi-barad, He is struck dumb (m.c.); -- mat kardan, To confound; to check mate; -- burd u mat, Check and mate.

    I completed my research foray by visiting the Encyclopaedia Iranica[16]. In an article written by Professor Bo Utas[17] of Uppsala University (Uppsala, Sweden), he states:

    "Tthe game is won in the same basic way, by sah-mat (checkmate). It is generally supposed that mat is the Arabic perfect of the verb"to die," but this seems unlikely since the very point of the story, as told in the Sah-nama, is that the King is made powerless and paralyzed without being hit by anybody (cf. Murray, p. 159). Other pieces get killed (NPers. kosta) but the King becomes mat (note omitted), a word appearing in various Persian languages with the meaning "broken, paralyzed." Furthermore, early usage implies that Arabic al-sahmat was a loanword from Persian (note omitted). The term was also adopted in most European languages (e.g., Sp. jaque mate).[18]

    Just in case you're curious, here's the definition of check mate -- the one I didn't check that night I discovered the real meaning of "commode": check mate/ vt [ME chekmaten, fr. chekmate, interj. used to announce checkmate, fr. MF eschec mat, fr. Ar shah mat, fr. Per, lit., the king is left unable to escape] (14c) 1 : to arrest, thwart, or counter completely 2 : to check (a chess opponent's king) so that escape is impossible[19]

    Oh, those tiny little twists and turns of fate that lead us here instead of there. If I had read that definition of check mate on that sleepless night, I would have had my answer: shah mat means to put the king in such a position that he is arrested, thwarted or countered so completely that he is unable to escape. He is blockaded, dumbfounded, paralyzed, stymied (one might even say that in such a situation, the King is greatly discommoded). Shah mat does not mean "the king is dead." But if I had learned what "check mate" really meant that night, I probably would not have explored the matter further, and this article might never have been written.

    (c) Jan Newton 2003

    [Ed. note: This small terracotta depicts a young woman from Crete wearing a very elaborate headdress. Paleo-palatial period, 2000-1700 BC. ÒThe paleopalatial age reached its artistic apex with Camares ceramicsÉÓ asserts Alexiou (1967), who documents a similar headdress found in a mountain sanctuary on the Kofinas on the southern coast of Crete. Bibliography (for this item) Alexiou, Stylianos, Nikolaos Platon, and Hanni Guanella 1967 La Crte Antique. Hachette, Paris, France. ( # 45)


    [1] Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1989 by Merriam-Webster Inc., p. 265. See also Merriam-Webster's online dictionary at

    [2] "No. 1242, "Kasparov and Deep Blue", by John Lienhard, from Engines of Our Ingenuity, (c) 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard,

    [3] The Tangles of Time - A Brief History of Chess, by Paul J.J. Payack, President & CEO, YourDictionary,com, from the "WordMan" series,

    [4] The 1911 online (OCR scanned) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, , © 2002 by LoveToKnow Corp.

    [5] "Finishing the Game with a "Shakh I Mat",

    [6] By Douglas Harper, (c) 2001,

    [7] Written by Hans L. Bodlaender and Fergus Duniho,

    [8] Benjamin Press reprint of original Oxford University Press Edition of 1913, ISBN 0-936-317-01-9.

    [9] Murray, p. 177.

    [10] Second Edition, by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-866164-9.

    [13] Written by Franklin D. Lewis. Mr. Lewis closed his reply with an address at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Middle Eastern Studies. The discussion, which appears to have been conducted by students and professors of middle eastern studies, mentioned several resources both on- and off-line (a website, treatises and books) that I have subsequently found extremely useful in my research.

    [15] By Francis Joseph Steingass, London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1892., online version part of the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia project.

    [16] A project of the Columbia University Center for Iranian Studies,


    [17] "The History of Chess in Persia", pp. 394-396. Information on Professor Utas can be found here; see also

    [18] Encyclopaedia Iranica, p. 395.

    [19] Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 230. See also




    Sudden Wealth Curse

    10 months ago: Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and the Netherland's Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, left, enter a hall for a signing of documents ceremony in the Moscow Kremlin, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007, with Dutch gas company Nederlandse Gasunie NV President Marcel Kramer, right, in the background. Russian and Dutch officials signed an agreement Tuesday to include Dutch gas giant Nederlandse Gasunie NV in the Baltic Sea pipeline designed to bypass several European countries and ship Russian gas directly to Germany. 


    Iran: Shell Faces 'Dilemma' In South Pars Gas Project
    By Breffni O'Rourke

    Iran -- South Pars gas field near the southern Iranian port of Assaluyeh, 20Nov2004
    Iran's South Pars gas field (file photo)

    February 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Like all oil and gas majors, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group has its eyes open for new sources of supply as global demand for energy grows. Iran is just such a possible source, with the world's second biggest reserves of natural gas.

    The Anglo-Dutch group has made the first step toward a multibillion-dollar deal with Iran to help develop the vast South Pars natural-gas field, despite the political thunderclouds gathering around Iran.

    In partnership with the Spanish company Repsol, Shell signed a preliminary agreement with Iran in January to develop sections 13 and 14 of the South Pars field. The $10 billion project eventually involves building a plant capable of liquefying 8 million tons of natural gas a year for shipment to Europe and elsewhere.

