In Moscow on 19 March a press conference was held at the headquarters of the Interfax news agency announcing the results of a Muslim/Christian peacemaking trip to Baghdad, which had taken place over the previous few days. Among the returning dignitaries reporting on the outcome were the Orthodox Bishop Feofan of Magadan and Sinegorsk and the chairman of the Central Muslim Board in Russia, Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin. But centre-stage at this Islamic/Christian peacefest was taken by a self-professed Buddhist, His Excellency Kirsan Ilumzhinov, President of the autonomous Russian republic of Kalmykia, who also happens to be president of Fidé, the World Chess Federation.
The association between Baghdad and chess is a time-honoured one, stretching back more than 1,000 years to the days when Baghdad was a world centre of science, culture and learning. It is the birthplace of chess as a competitive activity. Periodically, hard-line interpreters of Islamic law condemned chess – along with gambling – as the work of Satan, but it was the support of the Baghdad caliphs which finally established chess as a justifiable pastime for Muslims – as a preparation for battle, strategic thinking and an excellent training for the mind. It was said that Harun Ar Rashid himself, immortalised by the Arabian Nights, could play two games of chess simultaneously, without sight of either board. Caliph Al Mamun, Rashid’s son, perhaps less gifted at chess, lamented, ‘Strange that I who rule the world from the Indus in the east to Andalus in the west cannot manage 32 chessmen in a space of two cubits by two.’
The new link between Baghdad and chess may, however, have more to do with petroleum than with pawns. Kirsan Ilumzhinov was born in 1962 in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Before he was 30, he was elected a deputy of the supreme Soviet – a good start – but by 1993 he had rocketed sensationally to become the head of more than 50 companies, banks and bourses, both in Russia and abroad, was elected the first President of Kalmykia (a position he retains; election slogan: ‘Every shepherd will own a mobile phone’) and had almost overnight become a conspicuously consuming billionaire.