The last checkmate?

ByDAVID HOROVITZ
October 22, 2010 05:16

National chess captain Alon Greenfeld is sadly convinced that Israel's latest successes will never be replicated.




Israeli chess team

Israeli chess team. (photo credit:Courtesy)

Alon Greenfeld is rightly ecstatic about the remarkable performances the Israeli national team has put in at the last two Chess Olympiads – the chess world’s most prestigious team tournaments, with a rich history dating back to the 1920s.

It’s true, the Jews are astoundingly over-represented in the pantheon of world chess greats, and today’s Israel is no chess-playing minnow. But on paper, the Jewish state could not reasonably have been expected to get near the medal podium at either Dresden, Germany 2008 or Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia 2010. Instead, it is the only country to have won a medal at both events – coming third to Ukraine, with Russia in second, this time, and losing out to Armenia, with the US in third place, two years ago.

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Flush with that Russian success when I interviewed him at his Ra’anana home, Greenfeld, the non-playing captain, raved about the contributions of all five players in the national team – each of whom, he said, had produced something special at a critical moment in one match or other to help pave the way to success. Boris Gelfand, the team’s strongest player, excelled. But the second strongest, Emil Sutovsky, emerged as the tournament’s best overall performer, and everyone else – Ilia Smirin, Maxim Rodshtein and Victor Mikhalevski – played a vital part.

Israel really shouldn’t have had a chance, especially after, early in the tournament, it could only tie with the relatively weak Indonesians and then lost to host Russia’s third side. But the fantastic collective spirit pulled the team through, he said. And a constructive “collective spirit” in chess, which is an utterly individual sport, he elaborated, is a rare and precious commodity indeed. There was an almost “euphoric” readiness to give everything for the team in Russia, Greenfeld exalted, an all-for-one and one-for-all mindset that saw Israel reel off an improbable sequence of five straight victories, several against very strong nations like Holland, Hungary and the US, to claim the bronze spot.

Local headlines from the tournament focused largely on Yemen’s refusal to play against Israel – a no-show that gave the team an automatic first round victory. That early unearned win didn’t particularly help; it meant the players had no easy match in which to get acclimatized. Far more worryingly, it exposed the ongoing anti-Israeli politics that the international chess authorities allow to afflict the sport, he said – a virus that reached its height in 2004, when the authorities selected Libya to host the individual world championships and, entirely predictably but utterly disgracefully, Israel players were unable to participate.

Greenfeld, a friendly, passionate man who talks with me in his garden while intermittently trying to restrain his big, boisterous English sheepdog Oliver, has fumed impotently for years about the tolerance for anti-Israel arm-twisting by Arab nations in world chess.

He’s even more upset, though, by his inability to make headway, either, in combating what he sees as the inadequate way Israel handles its chess players – unique assets who, he says, have over the years won more medals and championships for the country than any other sport, and yet who are given desultory levels of funding. Increasingly, he says, the top players are resorting to coaching, usually overseas, in order to support themselves. Three of the five Olympiad stars are now headed in that direction. And he won’t be able to pick them, by definition, he says, if their main focus is on helping others rather than playing and improving their own game.

His solution: The nation’s top 10 or so players should be paid a moderate salary, which would include an obligation to make themselves available for international team tournaments. It’s an enviable opening gambit by an astute chess tactician, but Greenfeld has been around for long enough on the local chess scene to know he has little chance of winning this particular game.

GREENFELD IS a former national champion who represented Israel at five Olympiads. In his current role, he serves as a combination of selector, coach, psychological counselor and more. But he stresses that “of course, most of the work is done by the players, and they deserve the overwhelming part of the credit for the success.”

He doesn’t make the team himself anymore, he said, because, at 46, there’s a certain “natural decline with age,” which combines with the gradual rise in chess standards, as coaching and computers ruthlessly whittle out unsuccessful ideas and sequences. Some of the players at the very top of the world right now, he notes, are astoundingly young – top ranked Magnus Carlson of Norway, most notably, is only 19. His Russian rival, Sergey Karjakin, is 20.

When chess’s late, great, enfant terrible Bobby Fischer made grandmaster – the sport’s highest rank – at 15, Greenfeld smiles, “it was a sensation. Thought to be unmatchable. Now some people get it at 12, 13.”

When Greenfeld himself was awarded the rank, in 1989, he was one of maybe 300 grandmasters in the world. “I almost knew them all by name,” he says. “Now there are 1,300, 1,500, maybe more. If you took a mere master today, and put him up against a world champion from the start of the 20th century, because of the accumulated knowledge about openings, the computer input, it’s possible that it would be over at the start.” If you got to the middle game, however, “that’s something else. When talent comes into play…”

Israel’s team in Khanty-Mansiysk had talent aplenty, he stresses, but that still shouldn’t have been enough to secure a medal. “The atmosphere among our players was critical. That’s what made the difference this time.” He explains: “There’s a basic problem about team tournaments in chess, and that is that this is a highly personal sport. You almost never play in teams. The players are always competing against each other. Everyone is potentially the rival of everybody else. You have to acknowledge that and yet create the climate in which each player wants to help his colleague at the team events.

