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Chess makes a good allegory and a bad teacher. Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest player who has ever lived, believes that chess teaches us strategies for survival, and he has written a book to prove it: How Life Imitates Chess. The chess-playing philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was, perhaps, wiser: "Chess is too serious for a game, but too much of a game to be taken seriously." It has, nonetheless, enjoyed a modest but unique place in our civilization for at least fifteen centuries. Having served as a staple of the sermons and moralities of medieval and Renaissance literature — the most celebrated of which was The Game and Playe of the Chesse by Jacobus de Cessolis (c. 1300), one of the first books to be printed in English by Caxton — chess has greatly enriched the language ever since. Every time we speak of keeping an enemy in check, of treating someone as a pawn, or of a political stalemate, we draw on the vocabulary of chess. There are less obvious loan-words, too, such as exchequer (from the Norman use of a checkered board by the royal counting house), gambit (an opening stratagem, from the Italian gambetta), or jeopardy (from "juperty," a medieval chess problem).
The Russian word for chess, shakhmaty, is a simple transliteration of the Persian shah mat ("the king is dead"), which is also the origin of the English "checkmate." Chess is thought to have originated among Buddhists on the banks of the Ganges in India, perhaps as a secularized form of a religious ceremony that involved dice as a means of divining the celestial mind. Having reached Persia around ad 625, it was taken up by Arab conquerors. It soon lost all connection with Buddhism and was instead associated with the rapid expansion of Islam. It is likely, therefore, that the Slavic peoples learned chess from Muslim sources quite early in the history of the game, probably from merchants on the trade route from the Caspian Sea via the River Volga to the earliest kingdom of Rus, of which the capital was Kiev.
Islam dominated the history of chess for much longer than Soviet communism. The first appearances in literature of the medieval form of chess (chaturanga in Sanskrit, chatrang in Persian, or shatranj in Arabic) in the early seventh century coincide with the life of Muhammad, and the game’s westward dissemination followed in the wake of the Arab conquests. Ali, the prophet’s son-inlaw and founder of the Shi’ites, is supposed to have been the first Muslim to encounter chess, which was brought to Arabia from Persia. By the eighth century, the historian of chess H. J. R. Murray wrote, "chess had already become a popular game throughout Islam, from Spain to the banks of the Indus." For the first two centuries of Islam, its legal status was unclear. What saved chess from the Koranic prohibitions against games of chance and the use of images was the importance of jihad in Islam. Because chess was a war game, it could be useful to warriors — and thus was permissible.
Hence chess came to be an integral part of high culture at the courts of the Umayyad caliphs and, from the eighth century, the new dynasty of Abbasids, who ruled a vast empire from Baghdad that stretched across much of the Middle East and North Africa. The mightiest of the Abbasid caliphs, Haroun al-Rashid (who reigned 786–807), was surrounded by grandmasters and historians of chess, such as as-Suli, along with the astronomers, chemists, and physicians for whom his court is still renowned. In A Thousand and One Nights — which, according to legend, is set in Haroun’s reign but which modern scholarship has traced to an older, Persian collection of folk tales, now lost, that was translated into Arabic around 850 — we learn that medieval Islam allowed chess to be played by women as well as men. In one story, the caliph is said to have bought a slave girl who defeated him three times in succession. Invited to name her reward, she asked pardon for another, rather than her own freedom. The girl’s astronomical price, 10,000 dinars, proves that the caliph considered her even more valuable at the chessboard than in the harem.
Six centuries after Haroun, chess was no less esteemed by another Muslim potentate, Timur Lenk or Tamerlane (Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great), who even gave the name Shah-Rukh ("king-rook") to his son, news of whose birth was brought while the emperor was playing chess, as well as to a city he built on the banks of the River Jaxartes in modern Kazakhstan. A Greek historian relates that Tamerlane was playing chess with his son when the Turkish sultan, Bayazid, was brought captive to his tent. At his court in Samarkand, Tamerlane’s favourite lawyer and scholar, Ala’addin at-Tabrizi, was nicknamed Ali ash-Shatranji ("Ali the chess master"). Contemporary sources tell us that this Aladdin played up to four games simultaneously while blindfold, and that he composed a treatise on chess that records about twenty-one positions from his games. Having traveled extensively and defeated all comers, Aladdin has some claim to be considered the first world champion. Tamerlane liked to tell him: "You have no rival in the kingdom of chess, just as I have none in government; there is no man to be found who can perform such wonders as I and you, my lord Ali, each in his own sphere."
