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  • Javier Romano

The Journey of Oleg Rodunov or the Evolution of the Game of Kings

"He visited Paradise and Hell, and went beyond them to meet his Lord,

who spoke ninety thousand words with him. He returned before his bed grew cold,

and before a leaf he had touched in passing ceased to tremble."

"The Secret of Secrets". Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani

The 23rd Chess Championship of the then Soviet Union was held in Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) in January and February 1956. The momentum of Rodunov (grandmaster since 1952) carried over to the play-off match. This was marred by Kozlovsky's illness, which prevented him from playing his second game with Mirin.

After four hours of play, the outcome could begin to emerge. Alexey Mirin was one of the favourites, but somehow chance - or was it logic? - was not helping him this time. The air was heavy with cigarette smoke. Oleg had never been a smoker, and despite himself, he would rather endure the smoke than have to pester others to not smoke in the room or, worse, to open a window, while the northern hemisphere was experiencing the worst cold wave of the century. The room was packed with an eager and enthusiastic audience of varying ages, but for him there was nothing but the familiar chessboard and his skilled opponent. It was not difficult for him to abstract himself, to exclude everything that was not the game. The characteristic carved wooden pieces of the Botvinnik-Flohr (his favourite set) were his quiet world, as so often, seldomly associated with the opprobrium of defeat, territory of loneliness and battle rarely fully consummated.

He enjoyed the sensation of the plush feel of a piece sliding across the board, especially the pawn in his classical Sicilian defence, like slow steps on an autumn afternoon on a quilt of dry leaves. He thought for a moment of his cottage near Lake Ladoga, on the outskirts of Leningrad, and of the leisurely walks in the forest. He had preferred to avoid the piercing gaze of Alexey, whom he had great respect for because of his solid play. He knew that the power of thought could influence another player's decisions and he was well protected from that influence.

He was tired, but he was sustained by the unerring conviction that he was making the right moves. Mirin's defence had been consistent but also suffered from distinct vulnerabilities. Secretly, this encouraged him. He clutched an advanced white pawn with three fingers, doubting for a moment whether it was the right move, but something seemed to have already been decided despite himself. By displacing it he would leave his queen uncovered, offered in sacrifice, but he had calculated that, following this strategy, he would have checkmate in five moves.

He raised his pawn timidly, still hesitating; sensing Mirin's eyes on him, like the hollow barrels of a gun, with that strong feeling one gets when - one believes - the other is about to make a grave mistake. He was unaffected by this underhand disdain; his confidence was based on an intuitive presaging - sustained by rigorous calculation - of what was to come later. A tiny drop of sweat ran down his brow and burst unpretentiously on the chessboard in front of the upright king, echoing in his memory the chords of a distant symphony (back in his Ukrainian birthplace his mother caressed the keys of another black-and-white harmony).

Instantly he saw himself, as in an ancient and rusty mirror, endorsing the turban and brocade and silk robe of the Safavid Shah, Abbas I of Persia, standing in front of one of the tall windows of the palace in the beautiful city - now capital - of Isfahan, at the dawn of the seventeenth century, looking out, with one hand resting on the inner sill. He noticed that something tiny had brushed the back of his outstretched hand against the polished wood. He observed, surprised, and saw that it was not the brush of an insect but a tiny droplet. It was not raining, and the window was closed. He also looked up, in a mechanical reflex, as if hoping to identify the cause. Bringing his hand close to his eyes, he diluted the liquid on his skin and even tasted its flavour. He was distracted by the jovial noise of his children playing in the garden. He soon forgot the possible origin of that drop, as if it had never happened. It was spring and the gardens were bursting with beauty and splendour, more than one could ever imagine. The royal gardeners were constantly tending them, removing wilted plants, planting promising new bulbs of exotic species, watering and maintaining the palace environment. The children played happily among the aisles of the flower beds, sometimes plucking flowers, and piling them up in little mountains or multicoloured rows. He recalled his own childhood in Herat, when he would happily lose himself in the labyrinthine garden of his ancestors, in a palace as beautiful as his own. He thanked Allah for such a splendid destiny and the delights it had bestowed on him: a devoted wife and a bountiful offspring; one of them was to inherit the throne one day (though this was never to be realised). That evening, as every Thursday at the same time - a ritual Shah Abbas looked forward to - he would play a game of Chatranj (chess) with his grand vizier, Khalifeh Soltan, who also delighted in this game and often preferred to lose rather than irritate his master. This chicanery was not entirely to Abbas liking and he found it somewhat despicable, but secretly enjoyed it and pretended not to notice it. The satisfaction of giving a checkmate (in his language, Persian, shāh māt means 'the king is dead') was something sublime and worthy of a lofty ruler like him. He recalled that it had been his father who had taught him to play such cultured game while simultaneously initiating him into the mastery of war strategy, a skill required of a wise leader. He had rarely been able to beat him in a game. The difficulty of confronting and driving the Uzbeks from their domain for ten long years - though he would succeed that year - was perhaps a reflection of that early ineptitude to master the indispensable art. Perhaps that is why he pretended not to see the innocent comedy displayed by Yahya (as he familiarly called him).

