Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I’m Jason Feifer. Last year in January of 2016, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious cleric made a statement that was widely debated in Islamic circles and, I think it’s fair to say, widely mocked by Western observers.
Voice Clip (Ara…: You can now add chess to the long list of things banned for being un-Islamic in Saudi Arabia. In the latest fatwa issued by the kingdom’s top cleric, it was declared that the popular board game is apparently a waste of time and money that creates hatred between players. Oh man, Sasha. No more chess in Saudi Arabia. There it goes.
Voice Clip (Ara…: There goes my dreams of being a chess master here. I can’t-
Voice Clip (Ara…: In Saudi Arabia.
Voice Clip (Ara…: In Saudi Arabia.
Voice Clip (Ara…: I know you were planning on doing that.
Jason Feifer: Guys, you got to work on that on-camera banter. Anyway, that was an online news program called The lip TV, but the story was covered everywhere: the New York Times, the New York Post, basically every British newspaper. CNN couldn’t help itself and went with the headline Checkmate: Saudi grand mufti makes move against chess, which okay.
Anyway, this whole thing didn’t actually stop people from playing chess in Saudi Arabia. Many religious prohibitions aren’t actually enforced there, or at least that’s what the leader of the Saudi Chess Association told the London newspaper, the Independent, at the time. But whatever. For most of the world, this whole episode just got chalked up to yet another wacky, religious prohibition. Islam bans all sorts of things, drinking, gambling. Why not chess, right? It’s even happened before, like in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
And if you take a step back, actually, all religions ban things in ways that seem totally arbitrary. I mean, hey, I’m Jewish. If I followed what my religion told me to do, which I don’t, but if I did, I wouldn’t be able to eat lobster or cheeseburgers or use electricity from sundowns Friday to sundown Saturday. Is that really any more logical than banning chess? I don’t think so.
That makes this whole chess thing seemed nice and tidy. Religions ban stuff. One religion took an objection to chess and there it is. The rest of us can all keep playing. As CNN would say, “Checkmate. Ba boom.” But if that’s the case, how do you explain this, published in London in 1833 by a physician named John Borthwick Gilchrist who, in a very 1833 physician kind of way, basically argued that chess is destroying the country’s brightest minds?
Voice Clip (Joh…: They are, for the most part, persons with long well-filled heads and ambitious hearts, which if they devoted to the further improvement of useful arts, sciences, inventions, et cetera, only half the time that they squander in contest for victories baseless as the fabric of a vision, this sacrifice alone would liberate at least 10,000 profound thinkers on the globe.
Jason Feifer: Our archival reader here, by the way, is Ben Johnson of the podcast Perpetual Chess. That’s what we do here at Pessimists Archive. We find people who love something and we make them read the most negative words we can find about that thing. And now, here he is delivering a warning from the Scientific American, 1859.
Voice Clip (Sci…: Chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler requirements while at the same time, it affords no benefit whatever to the body.
Jason Feifer: And here’s from a book called An Easy Introduction to the Game of Chess, printed in London in 1816, in which the author recounts playing a game of chess when his friend’s landlord shows up and starts getting all judgy. This is what the landlord said.
Voice Clip (lan…: I am astonished that you can sit a whole evening with your brain on the rack only to move little images from place to place on a square board, not in hopes of any pecuniary advantage, but from a desire of being thought more subtle than your antagonist.
Jason Feifer: And while we’re at it, want to hear a few other people who tried to stop people from playing chess, either by arguing against it or outright banning it? It’s actually a crazy long list that crosses many cultures and religions dating back at least to the year 780, by an Islamic leader named Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi ibn al-Mansur. I’m so sorry. There’s no way I did that right. But you’ve also got the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1093, the Rabbi Maimonides and 1195, the Bishop of Paris in 1208, King Louis IX of France in 1254, Oxford University’s founder William of Wickham in 1380 and on and on and on.
Chess has literally been declared the enemy of the people for more than a millennium, often derided as a waste of time, a waste of mental energy, a distraction from prayers and work and responsibilities and a tool that makes people antisocial as they sit there for hours, mindlessly moving little pieces around on a board. That means that we can’t just dismiss that Saudi cleric so easily. Something deeper is going on here, so that’s what we’re going to dive into today, to understand why chess seem to rattle people across time and culture and what, if anything, we can learn from its perseverance, because nobody has banned chess for long. Chess is a survivor.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where the hell did chess come from? Here’s David Shenk, author of a history of chess called The Immortal Game.
David Shenk: One of the great things about chess, and really the single thing that drew me to it because I’m wasn’t a chess player and I’m still not a very interesting chess player, but I just became fascinated by this idea that one game could have, really, this single thread throughout basically all of modern and most of ancient history. It’s really one of the few things that goes all the way back 1500 years, but even further than that. It’s hard to name a food. It’s hard to name a language. It’s hard to name an idea that was in currency 1500 years ago that is still vibrant today.
