Someone Entering the Conversation: What’s the Islamic ruling on chess?
Shaikh Al-Albānī: Chess has no authentic ḥadīth prohibiting it. Only, its situation is like many modern diversions, so if there’s no clear violation of Islamic law in it, it’s allowed to play it from time to time by way of giving oneself a break, not making it a habit and becoming [avidly] interested in it, because it will lead people [like that] into neglecting many of the obligations that are upon them to stick to and take care of.
But chess, up until today, has an evil that is remaining with its pieces: it has some idols like an elephant [in some versions of it], a horse, and the like of that. Because of this, whoever has a chess [set] in his house and wants to engage in it as a diversion—[following] the previously mentioned condition, i.e., [that he only plays it] from time to time—it’s an Islamic requirement upon him that he make changes to these forms and these figures [or idols] and [strike] their heads [off], since the [prohibited] image is the head, as has come in ḥadīth. At that point, it’s possible to play with them upon the condition that I mentioned earlier [of playing only from time to time].
And it’s been narrated as coming from ʿAlī, may Allāh be pleased with him—and I, when I say, “it’s been narrated,” I mean what I say, which is: with a chain of narration that has some weakness in it—that he passed by some people bent over, engrossed in playing chess, so he said to them: “What are these idols that you are keeping yourselves to out of devotion?” [(Al-Anbiyāʾ 52 extracted, English meaning)] Because the reality of how these players and the onlookers around them were sitting [was that] you see them absorbed, bent over with engrossed interest over the game. So ʿAlī pulled out this verse on them, denouncing them. He said: “What are these idols that you are keeping yourselves to out of devotion?”
So before everything, it’s an Islamic requirement to make changes to these figures [by removing their heads]; after that, [it’s allowed] if one plays with them from time to time as we’ve said, without [the game] taking one away from attendance at the mosque [to] pray with the Muslims and without preoccupying one from taking care of one’s religious and household obligations, etc.
Fatāwá Rābigh, no. 1 (00:35:41), as quoted in as quoted in Jāmiʿ Al-Turāth Al-Albānī fī Al-Fiqh, vol. 16, p. 414.