23rd November 2017

Week of training lands Yorkshirewoman world title in ancient Viking board game

, by , in News

By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS

A SPORTING event with a difference was held in Fetlar on Saturday, with a world title up for grabs.

The Grand Tournament to become Hnefatafl Champion 2008 was hosted by Fetlar’s own Grand Master Peter Kelly.

Mr Kelly described the board game of as an easier version of chess, and said it would have been the Norse equivalent of video gaming for the marauding Vikings. They used the game to practise strategy and it was even popular with the children. The object is to capture or block the opponent’s King, thereby defeating him or decimating his players. The game was introduced into Fetlar’s three-pupil primary school and proved highly popular, with pupils learning the basic moves in under five minutes.

Saturday’s tournament was organised by Mr Kelly and was judged to be a major success with 20 competitors between the ages of six and 70 taking part from across the UK. The two competitors with the highest scores at the end of the day locked horns in the grand final, playing for a unique hnefatafl board and the title World Quickplay Hnefatafl Champion.

Holiday-maker Wendy Suther­land from East Yorkshire event­ually won the title of World Champion and also became a Grand Master.

Wendy, who only started playing the game a week earlier, found herself in the final of the World Championships on Saturday afternoon. On winning she said: “It felt fantastic, absolutely brilliant.”

Wendy said she had entered the tournament in Fetlar after seeing the game played at a Viking recreation site in Unst. She was amazed to win the event, although she did confess to practising during the week leading up to the competition, “Because I wanted to do well at it.” She is now the proud owner of a wooden carved hnefatafl set designed and made by George and Theresa New of Scatness, as well as the coveted title of Grand Master, one of only two people in the world allowed to use that title (the other being Mr Kelly). Wendy’s biggest problem now will be getting the hnefatafl set home safely on the train.

Mr Kelly said: “The World Hnefatafl Championships will become an annual event on the island of Fetlar. There has been lots of interest from across the world, with radio interviews and emails from places as far away as Boston, USA. We intend to build on this year’s success and will hold the next tournament in summer 2009. We hope to see Wendy defend her title next year.”

Hnefatafl has been embraced with enthusiasm by the approxi­mately 50 residents of Fetlar, an isle rich in Viking heritage, and one of the first places in Britain settled by Vikings. In 800 AD King Harald is reputed to have landed at Funzie.

Fetlar was also the site of a major dig by Channel 4’s Time Team in 2002, during which time a Viking brooch was found.


HNEFATAFL, sometimes called Viking chess, was popular in northern Europe for hundreds of years before it was eclipsed by the rise of chess, also a warlike game.

It is a game for two players with many variants, but basically simulates a Viking raid with the king and his defenders trying to escape a larger force. The rules have been worked out from historical sources.

Boards can have anything from seven by seven to 19 by 19 squares. The modern 11 by 11 variant is now the most popular, and a 121 square wooden board with the king in the middle was used in Fetlar.

One player takes charge of a large force of soldiers, known as the attackers, who start at the edge of the board. The other player controls a much smaller force of bodyguards called the defenders, who start in the centre of the board and are led by a special large piece representing their king.

The king tries to escape from his central throne to any of the four corner squares. If he succeeds, the game is over and he wins. If the player in charge of the attackers renders the king unable to move, he is the winner. Pieces can move horizontally or vertically, but not diagonally, any number of spaces. No jumping is allowed. The king is the only piece who is allowed to rest on the central throne square although other pieces can pass through it if unoccupied.

A piece is captured and removed from the board if the opponent manages to get two of his soldiers on opposite sides of it. The king must be surrounded on four sides. After a game the players may change sides.

About Rosalind Griffiths

I am a Shetland Times reporter covering news, including health stories, and features. I have been in Shetland for more than 30 years.

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