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The Drunken Bishop Cipher


Ever since learning Bruce Schneier's Solitaire Cipher, I was interested in creating a hand cipher of my own. Unfortunately, I'm just an amateur cryptographer, and a lousy one at that. So I didn't have any confidence in creating my own hand cipher. However, after learning about the SSH ASCII art, and the drunken bishop, I was confident that I could turn this into a hand cipher. So, that's exactly what I did.

Even though this is technically a hand cipher, and I've done my best to address some of the shortcomings internal to the system, I am not a genius mathematician. So, I can look at some of the numbers specifically, and give a broad sense of what the shortcomings might be, but I have not invested into a full scale cryptanalysis of the cipher. If someone stumbles upon this post, and is interested in launching such an attack, I would be interested in your feedback.

This post is lengthy, so I'll separate everything with <h2> headers for easier visibility (a standard with my blog posts lately, it seems).

Cipher Design Overview

All that is needed is a standard 8x8 checker or chess board, and a marker, such as the bishop chess piece, or a checker, to make its way around the board. Each square on the board will be assigned a unique value from 0 through 63. The board should be assigned randomly, as this choice of number assignments is your key to encrypting and decrypting messages. However, at the end of this post, I'll give a few ideas on how you can key the board reliably without the need to communicate a random board.

This cipher is a stream cipher. As with all stream ciphers, the output of n depends entirely on the accuracy of n-1. If n-1 is incorrect, then the rest of the process will be incorrect, and encrypting the plaintext from that point forward will be incorrect, which means decryption will not be possible. Thankfully, the board number assignments are static, so it shouldn't be difficult to double check your work, unlike the Solitaire Cipher, which requires keeping a backup copy of your keyed deck.

Because there are 64 squares on the board, this allows us to use a base64 system for encryption and decryption. As such, we can use uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and digits. This will provide 62 of the characters. So, we can throw in white space, and padding at the end of the message, giving us our full 64 characters. One drawback with most hand ciphers is the lack of numbers support in the message. Either you have to spell out the numbers, lengthening the message, and as a result the time to encrypt and decrypt it, or you need to truncate them out, possibly creating confusion for the person decrypting the message. By having uppercase and lowercase letter support, we can now differentiate between proper names and not.

The Board

First, you must arrange the chess board such that square "a1" is in the lower left corner, as would be standard in a tournament chess match. This square should be black. Instead of referring to this corner as "a1", we'll refer to it as the "southwest corner", or just "SW". The other three corners on the board will be identified analogously: the lower right corner, or "h1" will be identified as the "southeast corner, or just "SE". The upper left corner, or "a8" will be identified as the "northwest corner", or "NW". Finally, the upper right corner, or "h8" will be identified as the "northeast corner", or just "NE".

Now that we've identified the corners, we need to identify the edges of the board that are not a corner. On the bottom of the board, we'll identify this as edge "B", and the top of the board as edge "T". The left edge of the board will be identified as edge "L", and the right of the board as edge "R". Every additional square that is not identified as an edge or a corner will be identified as a middle or "M".

After making these identifications, our board should have the following layout:

A standard chess board with our identifying markers SW, SE, NW, NE, B, T, L, R and M on every square.

The Bishop's Movement

As in standard chess, the bishop may only move diagonal across the board. In standard chess, if the bishop is on a black square, then he will remain on the black square throughout game play. Our bishop is drunk, unfortunately. So, when our bishop encounters an edge; specifically, "B", "T", "L", or "R", then it's possible our bishop might switch space color from black to white, or from white to black. Any other time, our bishop is always moving diagonal as he would normally.

So, we need to accommodate for when our bishop hits the wall or a corner, and still wishes to move. Let's look at the bottom edge first. Suppose our bishop traveled to square "e1" which has the value of "44" in our key. If the bishop wishes to move either diagonally NE or NW, that move in unrestricted. However, if the bishop wishes to move SW from square "e1", then it would step onto the white square "d1". If the bishop wishes to move SE from square "e1", then it would step onto the white square "f1". Similar rules hold for the other three edges. In summary then:

  • If at "B", and wishes to move SW, then the new square is (n-1,1).
  • If at "B", and wishes to move SE, then the new square is (n+1,1).
  • If at "T", and wishes to move NW, then the new square is (n-1,8).
  • If at "T", and wishes to move NE, then the new square is (n+1,8).
  • If at "L", and wishes to move NW, then the new square is (a,n+1).
  • If at "L", and wishes to move SW, then the new square is (a,n-1).
  • If at "R", and wishes to move NE, then the new square is (h,n+1).
  • If at "R", and wishes to move SE, then the new square is (h,n-1).

If any additional movement is needed from an edge, then this means the bishop wishes to move away from the edge towards the middle of the board, and as such, it would do so in a standard diagonal manner, staying on its same color.

