To most of us, chess is a harmless pastime of strategic play between two opponents. It is a game that aids in cognitive development, with chess masters considered to have some of the highest IQs. It is a game anyone can learn to play, and so people did since the 7th century. Unfortunately, the game has had a bad reputation for being a sinful distraction.
Historically, chess and religion did not co-exist harmoniously. Chess was seen as a game that contradicted many religious beliefs and practices and was prohibited by Judaism, Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans, the Puritans, and the Taliban, among others.
Although many religious groups banned chess, especially during the Middle Ages, some restrictions related to the game still applied as recently as the 1980s and 90s.
Chess and religion: These are 20 facts and events:
1. Islam Disapproved of Chess in 650 AD
An early form of chess, known as shatranj, was introduced in Persia around 644 AD. About six years after, Mohammad’s son-in-law, Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib, declared the game inappropriate for Muslims. It was not officially banned at this stage. Still, it was considered un-Islamic because of the graven images (chess pieces) and its connection to gambling, which was regarded as Satanic.
2. The Canon Law Forbade Chess in 680 AD
The 50th rule of the Canon Law of the Catholic Church (i.e., set of norms, ordinances, and regulations based on scripture that governs the church and its members) forbade Catholics from playing chess.
3. Egypt Banned Chess in 1005
In 1005, Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (985-1021) banned chess in Egypt. People found to be playing chess were beaten, and all chess sets and pieces were burned.
4. The Eastern Orthodox Church Forbade Chess in 1093
The Eastern Orthodox Church condemned the chess game, forbidding all its members from playing it. Chess was seen as a gateway to drunkenness and debauchery. In Russia, the ban was a way to eliminate anything promoting heathenism (i.e., those with barbaric morals or who do not follow religious norms).
5. A Priest Created the First Folding Chessboard in 1125
Bishop Guy of Paris banned chess in France’s capital in 1125 and threatened to excommunicate any priests caught playing it. This threat caused one chess-playing priest to design a chess board that he could fold up so that it looked like two books lying side by side, fooling anyone who might be looking to catch him.
6. Judaism Banned Chess in 1195
Rabbi Maimonides (1155-1204) regarded chess as sinful since some played the game for money. He also saw chess as a distraction, encouraging Jews to forego proper study (scripture or academia). Rabbi Maimonides thus prohibited all Jews from playing chess.
7. The Parisian Clergy Banned Chess in 1208
Eudes (Odo) Sully, the Bishop of Paris, banned chess in 1208. He forbade his clergy members from playing the game and prohibited them from having chess sets and boards in their homes.
8. The Clergy in England Prohibited Chess in 1240
The Synod of Worcester, which took place in July 1240 in England, declared that chess-playing was forbidden to the Catholic Church clergy and the monastic orders. This ruling was based on chess being a distraction and wasting time. Chess’ prohibition for priests in the Catholic Church continued until 1299.
9. France Banned Chess in 1254
King Louis IX (1214-1270) banned chess in France after he returned from a crusade. He considered chess and all other games to be boring and useless.
10. The Russian Clergy was Forbidden to Play Chess in 1282
The Russian manuscript Clementine Kormch, released in 1282, contained directions and advice for appropriate conduct for the clergy, including the prohibition of chess.
11. Germany Banned Chess in 1329
Like the Synod of Worcester (1240), the Catholic Church clergy in Germany also banned chess in 1329 through the Synod of Wurzburg.
12. Chess sets were Burned as an Act of Faith in 1497
With chess still seen as a sinful game in the 15th century, the Italian Monk Girolama Savonarola (1452-1498) had a bonfire in a public square in Florence. Here, he burned chess sets as an auto-da-fe (i.e., an act of faith).
13. Judaism Recognized Chess in 1500
After many bans in various countries, the game of chess was finally recognized in 1500 by the Jewish religion. It became a regular pastime on the Sabbath (Saturday).
14. Spain Assigned a Patron Saint of Chess in 1550
Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish Carmelite nun, religious reformer, and theologian, learned how to play chess and even saved a soldier’s life by teaching him the game. She mentioned chess in her writings to illustrate ethics and chess, showing how the two can harmoniously co-exist within religion.
Instead of being outcasted, Saint Teresa earned the distinction of Doctor of the Church, a title the Catholic Church gives to saints who significantly contribute to theology through their research and writings. Her influence on religion and chess was so impactful that the Church authorities in Spain announced her as the official patron of chess players in 1550.
15. Russia Banned Chess in 1551
Chess was a popular game in Russia for many centuries but was considered by the Russian Orthodox Church as a form of gambling. In 1550, the church pressured the tsar, Ivan IV Vasilyevich (‘Ivan the Terrible’), to ban chess. This ban was confirmed by the Church Council a year later, and the leading clerics produced the Stoglav Collection.
The Stoglav Collection, also known as the Book of One Hundred Chapters, was a collection of decisions made by the Church Council that regulated canon law and pastoral life. It included the prohibition of chess.
Unfortunately, this regulation was not carried out as effectively as the church wanted since many Russians – including Ivan the Terrible – continued playing chess. The tsar was a big supporter of the game, even coming to his death in 1581 playing chess with a courtier.
16. The First Book on Modern Chess was Written in 1561
Given the tumultuous history between chess and religion, it is ironic that a Catholic priest, Rodrigo “Ruy” Lopez de Segura, wrote one of the first books on modern chess. The book was called Libro del Ajedrez (Book of Chess) and gave general chess advice and explained the game’s rules, including some effective chess openings.
The “Ruy Lopez” is still a well-known chess opening today.
17. The Jewish Community Forbade Chess in Frankfurt in 1711
After the great fire in Frankfurt in 1711, the local Jewish community passed a decree that forbade any Jews to play chess – except if they were suffering from an illness. This decree lasted for 14 years.
18. Massachusetts Prohibited Chess-playing on Sundays in 1922
Even in 1922, long after most countries banned or lifted chess restrictions, the U.S. state of Massachusetts took another religious step in disallowing any chess playing on Sundays.
At the time, Massachusetts was not as progressive and liberal as it is today. Instead, the Republican-dominated legislature rejected a bill allowing people to play chess and checkers outside on Sundays, which was considered a Christian sabbath.
19. Iran Banned Chess in 1979
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, chess was banned in Iran. The game allegedly encouraged gambling and aggression toward others and caused Muslims to forgo their prayers. However, in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini (religious leader and first supreme leader of Iran) allowed chess to be played on the condition that it not interfere with daily prayers nor involve any gambling.
20. Afghanistan Banned Chess in 1996
The Afghan cleric and political leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban banned chess from being played in Afghanistan in 1996. The game was considered un-Islamic, as the Taliban saw it as gambling and distracting people from saying their prayers.
Although this Islamic fundamentalist group and Mullah Mohammad Omar were overthrown in 2001, fears of another chess ban resurfaced when they retook control in 2021.
People didn’t always enjoy the freedom that chess players have today. Historically, the game was regarded as evil, a distraction from religious studies and prayers, and a form of gambling forbidden by many religions. In modern times, it is given a bit more credit for being a strategic game that develops cognitive skills.