x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Luay Allawi: Chess master is king of his castle

Profile: Aside from monitoring his myriad business interests across the world, Luay Allawi is also major player in chess, with more than 2,600 chess sets to his name.

Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

When Luay Allawi began playing chess at Baghdad's Alwiya Club in the late 1960s, little did he know his love for the game would develop into an all-encompassing obsession.

Mr Allawi now owns more than 2,000 chess sets, worth in excess of £1 million (Dh5.8m). The collection, he says, is more hobby than investment.

"When I was very young, I was very unlucky in board games," Mr Allawi says from his home in Hertfordshire, England.

"I was very unlucky with the dice. If I ever wanted to throw a two or three, I would throw a six. I don't think I ever won a game of Cluedo or Snakes & Ladders in my life."

The tides of fortune turned when fortune no longer counted, and he was introduced to chess at the age of 5. "It's devoid of any luck or random events," Mr Allawi explains. "It has no dice. It's based on one skill: the ability to analyse."

Today his chessboard is the business world, and he has pieces in many shapes and sizes positioned across its squares.

The box that holds the pieces is Saracen Group, the family office he established two decades ago. Its businesses encompass distressed assets in the United States, oil trading out of Switzerland, sizeable stakes in a shipping fund and a hedge fund company, as well as aviation leasing and water-supply projects in Iraq.

Half of his time is spent in United Kingdom, while the rest is split between Switzerland, Bermuda and the Middle East.

"There are many commonalities between chess and work. The most obvious is the mental discipline. On the chessboard there is only one winner.

"Of course, life is more complicated than a game of chess, there are too many variables. The more you study chess, the more you see how it is a kin to life strategies," says Mr Allawi.

At his office, more than 100 chess sets are displayed in a glass cabinet while the rest are held under lock and key in storage. He also owns more than 3,000 books on chess.

"You can never have a complete collection, but mine is as close to complete. "One day, time permitting, finance permitting, I would like to establish a chess museum."

Back in his country of birth, Mr Allawi would play as many as 15 games a day at open tournaments in Baghdad. In 1970, at the age of 14, he left chess and Iraq after the Baathist coup in 1968 and its subsequent nationalisation programme engulfed his school.

Baghdad College, a private American Jesuit school which drew students from the upper echelons of society and children of diplomats, was hit hard. Its teachers were thrown out of the country and replaced with Iraqi staff. "I left after the fatheriya[Jesuit priests] were thrown out. We thought maybe the school started to take a different direction."

Living in the UK, Mr Allawi completed high school, then went to university to study cell biology and, as a postgraduate, biochemistry at the University of London.

He decided to pursue a career in banking with HSBC. "I thought there was more to life than sitting in a laboratory looking what's under the microscope."

For the next decade Mr Allawi worked with major banks in London and Bahrain structuring financial transactions for the aviation leasing industry. As his investment banking career progressed, he developed a strong affinity for Islamic finance.

"It's a passion. It was a revolution in the 1970s. There is an altruistic factor weaved in the form of Islamic banking. It's not always obvious but that's the belief behind it, to be fair and just in your form of finance. That appealed to me and I developed a tremendous interest."

But it took nearly a decade for his love of chess to be rekindled, when he bought a Challenger 7 chess computer to take on a business trip to the Middle East.

Mr Allawi found a 19th-century hand-carved wooden Indian set in Bahrain in 1981 that became the first of many purchases to come.

In 1987, he set up his own consultancy, targeting big financial transactions in the Islamic finance world. "We were doing a lot of arranging in Islamic trade finance and Islamic project finance, such as the financing of ships. We worked with a number of banks, and we were doing our own investments globally."

He formally set up Saracen Group in 1991. Its shareholders consist of his immediate family. "We act as investors, advisers and finance traders. We see a project we like, we take it, dismantle it, structure it, place it in the market. We invest some equity ourselves and raise finance with companies and banks we deal with."

As his business began to grow, Mr Allawi also began to participate at major auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's as well as dealing with international dealers to buy antique chess sets.

"When I first started collecting a typical John Company set commissioned by the East India Company would cost you about £800 to £1,000. Today the same set you wouldn't be able to buy for £45,000."

There are two kinds of chess sets: the playing sets, which are turned, and the carved figural sets, which are much more ornate and delicate.

"I go for beauty in chess sets. That is why I like the early carvings made of ivory from the 18th century to the 19th century." He has more than 2,600 sets from all kinds of schools, - Delhi, Madras, Rajasthan and Kashmir.

"Each set has its own significance and own beauty," says Mr Allawi.

But his favourite chess set is a gift from his wife, Carolyn. "It's a set I always treasure, way back when we couldn't really afford to buy it. It was a simple Kashmir dated around 1870-1880 from a private dealer in London. It will always have a special meaning."

Mr Allawi has an early Indian chess set depicting Alexander the Great and Darius, the Persian king. It pays tribute to a battle that took place in Arbela. "The battle was a decisive victory for Alexander, through which he was able to lead his army into the Far East because he had finally defeated the Persians," says Mr Allawi.

"Alexander was a remarkable person who is very much underestimated in modern history. We don't realise his abilities, and what he achieved at just 32. He conquered the world."

Mr Allawi hopes to go to the site of Arbela, located about 17km outside modern-day Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, and retrace the battle.

Despite his vast collection, Mr Allawi hardly plays the game any more because of time constraints.

"Chess is not just a game, it's a way of life," he says. "You have to give it the right attention and respect it deserves. That needs time, energy and stamina."