They sat down to play. They arranged the pieces in silence, each in its established position. White in the dark rosewood squares, black in those of sumptuous mother-of-pearl. He would play white. Between sips of exquisite aromatic tea, the game began. Abbas could not concentrate this time, a strange melancholy made him absent from the intelligent pastime. He moved his pieces inattentively; he noticed that Yahya occasionally watched him with shy respect, perhaps not understanding his mood that afternoon, but not daring to say anything that would disturb the sacred ritual of battle.

'Patient Yahya, good counsellor and faithful friend,' he said, interrupting the game suddenly, 'you are a skilful speaker and well versed in the sciences and prophetic traditions, tell me an enchanting story that will restore my desire to continue this game, one that will remind me of our ancient and revered sages.'

Surprised, but always well disposed towards the Shah, Yahya paused to think and soon after began the following narration:

“There was once a very wise and influential priest in Baghdad who had many followers. This man had a vast knowledge not only of the Judaic and Christian traditions but also of Islam; he knew Islam and the Holy Qur’an and had great love and appreciation for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The caliph respected the priest and hoped that he and his followers would become Muslims one day. Indeed, he was ready to accept the religion, except for one thing. The thing that prevented him, which he could neither accept nor understand, was the physical Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to the heavens during his lifetime.

The Ascension took place when one night, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was brought body and soul from Medina to Jerusalem and from there to the seven heavens, where he saw many things…

The mind of the priest could not accept the Ascension of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his coming back to tell about it. Indeed, when the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself declared it the day after it happened, many Muslims did not believe and left their religion. This then is a test of true faith, for the mind cannot conceive of such a thing.

The caliph introduced all the wise men and teachers of his time to the priest in order to eliminate his doubts, but none of them succeeded. Then one evening he sent word to Hadrat Abdul-Qadir, the Sufi Sheikh, asking him if he could convince the priest of the truth of the Ascension.

When Hadrat Abdul-Qadir came to the palace he found the priest and the caliph playing chess. As the priest lifted a chess piece to move it, his eyes met those of the shaykh. The priest blinked his eyes… and as he opened them again, he found himself drowning in a rapidly running river!

He was shouting for help when a young shepherd jumped into the water to save him. As the shepherd held onto him, he realized that he was naked and had been transformed into a young girl!

The shepherd pulled her out of the water and asked her whose daughter she was and where she lived. When the priest mentioned Baghdad, the shepherd said that they were then at a distance of a few months journey from that city. The shepherd honoured her and kept her and protected her, but eventually as she had nowhere to go, he married her. They had three children, who grew up.

One day as she was washing laundry in the same river where she had appeared many years before, she slipped and fell in. As she opened her eyes… he found himself sitting across from the caliph, holding the chess piece, and still looking up into the eyes of Hadrat Abdul-Qadir, who said to him, ‘Now, venerable priest, do you still disbelieve?’”[1]

