Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: Chess is peace; it is a game capable of reconciling millions of people

- Kirsan Nikolaevich, at different periods of history chess was forbidden in Persia, Japan, Egypt and France. Up until relatively recently, it was banned in Afghanistan. Just two years ago, they tried to ban this game in Saudi Arabia. Why the wisest and most ancient game was subjected to such persecutions?

- Well, the first were the Persians who banned chess in 644, after their state was captured by the army of Muslims led by Umar Al-Khattab. Umar banned chess, because he considered chess a gamble. It should be noted that Al-Khattab died in the same year at the hands of a Persian slave.

- Wow, what a coincidence! Did it happen because of chess?
- I do not think it is unlikely. Let’s look further: a few decades later, Japanese Empress Jito banned chess. At the beginning of the 11 century, chess was banned in Egypt, and several years later, Cardinal Damian forbade all clergymen to play chess.
Later, at the end of the 12th century, the Orthodox Church prohibited chess. French King Louis IX, apparently, was a poor chess player, as he banned chess in 1254 as being "useless and boring."
-Wow! Now everyone understands the benefits of chess and not a single official will call this ancient game like that, even if he cannot play it at all.
- Yes, nobody will say that now. But the Taliban banned chess in Afghanistan in 2001. They thought this game would make people skip prayers. Now the situation is different there.
I was in Afghanistan in 2017. I met with the President of the National Chess Federation, Almas Zahid Haji Mohammad, who is the special envoy to President on national coordination affairs. And he told me that “Chess in Afghanistan has a long history and, despite the difficulties, we managed to keep the traditions”. The “Chess in Schools” programme is also being successfully implemented there.
- So what was the reason for the prohibitions?
- Honestly, I do not know. Most of the reasons are far-fetched. Some sort of barbarism. Sometimes they are just stupid. There are a lot of weird things going on in the world and weird decisions are often made. They are strangely accepted and just as strangely cancelled. Everyone knows that the largest chess tournaments are held in the same Saudi Arabia.
Chess was also banned in Iran from 1979 to 1988, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lifted the ban explaining that the restriction was valid until chess was a game of chance. In Afghanistan, as I said, the game was banned by the Taliban - an organization that is recognized as terrorist in Russia.
Since the advent of chess in Europe, the Christian Church has taken a sharply negative attitude towards it. Chess was equated with gambling and drinking. In 1161, Catholic Cardinal Damian issued a decree banning this game among the clergy. He called chess "the devil's invention" and said that "the game is obscene and unacceptable."
- The Russian Orthodox Church also banned chess under the threat of excommunication from the Church in 1262.
- However, despite church restrictions, both in Europe and in Russia, chess spread rapidly, and the clergy had no less passion for playing it than other classes of society. In Europe, in 1393, chess was removed from the list of prohibited games. There is no information about the official lifting of the church ban on chess in Russia but, at least since the 17th — 18th centuries, this ban has not been in effect.
Both Ivan the Terrible and Alexei Mikhailovich played chess. Chess was popular among courtiers and diplomats. In Europe, some survived documents from that time state that the Russian envoys knew how to play chess and they were skilful players. Princess Sofia was also fond of chess. Under Peter I, the assemblies were held with indispensable chess games.
- But Deacon Andrei Kuraev said that a person identifies himself more with his mind than with his body. If I lose in a football match to my neighbour, so what? It only means that his legs are longer. And if I lose to him in chess, then I am less clever than him. Father Andrei called international chess tournaments a “nest of vipers” because he was convinced by his own experience of playing chess in his school years that one would wish all kind of evil for the opponent on the eve of the competition! And he also said that intellectual games, including chess, cultivate passions: pride, self-conceit and aggression against neighbours. Therefore, these games are unsafe for the health of the soul.
- It’s a very controversial judgment. I would love to meet Father Andrei and talk with him on this topic. Because I am absolutely convinced that chess is peace; it is a game capable of reconciling millions of people.