Religion and Chess

by Bill Wall


Chess and religion did not always get along.  At one time or another, chess was forbidden by Muslims, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, the Puritans, and the Taliban.

Chess (shatranj) was a legal issue after Mohammad died in 642 A.D. In 655 his son-in-law, Caliph Ali Ben Abu-Talib disapproved the game for his sect of Muslims because of the graven images (carved figures of the chess pieces).

In 680 the 50th rule of canons was interpreted as forbidding chess. But the caliphs themselves played and had chess players in their circle of influence. Legal scholars debated the merits of chess. It was legal to play chess if not played with items of chance (dice) and there were no betting or gambling on chess.

It was still disapproved in 725 by Sulaiman ibn Yashar but still popular among caliphs, especially when they moved their capitol to Baghdad in 750 and took their top chessplayers with them.

In 780, the caliph al-Mahdi wrote a letter to Mecca religious leaders to give up gambling with dice and chess,   The caliph died in 785 and caliph al-Rashid came to power who was an avid chess player.

By 810 the top chessplayers in the world were known and recognized and all had sponsors by powerful caliphs. In fact, the word Grandmaster was introduced by caliph al-Ma'mun in 819 AD.

Chess was getting serious in India as well but tolerated. By 900 there was a problem of players actually wagering fingers in their chess matches - you lose, you cut off a finger.

The Egyptian al-Hakim banned chess in Egypt in 1005 and ordered that all chess sets and pieces be burned in Egypt.

Chess had picked up in Europe and pretty soon many of the clergy was spending more time playing chess than saving souls. In late 1061 Cardinal Petrus Damiani (1007-1072) of Ostia forbad the clergy from playing chess. He even wrote a letter to Pope-elect Alexander II and the Archdeacon Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) complaining that chess was being played by some clergy, including the Bishop of Florence (later Pope Nicholas II) and lay people.  He died in 1072 and chess was resumed in his domain.  (source: Murray, A History of Chess, p. 408)

By 1093 the Eastern Orthodox church condemned chess. The Church stamped out chess in Russia as a relic of heathenism.

In Europe some members of the clergy thought that receiving a "check" in chess was similar to committing a sin which one was able to redeem. A checkmate was similar to committing a sin that was perishable, and thus deadly.

By 1100 chess was accepted as a regular feature of noble life in England. It was even a knightly accomplishment to play chess in 1106 under Petro Alfonsi. Chess was played by the upper classes and excluded women from playing the game.

In 1110, John Zonaras (died in 1118), a former captain of the Byzantine imperial guard, became a monk to the Monastery of Mt. Athos and issued a directive banning chess as a kind of debauchery.   This was the first ecclesiastical denunciation of chess on the part of the Eastern Church.  The early list of rules known as the Apostolic Canons (Third Council of Constinople, 680 CE) required both clergy and laity to give up the use of dice (Canon 50). Zonaras wanted chess to also be included for clergy and laity to give up. Zonaras, commenting on Canon 50, wrote, "Because there are some of the Bishops and clergy who depart from virtue and play chess (zatikron) or dice or drink to excess, the Rule commands that such shall cease to do so or be excluded; and if a Bishop or elder or deacon or subdeacon or reader or singer do not cease so to do, he shall be cast out: and if laymen be given to chess-playing and drunkenness, they shall be excluded." (source: Murray, A History of Chess, p. 166)

The Russian church also adopted Zonaras’s interpretation, and this probably accounts why there was so little reference to chess in the Eastern Empire due to the intolerance of chess by the Church.

By 1115, the emperor of the Byzantine Empire was a chess addict. Despite that, it was still being banned in the churches up to 1125.

In 1125, Bishop Guy of Paris banned chess and excommunicated a few priests who were caught playing chess.  A chess enthusiast priest then devised a secretive folding chess board.  Once folded, it looked like two books lying together.

In 1128, St. Bernard  of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a French abbot, banned the Knights Templar from playing chess.  He wrote the military orders for the Knights Templar and told them to foreswear chess and dice.

Chess become more popular during the crusades, but Alexander Neckam, a British author, condemned chess as being frivilous.

By 1195, the Jews were seriously involved in playing chess, but Rabbi Maimonides (1155-1204) included chess among the forbidden games for jews.

In 1197, Adam, the Abbot of Persigny, warned the Countess of Perche against unprofitable addiction to chess. (source: Murray, p. 411)

Around 1200, the Bishop of Paris (119-1208), Eudes de Sully (died in 1208), banned chess in Paris to his clergy. He forbade chess sets and chess boards from even being in homes. (source: Murray, p. 410)

In November 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran in Rome forbade priests from playing chess (canon 16).

In 1240, the Worcester Synod of England forbade chess to the clergy and the monastic orders.  Murray doubted that chess was meant to be forbidden.  (source: Murray, p. 410)

In December 1254, King Louis IX (1214-1270) of France banned chess after returning from a Crusade.  He called chess a useless and boring game.  He had an aversion to all games.  Despite hating chess, it is said that he received a fine chess set as a gift from Aladdin.  King Louis IX was the only French king to be made a saint (Saint Louis).

In 1255, the Provincial Council of Béziers, banned chess to the clergy in southern France.  (source: Murray, p. 410)

In 1260, King Henry III (1207-1272) instructed the clergy to leave chess alone "on pain of durance vile."

