Is chess “the work of Satan?”

Is chess “the work of Satan?”

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.”)


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.


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.


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.


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.

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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