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International Chess

By Robert McTeigue

What’s the right way to answer this question:  “Do you play Chess?”  You might say “Yes” or “No”, but you would be likely to have a more interesting conversation if you replied with, “What do you mean by ‘Chess’?”
For most folks from the West, when you say “Chess” you mean what is now commonly called “International Chess”—the game of 64 squares, a king, a queen, knights, rooks, bishops and pawns.  And if you are about my age, you might also mention something about “Bobby Fischer.”  Nonetheless, you would not really be obtuse or pedantic if asked, “What do you mean by ‘Chess’?”

If you take the matter seriously, then you can do no better than to turn to “A World of Chess: Its Development and Variations through Centuries and Civilizations” by Jean-Louis Cazaux and Rick Knowlton, published in 2017.  Cazaux has worked for years as a scholar of Chess history, publishing in 2010 “L’Odyssee des Jeuxd’Echecs.”  Knowlton has worked for decades in promoting the actual playing of countless forms of Chess and Chess variants.  His efforts to make all forms of Chess known and enjoyed can be seen at

In my previous two columns for “Eurasian Perspectives” regarding board games as a form of cultural encounter (Part One HERE; Part Two HERE), we saw that board games both absorb and form local culture.  Transmitted across cultures, a board game can disclose aspects of its native culture to the uninitiated, while taking on new life and forms in cultures into which they are transplanted.  There’s something universally human about playing games; and there seems to be something nearly universal about playing Chess.  Looking at how Chess has emerged, spread, mutated, revived (and, sadly, in some forms, more or less died), we can find opportunities for peoples of East and West to teach each other unexpected lessons about what it means to be human—and maybe even have a lot of fun while doing so.

I had the good fortune of a long phone conversation recently with Rick Knowlton.  We talked about “A World of Chess”, his passion for all things Chess, and viewing games as vehicles for transmitting, transforming and sustaining culture.  What follows is a summary of our conversation.

A perennial question for students of Chess is the origin of the game.  The “received wisdom” for many years was that Chess emerged from India some time before the seventh century.  The current status of the question is a bit more complex.  Depending upon the evidence examined, and one’s presuppositions about what is “really” Chess, strong arguments could be made, he said, for attributing the origin of Chess to India, China, or Persia.

As we talked, I suggested that asking, “When and where did Chess come from?” is analogous to asking, “Who was Homer and when did he write the ‘Odyssey’?”    The working hypothesis of modern ethnographers is that an oral tradition emerged, spread and developed over time, solidified, and eventually coalesced into an identifiable and more or less stable substrate that we now called the “Odyssey” that we attribute to “Homer.”

Knowlton accepted the analogy, suggesting that there is a core of Chess that many Eastern cultures found so appealing that it spread and took root across Asia.  That same core grew and moved into the West, where it evolved into what is now commonly called “International Chess.”  There may never be a simple answer to “Where did Chess come from” any more than there could be a simple answer to “Who was Homer and when did he write the ‘Odyssey’?”

Besides, if you ask, “When and where did Chess begin?”, we have to come back to our earlier question, “What do you mean by ‘Chess’?”  Does the question refer to the Chess of China (Xiangqi), Japan (Shogi), Korea (jianggi), Thailand (Makruk) or Burma (Sit-Tu-Yin)?  Or to the countless sub-variations within those families of Chess?  It seems that when it comes to the study of Chess, the only straight lines are on the board.

Consequently, it is almost impossible to answer the question, “What is the basic difference between the Chess of the East and the Chess of the West?”, because even though a common core of “Chess-essence” may be found in all forms of Chess, it seems exceedingly difficult to formulate a univocal definition of “Chess.” Knowlton and I focused on just one obvious difference between the Chess of the East and that of the West—the pieces.

Specifically, the Chess of the West deploys pieces represented in three-dimensional form.  The Chess of many large sections of Asia depicts Chess pieces on flat discs with ideograms.    That fact can present a significant learning curve for Western players, Knowlton noted, one that unfortunately keeps many Westerners from taking the trouble to learn (and thence enjoy), say, Xiangqi or Shogi.  Knowlton agreed that’s regrettable.  Such a reluctance keeps a Westerner from enjoying several rich and delightful forms of Chess.  It also keeps the Westerner from entering into the vast and beguiling world of Asian ideograms and calligraphy.  That observation reinforces my conviction that board games can be inviting portals into the worlds of other cultures.

Continuing with linguistic comparisons, I suggested to Knowlton that the rise and fall of various forms of Chess can be likened to the rise of and fall of languages.  A language is a way of having the world; a language is a way of inhabiting human life.  Humanity is impoverished when a language dies out.  Might the same be said of forms of Chess?  He agreed, and said that already innumerable forms of Chess languages and dialects (so to speak) have died out.  One reason he promotes the study and playing of various forms of Chess is to keep some wonderful forms of human living alive.  I would very much like to see him succeed in those efforts.