Now that we've handled the four edges of the board, we need to handle the four corners. The movement is analogous to the edges, except for one move:

  • If at "SW", and wishes to move SW, no movement is made.
  • If at "SE", and wishes to move SE, no movement is made.
  • If at "NW", and wishes to move NW, no movement is made.
  • If at "NE", and wishes to move NE, no movement is made.

If in the corner, and any other movement needs to be made, then use the previous edge rules.

Knowing these rules, we can now describe where our drunk bishop moves when he lands on any square on the board. Now, we just need to generate a random board, which will determine the bishop's movement. When generating a random board, all 64 numbers from 0 through 63 must be assigned to a square. Each chessboard key is one of 64 factorial, or about the same size as a 296-bit symmetric key. Below is one such board that could be generated:

A standard chess board with the numbers 0 through 63 assigned randomly to all the squares, one number per square. In this example,the SW corner was assigned 38, SE was assigned 32, NW was assigned 42, and NE was assigned 57. Further, the bottom edge was assigned the numbers 4, 30, 52, 44, 8, 36, and 32. The top edge was assigned 58, 27, 12, 15, 53, 7, and 57. The left edge was assigned 6, 55, 45, 26, 50, 62, and 38. The right edge was assigned 47, 46, 14, 37, 19, and 11. The middle squares were assigned randomly with the remaining numbers.

Generating the stream

Because the board is now a static key, and doesn't change like the cards in the Solitaire Cipher, there is the possibility that the bishop could land on the same square at the end of the algorithm that he did at the start of the algorithm. As such, from that point forward, the same number would be generated in our stream, and our message would fall victim to a frequency analysis attack. If this doesn't happen, it is still possible that the bishop could land on a square at the end of his drunken walk that we've landed on before. This means our bishop will be caught in an infinite loop, generating the same sequence of numbers.

To accommodate for both of these shortcomings, rather than use the number he is on for the start of his next walk, we will use the addition of the plaintext number and the stream number to produce an output number. This output number will determine the beginnings of his next walk.

Each character in the plaintext will be given a value according to section 3 of RFC 3548. The only adjustments that will be made, is whitespace will be filled with the forward slash "/", and we will both pad the message modulo 5, as is standard with hand ciphers, and replace the full stop period with the plus character "+" at the end. The other punctuation and special characters must be stripped from the plaintext, as our base64 system cannot handle them.

So, our plaintext message "Attack at dawn." would be converted to "Attack/at/dawn+" before we begin encrypting.

The Four Movements

The bishop always starts on the SW square, or "a1" at the beginning of each message. In order to know which way to travel, each square on the board describes three movements. This is done by converting the decimal number into binary, zero padded up to 6 bits wide. As such, the decimal number "0" will be the binary number "000000". The decimal number 38 will be the binary number "100110", and so forth. We'll call our 6-bit binary number a "word" for this cipher, even though in computer science, you learn that a binary word is 8 bits. We'll take our binary word, and divide it into 3 sections: the first two bits, the middle two bits, and the last two bits.

So, for the case of "38", the binary word divided up would be "10" for the first two bits, "01" for the middle two bits, and "10" for the last two bits. There are four combinations that each of these bit pairs could be: "00", "01", "10", or "11". Because the bishop can move diagonally in one of four directions, each of these bit pairs describes the direction for each of his 3 moves. We will describe our movements as follows:

  • 00- NW
  • 01- NE
  • 10- SW
  • 11- SE

So for the number "38", where our bishop starts in our random key that we chose earlier, the bishop would move "10" or SW, which would mean no movement, "01" or NE to square "b2", and finally "10" or SW, back to "a1". So, already we see that we have an inherent problem with the system, in that starting with "38" prevents the bishop from moving around the board. However, we'll add this to our plaintext number, and use our output number as the direction for the next walk. So, we won't be stuck for long.

The Drunken Bishop Algorithm

The algorithm is defined with the following steps:

  1. Convert the previous output number to binary, and move the the bishop three spaces as described above based on this output number.
  2. Convert the number of the square the bishop landed on to binary, and again move the bishop three spaces as based on this number.
  3. Convert the number of the square the bishop landed on to binary, and again move the bishop three spaces as based on this number.
  4. The bishop should have made a total of 9 movements. Note the number the bishop has landed on. This is your stream number.
  5. Add the stream number to the plaintext number and to the index number modulo 64. This is your output number.

Repeat the algorithm as necessary until you have generated all the output numbers to encrypt your message. To decrypt the message, follow the same algorithm above, but instead of addition modulo 64, use subtraction modulo64 to get back to the plaintext.