In 1274, a decree issued at Abingdon, England, banned chess from its monasteries.

Around 1280, chess moralities were written which began as sermons.  These chess moralities rivaled the Bible in popularity and number of printings.

The Russian manuscript Clementine Kormch of 1282 includes a series of directions of priests, which include no chess playing.

In 1291 the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckman (1230-1292), was forbidding chess. He threatened to put anyone on a diet of bread and water if they played chess.  (source: Murray, p. 410)

Priests were forbidden to play chess up to 1299. The Clementine Kormch wrote a series of directions of priests. It included no chess play.

In 1310, the Council of Trier (which dealt with witchcraft) in Germany ruled that chess was forbidden to the clergy in Germany. (source: Murray, p. 410)

In 1322 the Jewish rabbi Kalonymnos Ben Kalonymous condemned chess.

By 1328 the Jewish laws were intrepreted by some Jewish leaders that chess could be played, but not for money.

In 1329, chess (and playing cards) was banned from the clergy in Germany after the Synod of Wurzburg. (source: Murray, p. 410)

In 1375, Charles V (1337-1380) of France, under the influence of the church, prohibited chess.

In 1380 William of Wickham (1324-1404), founder of New College, Oxford, and Winchester College, forbade chess. He was the Bishop of Winchester and the Chancellor of England twice.

Charles VI (1368-1422) of France continued to forbid chess. He later became unsane.

In 1405 John Huss (1369- ), Bohemian religious reformer, sought repentance for loss of self-control at the chess table during a game in Prague.

In 1416 the Jews of Forli, Italy relaxed a bit and forbade all games of chance except chess.

In 1420 Werner von Orseln, the Grand Master of the Knights of the Teutonic Order, abandoned the prohibition of chess on the grounds that chess was a proper amusement for a knight.

By 1476 chess was being played in France again under Charles the Bold.

In 1495 the Inquisition saw victims of persecutions stand in as figures in a game of living chess. The game was played by two blind players. Each time the captured piece was taken, the person representing that piece was put to death.

By 1500 chess was a recognized pastime for Jews on the Sabbath.

In 1549 the Protohierarch Sylvester wrote that those who play chess shall go to hell and be accursed on earth. This was documented in his work Domostroi (Household Goverment), a book of principles of family life. This was the first printed book in Moscow.

In 1550 Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish conventical reformer, mentioned chess in her writings to illustrate ethics and chess. The Church authorities in Spain proclaimed her patron of chessplayers.

In 1551 Czar Ivan IV (1530-1584), Ivan the Terrible, of Russia banned chess.

The leading clerics compiled the Stoglav Collection (council of the Hundred Chapters) in 1551, which prohibited chess in Moscow. This same document prohibited shaving as well as beards were said to imitate the visage of God and to distinguish Orthodox males from women.

In the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was proclaimed patroness of chessplayers by church authorities in Spain.

In 1575 a plague hit Cremona, Italy. Afterwards, all games were considered evil and the cause of their troubles. All games but chess were banned.

In the late 16th century, clergymen in Russia associated chess with witchcraft and heresy.

Chess was still banned in Russia in the 17th century. In 1649 Czar Alexei (1629-1676) found some players playing chess and had them whipped and imprisoned.

The Puritans were against chess and discouraged chess play.

In 1981 chess was forbidden in Iran as it encouraged gambling (haram). The chess players went underground with their boards and pieces. In 1988 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989) issued a religious decree (fatwa), permitting chess play for Muslims as long as it was not played for the purpose of gambling (haram) and it does not delay the obligatory prayers or neglects other duties. The Ayatollah changed his mind after admitting that chess had its high educational and intellectual values. Chess made a comeback, spawning chess parks, chess palaces, and chess masters. In 2000, an Iranian became a world chess champion. In October, 2000, the World Girls' Chess Championship for 12 and under was won by Atousa Pourkashian of Iran at the tournment held in Madrid, Spain. Iran also produced a recent World Boys' Under 10 Champion. Today the Chess Federation of Iran occupies one of the best buildings among all sportive federations in the country. All over the country there have construction of chess clubs.

Prior to the Ayatollah, Iran, under the Shah, was the only Islamic country that organized chess and participated in chess tournaments, including the 22nd chess olympiad in Israel in 1976 (in Haifa).

In 1996 chess and other clubs were banned from some high schools in Salt Lake City, Utah. Most of the school board is Mormon which condemns homosexuality. Rather than let gay high school students form an organization, they banned all nonacademic clubs. School board members said federal law gave them only two options: allow all extracurricular clubs or eliminate them all. Some 30 clubs, including the chess club, are banned for 1996-97.

The Taliban believed chess was a form of gambling and distracted people from saying thier prayers. When the Taliban caught people playing chess, they would burn the chessboard and pieces and put the players in jail. For five years (1996-2001), Afghanistan was the only place in the world where playing chess was illegal. It was banned by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban.

Religious leaders who have played chess include Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Cantebury), Charles Borromeo (Bishop of Milan), Pope Gregory VI, Pope Innocent III, Pope John Paul I, Pope John Paul II, Pope Leo X, Pope Leo XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Billy Graham.