What might we conclude from this series on board games as a means of facilitating encounters between East and West?  First, our common humanity is affirmed by our shared delight in board games in general, and by the persistence and pervasiveness of Chess in particular.  Second, a friendly way of affording entrée into a culture is through its board games.  Chess provides an especially effective and friendly medium for engaging cultures, as draws upon the contrasts of many similarities and differences.  Third, this series of reflections on board games raises the question:  “Where else might we turn to facilitate the encounter between East and West?”  Addressing that question will be the topic of my next columns.

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Nepotism Vs Country’s Interest

A diplomat of any country is the face of that country. It is on their shoulders to uphold the interests of their state, as well as promote its image in the international arena.

The vigorous activity of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry is not aimed at promoting the position of the state, but at discrediting the image of Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes it seems that the ambassadors of the country are purposefully appointed by people who, apart from disappointment, cannot cause diplomats of other countries.

Well, tell me how Washington can respect the country, the only virtue of which the ambassador is knowledge of English. What distinguished the former press secretary of the former president, Atambayev Kadyr Toktogulov, that he was appointed ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to Washington and Ottawa? In 2015, the newspaper Vecherny Bishkek wrote that the Atambayev’s spokesman, Toktogulov, underwent emergency courses at the diplomatic academy and learned to become a diplomat in just one week But on the other hand, he had worked for many years for European and American media that view our country as a “banana republic”.

It is quite reasonable to think that the Foreign Ministry understood that such an ambassador would hardly be worthy of representing Kyrgyzstan. Or maybe they specifically appointed this youngster to disgrace the country? How else to explain that Foreign Minister ErlanAbdyldaev closed his eyes on the ambassador’s photo on social networks, where he appeared as a drunk gay man.

And the fact that over the years of the diplomatic career of the ex-spokesperson, the flow of investments into the economy of Kyrgyzstan from the USA and Canada has decreased significantly. In 2016, 118 million US dollars were transferred to the economy of the Kyrgyz Republic from Canada, in 2017 only 4.5 million. The United States has invested in our economy for more than two years only (!) 12 million US dollars! At the same time, foreign companies for the same period withdrew 183 million US dollars from our country!

And despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan is located at the point of contact of the geopolitical and economic interests of different countries. And this means that all interested countries must compete for the “attention” of Bishkek. And they just laugh at us.

As, for example, a foreign diplomatic corps accredited in Russia.

The Embassy of Kyrgyzstan in the Russian Federation is literally half-starving! Bishkek cannot provide representatives of his country in Moscow even with stationery. And representatives of the Embassy are forced to literally beg for money from the Honorary Consuls of Kyrgyzstan in the Russian Federation (and, as you know, they are foreign, that is, Russian citizens) money to buy pens and printer paper, and at the same time the printer itself.

But in another embassy – Kyrgyzstan in South Korea – the money is flowing like a river. But not at all on diplomatic work. The ambassador in Korea serves as a guide to numerous friends and relatives of the current head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, ErlanAbdyldaev.

According to sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all activities (like the budget) of the embassy in Korea are not aimed at lobbying the investment attractiveness of Kyrgyzstan in the business community of Seoul, but at ensuring the interests of guests arriving from their homeland.

What is worth only the scandal with the Vice-Minister of Labor and Social Development ZuurakanKadenova on board the Kazakh airline Air Astana. The crew of the Kyrgyz politician was forced to disembark from a plane flying Seoul-Almaty flight for a drunken brawl. It is good that the story of Kadenova’s arrival in Korea did not hit the press. As the witnesses said, the vice-minister was literally carried out of the plane in her hands in an indecent state: all her clothes were in the wake of a drunken party on board.

At the same time, ErlanAbdyldaev himself gave a clear indication to his subordinates to hush up the matter. And not even because a Kyrgyz official disgraced the country. Kadenova is the longtime mistress of ErlanBekeshovich himself, and he is ready to cover her with all the administrative resources he has.

By the way, in Korea, at times, a sober vice-minister was not at all involved in public affairs, but was hanging out in shops and clubs.And the diplomats of the embassy were to accompany the lady who had become impudent of permissiveness.

We can repeatedly shout from various high tribunes about how advantageous we have both economic and political positions, but the fact that foreign partners ignore our capabilities is obvious.

The reason for this is the extremely unprofessional activity of our foreign policy department, which is not only distinguished by complete passivity in terms of promoting the interests of Kyrgyzstan in the foreign arena, but is aimed at discrediting Kyrgyzstan in the world arena.

What is the reason for such a non-patriotic attitude of the Foreign Ministry towards its own state?