It is unclear how far this real figure merged in legend with the Aladdin of A Thousand and One Nights. The historical Aladdin had no genie in a magic lamp; he was, rather, a genius who could work magic on the chessboard. In a sense, the role of Soviet world chess champions in the empire of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors was analogous to that of Aladdin at the court of Tamerlane. There was one difference: the great khans of communism treated their subjects in general just as brutally as Tamerlane, who liked to be known as the Scourge of God, but the thugs who ruled the Soviet empire were incapable of treating mere chess masters so courteously.
The modern rules of chess, which speeded up the game by making pieces such as the queen and bishop more powerful, emerged in Renaissance Italy during the late fifteenth century. In the medieval game, the queen (the vizier or counselor in Muslim countries) was a much weaker piece than the rook or even the king, moving only one square diagonally. The bishop (an elephant in the East) also moved diagonally, leaping over only the adjacent squares. The new form of chess soon spread from the West to Muscovy as trade routes were established during the reign of Grand Duke Ivan III in the early sixteenth century. Chess had long been frowned on by the Orthodox Church, which associated the game with heresy and witchcraft, not to mention dice and other forms of gambling. There were periodic attempts to suppress chess in Russia. The tsars themselves, however, were so addicted to it that no ban could be enforced.
Ivan the Terrible, the first ruler of Russia to assume the title of Tsar, even died at the chessboard. In 1584, while preparing to play chess with his son Feodor’s guardian and eventual successor, Boris Godunov, the tsar suffered some kind of seizure. We owe this fact to a contemporary description by the English ambassador, Sir Jerome Horsey. The queen who had sent him, Elizabeth I, would have been interested in such details, for she was herself very accomplished at chess. Medieval and Renaissance etiquette allowed women equal status at chess, which only later became a male preserve. In the diary of his travels to Muscovy, Sir Jerome records the dramatic circumstances of the tsar’s demise:
He setts his men (all savinge the kinge, which by no means he could not stand in his place with the rest upon the plain board): his chief favorett and Boris Fedorowich Goddonove and others about him. The Emperor in his lose gown, shirt and lynen hose, faints and falls backward. Great owtcrie and sturr; one sent for Aqua vita, another to the oppatheke [apothecary] for marigold and rose water, and to call his gostlie father [confessor] and the phizicions. In the mean he was strangled [choked] and stark dead.
Historians still debate whether Ivan was poisoned by Boris or died of natural causes, but there is no dispute about their common devotion to chess. It was only natural that Sergei Eisenstein (himself a keen chess player) included one of the best chess scenes in all cinema in his three-part epic, Ivan the Terrible (1944). The tsar was more than Stalin’s hero; he was his alter ego. As his paranoia grew, so did the dictator’s identification with the tsar — to the point where even Eisenstein’s cinematic epic was not hagiographical enough for Stalin. Actors whose features were deemed too Jewish were weeded out of the cast, and the director, too, came under suspicion. The second part of the trilogy was a window into the soul of a tsar tormented by guilt. When Stalin saw Part 2, he was furious, so it was released only after his death in 1958. The incomplete third part — The Boyars’ Plot — was destroyed on Stalin’s orders. Despite its veneer of Marxist ideology and European culture, the Soviet Union was a reversion to Ivan the Terrible’s oriental despotism.
One pursuit that oriental and enlightened despots had in common, however, was chess. Russia’s great Westernizers, Peter I and Catherine II, both shared Ivan’s passion for the game. Their chessmen and boards are displayed in the Hermitage Museum along with a Fabergé set made for Nicholas II. For most of the Romanovs, chess remained what it had been at the courts of the Renaissance: an esoteric divertissement for the edification of royal, military, or sacerdotal elites. It was due to Napoleon that thousands of Russian officers learned the game from their French counterparts during their occupation of Paris in 1814–15 and brought it back home with them. Thus chess owed its popularity in Russia not to a Russian emperor but to a French one.
The Russians who took up chess in the wake of the Napoleonic wars belonged to a new class, the educated elite that became known as the intelligentsia. Not only in Russia, but elsewhere in Europe and America, the place of chess closely reflected the rise of this group. A good starting point for the story of the love affair between chess and the intelligentsia is an image that records one of the great encounters of modernity: a group portrait, painted in 1856 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. It depicts three major figures of eighteenth-century thought: the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Swiss divine Johann Caspar Lavater, and the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. The focus of the picture, around which these luminaries of the Enlightenment are stationed, is a chessboard.