Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Taliban’s War on Chess

by Patrick Cockburn In Kabul

When the Taliban caught Haji Shirullah, a Kabul businessman, playing chess in his office with his brother they burnt the chessboard and the pieces. “They put us in jail for two days,” he recalled with a rueful smile. “The Taliban believed chess was a form of gambling and distracted people from saying their prayers.”

Mr Shirullah, a middle-aged man in a white skull cap, was waiting impatiently to start playing in the first chess tournament held in Kabul since the Taliban captured the city in 1996. Some 138 players had turned up – far more than expected – so some were using the floor because there were not enough tables and chairs.

For five years, Afghanistan has been the only place in the world where playing chess, always popular in the country, has been illegal. Chess players, fearful of denunciation, had to meet in secret.

Dr Qadratullah Andar, 26, became Afghan chess champion when he was a medical student just a month before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

He said: “At first we tried to play secretly, but my friends were arrested by the Maroof [the much feared religious police]. Some of them were well-known doctors who were arrested when playing in a hospital, so I thought it better not to play at all.”

Chess playing, unlike kite flying, another Taliban bete noire, seems well adapted to secrecy so it is surprising that the authorities were so successful at detecting it and punishing players. One reason is that Afghans, such as Mr Shirullah and his brother, used to play chess in their offices. Dr Andar said: “The religious police had nothing else to do but pursue people like us.”

Some chess players, suddenly forced to behave like drinkers in the United States during Prohibition, took stringent precautions.

The tournament taking place this week in Kabul was organised largely by Mohammed Akbar Salam, a professor of fine arts at Kabul University and a keen chess player. He said that when he and friends were playing “we put a guard in front of our gate so he could tell us if anybody from the Taliban was coming”. The tournament had not been easy to arrange, even though Afghanistan has a long tradition of chess playing. “Ordinary people used to play in the streets outside their shops,” said Dr Andar. “But even before the Taliban came this was becoming dangerous to do because of the shelling during the civil war.”

When Mr Salam tried to buy additional chess sets for this week’s tournament “we found that there were only seven or eight chess sets available in the bazaar and they were all very expensive,” he said. “We had to ask players to bring their own chess sets.”

The Taliban’s campaign against chess was so intense that it created real fear among even non-players who owned chess sets.

I first became aware of the tribulations of Afghan chess players when I tried to buy a chess set in a Kabul antique shop as a Christmas present for my 14-year-old son, Alexander. I had seen a fine-looking board in the shop, but the owner, named Said, said that, unfortunately, he had no pieces to go with it. I asked him what had happened to them. Said 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.”

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan