Iranian champ seeks to revive old Persian chess glory

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The Independent Online

Iranian chess grandmaster Morteza Mahjoob, who holds the world record for the most number of simultaneous matches, is bent on reviving old Persia's passion for the ancient game.

Chess was outlawed for nearly a decade after the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah, sidelining Iran from the international chess map.

The 29-year-old Mahjoob, one of seven Iranian international grandmasters - five men and two women, has worked to reverse this and "promote this sport nationwide," he told AFP.

This fueled his bid to break the record for simultaneous games when he played 500 opponents in Tehran's Enghelab sports complex last August in a feat monitored by FIDE, the World Chess Federation.

"I had less than five seconds for each move, while each competitor had 20 minutes for his or hers... And I had to walk more than 500 meters (yards) for each round.

"It actually took 18 hours, from 10 am ... until 4 am the next day, and given the high temperatures that month it was quite a challenge," he said.

Though Mahjoob was "really worried", he won 397 games and "broke the record recorded in the Guinness Book of records," confirmed Dave Jarrett of FIDE in an email. This sidelined Bulgarian grandmaster Kiril Georgiev who set the world record only six months months earlier playing 360 opponents.

Now Filipino international grandmaster Rogelio Antonio will try to break Mahjoob's score in April by playing 600 simultaneous matches at Ninoy Aquino stadium in Manila, according to organisers.

The attempt was to have taken place this weekend but organisers said it had been postponed.

But Mahjoob is undaunted. "I always knew that this record would some day be broken, but did not expect it would be this fast." If sidelined by Antonio, he said he is already "working to regain the world record again during the coming summer."

"I don't know how many more (players) but hopefully one hundred more," he said - meaning 700 simultaneous games.

Mahjoob trained for more than a year for last August's event, including an exhaustive physical fitness regime. "In this kind of competition as well as having a trained mind, one has to be in good physical shape.

But his real start came as a youngster when he saw his first game.

Chess was outlawed in 1981 because it was thought to encourage betting, which is forbidden in Islam. But in 1988 the Islamic republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or Islamic religious decree, permitting chess as long as no gambling was involved.

The game, driven underground, made a vigorous comeback.

"One day I went to a park near my home to get a notebook from my friend and ... saw two grown-ups playing chess on a bench," Mahjoob told AFP.

"To kill time I gazed at them moving their pieces around the board and it was there and then that I learnt chess. I asked one of them if I could play ... I told him I had just learnt it by watching him! But the man let me play and I beat him in my first game.

"I was 13 then and it made me realise that I had potential in chess," he recalled.

Mahjoob won grandmaster status in 2007 and today ranks 668 in FIDE's list of active world players and 60 among active Asian players. He runs two chess schools with a dozen coaches and 800 trainees.

Both his website and that of the Iranian Chess Federation feature a picture of Khomeini's hand-written fatwa. "It paved the way for Iran's progress in the world of chess," Mahjoob said.

The country, which had no grandmasters and only three international masters prior to the revolution, now ranks 49 on FIDE's list of the 139 top chess countries and has some 200,000 residents playing competitively, according to national chess officials.

Budding champions and chess classes abound, both privately and in city hall-run cultural centres. Competitions are held on every level from national down to local schools, and state-run television broadcasts key games, also showing women players in Islamic dress.

Mahjoob, father of a three-year-old girl and married to a chess coach, has been wooed by neighboring United Arab Emirates to train their national team - even more so since his world record - but says he's not interested.

"Like any athlete, I love to reach the summit," said Mahjoob, who cites legendary Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov as a role model.

"I would love to become the world chess champion."