It’s simple. Mr. ErlanAbdyldaev “revenges” Kyrgyzstan for the policy of the new president. He, accustomed to rampant lawlessness and the revenues of numerous “businessmen” who wanted to enrich themselves on the riches of our country, categorically disagree with the new policy of bringing the country’s investment field to a legal direction.

This official, contrary to all diplomatic norms, following the example of his former chief AlmazbekAtambayev, was used to talking to other states in the language of rudeness.

During the leadership of Abdyldaev’s ministry, Bishkek fell out with a mass of countries that have historically been our good friends. For example, with Turkey, whom the head of the Foreign Ministry didn’t respond diplomatically in the case of the “Gulen gang”. As a result, the flow of direct Turkish investment in the Kyrgyz economy collapsed by 50 percent (from $ 33 million to $ 17 million).

China, which is ready to pour billions of dollars into the economy of neighboring countries to implement its One Belt, One Road policy, allocates Kyrgyzstan only 600 million yuan for the reconstruction of roads (for comparison, Beijing has allocated more than 8 billion yuan to some of our neighbors). That is, the ambassadors of these countries were able to negotiate with Beijing about the financing of their projects, and the Kyrgyz ambassador, friend of the minister and brother of the ex-mayor of Bishkek, just pants in the Middle Kingdom sitting out.

Until recently, the foreign policy vector in the country was determined not by the rational logic of the interests of the state, but by the personal interests of one person – Almazbek Atambayev. He and his retinue sat in people’s ambassadors on the principle of loyalty to the “first”, as well as the ability to pay for the appointment to this position. At the same time, the presence of diplomatic skills did not play a role. And now Minister Abdyldaev was always the right hand of Atambayev in this matter.

It was he who gave the installation to the newly appointed representatives of the diplomatic corps, what to do, what to whom and how to speak. And it is he who, in fact, is responsible for the failures of all work to promote the image and interests of Kyrgyzstan in the international arena.

However, he is just a performer of the will of his boss. Which, as it is not regrettable, for him everything still remains the ex-president.

Perhaps it is time for SooronbayJeenbekov to radically change the entire system of the Foreign Ministry?So that Kyrgyzstan is no longer called “toothless,” wiping its feet on it with the whole world.

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Turkish army shells pro-Syrian govt forces

DAMASCUS:The Turkish army has attacked pro-Syrian government forces that had earlier arrived in the Kurdish-held Afrin region in northwestern Syria to defend the Syrian Kurds against Turkey’s offensive.

“Turkish regime forces targeted the locations of popular forces with artillery fire as they arrived to the Afrin region,” Syria’s state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of popular forces from the National Defense Forces (NDF) supporting the government in Damascus began entering the Kurdish-held region of Afrin through the al-Ziyara crossing point north of the town of Nubl.”Turkish state news agency Anadolu said Turkey’s army fired “warning shots” at the Syrian popular forces, noting that they “retreated to about 10 kilometers from the town because of the warning shots.”

The shelling marks a major escalation of tensions between the two countries since Turkey and its allied militants launched a military offensive against Afrin last month.

In a statement on Tuesday, US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said the Kurdish forces had called on the Syrian government to help fend off Turkey’s assault.

“The Syrian government responded to the invitation, answered the call of duty and sent military units today, February 20, to take up positions on the borders, and participate in defending the territorial unity of Syria and its borders,” the statement said.

This is the first time that Syrian government forces are deployed in the area since 2012 when the YPG held the area under its control.

Meanwhile, Turkish media say Turkey’s army and its allied Syrian opposition militants are advancing in Afrin and they have reportedly taken over a key road linking the Turkish-held town of Azaz to the city of Afrin. Turkish forces are in control of nine more villages in the region.

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Rail fares rise and protests mark the beginning of 2018

The UK rail commuters woke up to the biggest annual rise in fares for five years. The latter prompted people to protest against the price increase. RMT rail union strikes took place at many England stations on Tuesday morning, the first day of average fare increases of 3.4%.  Many commuters have seen their season tickets go up by as much as £100.

The media reported that questions were raised with Downing Street after neither Transport secretary Chris Grayling or any other Transport official were available on Tuesday morning to defend the rises.  Downing Street spokesperson’s comments about Grayling being away to meet politicians and businessmen of Qatar sparked discontent, with Labour later accusing him of being in “hiding”.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has frozen transport fare across the capital until 2020 questioned why ticket prices were going up elsewhere referring to it as a scandal. Opposite view was voiced by Paul Plummer,  Rail Delivery Group chief executive, who defended the rise saying fare changes would provide cash for better services and investment, including the Thameslink and Great Northern rail upgrades.

In the meantime, angry commuters took it onto the social media with Luke Block from Kent tweeting “First day back to work and a rail fare rise of £237 a year. Happy new year”.

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