Chess v. Allah

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric frets that pushing pawns will make Muslims less pious. As a chess lover, I can’t say I blame him

The Thracian goddess of chess, Caïssa.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, forbade Muslims to play chess, on the grounds that the board game causes people to waste away their lives, and that it “causes rivalry and enmity.” The news was treated as a wacky backpager by much of the Western media. But, having seen firsthand how chess can transform a man’s view of the world—and even cause him to stare inwards at his own soul—I am inclined to take the issue more seriously.

Twenty-five years ago, while traveling through Europe, I found myself on a long train ride with a Slavic fellow who spoke no English. Neither of us had anything interesting to read, but he had a chess set. The fellow inquired, through hand movements, whether I’d like to play. I eagerly assented.

The game didn’t last long. When my own early attack fizzled, the Slav set about the task of developing his own pieces, one by one, chasing my exposed knights and bishops around the board in the process. My pawn structure soon became disordered, my king exposed. Once his rooks set themselves on file down the heart of the board, the thing was effectively over.

After I conceded and we shook hands, the fellow reset the pieces back to their original positions. He then played the game back from memory, move by move, gesturing to me so as to indicate the mistakes I’d made, the better options I had forgone at critical junctures. It was only then that I realized how thoroughly outclassed I’d been. Both of us were staring at the same physical chessboard, but he saw hidden patterns and forces that were invisible to me. It was Plato’s Cave, with me stupidly transfixed by mere shadows.

It wasn’t just that the player had more skill than me—in the ordinary sense of, say, checkers or badminton. It was more existential than that. He experienced chess in the quantum state of enlightenment. And I did not.

Millions of other middling chess enthusiasts around the world can tell you almost identical stories about playing against elite competitors who are able to visualize the interplay of pieces not just as they currently stand, but as they will stand as time unfolds. In all my years of loving and playing the game, I was never able to attain that exalted state of consciousness. Hang around the chess world long enough and chumps like me eventually realize that it doesn’t matter how many openings you memorize, how many puzzles you solve, how hard you concentrate—you either have the brain wiring for it or you don’t.

Historically, Islam hasn’t had much of a problem with chess. Indeed the game spread through Asia in large part because of its adoption by early Muslim societies. It was only when Islamism became a totalitarian political force following the 1979 Iranian Revolution that the game was banned in that country (though, interestingly enough, Ayatollah Khomeini reversed the fatwa a decade later, in one of his rare spasms of liberal-minded tolerance).

Of course, Imams declare fatwas against all sorts of things that they perceive to be a distraction from faith—kites, video games, emoticons. But unlike simple hobbies, chess is less a distraction from religion than a full-blown replacement.

True, chess supplies no God, no afterlife, no dietary restrictions. But it demands that adherents submit to a system of ancient rules—while also permitting (indeed, encouraging) them to exercise free will within dictated parameters.

Like a well-conducted mass at a street-front ministry, chess creates powerful bonds between strangers. And it supplies moments of both complete rhapsody and shame that, to devotees, seem to transcend this earthly firmament. (“Caïssa, the goddess of chess, had punished me for my conservative play, for betraying my nature,” Grandmaster Garry Kasparov allegedly once lamented, invoking the chess dryad invented by sixteenth-century, humanist author Marcus Hieronymus Vida.)

Which helps explain why a man such as Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh might feel especially threatened by chess. His exalted status within Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist clerisy derives from his claim to interpret ancient texts, parse the work of long-dead scholars and prophets, and reduce the complexity of life to understandable rules. But chess, too, has its (similarly ascetic) monastic class. Walk into any chess shop and examine a random sampling of the advanced books you see—Bobby Fischer: My 60 Memorable Games, Aron Nimzowitsch: My System, David Bronstein: Zurich 1953. The density of the analysis, laid out in cryptic-seeming alphanumeric notation, often channels the spirit of Medieval metaphysics. Could there ever be room in one man’s brain for this—and Wahhabism, too?

One of the greatest traits that faith can supply is humility. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference,” is how Reinhold Niebuhr put it in his cloyingly popularized Serenity Prayer. As a chess player who long ago accepted the limitations of his own intellect, I don’t need Niebuhr’s help on that one. When I lose in chess, as I usually do, I know that my toppled king isn’t just a piece of wood. It’s a symbol of my flaws. And I accept that.

The last time I played chess was at the house of a Muslim friend in Toronto. When his twelve-year-old son beat me two games out of three, I accepted the result with complete serenity. Getting beaten by someone too young to shave didn’t make me less of a man. And I’m pretty sure it didn’t make the boy any less of a Muslim.

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is a journalist, book author and editor, and public speaker.