Distance and discovery: As-Suli, Columbus and chess – TheArticle

Chess Puzzles

Mind sports play a vibrant rolein thelives ofmanygeniuses and, ofthevariousmindsports,chessis the king.Itistheonepractisedmost widely andhas the mostwell-documentedand carefully writtentheory tobackit up.A numberofthe recognised great mindshaveratedchesshighly.Goethe calledthegamethe touchstoneofthe intellect.HarounAl-Raschid,theAbbasydCaliph ofIslam (786809AD),the manidealisedin theArabian Nights,wasthe firstofhis dynasty toplay chess.The 11th-century Byzantine

Emperor,AlexiusComnenus,wasallegedly playing chess when surprisedbyamurderousconspiracy, which being a goodchess player he managed toescape!TheAladdinof thefairytalewas,in real life,a chess player,alawyerfromSamarkandin thecourt ofTamburlaine. Tamburlaine himself lovedtoplaychess andnamed hisson ShahRukh,since Tamburlaine was movingaRookatthe time the birth had been announced. Another genius, BenjaminFranklin,was an enthusiastic chess player indeed the firstchesspublication inAmerica was FranklinsMorals of Chesswhich appearedin 1786.Chesswasmentioned byShakespeare,LeibnizandEinstein.Ivan theTerrible,Queen Elizabeth I,CatherinetheGreat and Napoleon allplayedchess.

However,the firstChess Grandmaster,the firstmental sportsman,the firstgenius ofmindsports, wastheBaghdad chessplayerAs-Suli.Itis difficult for Western audiencestograspthatBaghdad,As-Sulishome city,wasoncetheworld capital of chess;indeed itwasthecapital oftheworld for sometimefrom the9th century onwards.Baghdad was founded inAD762 by the CaliphAl-Mansour, who employed100,000 men tobuild it.Thiscircular city, with a diameter of 8655feet(2638metres) and surrounded byarampartofnofewer than360towers,almostimmediately provedtobetoosmall for theburgeoning population.Bythetime of the CaliphHarounAl-Raschid,

Baghdadhadexpanded, takingin quartersfor commerce and artisans, and by AD 814itwastheworldslargestcity. The stupendousgrowth ofBaghdad wasamostastonishing global phenomenon.By814 ADitcovered an area approximately40 squaremiles (100km2)theequivalent of modern-dayPariswithintheouterboulevards. Baghdadwasthedominant city of the world and As-Suliwasthemulti-talentedmindsportsman,poet,politician,and Chess Grandmaster who exemplifiedthepre-eminent culture of Baghdad atthat time.Baghdaddwarfedallother worldcities, andin termsof culture, art, scientificinvestigationand chess,it was themost convincing andpowerful testament to theastonishing force andvigourofIslam at that time.

In the9thand 10thcenturies chess wasknown in theArabictongueasShatranj,and Baghdad wastoShatranjwhat Moscow becameto the moderngame theworldcapital of chess. Baghdad was a culturedflourishingcentrepacked with Chess Grandmasters and chesstheoreticians, who wrote volume after volume about criticalpositions and chess openingtheory.The maindifferencesbetweenShatranjand chess as wenowknowit,which was developed duringthe Renaissance in the 15thcentury,wasthat in theold game ofShatranj,a win couldbeachieved bytakingall ofyour opponentspieces,apartfrom hisKing.You did not need toforce checkmate. TheQueenknownas theVisierwas a comparativelyhelpless piece,only ableto moveone squarediagonally ineachdirection, whereastoday it is the most powerfulpiece onthechessboard.

Like themodernformerWorld Chess Champion,Garry Kasparov, As-Sulicamefrom anareabordering theCaspian Sea and, as ayoungman,he travelled to thecapitaltobecomethechess favourite ofthepoliticalleader ofhisday,theCaliphAl-Muktafi.ButinAD940 As-Suliutteredanindiscreet politicalcomment, andhad to fleefrom Baghdad.Hedied soon afterwardsinBasra atthegrand old age of 92.

