Paul Sims, Editorial Assistant from the New Humanist Magazine just pointed about to me about a recent article in his magazine. It may be an interest to many of you. Enjoy and thanks Paul!

Volume 122 Issue 6 November/December 2007

Check republics

Sally Feldman

This summer the Iraq Chess Federation’s annual tournament took place at Kufa, near Najaf. It was a serious contest, attended by regional champions from all over the country. Between games there was feasting and rejoicing as a ray of optimism briefly shone through the prevailing bleakness.

The event was especially significant since the influential Shia clergyman Grand Ayatollah Sistani had only just announced his belief that chess should be “absolutely forbidden”. And this is in the country where the modern game is believed to have originated – at the court of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad ten centuries ago.

But while the carnival atmosphere in Kufa was a celebration of chess as a joyous assertion of freedom, it can also be a tool of oppression. In the tiny and desolate Russian republic of Kalmykia chess is rampant. Despite the region’s gruelling poverty and unemployment, its eccentric president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has invested £25 million to build a “Chess City” complex on the outskirts of the city of Elista. He has also insisted on compulsory chess lessons for every child over six, with a special school for the most promising players. Widely regarded as a corrupt dictator, Ilyumzhinov is also president of the World Chess Federation, an honour scorned by his detractors.

“He’s a pathological liar with serious psychological problems,” said Semyon Ateyev, the director of the Kalmykia Bureau of Human Rights.

“We don’t have any economic development, because he spends his whole time organising chess tournaments.”

So chess has been the exemplar of the best and most noble of human endeavours, and its worst excesses. And that struggle between virtue and tyranny, truth and dissembling, is perfectly represented by the board itself, its two opposed sides fighting out the eternal conflict between good and bad, black and white.

Because it is above all a game of pure reason, without luck or chance or subjectivity, it has always attracted rebels and free spirits. Writers, scientists, musicians and artists have all been drawn to the game and taken succour from it. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Einstein and Shostakovich were aficionados. The father of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, was so enthralled by chess that he trained to be a professional player and in the early 1930s played for the French national team. In 1940, in exile from the Nazis in the French coastal town of Arcachon, he and Samuel Beckett would play endless games of chess in a seafront café.

According to David Shenk in his new history The Immortal Game, chess was not only embraced by all the key scientific and philosophical figures of the Enlightenment: it was actually regarded by them as the embodiment of the Age of Reason. “Perhaps more than in any previous age, the internal logic of the game itself became intertwined with the thinking of its leading proponents,” explains Shenk. “The same spirit of thought guided these thinkers as they calculated chess moves and as they worked through philosophical problems.”

Here is the full article.

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