This illustration from a Persian treatise on chess, possibly dating from the 14th century, is notable for its expressive faces that hint at the “different kinds of pleasantry and jests” Mas‘udi recorded as customary among players at that time in Baghdad.

[The latest issue of Saudi Aramco World has an interesting article on the history of chess in the Middle East. Here is an excerpt.]

The Game of Kings

by Stewart Gordon

Arab writers on chess acknowledge that the game spread west from Persia, probably soon after the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century. The Arabic term for the game was and is shatranj, a standard linguistic shift from the Persian chatrang, and all the names of the chess pieces (with the exception of the horse) are Arabic versions of their Persian names. As it spread, however, the game did not always find itself welcome. The Eastern Church at Constantinople condemned chess as a form a gambling in 680, and al-Hakim, the Fatimid ruler of Egypt, banned it in 1005 and ordered all chess sets burned.

The eastward movement of chess, into China and Southeast Asia, has even less documentation than its movement west. The initial reference to chess in China comes in the Yu Kuai Lu (Book of Marvels) dating to about ad 800. It recounts the story, set in 762, of a man “who dreamt of a battle in which the moves of the forces: horses, commanders, waggons and armoured men, resembled those in Chinese chess,” writes Richard Eales in Chess: The History of a Game. “He awoke to find a set of chessmen buried in a nearby well.”

Regardless of that tale’s veracity, there is overwhelming evidence for strong trade and cultural ties between India and China, along the Silk Roads and the southern maritime routes through Southeast Asia. This is, after all, the period of the Tang Dynasty, during which foreign ideas, costumes and food were officially welcomed at court. There were more than 200 trade or religious missions between India and China between about 650 and 850. Sugarcane and the technology to make it a cash crop moved from India to China, and papermaking know-how moved along the Silk Roads to the Middle East. Commercial mango cultivation migrated from India to Java. It would be surprising if a game as intriguing as chess, already played in India and Central Asia for a century or more, had not also moved along the caravan routes to China or the sea routes to Southeast Asia. From this early period until today, chess has been popular in Malaysia, Burma, China and portions of the Southeast Asian archipelago.

After about 700, chess spread rapidly from court to court and city to city within a broad swath of territory running from Egypt through the rest of North Africa to Spain. H. J. R. Murray’s magisterial A History of Chess, first published in 1913, brought together many of the early references to chess and chess play. For example, Said bin al-Musayyib (died 710) of Madinah played in public and declared chess permissible provided there was no gambling on the outcome. Muhammad bin Sirin (died 728) was one of the first chess masters to play blindfolded. Three granddaughters of another blindfold player, Hisham bin Urwa (died 765), were all chess players. Chess allusions appeared in poetry: Al-Faradaq (died about 728) wrote, “I keep you from your inheritance and from the royal crown so that, hindered by my arm, you remain a pawn among pawns.” Such an allusion worked only if the courtly audience knew that a pawn, by advancing to the farthest row on the board, could be converted to a more powerful piece.

Baghdad, founded in 750 as the Abbasid dynastic capital, soon ranked with Delhi, Beijing and Constantinople among the largest, wealthiest and most sophisticated cities in the world. Its bazaars, libraries and banquets were the stuff of legend in Europe. The caliph and his nobles supported all manner of learning and innovation, including the translation of Greek texts on science, mathematics, geography, astronomy, agriculture and medicine. Religious commentary flourished. The caliphs regularly brought the most learned men in the Middle East, Central Asia, Egypt and India to Baghdad—and chess was part of this intellectual flowering. Chess masters from Persia and Central Asia came to the court to find patronage and to challenge the best players in the Islamic world.

Several early caliphs were avid players themselves. It’s said that the caliph Harun al-Rashid carried on a chess match by correspondence with the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus around 800, but that the two parted ways—and even waged real war—after the emperor accused Harun of making his predecessor a pawn to the caliph’s rook. Harun’s successor, his son al-Amin (died 813), figures in an apocryphal chess tale: At a critical point in the siege of Baghdad by forces loyal to his half-brother al-Ma‘mun, al-Amin received a message during a game of chess. Baghdad’s capture was imminent, the messenger said, advising him that this was not the time to play chess, but to look to the city’s defenses. Al-Amin told the messenger to be patient; he was only a few moves from checkmating his opponent. It is not known how the chess game ended, but al-Amin was captured and paid for his concentration with his life.

The names and some of the writings of the handful of chess masters (aliyat) of the Abbasid court have come down to us. The first was al-Adli, who received all challengers and dominated chess at court in the 850’s. He was defeated by a player named al-Razi, a generation younger, who dominated chess at court for several decades.

The two most famous Abbasid chess masters, al-Lajlaj and al-Suli, appeared in the 10th century. Both are known from extensive extracts of their writings in two manuscripts of a book entitled Book of Chess: Extracts From the Works of al-Adli, as-Suli and Others, compiled in the mid-12th century. These early books often included opening sets of moves—with such names as Pharaoh’s Stone, the Torrent, the Slave’s Banner—and standard, but often maddeningly difficult, “problems.” Typically, a problem set out an array of pieces on the board and challenged the reader to win in a set number of moves. Over the following few centuries, a set of 77 problems became standard for anyone studying chess. These were known as mansubat. One problem, by al-Suli, remained unsolved for more than a thousand years.

At the Baghdad court, chess was not the sober, largely silent affair that it is today. Players were expected to maintain a witty, erudite banter with each other and with spectators. “Chess players employ different kinds of pleasantry and jests designed to astound,” wrote the great 14th-century historian al-Mas‘udi. “Many maintain that these incite people to play, and add to the flow of resource and accurate deliberation…. They are just as much part of the apparatus of the player as the song and improvised verse of the warrior.” Many verses describing this custom have been composed:

Hotter than the glow of charcoal glows the player’s timely jest.
Think how many a weaker player it has helped against the best.

Court poets continued to develop chess imagery. Several noticed that the Persian word for the “castle” piece (rukh) was the same as the Arabic word for “cheek” and played on its double meaning. Even a few common jibes using chess imagery have been preserved: Around the court, for example, a short man was referred to as a “pawn.”