Early back into the seventh and eighth centuries AD, the fate of a game of intellect was being carved in the lands of ancient Arabia. Shatranj, as the Arabs called it, or what in the West became popular as the game of chess, once found in early Arab culture a springboard for its development and popularity to become the most highly recognized board game of today.

Unclear origins

    The birth of chess is a story of differing versions. When and where exactly the game originated is somewhat of a mystery. Some self-interested sources claim it was invented in places such as the former Soviet republics and even Afghanistan, but most well founded historical research places the birth of chess in either India or China. A game of the mind, befitting of the epoch it came from, chess depicted war – a battle between armies. Old texts suggest it was a sport of kings and noblemen, perhaps helping them master the strategies of armed combat. It may well have been a tool to teach caution, tactics, and arrangement, and to train the nerve.

    In one chronicle, a Persian poem from the 10th century traces the roots of chess to India. It describes the Persian king of an earlier time receiving as a gift from the Rajah of India, among other items, a game representing two armies at war. Older Persian documents have also been found, illustrating the names and functions of chess pieces. The earliest of these date back to the 6th century AD during the reign of King Chosroe I Anushiravan (531-579). In all likelihood, he was that man receiving the first Indian game set.

    Some historians are sceptical about such findings and the assumed Indian origins of chess. They rather uphold the idea that the game originated in China, although there it might have been played with dice to decide the moves. The possibility exists, and there are several east-Asian versions of what today we call chess. In all events however, historical accounts agree that the game was later brought to Persia, where in fact the term “checkmate” originated. Pronounced “shahmat,” it combined the Persian word “shah,” meaning “king,” and “mat” – translating as “dead” in Arabic. In many countries even today, such as Russia for example, some of the pieces retain their original Persian names.


The Arab contribution and Al-Adli – The Great Player

    The heightening of the Arab culture driven by the new Moslem religion made the Arab Moslems the strongest propagators of chess in its entire history. Learning the game from Persia, the Arabs made chess widely spread in their lands starting around the seventh century after the birth of Christ. By the year 620, chess had already made it as far as Egypt. Advancing the Moslem faith further throughout North Africa and reaching as far as Spain and France within less than one hundred years, the Arabs also took chess along. This swift westward expansion of the game concurred with, and was a result of, the early Moslem cultural progress. As it turned out, there was not enough time for chess to change substantially from place to place.

    Apart from the great dispersion of chess, the involvement of the Arabs in the history of the game included the introduction of blindfold play, the start of the first tournaments, found in manuscripts dating back to the 8th century AD, and the build-up of literature on the game.

    In roughly the same period, an Arab, a man by the name Al-Adli, rose to the status of a legend revered as the supreme Aliyat, or master chess player, by many at the time. Caliphs who reigned over the Moslem realm endorsed chess and had skilled players at court, which may have helped his celebrity repute. But the man had earned his fame. A master player, Al-Adli is known for writing Kitab ash-shatranj, a comprehensive book dealing with chess, sometime about 840 AD. The book has been lost and we know of it only through referring manuscripts preserving some of its texts. The great Aliyat had compiled chess history, including information on chaturanga - an early Indian form of shatranj. He had also recorded openings and endgames, and mansubat, or chess problems. Mansubat had sections on won endings, lost endings, and undecided games. The collection had been impressive, including hundreds of such chess problems. One example conceived by Al-Adli deserves admiration even today: White, play King on g8, Rooks on e1 and g1, Knight on g3, and Pawn on f4. Black, play King on f6, Rooks on d7 and h7, Knight on g6, and Pawn on f5. White to move next and mate in 3 moves. 1.Nh5+ Rxh5 2.Rxg6 Kxg6 3.Re6 mate.


    Did Al-Adli visualize the chess figures only in his mind? Physical pieces, as we know them, possibly appeared later on, as Arabic and Persian historic artwork has just their names written on the board. Documented figurative pieces won’t appear until the game was brought into Europe.

    The introduction of classifying players was also invented by Al-Adli. He recognized five distinct classes. Only a player of the highest class could be called Aliyat. The lower classes were not considered “proper” players. The second rank, for example, was given the name of Mutaqaribat, meaning those near to the Aliyat.  He also found a system for sorting out the openings into positions, which he called Tabiya. Some of the openings were entitled “Pharaoh’s stones,” “The sword,” Goat-peg,” “Old women,” “The army opening,” and “The sheikh’s opening.”

    So involved was Al-Adli with shatranj that he also found additional uses for the square pattern on the board besides purely playing on it. For example, he devised a technique for using the chessboard for calculation purposes by placing small stones on the squares as needed. Inevitably however, Al-Adli’s repute as the strongest player wouldn’t go on forever. It found a closing stage on his defeat by another Arab, Ar-Razi. A skilful player, Ar-Razi followed suit and compiled his own book of chess problems. The book was written around 845 and is known as Al-luft fy ash-shatranj. Other great chessmen in history attest to the popularity of the game in Arabia- two of them are As-Suli (854-946) who wrote a book on mansubat and tabiya, and later on, Al-Lajlaj (900-970) who produced an updated Kitab mansubat ash-shatranj.

Peculiarities of historic shatranj design

    After shatranj was embraced by the Arab culture following the Muslim conquest of Persia, there might have been some peculiar changes in the physical outlook of the game. Intricate figurative sets representing soldiers, beasts, and kings have been documented only early in the introduction stages. They were most probably soon considered illicit and were replaced with Moslem non-figurative sets of the 9th-12th centuries. The sets were made in accordance with Islamic principles so as not to depict living creatures. The pieces were simply written on paper or plainly made of clay or carved stone. This physically less complex outlook of chess has arguably been a contributing factor for the game's success. The simpler forms meant easier and quicker reproduction of sets as well as less distraction during the game, especially for inexperienced players.

Introduction to Europe

    Chess was brought to European territory after the Moslems invaded the Iberian Peninsula and took control of Spain in the eight century. The Moslem entrance in Sicily provided another point of introduction to the Old Continent. One of the first preserved documents of Christian Europe referring to chess was the Catalonian Testament of 1010 AD. According to such texts, the renowned Moslem monarch Haroon-al-Rashid presented as a gift to Charlemagne an elaborate chess set. After these overture events, chess spread northwards and with minor changes became the favourite board game of Europe. The European contributions to the game were mostly practical. They included the two-colour chequered board to ease the eye, the introduction of the mighty queen, and the empowering of pawns to move two squares on the first move. All of these modifications affected chess by speeding-up the game, and Europe was ready to become the prime advocate of chess for centuries to come.


Modern day

    Finding fertile ground in Europe, chess thrived through history until it reached such popularity that it had become a global attraction. In 1924, Fédération Internationale des Échecs - the International Chess Federation, or FIDE, was founded in Paris. FIDE has more than 140 registered member countries, and is considered today’s governing body of chess dealing with all aspects of the game. The federation organizes different events and tournaments aiming to popularise and support chess throughout the world. Partly due to such activities, in recent years the pawns and pieces have been making a return to lands and places where the game has been developed. Such are some of the Arab states, where popularity of the time-honoured game grows in a modern setting.

     The year of 1986 saw the first Chess Olympiad to be held in an Arab country. It was hosted by the United Arab Emirates. The modern chess foundation in the country was officially set up in 1979 when the Dubai Chess & Culture Club was established. The club has been a driving force for the success of the game in the Emirates. Its activity has earned many triumphs for the country both home and abroad and has broadened the recognition of chess.

    In Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Chess & Culture Club has played a similar role in its activity. Since 1991, it has been organizing the Abu Dhabi International Chess Festival every year with its constructive involvement to improve the game’s status. Approved by the International Chess Federation, the Chess Festival encourages local players to put their flair in practice against masters from throughout the world. In 1994, the Abu Dhabi Chess Festival included the International Masters Tournament for the first time, where 41 countries took part in what has now become a major chess event. 


    Great games simply don’t die off. And by the looks of it, chess surely will not. The game has so firmly established itself as the prime sport of the intellect that without it the world could well be quite a different place. For billions of players, be it Aliyats, Grand Masters, mediocre enthusiasts or humble beginners, chess attracts the mind as magnet does iron. New technologies, and the Internet in particular, have broadened game and tournament opportunities. But had it not been for the Arab contribution and expansion of the game, hardly any of us would have had imagined the beauty this tactful contest emanates. Each played game carries with it the tradition of ancient times, a link to a stretched and almost legendary past. There is a sense of continuity and a sense of belonging to this wonderful tale of chess, from the time of its early dawn, through its historic voyage, to the present day.




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