A chess geniuslivesonin hispublished games, studies and puzzles. As-Suliset onepuzzlewhichhedescribed as:Old, very old and extremely difficulttosolve. Nobody could solveitor saywhetherit was a draw or win.Infactthere is noman on earth who can solveit ifI, As-Suli,havenot shownhim thesolution.Thiswashis proud boast andit heldgooduntilonly very recently, when modern Grandmasters armed with computersfinallycrackedthepuzzle.

As-Suliwasthestrongest playerofhistime,a composer of chesspuzzles,andtheauthor of thefirstbook describing a systematic way of playingShatranj.Formorethan600 years afterhisdeath,the highest praise an Arab could bestow onachess playerwastosaythat heplayed like As-Sulihewon every chess matchthat hehas knowntohave contested. As-Suliwas a resident atthecourt oftheCaliph wherehisreputation wasthatof an excellent conversationalistwithimmense encyclopedicknowledge.He ownedanenormouslibrary,andwrotemanyhistorybooks as well ashistwotextbookson chess. He was also a greatteacherofthegamethenextgreat ArabicplayerofShatranj,Al-Lajlaj,was one ofhis pupils.

As-Sulican be seen as a symbol ofthegreat Islamic culture thatflourishedin Baghdad,possessing great qualities ofmind,thought and intellectat atimewhen Europeitselfwas plunged inthe DarkAges and much oftheworld wasinchaos. Hiswasa pinnacle of sophistication and culturenot tobe attained by others formanycenturies.

Now let us jump several centuries to the time ofChristopher Columbus (14511506).

Intrepidexplorer Christopher Columbus was the firsttoplunge out and forward , more or less at right angles to the coastlines of Europe and Africa, acrossavast ocean with uncharted waters.Whereas previousexplorershad followedthe littoral , when they ventured outtosea, Columbus sailed acrosstheAtlanticin 1492-3eventhoughhe did not know what,ifanything, lay ahead.

Columbus,whosename meansthedove,bearer of Christ,discovered theNewWorldfor Spainin 1492. The 15thcenturyisnormally termedthe Renaissance,withits recoveryof ancient Classicalknowledge. But thatage was alsocharacterisedbyanew imperativetowardsfresh ideas inallareas ofhumanendeavour.Takechess,forexample.During the 15thcentury,thesurprisinglyrapid processhad been initiatedwherebythegame emergedfromits slow,tortuous Arabic form,aspractisedby As-Suli;suddenly,castling wasintroduced,pawnsgainedthe privilegeofmovingtwo squaresforwardat theirfirst turn,andthe Queenwastransformedat a strokefroma waddling cripple (theArabicVizier)toaunit of devastating ferocity.

Ifchessis trulyagameof warfare,then the increasedfirepower ofthe Queensurelymirrors thecontemporaryintroductionof artillery as along-rangemeansofdestroying theoppositionin thesphereofbattlefield technology.

These suddendevelopmentsin thegamereflect theoverall 15th-century dynamic.The increasingly urgent perceptionof distance, space andperspectivewhichdistinguishedthat period.Indeed, perspective inart, the invention of thetelescopeandthe microscopewereparalleldevelopments.

Columbusnot onlydiscoveredthe New World: healso exported European ideas andideals there includingchess. A later conquistador, Pissarro, was recorded as teaching chess to the Inca emperor Atahualpa. As was soon seen, at astroke,Columbussdiscoverysuddenly hurledSpainintoaperfectpositionto becomeacentrefor world communication placedatthe junctionofthe European mainlandwithtrade routessouthtowards Africa,and now facing avastnewvista acrosstheAtlantic Ocean.

Columbus was borninGenoa,thesonof a wool comber.At first hewas expectedto take up thesametrade,but attheage of14 hewenttosea, fought againstTunisiangalleys and, around1470, wasshipwrecked off Cape St Vincent. Hereached theshores ofPortugalby surviving on a wooden plank. By 1474 he hadalready conceivedthe ideaof sailingto India by travellingwestwards, andhewas encouragedin this byToscanelli, an astronomerfromFlorence.

