Kindred’s Special: Religion and Chess History–Time Mends; Time Heals

Pope John Paul II was fond of chess art and it is recorded that he composed chess problems in his youth.  His predecessor was also a strong player and the Vatican it is said did not always approve of this pastime.

Many games were regarded as ‘the handmaiden’ of the devil and by such superstition and belief found historical periods where the game itself or reference thereof was banned along with other games of chance.  A number of ecclesiastical edicts going back to the 11th century forbid the clergy and monastic orders from yielding to its temptations calling it a demonic vice of sorts.  Then, the Church decided to reverse its long-held position when the Spanish Priest by the name of Ruy Lopez published his book in 1581 on chess giving it a new birth of air.  Such was his cleverness in dealing with opponents, he advocated seating opponents so that the sun was in their eyes during the game.  Beyond the Roman Catholic Church view was that of the Koran that listed chess among the abominations to be shunned by the Faithful.  Mohammed objected to the carved pieces that was claimed to be idolatry.  Eventually the game was permitted so long as its practice did not interfere with religious prayer or lead to gambling and swearing.

The passage of time saw small but positive movement in design and rules of play.  For example, Davidson’s A SHORT HISTORY OF CHESS notes that it was about 1550 when the pawn uniformly enjoyed the power of moving two squares as an option on its first move; the en passant rule followed immediately and inevitably the introduction of the double initial move.  Howard Staunton stated that taking a pawn in passing was to be taken as forced where stalemate would be the decision otherwise.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable changes in chess is the development of opening theory, closely followed by various element features especially those involving endgame patterns that give experience a hand up in achievements.

One of the giants of blindfold chess exhibitions was George Koltanowski who was born 113 years ago.  In his excellent book titled, IN THE DARK, he performs not only some beautiful chess surprises on the board but also records a long joyful tour of blindfold play with extraordinary delights from his pen and the human comedy side of chess adventure as well.  About the time of the Fischer and Spassky World Championship Match, he provided a host of chess shorts for television that proved enormously popular.  I highly recommend this book to my readers who will find the human side of this immortal game!

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