29 JULY 1989, Page 44



Raymond Keene

Shatranj, the ancient Arabic chess, flourished in the Baghdad Caliphate from the 8th to 10th centuries AD. Indeed, it is said that the Golden Age of Islamic chess, lasting around 150 years, commenced dur- ing the reign of Harun Ar-Rashid (786- 809), the fourth Caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty. Shatranj was socially well struc- tured, and patronised by the court. Grand- masters of the game were accorded the title `Aliya', while texts on Shatranj, essentially compilations of variations and lists of games, bore a remarkable resemblance to modern encyclopaedias of openings.

The two most celebrated `Aliyae, As Suli (880-946, born, like Kasparov, near the Caspian Sea), and his pupil Al Lajlaj (d. 970) attained, in my view, a playing standard in Shatranj comparable to that of Philidor, the great 18th-century master of the modern game. My assessment is based on fragments of play and endgame analysis which have survived. The prowess of the leading Islamic practitioners casts further doubt on the official verdict, that chess was somehow 'invented' during the 6th century AD.

Development of chess strength and cul- ture in a widespread community, sufficient to produce experts at the game of the order of As Suli and Al Lajlaj, must have spanned many centuries. Thus Philidor himself attained his peak approximately 300 years after the introduction of the new moves of the pieces, but in his day the dissemination of chess knowledge bene- fited from the relatively settled interna- tional circumstances, more efficient travel, and, of course, printing.

Few games can boast that samples of play have survived from 1000 years ago, let alone that such samples would still be intelligible to the modern reader. In Shatranj/chess this is possible. The follow- ing game appears in Al Lajlaj's manu- script, The Treatise on Chess. It is usually dismissed as a 'variation' or a 'constructed' game; I suggest, on the contrary, that it represents one of Al Lajlaj's victories against a contemporary rival. The reason that the players are not identified in the Treatise is simple. Etiquette of the day doubtless militated against naming players (especially losers) in published material. Such a convention actually persisted in modern chess until the 19th century, so the absence of names from complete games, ending in checkmate, from the Islamic period should not delude us into thinking that they were mere analysis. I have taken these moves from H. J. R. Murray's admirable History of Chess (1913). Some moves, however, Murray (the son of Sir James Murray, editor of the Oxford En- glish Dictionary) gives incorrectly. I be- lieve that the full Correct score is published here for the first time (I have marked with an asterisk those given wrongly in Murray, for anyone who wishes to check). To understand this game the reader need only appreciate that the pawns had no double move, that bishops jumped two squares (fl-d3; d3-f5 etc. . .) but could not capture pieces on intervening squares, while the queen could move just one square diago- nally in each direction. To minimise confu- sion I have retained the modern names for the pieces in the game moves.

Al Lajlaj-Anon; Baghdad Caliphate (c.950 AD); Sayyal (Torrent) Opening. 1 g3 f6 2 g4 g6 3 e3 e6 4 Ne2 d6 5 Rgl c6 6 f3 b6 7 f4 a6 8 f5 A fine pawn sacrifice which inflicts permanent weaknesses on Black's position in the 1' file. 8. . . gxf5 9 gxf5 exf5 10 Bh3 Ne7 11 Rfl Rg8 12 Ng3 Rg5 13 Bxf5 h6 14 Bh3 Nd7 15 d3 d5 16 c3 Qc7 17 b3 Ra7 18 c4 Bd6 19 Nc3 Be6 20 cxd5 cxd5 21 d4 Bf8* 22 Rf2 Qd6* 23 b4 Rc7 24 Kd2 b5 25 Ba3 Nb6 White's 'c' file situation appears critical, but now the bishop on a3 can leap into c5 to plug the gaps in the fortifications. 26 BcS Nc6 The knight has to move. White was threatening Bc5 x Ne7. Of course, in Shatranj, the knight was much more powerful than the bishop. 2723 White defends the pawn on b4. There is no rush to play Rxf6, since Black's f6 pawn is, in any case, indefensible. 27 . • . Kf7* 28 Qc2 Bc4 29 Rafl Rg6 30 Nh5 Black is now curiously helpless against White's massed inva- sion in the T file. 30. . . Ke8 31 Nx16+ Kd8 32 Nfxd5 Rgg7 33 Rxf8+ Kd7 34 Bf5+ Ke6 35 Nf4 checkmate.

I give a diagram for the final position. The checkmate is delivered by the Knight on f4. The Bishop on c5 covers e7 and the Bishop on f5 covers d7, but neither piece has any influence on d6 or e6.

Michael Adams has just become, aged 17, Britain's youngest ever `Aliya', defeat- ing Nigel Short's previous record by almost two years. Michael achieved his third and decisive norm for the title by winning the Icklicki International in North London. He is now playing in the British Cham- pionship, starting in Plymouth on Monday 31 July, where I expect him to be one of the hot favourites. More on this next week.