Today we read that Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has declared the playing of chess “forbidden,” calling it a waste of time and money (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.”)
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.
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.
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.