Jason Feifer: According to Shenk, chess was first developed over hundreds of years by traveling merchants along ancient China’s Silk Road. Around the fifth or sixth century, AD, the game makes its way to India and then migrates to Persia. Around this time, Muhammad invented Islam and united all these disconnected Arab tribes and then invaded Persia. That means one of the first things this new Islamic empire did was come face to face with chess. And then they were like that old NBA commercial: I love this game.
David Shenk: The consensus was, or at least the popular consensus was, this is great because it’s a game of intellect and it’s also a game of war. Those are the two things that we’re really about.
Jason Feifer: As the Islamic Empire expands into Southern Europe and Northern Africa, it takes chess with it. It also shapes chess in its image. Today, we think of chess as having a kind of medieval Christian Europe theme to it, kings and queens and bishops and knights, but that all came later. The version of chess that the Islamic Empire spread around had an elephant, not a bishop. It had a shah, not a king. And in fact, the word checkmate comes out of shah. Here’s Bryn Barnard, author of The Genius of Islam, a book about the contributions of Islam to the modern world.
Bryn Barnard: The Persian name for king, shah, evolved into our work for check. The word [Arabic], [Arabic] meaning death in Arabic, so the king is helpless, the king has died, evolved into our word for checkmate.
Jason Feifer: Also, the pieces weren’t shaped like people back then. They were abstract because Islam forbids images of people. And here’s my favorite fact. In the Islamic version, there was no queen. Instead, that piece was considered something of a chief of staff, or hand of the king you might say, and it couldn’t zoom around the board the way that today’s queen does. But as the game migrated into medieval Europe, that all changed.
David Shenk: The king’s chief of staff, who was just that, just a not too powerful chief of staff, was promoted to be the queen and the queen was made all powerful. And that happened in the 14 or 1500s around the time that, by the way, there were lots of very powerful queens in Europe.
Jason Feifer: And the rest of the history basically writes itself. Europeans get ahold of chess and remake it in their image. And then, much like the Islamic empire spread chess as it conquered new lands, Europeans did the same. That’s how America gets chess.
It’s worth pausing to consider just how extremely unusual this is in the history of the world. There’s this passage from David Shenk’s The Immortal Game that I really love. I just want you to hear the whole thing, so I’m going to read it for you now. Okay, this is him.
Games, as a general rule, do not last. They come and go. In the eighth century, the Irish loved a board game called fidchell. Long before that, in the third millennium BC, the Egyptians played a backgammon-like race game called senet. The Romans were drawn to duodecim scripta played with three knuckle bone dice and stacks of disks. The Vikings were obsessed with a game called hnefatafl in the 10th century, in which a protagonist king attempted to escape through a ring of enemies to any edge of the board. The ancient Greeks had petteia and kubeia.
These and hundreds of other once popular games are all now long gone. They caught the public imagination of their time and place, and then for whatever reason, lost steam. Generations died off, taking their habits with them, or conquering cultures imposed new ideas and pastimes, or people just got bored and wanted something new. Many of the games fell into such total oblivion that they couldn’t even make a coherent mark in the historical record. Try as they might, determined historians still cannot uncover the basic rules of play for a large graveyard of yesterday’s games.
All right, back to me. I mean, I love that history and I love imagining the history of objections to all those games, forgotten as much as the games were, because every game, it seems, has some kind of objection to it, even recent ones. You might remember the hysteria in the 1980s over Dungeons & Dragons, which people thought was causing kids to commit suicide. Here’s a 1985 60 Minutes segment that gave, what I would say, it was a really irresponsible amount of airtime to a psychiatrist named Thomas Radecki.
Voice Clip (Tho…: You’re role-playing. You’re rehearsing. You’re developing the character hour after hour, day after day. We’re really talking about intense involvement and a very serious form of violence.
Jason Feifer: The book Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun! collected a nice history of other games that were targeted for banishment. In the 14th century, a bunch of English monarchs tried to ban soccer. In 1366, Edward III outlawed bowling. In 1620, Oliver Cromwell denounced cricket as disreputable, and then banned it when he became the leader of England and Ireland. Not long after that the new state of Connecticut banned shuffleboard because it was, quote, unfruitfully wasting settlers’ precious time. A few centuries later, Connecticut would also ban bowling. And New York banned pinball from the 1940s to 1976. I asked Kevin Pyle, who wrote Bad for You with co-author Scott Cunningham, what he makes of all this intense anti gaming.
Kevin Pyle: There’s always going to be someone who feels like it’s their job to pay attention to these things. Stanley Cohen, the sociologist who came up with the term moral panic, had a great name for these people. He called them moral entrepreneurs. Whenever there’s an activity or something that kids love like games or particular books or fidget spinners, the moral entrepreneurs will soon follow.
