In September 2023 the Barzan area of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) hosted the second Barzani International Chess Championship, a testament to the enduring legacy of the game in this area. Chess holds a special importance among the people of Barzan, resonating across generations as a beloved pastime.
Notably, Mustafa Barzani, the revered liberation leader of the Kurdish people, found solace and strategic stimulation in chess, often engaging in matches during moments of respite or alongside fellow leaders and friends. His prowess and use of chess strategies during defensive battles against invaders have been immortalized at the Barzani National Memorial.
This summer, the inaugural international chess tournament in the Barzan area, aptly named the Barzani Championship, paid homage to Barzani’s passion for the game and sought to perpetuate his name. The World Chess Federation oversaw this momentous event, attracting both local players and international participants. Organized under the auspices of the Barzani Charity Foundation with support from the Khanzad Chess Club in Erbil, which is renowned for its academic and artistic contributions to the game, the tournament aimed to elevate chess’s status and prowess.
Dilzar Hamasaleh, President of Khanzad Chess Club, praised the players’ abilities, noting their high level of play while emphasizing the potential for further artistic and academic development.
A pivotal catalyst
This tournament marked a significant transition, evolving from a local affair to an international spectacle. With 50 players in attendance, including the president of the Iraqi Chess Federation and the secretary of the Asian Chess Federation, it gained international recognition under the vigilant eye of the World Chess Federation. Matches adhered to international standards, spanning five rounds in a Swiss-style format, with each match allocated 10 minutes. Stringent supervision by referees ensured fairness and compliance.
“This tournament serves as a pivotal catalyst for the game’s expansion. Efforts are underway to introduce chess into secondary school curricula in the upcoming academic year,” Hamasaleh said.
A cultural legacy
Chess, which traces its origins to the sixth century BC and is rooted in ancient Indian lore, enjoys global acclaim, boasting millions of aficionados worldwide. The KRI, too, fervently embraces the game, nurturing chess players through established clubs, training programs, and competitive events.
The Barzani International Chess Tournament is poised to become a recurring fixture in the KRI’s calendar. Notably, 20 players from the recent tournament received official recognition from the World Chess Federation, paving the way for future ratings by the esteemed body.
Karwan Barzani, the tournament organizer, expressed an unwavering commitment to expand its reach, highlighting its role in showcasing Kurdish talent and advancing chess within the region. “The tournament bears a sacred name, and we aim to further amplify its significance.”
Preparations are underway for the third tournament, which will seek an even more extensive global presence, with organizers aspiring to draw over 100 players from 20 countries to the Barzan area. Dilzar Hamasaleh underscored Mustafa Barzani’s advocacy for Kurdish peshmerga fighters to take up chess, symbolizing an endeavor to revive a cultural legacy and reignite a passion for the game among the populace.
Sabr Salih is a journalist based in the Kurdistan Region.