Enraptured by the magic of the story he had just heard, Shah Abbas regained the sparkle in his eyes and flashed a pleased smile. He moved forward, this time, a knight, perhaps symbolising his new-found enthusiasm. A few moves later he turned again his attention away from the game as he heard the children's laughter coming from the garden; he imagined the destiny of his children, their future families, their possible vocations. Perhaps they would play chess. Following his father's example, he would also instruct them from a young age. He moved a rook. Yahya captured an unnoticed bishop of his. After a long while the Shah could glimpse in his mind a brilliant strategy by sacrificing his precious queen first. At the same time, he would ensure that he would not be allowed an undeserved victory, simply by doing something unusual. Three moves later that ideal moment emerged. He grabbed a pawn with three fingers and raised it, exposing the queen to the attack of a bishop. Yahya immediately noticed it and seemed surprised by the bold move. The Shah felt, piercing him, the vizier's strong gaze, as if he had inferred that the king had not fully calculated such a move. He hesitated for a moment, still with the piece suspended in the air. He remembered his father's early lessons: castling, pawn structure, flank attack. He also evoked his father's affection. He acknowledged that he would have liked to see him here and now, if only for a moment. A furtive tear escaped from his eye and landed on the board in front of his king.

Instinctively he squeezed his index finger to wipe away the drop and as he did so he noticed that his king was no longer white but green and the placement of the pieces was unfamiliar; there were no longer two rows of eight or the din of the black-and-white battle. Although the pieces seemed to retain the same features, they were now arranged differently on each of the four corners of a board of twelve-by-twelve squares. Perhaps he was playing what the ancient inhabitants of India called Chaturanga, a four-players chess, or at least this would be a variant of that archaic pastime. He marvelled that he felt no fear of being involved in such a challenge. Solemn silence reigned and the game, it seemed, was already well under way; few pieces standing, four colours incomprehensibly mixed, white, red, black, green, fused and intertwined, without apparent logic. A large crowd surrounded the table and the board with its four players, watching the game attentively. Each one of them displayed a card with his name and surname on his chest. He dared to look to see if he also had that identification, confirming who he was. He read: Ildefonso Sigüenza - Spain - 2017. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice his gesture. What seemed to be out of context suddenly fell into place. He had to remind himself of his purpose: he was on holiday, as he was every year in August, with his family and a group of friends, fellow travellers on the Path. A stifling, sultry heat seemed to have taken over every breath of fresh air in that southern oasis, even if they were sheltered under a pergola that protected them from the sun, somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula, in the remote and mythical Al-Andalus.

It was his turn to move. He had not paid full attention to several moves made. He had to quickly recompose the map of the board to understand what had happened while his mind wandered in a daydream.

'Perhaps I will have to pay for my inattention,' he mused. Still, like an eagle soaring over its prey from above and finally swooping down with certainty, he was given to see in a complete picture the essential panorama of the gridded territory. He perceived the positions of the pieces, as if pregnant with implicit intention, he felt the weak flanks of each army lying in wait, he thought he sensed the future movements. These impressions revealed themselves in pristine nakedness and unison. His inner senses seemed to sharpen, his sense of time dilated, and the silence became even more meaningful and profound. He was in check. The instinctive fear of premature defeat was replaced by a courage of fierce counterattack. Hidden in plain sight, the subtle manoeuvre was waiting. Taking advantage of the convenient diagonal that a white bishop dominated, (an inconceivable possibility in traditional chess) Ildefonso deftly moved his queen along the board until it almost touched the red king, giving an irrefutable checkmate (being in check). With the new pieces he had conquered, it was not difficult for him to finish off the last resources of the players still standing. Thus, he won the first prize, a voluminous trophy sculpture in patinated bronze, in the form of a pawn that transforms into a queen. Hearing the applause and cheers and feeling the eyes converging on him, Ildefonso Sigüenza could not help but be moved. A jubilant tear of joy burst over the victorious green king.

Oleg Rodunov finally posed his pawn. Alexey, not noticing the trap, rushed to capture the vulnerable queen. Five moves later, as foreseen, Rodunov checkmated Mirin and was crowned champion. But already in his mind the seed of the ineffable secret had begun to germinate, the possibility of living more than one life in parallel realms and the eternity of the ever-present moment.

The vague but indelible memory - or had it been prescience? - of a preconceived and infallible evolution of the game of kings detracted - in his mind - from the merit just achieved.

After this victory, Oleg Rodunov retired, abandoning his chess career forever.

A common thread - perhaps a drop from the vast and immeasurable ocean of Being - subtly wove the fabric of the memories of these three men, all leaves of the same tree of Life.


[1] “The secret of secrets”. Hadrat Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani. (Introduction to the English version)

J. Romano