Jason Feifer: That’s a pretty satisfying explanation to me, especially for our modern times when moral entrepreneurism is pretty much guaranteed to land you some face time on cable news. I mean today, obviously we see it most regularly not in games, but in politics. Every day, CNN and MSNBC and Fox News are full of very outraged people who I think we can all agree are probably not very outraged in real life, but they’re just moral entrepreneurs who find that their star rises when they raise the alarm. They are opportunists. They literally serve no valuable role in a society.
I mean, if Ann Coulter thought she could get five minutes of airtime for raging against soccer, I’m sure that she would… Oh, wait. I’m sorry. A producer’s talking to me. I’m sorry. Wait, Ann Coulter did rage against soccer? Oh, do we have the quote?
Voice Clip (Ann…: I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade, or about the length of an average soccer game, so as not to offend anyone, but enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.
Jason Feifer: Soccer one day, Delta the next. That, of course, wasn’t actually Ann speaking. That was my wife, Jen, doing an impression, but it was a direct reading from the beginning of a 2014 Ann Coulter column.
Anyway, the moral entrepreneur argument is very interesting, but it doesn’t actually stick to chess. Unlike the long history of now-extinct games that we heard about earlier, chess stayed with us. That makes it totally different from every other innovation we’d featured on this show, and perhaps any other innovation that we as a people will ever encounter in our lifetimes.
Because when we look back at the history of fears of innovation, we almost always see a recurring pattern. Something new comes along and then people are absolutely freaked out because they think that that new thing is going to replace their older, familiar thing. And of course, that means that the new thing is actually alien and lesser than and dangerous.
But that’s not chess. I mean, chess has, functionally speaking, always been there. It’s been with us for 1500 years. It didn’t have a moment when someone was like, “This is the new thing. Geez, this is replacing senet,” or whatever those old games were. Maybe moral entrepreneurism been going on for that long, too, but I have to figure that the objections go deeper than that. So I asked Shenk, how do you square the long history of chess with the way that it keeps being repeatedly treated as something newly dangerous?
David Shenk: Before I answer that question directly, let me answer it in a roundabout way.
Jason Feifer: And then he pulls out his book to tell me a story. And yes, that’s his dog you’ll hear in the background.
David Shenk: One story portrays to successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhit. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man’s dependence on destiny and fate. He invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. This is a quotation from an ancient text that I didn’t name here. This time, chess was invented, which the king preferred to nard because in this game, skill always succeeds against ignorance. He made mathematical calculations on chess and wrote a book on it. He often played chess with the wise men of his court, and it was he who represented the pieces by the figures of men and animals and assign them grades and ranks. He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became the school of government and defense. This is on and on and on.
The point here, as you heard, was that… There are several stories that get reinvented or reshaped depending on who they’re trying to enshrine here, but the idea is that at some point, human beings came upon this idea that they were not merely dependent on luck and on their fate as decided by gods and by all these people outside of their control, but indeed they had these powerful minds, and that their intellect could be this tremendous tool to make their lives better or to make their particular culture more interesting or more healthier and stronger and all that.
Chess became, a long, long, long time ago, a way to encapsulate that idea. In a way, it’s one of the earliest technologies or one of the earliest votes for technologies, for tools, for the thinking tools. It’s a way of celebrating, one of the very first ways of celebrating, the human intellect and what that could do for us.
Jason Feifer: And that is a very long way of saying that chess wasn’t scary because it was new. It was scary because it represented a tool of empowerment, a simple way that even the poor and uneducated could think and be inspired to take control of their own lives. When Shenk looks back at the history of chess bans, he sees yes, an old game, but he also often sees a new leader.
It’s when someone comes into power and assesses what could be a hindrance to their goals that they look at chess and they say, “Oh, this thing’s got to go.” That sounds inherently bad, right? I mean, that sounds like the very definition of the man trying to keep us down. It sounds like a leader who wants to keep the poor, poor and the ignorant, ignorant.
But then Shenk reminded me that throughout history, people often repeated the same objection to chess. They hated how much time it wasted. That was really the chief argument against it: time. Chess distracted from more important pursuits, from studies, from prayers, from social interactions. And the early version of chess actually took a long time.
Bryn Barnard: And the thing is, the difference between chess today and chess in the past chess, in the medieval Arab world, the game often took days to play. It wasn’t something that would happened in a couple of hours.
Jason Feifer: Chess took days to play. Man, and people complain about cricket. So I’m thinking about all this, and then Shenk drops this on me.
