Culture and Civilisations

Distance and discovery: As-Suli, Columbus and chess

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Distance and discovery: As-Suli, Columbus and chess

Mutanabi Street, Baghdad, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Mind sports play a vibrant role  in the lives of many geniuses and, of the various mind sports, chess is the king. It is the one practised most widely and has the most well-documented and carefully written theory to back it up. A number of the recognised great minds have rated chess highly. Goethe called the game the touchstone of the intellect”. Haroun Al-Raschid, the Abbasyd Caliph of Islam (786–809 AD), the man idealised in the Arabian Nights, was the first of his dynasty to play chess. The 11th-century Byzantine

Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, was allegedly playing chess when surprised by a murderous conspiracy, which being a good chess player he managed to escape! The Aladdin of the fairy tale was, in real life, a chess player, a lawyer from Samarkand in the court of Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine himself loved to play chess and named his son Shah Rukh, since Tamburlaine was moving  a Rook at the time the birth had been announced. Another genius, Benjamin Franklin, was an enthusiastic chess player – indeed the first chess publication in America was Franklin’s Morals of Chess which appeared in 1786. Chess was mentioned by Shakespeare, Leibniz and Einstein. Ivan the Terrible, Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and Napoleon all played chess.

However, the first Chess Grandmaster, the first mental sportsman, the first genius of mind sports, was the Baghdad chess player As-Suli. It is difficult for Western audiences to grasp that Baghdad, As-Suli’s home city, was once the world capital of chess; indeed it was the capital of the world for some time from the 9th century onwards. Baghdad was founded in AD 762 by the Caliph Al-Mansour, who employed 100,000 men to build it. This circular city, with a diameter of 8655 feet (2638 metres) and surrounded by a rampart of no fewer than  360 towers, almost immediately proved to be too small for the burgeoning population. By the time of the Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid,

Baghdad had expanded, taking in quarters for commerce and artisans, and by AD 814 it was the world’s largest city. The stupendous growth of Baghdad was a most astonishing global phenomenon. By 814 AD it covered an area approximately 40 square miles (100 km2) – the equivalent of modern-day Paris within the outer boulevards. Baghdad was the dominant city of the world and As-Suli was the multi-talented mind sportsman,poet, politician, and Chess Grandmaster who exemplified the pre-eminent culture of Baghdad at that time. Baghdad dwarfed all other world cities, and in terms of culture, art, scientific investigation and chess, it was the most convincing and powerful testament to the astonishing force and vigour of Islam at that time.

In the 9th and 10th centuries chess was known in the Arabic tongue as Shatranj, and Baghdad was to Shatranj what Moscow became to the modern game – the world capital of chess. Baghdad was a cultured flourishing centre packed with Chess Grandmasters and chess theoreticians, who wrote volume after volume about critical positions and chess opening theory. The main differences between Shatranj and chess as we now know it, which was developed during the Renaissance in the 15th century, was that in the old game of Shatranja win could be achieved by taking all of your opponent’s pieces, apart from his King. You did not need to force checkmate. The Queen – known as the Visier – was a comparatively helpless piece, only able to move one square diagonally in each direction, whereas today it is the most powerful piece on the chess board.

Like the modern former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov, As-Suli came from an area bordering the Caspian Sea and, as a young man, he travelled to the capital to become the chess favourite of the political leader of his day, the Caliph Al-Muktafi. But in AD 940 As-Suli uttered an indiscreet political comment, and had to flee from Baghdad. He died soon afterwards in Basra at the grand old age of 92.

A chess genius lives on in his published games, studies and puzzles. As-Suli set one puzzle which he described as: Old, very old and extremely difficult to solve. Nobody could solve it or say whether it was a draw or win. In fact there is no man on earth who can solve it if I, As-Suli, have not shown him the solution”. This was his proud boast and it held good until only very recently, when modern Grandmasters armed with computers finally cracked the puzzle.

As-Suli was the strongest player of his time, a composer of chess puzzles, and the author of the first book describing a systematic way of playing Shatranj. For more than 600 years after his death, the highest praise an Arab could bestow on a chess player was to say that he played like As-Suli – he won every chess match that he has known to have contested. As-Suli was a resident at the court of the Caliph where his reputation was that of an excellent conversationalist with immense encyclopedic knowledge. He owned an enormous library, and wrote many history books as well as his two text books on chess. He was also a great teacher of the game – the next great Arabic player of ShatranjAl-Lajlaj, was one of his pupils.

As-Suli can be seen as a symbol of the great Islamic culture that flourished in Baghdad, possessing great qualities of mind, thought and intellect at a time when Europe itself was plunged in the Dark Ages and much of the world was in chaos. His was a pinnacle of sophistication and culture not to be attained by others for many centuries.

Now let us jump several centuries to the time of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506).

Intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus was the first to plunge out and forward , more or less at right angles to the coastlines of Europe and Africa, across a vast ocean with uncharted waters. Whereas previous explorers had followed the littoral , when they ventured out to sea, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492-3 even though he did not know what, if anything, lay ahead.

Columbus, whose name means “the dove, bearer of Christ”, discovered the New World for Spain in 1492. The 15th century is normally termed the Renaissance, with its recovery of ancient Classical knowledge. But that age was also characterised by a new imperative towards fresh ideas in all areas of human endeavour. Take chess, for example. During the 15th century, the surprisingly rapid process had been initiated whereby the game emerged from its slow, tortuous Arabic form, as practised by As-Suli; suddenly, castling was introduced, pawns gained the privilege of moving two squares forward at their first turn, and the Queen was transformed at a stroke from a waddling cripple (the Arabic “Vizier”) to a unit of devastating ferocity.

