Sacrifice your rooks, not your wife!

4/3/2003 – In the chayhanas of Usbekistan it is usually considered impolite to openly play for money. The usual stake here is ordering Uzbek pilav (or "plov") for the whole company. This meal is delicious, and indeed it's the pride of Uzbek cuisine. In part two of his wonderful article Jamshid Begmatov tells us how to prepare it, and also how a very beautiful lady saved her life with a very beautiful chess combination.

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Playing for a plov

Go to Part one

As we said before, chess, or its variations like shatranj, was played everywhere, even in royal palaces, and even there they played it for stakes. This is mentioned many times in the folklore of the Silk Road nations.

You may have read the famous and fascinating Legend of Dilaram, which dates back to about VII century. The legend is about a Padishah, who loses his entire kingdom, including his harem on shatranj to a foreign prince and is only left with his favourite wife whom he calls Dilaram – Ease of the soul (from persish words dil – soul and aram – ease, rest). He makes a final desperate decision and wagers his wife against everything he had lost in the previous games (may ladies forgive me, but women were treated just like their husbands' possessions in the medieval Orient). However, this decisive game, too, goes very badly for him and he eventually finds himself in a position where his rival checkmates him on the very next move.

If you decide to solve this simple problem, bear in mind that they were playing shatranj, which has the same rules as modern chess with only two differences: the queen can move only one square in any direction and bishops move only two squares along diagonals, they can also jump over pieces.

His wife was watching the game from behind a parda – the curtain dividing the room into men's and women's sections. In desperation she started to sing (forgive me for my rough translation from Uzbek): Oh my Lord, don't give up your soul's ease, give up your two Noblemen (Rooks), attack and wound your enemy with your Elephant (Bishop) and soldier (pawn) and let the Knight kill him. The padishah understood what she meant, that Dilaram had found a brilliant winning combination, put it into a song and sang it to him. He executed the moves of the song and won the game.

Solution: 1.Rh8+ Kxh8 2.Bf5+ Rh2 3.Rxh2+ Kg8 4.Rh8+ Kxh8 5.g7+ Kg8 6.Nh6 mate.

This story is also a clear proof of two things important from the chess point of view: one is that even in that medieval era, when women's rights were so strongly limited, they played chess. Another is that players of that time, too, observed certain chess etiquette because Dilaram did not directly tell her husband the solution she found but hinted at it through a song.

But at no time should you think that chess was only a game for gambling. Nowadays some people like to call chess an art or a science. But back in the Medieval Orient it was much more an art than it is now! Moreover, chess was an entire philosophy. The greatest oriental poets, almost all without exception, wrote at least some lines about chess, some of them devoted entire poems in which they explained, for example, the course of a battle, or padishah's policy in chess terms. Oriental poetry in general is so specific that it has always been very difficult even for professional native-speakers to translate it into western languages. However, I will try to explain you a very philosophical thought of Alisher Navoi, the greatest Uzbek poet of all times, which he expressed in just two lines:

Shoh yonin farzin kabi aylar maqom etmish netong,
Rostravlar arsadin gar tutsalar ruhdek yiroq.

Straight-goers like the Rook are always moved to the brink
The sly and artful Queen takes her warm place right next to King.
(This is just my rough translation from Old Uzbek)

This is an allusion to moves of Rook and Queen and their place in the initial position. The philosophy here is that straight, honest people don't achieve much in this life and are always given less than they deserve, and sly, unpredictable people who can go any direction, (i.e. betray) are always at the top of society.

The Silk Road no longer exists as a trade route, modern hotels have replaced exotic caravansarays and powerful trucks have replaced camels. Modern sites along the course of the Silk Road have become important tourist destinations. These sites include Uzbekistan's exotic and ancient metropolises of Samarqand, Bukhara, Khiva, Kokand and Tashkent, with their artistic and architectural treasures. However, one important part of that medieval culture – the chess culture is still remaining in all those historical centres of Uzbekistan.

If you ever happen to go to Uzbekistan and want to play chess, find a Chayhana (chay = tea, hana = room) – a traditional teahouse, a public place where people come to talk, drink tea, etc.


