By Ian Rogers
Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it – Jonathan Swift 1710
The dramatic news was tweeted by English Grandmaster Nigel Short two weeks ago and soon spread widely; chess had been banned in Saudi Arabia.
Fortunately, Short (below) was wrong.
Certainly chess has been banned in Islamic (and Christian and Jewish and Maoist) societies in the past, most often for encouraging gambling.
The most recent bans were in Iran from 1981 to 1988 (when the Ayatollah Khomeini accepted that his original ruling was mistaken) and by the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. (Famously the Afghan team travelled to the Yerevan Olympiad in 1996 when chess was legal and finished the tournament with chess banned in their home country.)
The motivation for Short’s claim was his learning of an answer to a question on Saudi television by the Grand Mufti (below) of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah. Short precipitously translated that into a chess ban “today”, yet the broadcast was from 2014, if not earlier, which had resurfaced on social media.
An Arabic press service had reported that in his (old) answer the Mufti had ruled that the game of chess was haram (forbidden) because it encouraged enmity and hatred between opponents, conflicted with prayer times and encouraged gambling.
It should be noted that the Grand Mufti has never been a chess fan, in 2009 warning against playing chess because It “causes a man to lose his wealth and waste his time.”
The ‘ban’ then took on a life of its own.
A representative of the Saudi Chess Association (KSACA), Mousa Bin Thaily, countered that the Mufti was misinformed about modern chess. He pointed out that tournament schedules in Saudi were devised not to overlap with prayer times, that chess can be played without gambling, and that tournament rules required sportsmanlike behaviour.
Although a fatwa is not legally binding, Bin Thaily feared that the religious police could use the Mufti’s fatwa to seek to disrupt forthcoming chess tournaments.
Social media in Saudi were uncertain whether the Grand Mufti’s comments, assumed to be recent, would have any influence. Some speculated that the mufti’s comments could have been an advisory comment rather than a fatwa on chess. Others observed that a very similar declaration was made by prominent Shia cleric Al Sistani in Iraq in 2004, without any impact on Iraqi chess.
Yet only a few hours later the secretary of the KSACA, Yaser Al Otaibi, was able to put minds at rest, by pointing out that the Mufti’s comments were from an old television broadcast. (The video appeared to have been uploaded to the internet two months month ago, but was much older.) Al Otaibi added, “all events run as planned” and sure enough the Mecca Classic began as scheduled the day after the supposed ban was announced by Short.
Half a day after his ill-fated claim, Short issued a correction, tweeting: “The fatwa against chess by the highest religious figure in Saudi Arabia is not new. Nor has it yet translated into a ban.”
Yet by now the story was hot.
Mainstream media outlets around the world, from England’s Guardian to the New York Times to the Times of India, were already running with their ‘Saudi bans chess’ stories. Even former World Champion Garry Kasparov weighed in against the ‘ban’.
Those pointing out that chess had not been banned in Saudi were fighting a losing battle – it was big news to say that chess was banned. One Dutch chess columnist warned his newspaper that the ban was bogus but the editors decided that they couldn’t miss out on a story that all their rivals were publishing.
As the media realised that they might be jumping on the wrong horse, instead of quietly dropping the non- story, they starting producing articles about why Islam and chess were incompatible.
Some articles threw in a sentence mentioning that the video may not be current, but of the dozens of pieces that I have read, only the Guardian’s Stephen Moss in a follow-up story was intellectually honest enough to wonder why such an old video should have become news.
However Moss’ answer – because a chess tournament was about to be held in Mecca and someone was keen to cause trouble for the organisers or players – was a cop-out; it was not the Saudi media hyping the non-story.
More likely, the Saudi chess ban fitted well with the trendy narrative ‘Look how crazy Saudi society is’ which, when the ban was shown to be non-existent, could easily morph into the more generic ‘Aren’t Islamic muftis crazy?’ or even ‘Isn’t Islam crazy?’.
All that was needed as a source for the story was a tweet by the reliably controversial Nigel Short and the avalanche began. Moreover, the click-bait articles will survive forever on the internet and convince people for years to come that chess was banned in Saudi Arabia in 2016. As Short himself, seemingly proudly, tweeted three days after he had started the media fire-storm, “Well over 100 international press articles on the anti chess fatwa pronouncement of the miffed Mufti.”
In the modern media, the truth is indeed limping after falsehood. It is pure luck that Saudi chess has, so far, not become collateral damage.