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Iran back as king of chess castle

June 7, 2000

Financial Times (London)
June 7, 2000

From Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to Iran, chess is coming home. Fide, the world chess federation, this week wrapped up an agreement with the Iranian government to host the world championship final in Tehran in December.

Iran’s chess association, locked in a prolonged struggle with a few conservative Shia Muslim ayatollahs opposed to the game, is overjoyed that it beat off rival bids from China, Kazakhstan and Morocco.

“This will be the biggest international tournament Iran has hosted,” said Reza Rezaei, the association’s secretary.

“Sea of suffering” – as the name for chess translates literally from Farsi – has had a chequered history in Iran, which lays claim to its origins nearly 2,000 years ago.

The game was banned after the 1979 Islamic revolution on the grounds it was a form of gambling or, according to some accounts, because the hunt for the king branded it as a “royal sport”.

But, in 1988, one year before his death, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, ruled that chess could be played.

Iran now boasts the world champion in the under-10 category and the top Asian under-12 girl, although the seniors have struggled to make up for those lost years.

But even recently some hardline ayatollahs have attempted to get rid of the game again. Local newspapers said public chessboards were removed in the city of Kashan after Ayatollah Jafar Saburi imposed a “fatwa”, or religious decree, banning the game.

Emmanuel Omuku, Fide’s executive director, said he was not concerned by clerical opposition. He said Iranian government officials were positive about the tournament, which has Dollars 3.5m (Pounds 2.3m) in prize money. Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s moderate president, is also a keen supporter of chess.

Under the deal with Fide, India will host matches up to the semi-finals in New Delhi as well as the women’s final. Iran will hold the open final, the best of six matches.

Although Fide’s motto is Gens una sumus (We are one family), chess seems more akin to boxing in its rival championships. Garry Kasparov, ranked world number one, plans to host his own world championship in October. And Anatoly Karpov, the former world champion, is suing Fide for more than Dollars 1m for breach of contract.

Karpov and some other leading players are opposed to the new annual, knock-out formula adopted by Fide.

Last year’s championship winner in Las Vegas was Alexander Khalifman, now ranked by Fide as 29th in the world.

Mr Omuku is enthusiastic that chess is returning to its historic roots in Iran, although Indian and Chinese devotees also lay claim to the game. Iranian players note how English terminology has borrowed from their language. “Checkmate” is believed to come from the Farsi for “king dead”.

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