Qaddafi's Love of Chess

What's "deja vu" in Arabic? The video footage below of Qaddafi playing chess as Libyan rebel troops advance from all sides is an eerie (and presumably unintended) recreation of an ancient Arabic war scene from ancient Baghdad in A.D. 762. Though the video is from June, it's been making the rounds today with the news that Qaddafi's opponent in that game, World Chess Federation Head Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, spoke to the Libyan leader this morning. Here's the story of that eighth century battle as retold in my book The Immortal Game, a history of chess:

Large rocks, severed heads, and flaming pots of oil rained down on Baghdad, capital of the vast Islamic Empire, as its weary defenders scrambled to reinforce gates, ditches, and the massive stone walls surrounding the fortress city's many brick and teak palaces. Giant wooden manjaniq catapults bombarded distant structures while the smaller, more precise arradah catapult guns pelted individuals with grapefruit-sized rocks. Arrows flew thickly and elite horsemen assaulted footmen with swords and spears. "The horses . . . trample the livers of courageous young men," lamented the poet al-Khuraymi, "and their hooves split their skulls." Outside the circular city's main wall--100 feet high, 145 feet thick, and six miles in circumference--soldiers pressed forward with battering rams while other squads choked off supply lines of food and reinforcements. Amid sinking boats and burning rafts, bodies drifted down the Tigris River.

The impenetrable "City of Peace" was crumbling. In the fifty years since its creation in A.D. 762, young Baghdad had rivaled Constantinople and Rome in its prestige and influence. It was a wildly fertile axis of art, science, and religion, and a bustling commercial hub for trade routes reaching deep into Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. But by the late summer of A.D. 813, after nearly two years of civil war (be¬tween brothers, no less), the enlightened Islamic capital was a smoldering, starving, bloody heap.

In the face of disorder, any human being desperately needs order -- some way to manage, if not the material world, at least one's understanding of the world. In that light, perhaps it's no real surprise that, as the stones and arrows and horses' hooves thundered down on Baghdad, the protected core of the city hosted a different sort of battle. Within the round city's imperial inner sanctum, secure behind three thick, circular walls and many layers of gate and guard, under the luminescent green dome of the Golden Gate Palace, Muhammad al-Amin, the sixth caliph of the Abbasid Empire, spiritual descendant of (and distant blood relation to) the Prophet Muhammad, sovereign of one of the largest do¬minions in the history of the world, was playing chess against his favorite eunuch Kauthar.

A trusted messenger burst into the royal apartment with urgently bad news. More inglorious defeats in and around the city were to be re¬ported to the caliph. In fact, his own safety was now in jeopardy.

But al-Amin would not hear of it. He waved off his panicked emissary.

"O Commander of the faithful," implored the messenger, according to the medieval Islamic historian Jirjis al-Makin. "This is not the time to play. Pray arise and attend to matters of more serious moment."

It was no use. The caliph was absorbed in the board. A chess game in progress is--as every chess spouse quickly learns--a cosmos unto itself, fully insulated from an infant's cry, an erotic invitation, or war. The board may have only thirty-two pieces and sixty-four squares, but within that confined space the game has near-infinite depth and possibility. An outsider looking on casually might find the intensity incomprehensible. But anyone who has played the game a few times understands how it can be engrossing in the extreme. Quite often, in the middle of an interesting game, it's almost as if reality has been flipped inside out: the chess game in motion seems to be the only matter of substance, while any hint of the outside world feels like an annoying irrelevance.

The messier the external world, the more powerful this inverted dynamic can be. Perhaps that is why Caliph al-Amin, who sensed that his hours were numbered, preferred to soak in the details of his chess battlefield rather than reports of the calamitous siege of his city. On the board he could see the whole action. On the board he could neatly make sense of significant past events and carefully plan his future. On the board he still might win.

"Patience my friend," the caliph calmly replied to his messenger standing only a few feet away and yet a world apart. "I see that in a few moves I shall give Kauthar checkmate."

Not long after this, al-Amin and his men were captured. The sixth Abbasid caliph, victor in his final chess game, was swiftly beheaded.


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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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