Meanwhile,Columbus gathered vital experiencein his intended professionof becoming a greatnavigator. HesailedtoIceland,theCape VerdeIslandsand SierraLeone. In 1485, heapplied for apatron to finance his intendedexpedition westwards,inorderto reach theEast. He approachedJohn IIof Portugal,HenryVII of England andtheCatholic QueenIsabellaof Castile. Over aperiodof seven years,hewasfrequentlyrebuffed; thosewhohad thepowerto decidewhether money wasto bespent on such ventures were oftentraditionally inclinedchurchmen, emotionally opposedto the notion thatthe earth might be round.Eventually, in April 1492, KingFerdinand andQueen Isabellaofthe newly unitedSpain gavehim thegreenlightand, onFriday3 August1492,Columbus sailedincommand oftheSanta Maria,thePintaandtheNinathreesmall ships withjust 120explorers onboardhisavowedintention tocrossthe Atlantic Oceanandreach the rich tradeofthe Eastbythat method.

ByFriday 12 October,landwas sighted afterjustover twomonthsof continuous sailing. Theland he discoveredincludedan island inwhat cameto beknown asthe Bahamas,and Cuba and Hispaniolanowknownas Haiti.Columbusthenset out onthe returnvoyage, arrivingback in Spain on15March1493,wherehewasreceived withthe highesthonours.

ItissaidthatColumbusunderestimated thesizeof theglobe beforeheset out andbelieved hewasen routetoCipangu(Japan),not theNewWorld.Nevertheless,he had the determination,vision, and beliefin hisownnew theoryoftheworld, andthe power toconvertthose inapositionof authoritytoshare andback thatvision andhissingle-minded purpose.

Columbusindeed had thecourageto boldlygo where nomanhad gone before.Itis an ironythat the continent hediscovered America wasnot named after him.Itwas,infact,namedafteralaterexplorer,born in Florencein the same yearas ChristopherColumbus,namelyAmerigo Vespucci.What trulydistinguishes Columbusfromallpreviousmaritime explorersis that hedid notfollowthe coastline.Previousseafarershad allsought to travelin correspondence withestablishedcontinental contours.Not Columbus! Headditionallyhandled hisnervous crews sowell that theyreached theirdestination,and histrailblazing exploitationof thethen-unknown trade winds ensured that he could returnsafely home.

Although therehas been recentspeculationabout Columbuss characterand thewaythat hetreatednativeinhabitants,no one can denyhis genius,determinationand braveryinexploring theunchartedseas. When I learned recently thathis statue in London had been violated byWokistas, 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 websiteChessgames.comhas this to say aboutthe twoprotagonists in the first ever recorded game of modern chess. The intellectual heirs of AsSuli, they were alsofully fledgedcontemporaries of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and in one case, a specific financial backer.

FrancescodiCastellviwas a lord of several manors in the area ofValencia, Spain. He was an advisor in theAragonesecourt of King Ferdinand. He died in Valencia in 1506. He was one of the co-authors of the Scachsdamor (Chess of Love), the Catalan poemwhichdescribes the first modern game of chess.

NarcisoVinyoles 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 JusticaCriminal.He spoke Catalan,Castilian, Latin, and Italian. He was married toBriandadeSantangel, niece of a banker who financially supported the first expedition ofChristoperColumbus. He was also co-author of the Catalan poem Scachsdamor written around 1475.

Thegame:Francesco diCastellvivsNarcisoVinyoleswas playedin 1475.

Of contemporary artists, Barry Martin, a friend of both Teeny Duchamp ( Marcels widow) and of composer John Cage ( Duchamps 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 atwww.Waterhousedodd.com/exhibitions

The most impressive single work , which can still be seen, was a piece which sold for 8500 in hisSpanish 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 Keenes latest book Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus,containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available fromAmazon , and Blackwells .

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Distance and discovery: As-Suli, Columbus and chess - TheArticle

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