Mubarak ibn Turki studied the sabbah board carefully. He weighed his next move in his mind, then reached toward the board. He hesitated and looked up for a moment into the watchful eye of Ali ibn Ahmad. Ali fingered the loose folds of a scarf that lay around his neck. He rested his cheek in the palm of his left hand. Ali revealed nothing to Mubarak.
The long room was filled with sounds—the call of voices, the click of caroming pool balls, the celluloid tick of ping pong balls on table-top and paddle.
A circle of kibitzers pressed in on Ali and Mubarak.
"Khudh min huna; hutt fiha," one of them called to Mubarak. The second-guesser reached out his hand and even touched one of the black checkers. (Take it from here and move to there.)
Another hand reached out from the circle and pushed aside the first.
"La La" (No, no!)
The first man persisted: "Khudh mill huna . . ."
Mubarak lost patience.
"Uskut," he shouted at both of them. They drew back. "Uskut!" (Keep quiet!).
He moved a black checker. But it was too late. Ali Ahmed swiftly slid a white checker along one of the shorter white lines on the green sabbah board. Three of his red checkers now lay in a line. Ali removed one of Mubarak's pieces from the board. And the way was also paved for Ali's inevitable victory move on his next turn.
Mubarak saw that he could not hope to win that game. He waved his hand over the board. The game was over. Ali had won two out of three games and was ready to proceed to the semi-finals of what may have been the first Saudi Arabian sabbah tournament in history.
The scene of the tournament was the Recreation Center of the Aramco al-Salamah Camp at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A program of mid-winter contests had brought forward the boundless skill of Saudi young men who have shown a keen eye and steady hand in ping pong, pool and a table version of shuffleboard. But the hit of the season was the pioneer sabbah tournament.
The game, which according to experts was played in ancient Tuscany, Rome and Athens, appears to have been enjoyed on the sands of Arabia for long generations, perhaps centuries. Tom Roy, a recreation director for the Arabian American Oil Company, used to watch Saudi Arabs pass the time by drawing a set of squares (one inside the other) in the sand and playing a game he had never seen before. The game was played by two players using flat and round stones, or date pits. Roy took a close look at the game one day, learned the name was "sabbah," and decided to incorporate the game into the recreation tournament program.
The rules were well known and the simple design posed no problem. Sufficient boards were painted, and Tom Roy raided the recreation center checker sets (each player uses nine checkers). The tournament lists were quickly filled and pairings made.
Sabbah combines elements of tic-tac-toe, chess and parchesi. It appears simple. However, a first-rate player employs many subtleties in preparing his key moves, carefully measuring probability in each play. His purpose is to eliminate, one by one, his opponent's checkers from the board.
By the time the tournament had reached its final stages, the crowds had grown enormously. Cameramen filmed the final round for showing on the Aramco television channel.
From the scattering sands of Saudi Arabia, sabbah has moved to the tournament game board. An ancient game has been touched by the glamour of television. However, the enthusiasm, the "wisdom" and the persistence of the kibitzer remains unchanged. Indoors or outdoors, on sand or table top, the game continues to benefit (in a manner of speaking) from his unstinted advice. And the impatient cry of "Uskut" only whets the appetite for quarterbacking from the sidelines.