     Shell wants "to go ahead, regardless of the risk, and this is just part of an oil company's strategy," one industry analyst said.

    Feasibility Study

    Shell has emphasized that the preliminary agreement is largely a feasibility study, and a concrete decision on whether to invest in the project is still about a year away.

    A Shell spokesman in London declined to discuss with RFE/RL the political pressures expected from the company's interest in South Pars.

    But Shell's chief executive officer (CEO), Jeroen van der Veer, said on February 1 that the decision poses "quite a dilemma." He noted that Iran has some of the biggest hydrocarbon reserves in the world, but he acknowledged that politics will play a part in whether the firm proceeds.

    Iran already stands under limited UN sanctions, because it refuses to stop its uranium-enrichment program. If Iran persists, the UN could upgrade the sanctions to a level that would inevitably affect the country's oil-and-gas sector. That could spell trouble for Shell's participation in South Pars.

    Expanded Sanctions?

    Even worse for Shell, the United States has a law (the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act), under which it could impose sanctions on any company investing more than $20 million a year in Iran.

    Shell's major rival, BP, has withdrawn from seeking big business in Iran, citing the damage such moves could do to its U.S. business. By contrast, the French company Total is solidly entrenched in Iran.

    The director of the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies, Manochehr Takin, says that so far Shell has taken the political risk and kept a presence in Iran.

    Iranian students demonstrating against UN sanctions outside Shell's Tehran office in December 2006 (epa)"Shell has decided to be in Iran, and they have done oil-field development projects, offshore in the Persian Gulf, and they have been in gas, and they want to go ahead, regardless of the risk, and this is just part of an oil company's strategy," Takin says.

    But the threat of widening UN sanctions and the marked deterioration of U.S.-Iranian relations are increasing that risk factor. Should Shell go ahead with major new investment? That's the heart of the dilemma that CEO van der Veer if facing.

    On the other side of the argument, Shell feels pressure to secure new reserves, following a period of years in which it was extracting more oil and gas than it was replacing through new reserves.

    Bitten In Russia

    The question of reserves is given more urgency because Shell has been hard hit by the loss of its controlling share in the Sakhalin-2 oil-and-gas project in the Russian Far East.

    Shell sold a major stake in the project to Russia's state-run Gazprom concern after months of pressure by the Russian authorities, who threatened to freeze work on Sakhalin-2 and revoke permits because of alleged environmental damage.

    Analysts see behind the Sakhalin case a desire from Moscow to reestablish state control over the country's oil-and-gas sector.

    Takin of the Center for Global Energy Studies says political interference and pressure is nothing new to the oil companies. It's been going on since oil was discovered in the 19th century.

    "They have always been exposed to political risk, as well as geological risk, and reservoir risk -- [the last two being factors] which lie within their own expertise," Takin says. "They have always handled and taken political risk anyway. Especially large companies -- they have a wide portfolio in different parts of the world, and they spread the risk."

    For Europeans, one factor in favor of Shell's involvement with Iranian natural gas is that it would diversify sources away from Russia, a major supplier on which Europe is seeking to reduce its dependence.

    Cheney accused on climate change

    • Richard Simon and Andrew Revkin, Washington
    • July 10, 2008

    US VICE-PRESIDENT Dick Cheney's office tried to alter sworn congressional testimony provided by a federal official in order to play down the threat of global warming and head off regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, a former government official has claimed.

    Jason Burnett, a former Environmental Protection Agency official, cited the behind-the-scenes efforts by unnamed officials in Mr Cheney's office in a letter to congressional investigators regarding testimony in January by his former boss, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson.

    Mr Burnett appeared at a news conference on Tuesday with Democrat senator Barbara Boxer, who said his statements could boost efforts by California and other states to implement their own vehicle emission standards over White House opposition.

    Senator Boxer plans to call Mr Burnett to testify later this month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs.

    "History will judge this Bush Administration harshly for recklessly covering up a real threat to the people they are supposed to protect," Senator Boxer said.

    The Supreme Court ruled last year that the EPA was required to evaluate whether carbon dioxide, the main emission linked to global warming, endangered public health or welfare as defined under the Clean Air Act, and, if so, to implement regulations on polluters.

    President George Bush has opposed mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, oil refineries and other polluters, contending such steps would drive up energy costs.

    For Mr Cheney, the new accusation is similar to criticism he faced early in his vice-presidency over private meetings he held to shape national energy policy. Then, as now, the White House has refused to turn over documents sought by congressional investigators.

    Mr Burnett, a lifelong Democrat, resigned as EPA associate deputy administrator last month. He has contributed $4600 to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign.

    Mr Johnson, in testimony to Senator Boxer's committee in January, planned to tell senators that "greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment".

    Mr Burnett said in a letter to Senator Boxer that "an official in the office of the Vice-President called to tell me that his office wanted the language changed". He said he did not make the change, and Mr Johnson delivered the testimony as planned.

    In a previous instance, Bush Administration officials extensively edited testimony last October by Julie Gerberding, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, removing six pages she planned to deliver.

    Mr Burnett said on Tuesday that Mr Cheney's office was involved in efforts to delete portions of her testimony on the health risks of climate change.

    A spokesman for James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate environment committee, said the criticism was unjustified. "All administrations edit testimony before it is submitted to Congress," the spokesman said.


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