Encryption Example

For simplicity sake, we will use the chessboard key generated above, and we will encrypt "We confirm the delivery of 4 packages.". First, let's pad it modulo 5. We end up with "We confirm the delivery of 4 packages.++". Now convert all full stop periods to "+" and all spaces to "/". We now have:


Now me must convert each character to their decimal equivalent as found in RFC 3548, section 3. Thus, we end up with the numbers "22 30 63 28 40 39 31 34 43 38 63 45 33 30 63 29 30 37 34 47 30 43 50 63 40 31 63 56 63 41 26 28 36 26 32 30 44 62 62 62". Before the bishop starts the drunken walk around the board, let's setup a workspace, so it will be easy to do our modulo 64 addition. The top line will contain my plaintext numbers, the second line will contain our stream number. Both of these numbers will be added modulo 64 to produce our output number. I will be zero padding the decimal numbers as necessary:

  22 30 63 28 40 39 31 34 43 38 63 45 33 30 63 29 30 37 34 47 30 43 50 63 40 31 63 56 63 41 26 28 36 26 32 30 44 62 62 62
  __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

Now our bishop is ready to take his random walk across the board. Let's use our key above, so you can follow along. Our bishop always starts at square SW or "a1". This has a value of "38" which is "100110" in binary. So, the bishop moves "SW", "NE", "SW", placing him back on the same square. We do this two more times, and our bishop has not moved. So, we write the number down as our stream number, and add it to 22 modulo 64:

  22 30 63 28 40 39 31 34 43 38 63 45 33 30 63 29 30 37 34 47 30 43 50 63 40 31 63 56 63 41 26 28 36 26 32 30 44 62 62 62
+ 38
  __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

Our output number is 60, so we convert this to binary, and get "111100". So, the bishop moves "SE", "SE", "NW", placing him on square "b2" with a value of "35". We now convert 35 to binary, and get "100011". So, the bishop now moves "SW", "NW", "SE", placing him on square "a2" with a value of "04". We now convert 04 to binary, and get "000100". So, our bishop make the final move of "NW", "NE", "NW", placing him on square "d1" with a value of "26". We write down 26 in our worksheet, add to to 30 modulo 64, to get our output number of "56":

  22 30 63 28 40 39 31 34 43 38 63 45 33 30 63 29 30 37 34 47 30 43 50 63 40 31 63 56 63 41 26 28 36 26 32 30 44 62 62 62
+ 38 26
  __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  60 56

Now we convert 56 to binary, and get "111000", and work our way through the algorithm getting our third output number. We continue in like fashion until our worksheet is complete:

  22 30 63 28 40 39 31 34 43 38 63 45 33 30 63 29 30 37 34 47 30 43 50 63 40 31 63 56 63 41 26 28 36 26 32 30 44 62 62 62 <--- plaintext
+ 38 26 04 26 09 31 14 13 59 41 59 41 46 14 13 14 13 35  4 38 31 14 13 59 41 13 35 38 50 39  6 48 16 14 27 31 14 59 56 59 <--- final bishop square
  __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  60 56 03 54 49 06 45 47 38 15 58 22 15 44 12 43 13  8 38 21 61 57 63 58 17 44 34 30 49 16 32 12 52 40 59 61 58 57 54 57 <--- output number

Which in turn gives us the ciphertext:

84D2x GtvmP 6WPsM rrImV 94/6R siexQ gM0q7 96525

Decryption Example

To decrypt our ciphertext from above, we must first convert the characters back to their RFC 3548 values. We'll refer to this number as our "input number". Our bishop will start in the SW corner, or square "a1" as he did for our encryption example. Also, like with did with encryption, we'll convert the "a1" number to binary for the first walk. After that, we'll use the ciphertext input numbers to determine his path. Lastly, we need to subtract modulo 64, rather than add, to reverse our work.

So, as we did with our encryption example, let's setup our workspace:

  60 56 03 54 49 06 45 47 38 15 58 22 15 44 12 43 13  8 38 21 61 57 63 58 17 44 34 30 49 16 32 12 52 40 59 61 58 57 54 57 <--- ciphertext number
- 38                                                                                                                      <--- final bishop square
  __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  22                                                                                                                      <--- plaintext

Now convert "56" to binary, and have it do it's walk, 3 times, just like you would for encryption. You'll find that it ends up on square value "26". Subtract this value from our 2nd ciphertext number, to get back to our plaintext value of "30". Continue in a like manner, converting the ciphertext number to binary, starting the walk, doing two more binary conversions, to land on the right square. Subtract that number modulo 64, and you'll uncover your plaintext.


