I met Boris Gelfand just a few days after he returned from Moscow. I couldn’t
avoid noticing the “Welcome back, Boris” sign posted on the outskirts of his
hometown, Rishon Lezion. This was a direct continuation of the extraordinary
phenomenon of chess being broadcast live on TV and chess openings being
discussed in prime time. Forty years had to pass since I became a chess buff in
order to witness this miracle.
Despite a courageous effort, Gelfand’s
dream of winning the World Chess Championship ended in heartbreak last month in
Moscow following a 2.5-1.5 defeat to defending champion Viswanathan Anand in a
four-game rapid chess tiebreaker.
Gelfand greeted me as always, with a
nice smile and enthusiasm.
“Come in, let’s talk,” he said energetically
I had done a series of interviews with him after he won the
right to challenge the world champion. I was curious to see if the dramatic
events in Moscow had left a scar on him. He was that close to becoming the world
champion. but still lost. I could imagine it could hurt a person whose life
ambition may have gone down shattered. But I quickly realized it didn’t seem to
have affected him that much.
He was calm and relaxed as ever. “You almost
made it,” I exclaimed.
“Yes, yes, next time,” he replied almost as if to
Gelfand explained that he is very proud and happy with how he
“Of course there were ups and downs, but those were very
reasonable. Indeed, I could have achieved better positions from the opening and
could’ve prepared some of them better. I’m already beyond the match. I will be
starting to prepare for the next tournament – representing Israel on first board
in the Chess Olympiad to be held in Istanbul, Turkey.”
The biennial Chess
Olympiad will run August 27-September 10 and will feature teams from 165
countries in two categories, women and open. The Israeli open team will consist
of five players: Grandmasters Gelfand, Emil Sutovsky, Maxim Rodshtein, Evgeny
Postny and Boris Avrukh; four boards will play with one player interchanging in
The captain will be Grandmaster Alon Greenfeld.How do
you assess Israel’s chances in Istanbul?
It’s hard to say, because I can tell
you that according to the rating, we wouldn’t be placed very high, probably 10th
behind Russia, Ukraine, USA, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Armenia, China, Germany and
However, Israel is the only team that got medals in the last two
Olympiads! – Neither Russia nor Armenia managed to achieve it. So Israel does
exceptionally well particularly in Chess Olympiads.
So rating isn’t the
most important thing. What counts is one’s approach.Why does Israel do
well as a team?
I really don’t know. In Dresden [Germany, in 2008] we got this
momentum and really played well.
In Khanty-Mansiysk [Russia, in 2010], I
don’t think we played that well but somehow in every match a different team
member played outstandingly – this helped us win the key matches against all of
our main rivals, namely Hungary, Holland, USA. In Dresden, Maxim and I played
well and in Khanty-Mansiysk, Emil played exceptionally well.After the
world championships you gained tremendous popularity, receiving unofficial
Israeli celebrity status, “A Star is Born” [a reference to Israeli TV show
Kochav Nolad, the equivalent of American Idol]. You made it very clear that
you’re quite disappointed with the way authorities had approached chess and that
you expect that now, in view of your recent results, things will change. Do you
really believe this will happen?
I think that the whole world is going through
this trend of “A Star is Born” shows, it is not only our country. The more
primitive the show, the better: a sign of a low-level, ratingsdriven culture.
People get their kicks from being able to press a button [to vote in reality
shows]. This trend actually infiltrated the chess world and has created some
controversy: For example for my match, many people preferred to have Carlsen
instead of myself [Magnus Carlsen, the 21- year-old Norwegian who is currently
rated No. 1 in the world]. Just like in a reality show: “Let’s vote for who the
challenger will be!” and during the match, some were making comments such as
“they are not entertaining us enough – let’s switch channels.”
to your question, I think that on September 1, more children will study chess,
but the question really is whether we will witness a real leap forward or just a
cosmetic improvement.What about the tradeoff between encouraging the
masses over investment in the elite? Where should the country invest?
be aimed in both directions. One priority is the top achievers and the national
team, and the other priority should be schools in order to produce the next
Look, if a person likes chess and wants to play in a club he
doesn’t need much money to do that. Of course if more clubs would be opened, it
would be great. But priority should be given to those who bring results and
medals to the country and also to the next generation who should
At the moment, I think 20,000 kids will start chess in schools
and in kindergartens, which is really a low number compared to other countries.
A few of these countries (China, India, USA) made big progress during recent
Also here we have only nine cities that have this “Chess in
School” program and of course this is not enough. I think that the parent
generation bears great responsibility in this respect. As the trend is to watch
these reality shows – they should promote chess to encourage intellectual
effort, to teach to be more responsible, to be clever and to be
I know so many people who succeeded in life, and who started
playing chess when they were young. So if the country would like to invest in
having a more successful generation, they should introduce chess as part of the
schools’ curriculum. Mostly, it would do good for society and for the
country.When you were greeted by all the top officials, did any of them
make a concrete promise in these directions?
No. Nobody made a concrete promise,
and fortunately we are not living in a country where the president lifts a
finger and it’s instantly done. But I think that the prime minister promised
that the budget for chess will be increased – open some clubs in different
cities – but this is clearly not enough. And this is not the right direction
because unfortunately, in recent years, the chess profession has been gradually
Ten years ago, we had about 20 professionals who were fully
dedicated to chess and now we barely have five. There is no income for the chess
professional and in order to survive some must teach chess or write about chess,
forcing them to withdraw from professional play. This means that our team will
probably become less and less competitive in the coming years.This
relates to the stigma that chess is the “preoccupation of Russians” – pointing
to the composition of the Israeli national team and singling out the Russian
names. What’s really the contribution of Israel to this phenomenal
Sadly enough for the moment it’s this way. You know that in the ’80s
and ’90s, Israel had great and promising talent: Gadi Rechlis, Eran Liss, Yona
Kosashvili, Ronen Har-Zvi, Alik Gershon, Ilan Manor, all very young
grandmasters, but society sent them a strong message that playing chess is not
serious and is no profession.
Top grandmasters from all over the world
still wonder to where did they disappear, saying: “We remember how these guys
used to beat us when we were juniors,” but there was no support for them – no
serious training – I mean paradoxically we have the best chess trainers living
in Israel. I’m convinced that no other country has so many skilled professional
chess trainers like Israel does! But there is no structure and no financial
support. Even the best juniors entitled for professional training get a minimal
eight hour a month training package, which is a ridiculous amount.And
what do you think your contribution should be for all this to happen?
I can be a
good example of a person who through his persistence and dedication became
I send a message of “Keep on working!” Some players, for
example, were telling me that they were told when they turned 40 that they
should stop working and retire because they are too old. Now they look at me and
say “We know that it’s not true. You gave us an example and we can set new goals
and move forward.” (Gelfand turns 44 on Sunday.) One can talk about the Jewish
heritage in chess [half of the world chess champions were Jewish] being
diminished – do you see that trend?
Unfortunately, I do. And I hold Israel
society to blame. I mean the country wants to be like any other country in the
world in everything; this includes to do well in what we are less capable in:
cherishing Kochav Nolad and Hisardut (“Survivor”) programs and having violence
at soccer games. But I think this dangerous ambition is still reversible by
setting our priorities and values right.
The competition is formidable –
note that the Internet brought a wealth of information everywhere, making it
possible for a kid in India or in China to become very strong in chess, where
before he simply didn’t have the required information accessible.The
writer is computer scientist and chess programmer.Together with Amir
Ban, he was the author of the world class chess engine and multiple world
champion Junior. He is a researcher with the CRI Institute, University of Haifa.