David Shenk: You almost have to empathize with these people because we can laugh at someone who in our current society says, “Well, don’t do this. It’s a threat to us. It’s this new tool,” because we’re this multicultural, diverse society that’s been challenged in so many ways. We’ve had every possible idea thrown our way. The good ones stick around and the bad ones just get lost by the wayside. We’ve seen in our own country and in other cultures that freedom of diversity of speech and thought is actually something that makes us stronger, not weaker.
But you go back to anything before the 20th century where a lot of people… And not to diminish the problems that a lot of people have today, but before the 20th century, there was basically no culture where they had enough of anything. They didn’t have food. They didn’t have enough energy. They didn’t have enough… Every society, until the 20th century, struggled for just about everything. Now, we’re in a different realm where a lot of people are overwhelmed with plenty. We have different problems.
But you go back 500 years or 800 years or 1200 years, where they’re just trying to get people organized, they’re just trying to figure out how to get enough food for people, they’re just trying to figure out how to get clean water and et cetera, et cetera, and how do they do that? There are certain cardinal principles that people lean on, discipline being one of them, discipline and order and leaders worrying about how people spend their time, trying to direct people to spend their time, whether or not they want to educate them or they just want to have them work harder. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that all these awful things happen in history, but you can understand how, when something like chess comes along that people can spend a lot of, lot of time on and it’s not directed toward any particular discovery and it’s not going to directly help the economy or make world a safer place and, by the way, it helps people think in all these new and powerful ways, that can be a scary thing to a leader.
Jason Feifer: I thought about this point. I decided to look back at why in centuries past other games were banned as well. Here’s a decree from England’s King Edward III in 1363: “We ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball; football or hockey; coursing and cockfighting or other such idle games.” The reason he did this, at least according to history, is that he worried that these games distracted his people from archery.
Edward lived in a time of constant war. His army had been badly damaged by the plague, and he needed to make sure that his people were ready to fight. Every minute that they played a game instead of practicing their bow and arrow skills was a minute they were frittering away the nation’s security. That’s how he saw it, anyway. Having not run a 14th century European nation myself, I suppose I can’t argue with it.
But we’ve learned something rather important between Edward III’s reign and today which should, at the very least, help us rebuff any modern calls to ban games or give airtime to moral entrepreneurs. Hint, hint, 60 Minutes. It’s this. There’s a growing body of research showing that when people take breaks, their productivity improves. In one study, a 2011 report in the journal Cognition, researchers found that when people do the same task for a long time, they suffer from what’s called vigilance decrement or, you might say, they lose their focus. Walking away to do something else, which could include a game of chess, dramatically improves their ability to take on the task later. Studies like this have made a lot of news. For example, in 2012, the New York Times reported on it with the headline To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break.
But I’m going to hazard a guess and say that there’s one group of people for whom studies like this were not news, a group of people who have taught themselves through time and training and study how to focus in a prolonged way. Can you guess who I might be talking about? Okay.
Rochelle Ballen…: I think it has just informed how I think about and see the world. And then for the professional, I think because I think logically and because I think ahead, it has definitely… I mean, the legal field appealed to me.
Jason Feifer: That’s Rochelle Ballantyne, an expert level chess player who, very famously in the chess world, is currently the closest African American female in the United States to achieve the title of master. She just graduated from Stanford and is becoming a lawyer. People like her know what it takes to focus, to consider your actions, to succeed through careful practice and effort, and how the skills developed in one field can transfer to another. That is because they play chess. Maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time after all.
And that’s our show. Hey, if you like this podcast, please do us a favor. Subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts and please leave us a review on iTunes, which will really help us reach a larger audience. We also have an awesome Twitter feed you’ll want to follow. It’s @PessimistsArc, P-E-S-S-I-M-I-S-T-S-A-R-C, where we’re posting regular streams of pessimism through history. You can also get in touch with us [email protected].
Also, thanks to the folks at timeline.com, where we run accompanying articles for our episodes full of great details that we just can’t fit into the show. Many other bits of chess opposition await you. Again, that is timeline.com.
We have a lot of people to thank this time. Our archival reader, again, was Ben Johnson of the Perpetual Chess Podcast, where he’s speaking weekly to the biggest names in the game. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants, which is a super fun music project for kids. My two-year-old is obsessed with the Babypants’ rendition of Pop goes the weasel. You can find more at babypantsmusic.com.
And of course, thanks to our experts this episode, David Shenk, Kevin Pyle, Scott Cunningham, Bryn Barnard, Rochelle Ballantyne, and also thanks to Mark Strauss, whose article about chess on io9 first gave us the idea for this episode. You can find links to their work as well as other articles referenced in this show at our show page, pessimists.co.
Pessimists Archive was created by Louis Anslow. Our producers this episode were Louis and Jennifer Ritter, and we were edited by [Chris Cornelis]. Thanks for listening. My name is Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.