A traditional Uzbek chayhana

Sometimes they meet to discuss business, to exchange useful information and the news of the day. But mostly they just like to chat and tell stories, and of course, play chess. In any chayhana, there are always several chess sets and players of different levels. As you enter the chayhana, the first thing you see is the chayhanchi – a very friendly looking old man who looks after the chayhana and makes tea. He welcomes you in an orientally hospitable fashion, offers you a seat and a piala (traditional cup) of tea.

Uzbek Green Tea (Kok chay)


Chayhanchi
A pre-warmed china pot is filled with dry green tea, then a quarter of the pot volume is filled with boiling water, after that the teapot is put on a hot oven (avoid open fire!) for about two minutes. Then boiling water is poured into the teapot until it is full by half, afterwards the pot is covered with a thick cover. After 2-3 minutes the pot is bathed with boiling water, then three quarters of the volume are filled with boiling water, the tea is left for another couple of minutes and the pot is filled almost up to the top. Traditionally, tea is poured into piala and back to the teapot three times before serving.

You can join different groups of people sitting on Suri – a traditional wooden bed for sitting, usually for 4-6 people. One group will be playing backgammon, another group loudly discussing news of the day, and several groups, of course, will be peacefully playing chess. As soon as you come up to any of the companies, you will be grated in a traditional fashoin – "Assalom aleykum". If you decide to join a group playing chess, you can just play it for fun with one of many amateurs, or, if you are a considerably stronger player, you can play for a stake.

It is uncommon and usually considered impolite to openly play for money. The usual stake here is ordering Uzbek pilav (or "plov") for the whole company. This meal is really delicious, and indeed it's the pride of Uzbek cuisine. Each chayhana, and even each family has its own recipe of pilav, slightly different from others. In Uzbek culture it is considered shameful for men not to know how to cook pilav, and believe me, every man has his own little secret of cooking it.


A dish of plov

Here is how I cook plov (for a company of 8 people):

Ingredients:

700 gr. of lamb (preferably fatless),
350 gr. of lamb fat (preferably from the tail of local sheep),
250 gr of onions
1 kg of carrot (chopped into long thin pieces),
1 kg of rice,
a pinch of cumin

First the cast-iron pot (which we call kazan) is heated on a moderate fire. Then the lamb fat, chopped into pieces of about two grams, is put into the pot and allowed to melt until it begins to turn brown. Then the pieces of fat are completely removed from kazan and the oil is allowed to heat up until a slight white smoke appears. Now the meat, also cut into pieces, is fried for about 5-7 minutes, until it starts to become darker in colour and softer. Then the roughly chopped onions are added and fried. You should stir the whole contents in order to avoid burning, at 1-1.5 minute intervals. When the onions become slightly brown, the carrot is added and fried until it completely loses its hardness. Then you add 1.5 litres of water and allow to boil for about 20 minutes. Add salt. At the very beginning of the process you should wash the rice and put it in cold water. Now you wash it once more and put into kazan, the water completely covering it. After adding the rice, to avoid burning, you should regularly penetrate it with you ladle to allow water run down as it tends to always go up. By the time the rice is boiled enough, the water will have almost disappeared. It is now time to sprinkle the plov with cumin and cover it with a plate, leaving some space open along the edges to allow extra water evaporate. You should reduce the fire to a minimum. In 20 minutes you may enjoy your cookery masterpiece!

Note that correct choice of rice is crucial for making a successful plov. The genuine Uzbek plov is made of rice called Devzira (literally Genie's earrings), which will unfortunately be unavailable to you unless you are in Uzbekistan.

At the end, I want to tell you a funny story I recently witnessed at one of those chayhanas. Two old men were playing chess, for a serious stake I suppose. One of them accidentally touched his pawn. He suddenly realized that if he moved that pawn he would immediately lose a piece, but he was of course required to follow the touch-move rule. He suddenly cried out "Hey, chayhanchi! Why there's always no teaspoon here!? I need a teaspoon but there isn't one! Why should I have to stir my tea with a chess piece!?" And he stirred his tea with the pawn with clearly artificial indignation. But his opponent did not find a word to object and the game went on! In fact, he had no reason to stir his tea because we don't use sugar for green tea!


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