Chess A Muslim Invention?

This article describes a British exhibition — supported by the UK government — that highlights 1,001 Muslim inventions from the 6th through the 16th centuries. The problem is that it includes inventions that do not appear to be Muslim in origin.

For example, the exhibit apparently describes chess as a Muslim invention, which is a bit of a stretch. Chess traces its origins back to a game called Chaturanga. Written references to Chaturanga go back to 500 BC, though how close that game was to chess is debatable. But references to a chess-like Chaturanga clearly emerges in the first few centuries of the first millenia AD which, the last time I checked, is pre-Islamic.

As one commentator notes it is also a bit ironic to attribute the invention of chess to Muslims given that chess has been viewed unfavorably by Muslim literalists. For example, Ayatollah Sistani writes of chess,

Question : Why is chess forbidden?

Answer : It is not permissible, because it is a means for Lahv (debauchery) and gambling. Many traditions have been reported from the Holy Prophet and the Imams (a.s.) that prohibit playing chess. Moreover, when we do not know the reason behind the forbiddenness of an act, we are bound to obey in absolute obedience. There is a reason for it, but we do not know it and when we do not know it, it does not mean that we should not abide by it.

Who knew those high school chess clubs were a form of debauchery? Sure puts a new twist on the Queen’s Gambit.

Are Computers Ruining Chess?

The New York Times had a story earlier this month about the problems faced by high level players in the computer age. This story wasn’t about computers beating humans at chess, however, but rather about whether or not lesser human players are obtaining unfair advantages because of the proliferation of databases of chess games that make it possible to study their play with computers and occasionally beat them by finding obscure flaws in their game.

The Times opens with the case of international chess master Jay Bonin. According to the Times,

Mr. Bonin is more active than most elite players, but he is doing what most serious players have long thought is necessary: playing frequently to stay in peak form. Now, however, because of the widespread availability of databases of games and the growing strength of chess software, such activity may actually be making it easier to beat him.

Mr. Bonin said that he recently lost a tournament game to a weaker player who had not competed in years, but who had sprung a surprise move on him in one of Mr. Bonin’s favorite openings.

“The line he played reeked of preparation,” he said.

This is obviously not cheating, but quite a few people including Gary Kasparov and international chess master Gregory Shahade tell the New York Times they think it has made chess openings less fun and creative. As The Times reports,

Before people started using databases, a player who came up with a new move in an opening might be able to use it several times before enough people found out about it to start preparing for it. Now innovations are known almost as soon as they are played. “The profit maybe is very small,” Mr. Kasparov said. “You can only use it one game.”

Of course, as The Times points out, it was in large part due to the urging/suggestion of Kasparov that the preeminent chess database, Chessbase, added sophisticated searching so people can easily find all the games where Kasparov or any other players ends up in some specific position and then analyze how the player reacts, making preparation that much easier.

There are some contrarians. Estonian grandmaster Jaan Ehlvest contends that rather than allowing weak players to beat stronger players, the major effect of computers has been to accelerate the speed at which players realize their potential. According to The Times,

Mr. Ehlvest added that in any case he did not believe that computers made people better than they otherwise would be. Instead, they can help them reach their potential sooner.

“Now you see 14-year-old grandmasters because they accumulate information much faster than in my day,” he said.


Chess players give ‘check’ a new meaning. Dylan Loeb McClain, The New York Times, January 13, 2005.