If chess is truly a game of warfare, then the increased firepower of the Queen surely mirrors the contemporary introduction of artillery as a long-range means of destroying the opposition in the sphere of battlefield technology.

These sudden developments in the game reflect the overall 15th-century dynamic. The increasingly urgent perception of distance, space and perspective which distinguished that period. Indeed, perspective in art, the invention of the telescope and the microscope were parallel developments.

Columbus not only discovered the New World: he also exported European ideas and ideals there — including chess. A later conquistador, Pissarro, was recorded as teaching chess to the Inca emperor Atahualpa. As was soon seen, at a stroke, Columbus’s discovery suddenly hurled Spain into a perfect position to become a centre for world communication — placed at the junction of the European mainland with trade routes south towards Africa, and now facing a vast new vista across the Atlantic Ocean.

Columbus was born in Genoa, the son of a wool comber. At first he was expected to take up the same trade, but at the age of 14 he went to sea, fought against Tunisian galleys and, around 1470, was shipwrecked off Cape St Vincent. He reached the shores of Portugal by surviving on a wooden plank. By 1474 he had already conceived the idea of sailing to India by travelling westwards, and he was encouraged in this by Toscanelli, an astronomer from Florence.

Meanwhile, Columbus gathered vital experience in his intended profession of becoming a great navigator. He sailed to Iceland, the Cape Verde Islands and Sierra Leone. In 1485, he applied for a patron to finance his intended expedition westwards, in order to reach the East. He approached John II of Portugal, Henry VII of England and the Catholic Queen Isabella of Castile. Over a period of seven years, he was frequently rebuffed; those who had the power to decide whether money was to be spent on such ventures were often traditionally inclined churchmen, emotionally opposed to the notion that the earth might be round. Eventually, in April 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the newly united Spain gave him the green light and, on Friday 3 August 1492, Columbus sailed in command of the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina –three small ships with just 120 explorers on board – his avowed intention to cross the Atlantic Ocean and reach the rich trade of the East by that method.

By Friday 12 October, land was sighted after just over two months of continuous sailing. The land he discovered included an island in what came to be known as the Bahamas, and Cuba and Hispaniola – now known as Haiti. Columbus then set out on the return voyage, arriving back in Spain on 15 March 1493, where he was received with the highest honours.

It is said that Columbus underestimated the size of the globe before he set out and believed he was en route to Cipangu ( Japan), not the New World.Nevertheless, he had the determination, vision, and belief in his own new theory of the world, and the power to convert those in a position of authority to share and back that vision and his single-minded purpose.

Columbus indeed had the courage “to boldly go where no man had gone before”. It is an irony that the continent he discovered — America — was not named after him. It was, in fact, named after a later explorer, born in Florence in the same year as Christopher Columbus, namely Amerigo Vespucci. What truly distinguishes Columbus from all previous maritime explorers is that he did not follow the coastline. Previous seafarers had all sought to travel in correspondence with established continental contours. Not Columbus! He additionally handled his nervous crews so well that they reached their destination, and his trailblazing exploitation of the then-unknown trade winds ensured that he could return safely home.

Although there has been recent speculation about Columbus’s character and the way that he treated native inhabitants, no one can deny his genius, determination and bravery in exploring the uncharted seas. When I learned recently that his statue in London had been violated by Wokistas, my first reaction was to visit it and pay homage .

The very first recorded game of the modern version of chess was played in 1475, less than twenty years before Columbus set out for the New World. Respected website has this to say about the two protagonists in the first ever recorded game of modern chess. The intellectual heirs of As Suli, they were also fully fledged contemporaries of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and in one case, a specific financial backer.

Francesco di Castellvi was a lord of several manors in the area of Valencia, Spain. He was an advisor in the Aragonese court of King Ferdinand. He died in Valencia in 1506. He was one of the co-authors of the “Scachs d’amor” (Chess of Love), the Catalan poem which describes the first modern game of chess.

Narciso Vinyoles was born between 1442 and 1447. He died in Valencia in 1517. He was a politician and writer and belonged to a family of lawyers. In 1495, King Ferdinand recommended him for the position of “Justica Criminal”. He spoke Catalan, Castilian, Latin, and Italian. He was married to Brianda de Santangel, niece of a banker who financially supported the first expedition of Christoper Columbus. He was also co-author of the Catalan poem “Scachs d’amor” written around 1475.

The game: Francesco di Castellvi vs NarcisoVinyoles was played in 1475.

Of contemporary artists, Barry Martin, a friend of both Teeny Duchamp ( Marcel’s widow) and of composer John Cage ( Duchamp’s most faithful disciple) is the most prominent chess player. His recent one man show at the Waterhouse Dodd Gallery in Savile Row, can be followed at

The most impressive single work , which can still be seen, was a piece which sold for £8500 in his Spanish series, bringing to mind those revelatory lines from Keats : Then felt I as some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken; or like stout Cortez , when with eagle eyes , he stared at the Pacific and  all his men, looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent, on a peak in Darien.”

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Amazon , and  Blackwell’s .

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  • Agree with arguments: 98%
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