Luay Allawi: Chess master is king of his castle

Hadeel al Sayegh
Nov 9, 2012

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.”

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