The Arabian Gambit
(Patna, Bihar, India)
There is an old legend from Arabia about a slave who was brought from a distant land, and who ended up becoming the greatest master the ancient world ever saw.
The story seems to precede the era of Al-Wathiq and belong to the era of his father al-Mutasim. The story goes that once in the court of Caliph al-Mutasim, came a Shatranj player, a Mutaqaribat. The Caliph thinking that Shatranj players already in his court were better than the visitor, challenged him to defeat all the Aliyats already in his court.
The Mutaqaribat defeated all the Caliph’s Aliyats one after another. The games went on for the next 17 days. This infuriated the Caliph and he entrusted his Vizier to find him such a player who could defeat the Mutaqaribat. For this task, the Vizier was given a week’s time. One after another the days passed away and the Vizier was not able to find any able Aliyat even after 5 days of search. This made the Vizier very nervous and upset.
One day when the Vizier was sitting in his garden, mulling over the problem, he heard a voice. “Huzoor….. Huzoor”. The Vizier looked up to see that one of his servants was standing in front of him. The slave knew about the problem that was troubling his master and was saddened by the fact that his master may even lose his life if he was unable to please the Caliph.
The slave went on “I know about the matter that troubles you and I wish to help you out with the problem.” The Vizier was a noble and kind-hearted man. He smiled and replied, “What help can you provide Dilaram? You are no Aliyat. Are you trying to mock me?” The slave replied, “I dare nor mock you as you are my master and I am as faithful to you as the desert is to the traveler, who knows its ways.
I think with a bit of luck, I can defeat the Mutaqaribat, as I myself am a knower of Shatranj and it’s predecessor, Chaturanga. Master, I come from a far off land, where the game of Chaturanga has been played even before there was any semblance of a civilization in the Arab world.”
The Vizier replied, ”I appreciate your concerns about me but just having the knowledge of the game does not make you an Aliyat.” The servant pressed harder, “At least let me have a game against some of your Aliyats. If I am able to defeat them, present me to the Caliphs as the challenger to the Mutaqaribat.”
The Vizier thought for a while and agreed. Later that day, the Vizier called five of the Aliyats, known for their superior skills. The slave played against each of them and was able to defeat them all. This impressed the Vizier and he asked the slave to play against the Mutaqaribat. The slave agreed whole-heartedly.
The night before the match was to take place, the Vizier called the slave to his chamber and enquired about the strategy that he would be using against the Mutaqaribat. To this the slave replied, “Huzoor, the Mutaqaribat is a strong played and there is no surety that even a better player than him can win against him, since luck has some impact on each incident that takes place on the face of the earth. So, instead of relying simply on my skills, I will use my wisdom too.
You see, Shatranj is all about skill and experience, while Chaturanga is about skill, experience and luck. In Shatranj, the player has the liberty to move his pieces in any way he wants. Whereas in Chaturanga, the player is limited in his moves by the throw of his passé (dice). So, the game of Chaturanga makes you face with some unprecedented and uncalled for positions and moves. I have learnt a lot of moves from this game and tomorrow I shall have a story for the Mutaqaribat.”
The next day, the stage was set for the game to take place between the Mutaqaribat and the slave. The slave greeted the Mutaqaribat and asked him if he would like to hear a story before the game starts. The Mutaqaribat agreed and the slave started with his story.
The slave continued, “Once there was a war between the White King and the Black King. The White King was on the brink of losing the war, and sent a messenger to the Black King to have a pact of peace. The Black King wanted the messenger to be killed, and when his Vizier tried to pacify him, he had his Vizier killed too. This incident alerted the White King and he started a full-on attack upon the Black King’s army. The White King had his complete cavalry intact, but had only half of the war elephants left along with his Vizier. Whereas the Black King had his complete army consisting of cavalry, chariots, war elephants and foot-soldiers intact with only the Vizier missing. Even then he went on fighting and was able to defeat the Black King.”
After the slave finished with the story, the Mutaqaribat started laughing and said that such a case is not possible. The slave disagreed and asked him to take the role of Black King, while he would assume to be the White King. The Mutaqaribat agreed and the game started.
The legend says that the slave was able to defeat the Mutaqaribat with his skill and knowledge. The Caliph was so impressed with the slave’s skills, that he announced him to be freed and conferred upon him the title of Mutaqaribat along with much land and property.
The legend further goes on to say that no one knew what happened to that slave after the incident, since he did not make much public appearance. But, some people claimed that he became a wanderer, some claim that he returned to his homeland, while others claim him to be the master of none other than Al-Adli himself.