Is chess “the work of Satan?”

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Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Aheik

Today we read that Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and chess 1money (like gambling) that breeds hatred and hostility between players: “the work of Satan.”

As a I looked at one after another unflattering images of the Grand Mufti on the internet, my first reflex was to scoff. Haven’t yet read of any online Chess Fantasy Leagues shut down for illegal gambling. (“And the first picks of the draft: Fisher ’72 in Reykjavik followed by Kasparov ’95 in New York.”)

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Chess, Rhymes and Wisdom at the Frederick Douglass Campus

More to the point, we’ve written a lot about city school chess and the value of chess for students. Luckily, the Sheikh’s fatwa does not apply to the Upstate New York Interscholastic Chess Leagues.

At the same time, I did think about the fascinating tour of the Strong Museum’s chess collection I was given.

At the tour, we were shown chess sets from throughout the ages: from a medieval Anglo-Saxon replica to 19th century Chinese pieces to a Cold War USA vs. USSR set from the early 1990s.

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from the Strong National Museum of Play

And in each case, the sets certainly reproduce hierarchies of power and dramatize violence and hostility.

In the medieval version, lords lording over vassals. In the Chinese sets (made by forced laborers, pawns making pawns), menacing dynastic soldiers invoke bloody battlefields fought for reasons now obscure. And the Cold War set may caricature the world leaders who this time are the pawns, but the game is still an exciting version of nuclear brinksmanship with apocalypse one false move away.

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Chess at last summer’s Fringe Festival (fringe, that sound’s pretty satanic, and that’s me taking over the world)

I don’t know if the Sheikh objects to chess because it creates and reproduces images and models of human aggression (and in some cases social hierarchies of power and oppression). But, the Sheik does seem to think that chess itself does not just reflect hostility, but can actually cause hatred.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to take the fatwa seriously. The point of the post is just to say more about city school chess and the Strong Museum’s collection.

Still, behind the Sheik’s austere interpretation of Islam is food for thought next time you are wasting time at the chess table or want to bet your paycheck or knock all the pieces off the board.

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D & C caption: “Dave Kramer of Brighton concentrates on his next move. He lost.” (1981) That was pretty satanic of them to gratuitously include he lost.