A trusted messenger burst into the royal apartment with urgently bad news. More inglorious defeats in and around the city were to be reported to the caliph. In fact, his own safety was now in jeopardy.
But al-Amin would not hear of it. He waved off his panicked emissary.
"O Commander of the faithful," implored the messenger, according to the medieval Islamic historian Jirjis al-Makin. "This is not the time to play. Pray arise and attend to matters of more serious moment."
It was no use. The caliph was absorbed in the board. A chess game in progress is--as every chess spouse quickly learns--a cosmos unto itself, fully insulated from an infant's cry, an erotic invitation, or war. The board may have only thirty-two pieces and sixty-four squares, but within that confined space the game has near-infinite depth and possibility. An outsider looking on casually might find the intensity incomprehensible. But anyone who has played the game a few times understands how it can be engrossing in the extreme. Quite often, in the middle of an interesting game, it's almost as if reality has been flipped inside out: the chess game in motion seems to be the only matter of substance, while any hint of the outside world feels like an annoying irrelevance.
The messier the external world, the more powerful this inverted dynamic can be. Perhaps that is why Caliph al-Amin, who sensed that his hours were numbered, preferred to soak in the details of his chess battlefield rather than reports of the calamitous siege of his city. On the board he could see the whole action. On the board he could neatly make sense of significant past events and carefully plan his future. On the board he still might win.
"Patience my friend," the caliph calmly replied to his messenger standing only a few feet away and yet a world apart. "I see that in a few moves I shall give Kauthar checkmate."
Not long after this, al-Amin and his men were captured. The sixth Abbasid caliph, victor in his final chess game, was swiftly beheaded.
Chess lived on. The game had been a prominent court fixture of Caliph al-Amin's predecessor, and would voraciously consume the attention of his successor--and the caliph after that, and the caliph after that. Several centuries before it infected feudal Christian Europe, chess was already an indelible part of the landscape adjoining the Tigris and Euphrates. This simple game, imbued with a universe of complexity and character, demanded from peasants, soldiers, philosophers, and sovereigns an endless amount of time and energy. In return it offered unique insights into the human endeavor.