Chess in the Caravansaray

by ChessBase
5/4/2020 – The Great Silk Road – from its very beginnings more than two millennia ago this most famous of all ancient trades route has been synonymous with adventure, mystery and wonder. Even today, more than five centuries after the last caravan traversed its full length, the very name invokes time-dimmed images of robed figures and camels heavily laden with exotic trade goods plodding endlessly through a wilderness of sand and danger. And what did the travelers do at the resting spots on the long caravan trails. You guess.

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"So what?" you will probably think, "Chess has nothing to do with ancient trade!" And if you thought that, you would be completely wrong! For more than a thousand years, the 7,000-kilometre route running from Europe, through the Middle East and Central Asia to China was the information super highway of its age, serving as the conduit not only for goods but also for the transmission of knowledge, ideas and culture between East and West both ways. Although the economic significance of the Silk Road was limited due to the long distance, its cultural impact was of great significance.

As merchants, artisans, and missionaries travelled along the trade routes, they brought with them new products, ideas, technologies and culture. And the game of chess was an inseparable part of that cultural exchange. Actually, all theories on the history of chess agree that the game originated in one of the countries of the Road, in either China, India or Persia.

The Caravansaray

Chess was played everywhere, in royal palaces and merchants' shops, in bazaars and even on the streets. But the most popular places to play chess were "caravansarays", large buildings, generally surrounding a court, where a caravan (a group of travellers journeying together on camels) could rest at night. These relay stations were constructed all along the Silk Road and were found throughout the Muslim lands of the Near and Middle East and North Africa.

The Shah-Abbasi Caravansary in Karaj, Iran | Photo and description Wiki

They were located along main trade routes of the Road at intervals of a day's journey for a camel caravan. Many were in desolate surroundings but others were at the gates of towns or within the towns. These structures offered facilities for the essential needs of the people and the camels of a caravan: a well for water, a place for the animals to rest, a sheltered area for the unloaded baggage, rooms for sleeping, kitchen and of course entertainment facilities, including chess. Chess was mainly a means of entertainment for travelling merchants, but surprisingly, it was also a nice source of income for some local nimble guys.

When and where do you think first chess "professionals" came into this world? I guess the first thing that came to your mind is Café La Regence or the likes in London or Madrid. But again, to explore that, we will have to go back to Caravansaray era. There is a lot of historical evidence that caravansarays and other public places of that time were also gambling places. There were lots of games played for stakes, chess being one of the most popular. And caravansarays were most favourite places of "chess professionals" because there were always many rich merchants, an easy prey for them. These professionals had developed whole strategic systems, scenarios of luring those rich lamebrains into a game.

Imagine a situation: a caravan arrives at caravansaray, guests are welcomed and taken to their rooms, baggage unloaded from camels and put into warehouses, camels are given hay and water, dinner is ready for guests? Now what? Of course, a merchant who has slept all the way through from the previous caravansaray will now look for some fun. As he walks around, looking at the architecture and the artwork of the building, or listening to the nightingale sing in the cage, he is invited to have a game of chess by a homely, humble person who in no way looks like a chess expert. Let's call him the hunter and the merchant the victim, because this is very much like hunting indeed!

Like every novice who has beaten another novice several times, our victim considers himself the greatest player of all times. He is used to play for small stakes with his friends and mates. So the game starts, and starts the play, too! The hunter lets the victim take pleasure of the game for a while, makes simple mistakes, "blunders", builds simple mating positions for the opponent which the latter "finds" with a great effort.

This goes on until our hero "wins" three or four games in a row. While this is going on, the room is filled with amazed spectators and the victim is drowned in compliments about what a clever guy he is and what a strong player that he finds these combinations.

Now it's time to perform the second act of the play. The hunter wins the next game "by pure accident" and is so glad and happy. The victim believes he is incomparably stronger and just lost the last game by accident. He now loudly announces it's his debt of honour to offer a stake! The hunter pretends to be so afraid to play with this strong player, and only agrees to play for a very small stake, the fee for the dinner for example. Guess who wins this one. Of course the victim. Next game they play for accommodation fee. A portion of cannabis in hookah. Gradually the stakes rise, the hunter loses game after game, and is so "excited" and "heated up".

Finally, after having lost all his possessions, he "takes the last chance" and wagers his golden ring, his "great grandfather's only legacy" which is, by the way, worth about two hundred times all the previous stakes put together. Of course, he is "very lucky" in this game as the victim blunders a rook and a knight. But he still believes he is much stronger and next time he arrives at the same caravansaray, he will be very happy to play a rematch and this will happen over and over again, until he realizes what a silly child he has been!

Sacrifice your rooks, not your wife!

As we said above, 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 story is about a Padishah, who loses his entire kingdom, including his harem, in shatranj against a foreign prince. He is only left with his favourite wife whom he calls Dilaram – (the name is Persian and comes from the 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 can checkmate 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: 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. 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. The picture is of atraditional 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)

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 eight people):

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!

Jamshid Begmatov

Originally hailing from Uzbekistan, in 2013 I turned a brand new chapter in my life: I moved to America. First I lived in Pennsylvania, just outside Philly, for a couple of years. Then the corporate pursuit took me to beautiful New Hampshire, where I still live a life of a (self-proclaimed) decent chess player, wicked carnivore and coffee addict. I absolutely love New Hampshire, its people, its nature, and its accent. I run chess classes at schools – my pet project that I love more than anything else I do. So, instead of a prolix autobiography, let me tell you a truly New Hampshire story.

I landed at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on a beautiful November day -- autumns in New England are unbelievable. No sooner than I check into the hotel, my new manager called me and, among other things, said, "I left yaw khakis at the reception." I was a little taken aback, to say the least, and asked, "Excuse me, my what?"

His answer didn't change much, "Khakis, I left them for you at the reception." What khakis? What color? What size? Why? But the receptionist handed me an envelope with... Two car keys! That was the local pronunciation: kaah kees that I heard as "khakis". That's how New Hampshirites, or a Granite Staters, speak. They eat lobstah for dinnah, then they paahk theyah caah and go to the baah. I have made numerous cultural adaptations to local life, but I still haven't adopted the accent.

And sorry for my hair: baabah shops are closed for coronavirus quarantine. If you're in or around NH, hit me up through, and meet up for a game or two.

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