Chess and religion have not always been the happiest of companions. From as early as the 10th century, monks and priests were regularly told by their superiors to abandon the game entirely. I can understand this: chess lends itself to obsessive interest, even addiction. It is, in its way, a competing version of the human need for the sublime. Generally, the medieval Jewish authorities were much less hostile, but even Maimonides pronounced those who played the game for money to be unworthy of credence in courts of law.
Yet it is Islam which has had the most troubled relationship with chess, a fact thrown into sharp relief by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, who in January was seen on Saudi TV declaring the game to be “haram”. He was answering a viewer’s question on his weekly show, With His Eminence the Mufti: the resulting fatwa was based on his opinion that chess “caused enmity and hatred among people”, was “a waste of time” and “an opportunity to squander money”.
This last, and most severe, criticism seemed to have been based on His Eminence believing that chess involves gambling — and games of chance are described as “filth from the work of Satan” in the Koran. Yet as a pursuit involving neither dice nor any other instrument of chance, chess is completely different from such games as backgammon or poker, where gambling money is at the heart of the competitive process.
The Grand Mufti is about a millennium out of date: in the earliest forms of what developed into chess, it was known for the players to use a form of dice to determine which move should be played. Among the first of these recognisably chess-like games, called Shatranj, appeared in Persia around 700AD: the word checkmate is a corruption of the original phrase “Shah mat” — the Shah is helpless.
When Persia was conquered by the Arabs, their game we now call chess was absorbed thoroughly into the invaders’ culture. Via additional conquests they then exported it to Europe via Spain (and it was in Europe in the 15th century that chess became the game as we play it today). The literature is hardly extensive, but the earliest recorded chess match was between players named as al-Adli and Ar-Razi, described by Ibn an Nadim in 988.
Modern Saudi Arabia is not a chess desert: the general secretary of the Saudi Chess Association responded to the Grand Mufti’s declaration by pointing out that the SCA “is officially recognised by the Saudi Olympic Committee . . . Many local chess events and seminars are run in all the cities of the Kingdom.” However, there is not a single Saudi player of even international master strength, let alone a grandmaster. And — perhaps unsurprisingly — the world chess federation’s published lists contain not a single female Saudi player.
This in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia’s deadly regional foe, Iran, which boasts no fewer than nine grandmasters and whose top two women players, Sarasadat Khademalsharieh and Atousa Pourkashiyan, I had the pleasure of meeting last month when we were playing in the same event, the Tradewise Gibraltar chess festival.
Encouragingly, the two young Iranians were not blocked by their government from competing, despite the fact that a number of Israeli players were also taking part in this great annual chess event — though I did wonder what would have happened if either of them had been drawn to play against one of the Israeli entrants.
Sarasadat in particular seems a remarkably mature 18-year-old, who has already attained the rank of international master. She is one of the beneficiaries of the fact that the Tehran government has invested heavily in chess: for two years it engaged our own Nigel Short as the national chess coach.
This is all the more remarkable given that, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, chess was banned in the country (again, based on a confusion with an early version of the game played with dice) and went underground. But in 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini reversed his fatwa. Chess parks and chess palaces sprang up on fertile intellectual soil. Occasionally a cleric has tried to reverse this burgeoning movement with the tired old incantation that chess is “un-Islamic”, but in Iran, at least, this game seems to be up for the religious old guard; and last year, the renaissance of chess in one of its most important ancestral homes had an impact on the international stage when Masoud Mosadeghpour won the world under-18 championship.
In any case, the Muslim world does not consist solely of Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is North Africa, too: and it was strangely fitting that the first Arabic speaker to win any form of world title is a namesake of one of those participants in the first recorded chess match. In 2007, more than a millennium later, Ahmed Adly of Egypt won the World Junior (under-20) Championship — following in the steps of such precocious talents as Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov. Adly’s triumph — unlike that of those three predecessors from the Soviet Union — was delightfully unexpected. The following game, in which Adly defeated one of the tournament favourites, the Hungarian grandmaster Viktor Laznicka, was a luminous achievement.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d3 (Adly’s favoured approach, avoiding the more heavily-analysed main lines with 3.d4) …Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.Nbd2 Nf6 6.Bg2 Be7 7.0-0 b6 8.Re1 Bb7 9.e5 Nd7 10.c4 Qc7 11.cxd5 exd5 12.d4 Nf8 13.Nf1 Ne6 14.dxc5 bxc5 15.Ne3 d4 16.Nd5 Qd7 17.Nd2 Nb4 18.Nxe7 Bxg2 19.Nf5 Bd5 20.Ne4 Kf8 21.a3 Nc6 22.Qh5 d3? (This gives Adly the chance of a dazzling finish. Laznicka would actually stand better after 22…Bxe4! 23.Rxe4 g6 24.Qh6+ Kg8 25.Nd6 Nxe5 26.Rxe5 Qxd6) 23.Nf6!! gxf6 24.Qh6+ Kg8 25.exf6 Re8 26.Bf4! (a fantastic manoeuvre, preparing to take the f8 escape square from Black’s King) Re8 27.Bd6 Ncd4 28.Qg7+! and Laznicki resigned, seeing that after 28…Nxg7 29.Nh6 is a beautiful mate. In fact Adly could also have sacrificed his Queen with either 28.Qf8+ or 28.Qg5+: however it is captured, the reply is, again, 29.Nh6 mate.