Al-Suli (0870-0946)

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Tlemcen, Algeria
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Cairo, Egypt
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Legendary player of shatranj, a game ancestral to chess.

Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyā ibn al-‘Abbās al-Ṣūlī , was a Turkic scholar and a court companion of three Abbāsid caliphs: al-Muktafī, his successor al-Muqtadir, and later, al-Rāḍī, whom he also tutored. He was a bibliophile, a brilliant man of letters, editor-poet, chronicler, and chess champion of proverbial talent. His coeval biographer Isḥāq al-Nadīm tells us he was “of manly bearing.” He wrote many books the most famous of which are Kitāb Al-Awrāq and Kitāb al- Shiṭranj. He is remembered today as a legendary player of shatranj, a game ancestral to chess.

Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī was born into an illustrious family of Turkic origin, his great-grandfather was the Turkic prince Sul-takin and his uncle was the poet Ibrahim ibn al-'Abbas as-Suli. Al-Marzubānī, a principal pupil of al-Ṣūlī, who admired him and copied him in the art of compilation, borrowed much of al-Ṣūlī's material for his Kitāb al-Muwashshaḥ. Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī made extensive use of his material in his Kitāb al-Aghānī. On Caliph al-Rāḍī's death in 940, al-Ṣūlī fell into disfavour with the new ruler due to his Shi'a sympathies and he died hiding at al-Baṣrah, for having quoted a passage about ‘Alī , which caused a public scandal.

Al-Ṣūlī was among a group of tenth-century chess players who wrote books about the game of shaṭranj, i.e. “chess”.

Sometime between 902 and 908 al-Ṣūlī played and beat the reigning shaṭranj champion, al-Mawardī, at the court of Caliph al-Muktafī, and the Caliph of Baghdad. Al-Mawardī's loss of royal favour was al-Ṣūlī's gain. When al-Muktafī's died, al-Ṣūlī retained the favour of the succeeding rulers, Caliph al-Muqtadir and in turn Caliph al-Radi. His biographer Ibn Khallikan, (d. 1282), relates that even in his lifetime the phrase "to play like al-Ṣūlī" was to show great skill at shaṭranj. His endgame strategies are still studied. Contemporary biographer mention his skill in blindfold chess. Al-Ṣūlī also taught shaṭranj. Many later European writers based their work on modern chess on al-Suli's work.

 – Kitāb al-Shiṭranj ‘Chess’, the first book on chess, and;  – Al-Nard, wa Isbābha wa-al-La’ab bīha . 'Al-Nard Its Elements and Play'.

 – Kitāb latīf fī al- Shiṭranj ‘A Delightful Book about Chess.’

 – Manṣūbāt al-Shiṭranj ‘The Stratagems of Chess.’

Al-Ṣūlī's shaṭranj problem, called "Al-Ṣūlī's Diamond", went unsolved for over a thousand years. As this is shaṭranj, the "queen" is a very weak piece, able to move only a single square diagonally. It is possible to win in shaṭranj by capturing all pieces except the king, unless the opponent is able to do the same on the next move.

David Hooper and Ken Whyld studied this problem in the mid-1980s but were unable to crack it. It was finally solved by Russian Grandmaster Yuri Averbakh. The solution, starting with 1. Kb4, is given in Hans Ree's "The Human Comedy of Chess", and on the web.

Best Known For: Persian poet scholar, and chess player; non-notability
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Resident Of: Algeria Egipt

* Kitāb al-Shiṭranj al-Nisḥa al-Awala ‘Chess, the first manuscript’;
* Kitāb al-Shiṭranj al-Nisḥa ath-Thānīa Chess, the second manuscript; Book on chess strategy, common chess openings, standard problems in middle game, annotated end games and the first known description of the knight's tour problem.


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