You may have noticed that you are always using the ciphertext number, either when encrypting, or decrypting, to start the bishop's initial walk. After which, the bishop makes two more walks around the board, based on the number he landed on. Because we are using the ciphertext number for the initial walk, we need to lengthen his path for a few reasons:

  1. When decrypting, the additional walks places the bishop elsewhere in the board, preventing any knowledge of the key.
  2. When both encrypting and decrypting, the 3 walks make it possible for the bishop to reach any number on the board, regardless of his location. This prevents our cipher from being focused on a set of squares based on his initial location.
  3. By using the ciphertext to start the initial walk, we prevent the possibility of the bishop from getting stuck walking in a circle. A simple example is with the number "38" in the SW corner, that would normally prevent him from making any movement on the board. IE: his ending the location is the same as his starting location.

Setting up an 8x8 key grid might be difficult. Certainly not much more difficult than keying a 52-card deck randomly. There may be creative ways to key the board, such as using previously played chess games, using passphrases, or some other method. I haven't had time to think about those yet. If you have good ideas, I'm very interested. At the moment, the best way to key the board, is to use a computer to randomly create a board assignment, and securely communicate the random assignment to your recipient.

This cipher is a stream cipher, as already mentioned. As such, it is absolutely critical that you get every movement of the bishop right, and that your mathematics is exact. If you make a mistake, and continue encrypting the message after the mistake, the ciphertext may not be decipherable to plaintext. Double check your movements.

Further, as with all symmetric ciphers, DO NOT USE THE SAME KEY TWICE. If the same key is used for two different messages, say C1 and C2, it's simple mathematics to extract the key. Think of it like this:

(A+K) = C1
(B+K) = C2
C1-C2 = (A+K)-(B+K) = A+K-B-K = A-B+K-K = A-B

In other words, using the same key, reveals the plaintext messages. This might not be trivial for you to pull off, but it is for a serious cryptographer. Don't share the key across messages. Just generate a new key every time you wish to encrypt.

Lastly, I have found this cipher a bit faster to encrypt and decrypt messages than the solitaire cipher, but I make no guarantees to its strength. However, this is real cryptography. Not stenography or obscurity. This cipher is a pseudo random number generator, that you apply to your plaintext to produce a random output. I still have work to do to, such as frequency analysis, and discovering if any bias exists, but upon initial inspection, it seems to hold up well. As with all cryptography, however, only time will tell.

Drunken Bishop Cipher Recommendations

  1. Although a chess board can be use, it's not required. If you can draw an 8x8 grid on a piece of paper, populated with the random key, then you are ready to start encrypting and decrypting.
  2. Never share a key when encrypting messages. Always use a different key.
  3. Use a number 2 pencil, and not ink, when doing your work. Ink bleeds, and can leave traces of your message or work.
  4. Use ungummed cigarette paper when actually doing your work. They burn completely, but slowly.
  5. Do as much of the work in your head as possible, and no not write on impressionable surfaces, such as a pad of paper.
  6. Work with a candle or a lighter. If someone breaks in while you are encrypting or decrypting messages, calmly burn the papers containing your work.
  7. Assume that Big Brother is aware that you are using the Drunken Bishop to encrypt and decrypt your messages. The secret lies in the 8x8 grid key, not in the algorithm. Of course, this doesn't mean you need to advertise that you are using the Drunken Bishop either. The ciphertext should appear as random as possible, with no obvious clues as to how it was created.
  8. Practice makes perfect. After practicing the Drunken Bishop, you should be able to immediately convert a number from 0 through 63 to binary without any external tools. This will speed things up.
  9. Which reminds me, the Drunken Bishop is slow, although not as slow as Solitaire. It will probably take you about 30 seconds per character. Keep that in mind; you may need a quiet, secure place with several hours. However, you shouldn't have cramped hands while working the Drunken Bishop, like you get with Solitaire.


I am not a professional cryptographer. I study cryptography as a hobby. As such, I do not make any guarantees about the security of this cipher. However, I have studied RC4, as well as stream ciphers in general, and have a thorough understanding of the "big picture" as to what the internals of the cipher should be doing. The Drunken Bishop does its best to follow these practices. I graduated with a degree in Applied Mathematics, and have taken and studied Number Theory, as applied to cryptography.

I have not done any cryptanalysis on this cipher yet. My next goal is to write a Python program that can read a generated 8x8 key, read a text file, and encrypt and decrypt it. Only then will I be able to get more insight into the output that the Drunken Bishop provides, such as biases or other internal problems that I have not addressed. If you go ahead and write a utility to do this testing, and find some interesting results, I would be interested in your feedback, and will publish your results here on this post.


Turns out this cipher is incredibly weak. It suffers from two problems that make it fall victim to linear cryptanalysis and a chosen plaintext attack:

  1. The chessboard (an S-box) remains static during the algorithm.
  2. There is no non-linear component to the system.

It turns out, designing hand ciphers is incredibly difficult. However, I wrote a follow-up post describing how weak it really is.

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