Chess comes back to Afghanistan

by ChessBase
2/14/2002 – For five years chess, like kite flying, was strictly forbidden by the puritanical Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Now 138 players gathered to take part in the first post-Taliban tournament, as Patrick Cockburn of The Independent reports. Cockburn describes how difficult it still is to find chess sets in the Afghani capital and how some player had to use the floor for their games. More

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Chess comes back to Afghanistan

The game of chess probably originated 1400 yeas ago in the north-western part of India, not far away from today's state of Afghanistan. It has a rich and unbroken tradition in the area, but that changed when the religious fundamentalist Taliban came to power in the mountainous nation. Chess was one of the many activities that was forbidden under their puritanical rule. For five years it was only played under great risk to life and well-being, as we reported in November last year. At the time London newspapers described the horrors a group of highjackers of an Afghani plane had experienced under the Taliban regime. One, a 38-year-old university lecturer, told the Old Baily jury that he was arrested for playing chess and as a punishment was beaten so badly with cables and a metal bar that his back turned the colour of an aubergine. The report is still available at News & City.

Now, as the Kabul correspondent of the Independent, Patrick Cockburn, reports, chess has returned to Afghanistan. Last week 138 players turned up for the first tournament to be held since the Taliban came to power in 1996. Since there were not enough tables and chairs many had to use the floor for their games.

Chess stamps from pre-Taliban Afghanistan

The tournament was organised by Mohammed Akbar Salam, a professor of fine arts at Kabul University and a keen chess player. But when he tried to buy chess sets "we found that there were only seven or eight chess sets available in the bazaar and they were all very expensive. We had to ask players to bring their own chess sets."

Cockburn himself first became aware of the tribulations of Afghan chess players when he tried to buy a chess set in a Kabul antique shop as a Christmas present for his son. The shopkeeper could not find the requested item and explained: "Under the Taliban I became frightened that they would come to my shop and find the pieces, so I took them home and hid them. But unfortunately I hid them so well, and it was several years ago, that now I can't find them."

The full Independent article can be found here. There is also a Spanish language report, "El jaque vuelve a Kabul", by Leonxto Garcia in El Pais. Sam Sloan, a frequent traveller in the area, has identified the Kabul chess club in a picture that appeared in the newspapers.

The arrow points to the entrance to the club. Sloan writes: "I know that because I played chess there many times in 1976, 1977 and 1978." You will find his report here.

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