“Imagine the situation. A player prepares for a game at the Olympiad. Someone else in the team has an idea that might be useful in the opening. He has analyzed this himself; possibly spent weeks or months on it. He would have to sacrifice that insight, and it might not even turn out to be useful or relevant in the game, but he has given it away, to his own potential personal detriment in subsequent individual competitions…”

WHAT ABOUT the general atmosphere surrounding Israel at these events? One remembers the degree to which chess was politicized in the Cold War, the extent to which the Soviets simply had to win. Now it seems that Israel is in the political spotlight; the pariah nation.

Greenfeld distinguishes between the players and their countries. “Among the players, there is an excellent atmosphere,” he says. “And without wanting to go into the specifics, and to get people into trouble, I do mean players from all countries – including hostile countries. These are chess players,” he says – by which I think he means decent people. “But of course they have instructions from their governments. So in this tournament, the Yemenite team did not turn up to play. There’s a rule called zero tolerance. If the player is not in place when the game is due to start, he loses. That’s what happened.”

Though unhappily somewhat accustomed to such scenarios, Greenfeld is still outraged. “It’s a scandal,” he says flatly. “You know, the motto of FIDE, the World Chess Federation, is Gens una sumus – We are all one family. I think it should be made clear to all of the member nations that if you’re in this federation, you have to be prepared to play against every other member."

Presumably the Iranians wouldn’t have appeared either, if drawn against Israel? Indeed, not, says Greenfeld, but then reveals the organizers’ dirty little political secret. “They know ahead of time who won’t play against who, and therefore they know not to place certain teams against others.”

Which is, obviously, both disgraceful and potentially unfair, since it can influence how tournaments unfold. And which begs the question, furthermore, of what went “wrong” this time? Why didn’t the craven organizers ensure Yemen wasn’t publicly embarrassed by having to stand up Israel?

“Apparently the Yemenites didn’t tell them early enough,” says Greenfeld. “I heard that after the pairings were announced, the Yemenites asked to be switched, and the organizers said ‘We can’t do that now. Why didn’t you tell us ahead of time?’”

Greenfeld offers a quick historical overview of chess discrimination: “In 2004, the World Championships (for individuals) were held in Tripoli. The very fact that they agreed to hold it there showed that FIDE really doesn’t care about Israel. FIDE cooperated with the Libyans because it was a very good financial offer for them. Everyone understood that they wouldn’t let the Israelis in."

There was no formal announcement to that effect. Indeed, formally, FIDE said everyone was invited.

After all, as the motto has it, ‘We are all one family.” But back in the real world, recalls Greenfeld, “Gaddafi’s son said ‘no dirty Zionist will be allowed’.’ And the Libyans were as bad as their word. “They didn’t give visas to the Israelis and we weren’t allowed to enter. It was indicated to us that we shouldn’t even bother trying.”

Looking further back, Greenfeld notes that there has only been one time in chess history when a nation has not been allowed to participate in an Olympiad – the most prestigious team event. And that nation, needless to say, was Israel – prevented from participating in the 1986 tournament in Dubai. “How could it be that FIDE would allow that to happen?” he asks rhetorically. “Well it happened. In Dubai and in Libya. There was an event and Israeli players were not allowed to attend.”

Has Israel formally protested? “Now you’re touching a sore point,” he says with a sigh. The Israel Chess Federation registered a protest over the Yemenites’ behavior, with its chairman, Aviv Bushinsky, demanding that Yemen be thrown out of the Olympiad for playing “politics instead of chess.” Greenfeld also lodged a protest. To no avail, needless to say. But official Israel – by which he means the Foreign Ministry – did not formally protest this time, he complains, and neither did it protest in 2004.

Who else won’t play against us? Greenfeld shrugs: “Syria, Lebanon,” he begins. “Saudi Arabia and states like that. Egypt does play against us. We haven’t been drawn against Jordan. I don’t know if Iraq and Kuwait would. It would be interesting to see if Palestine would play…”

HOW IS it, I ask Greenfeld, that Israel is a major player on the world chess stage in the first place? Is it, I venture, some kind of Jewish thing? Well, kind of…

The sabra former champion initially offers a one-word answer: aliya. Which he then expands to a six word answer: Aliya from the former Soviet Union.

Throughout the past decade, in all team competitions, Israel has been in or around the top 10, he says, and that’s despite what the state gives to chess. Before the aliya wave, Israel also ranked somewhere between seven and 11, but the world field was weaker in those days; for one thing, there was just a single Soviet Union, whereas now it has split up into at least seven chess powers.

Israel’s entire team at the Olympiad in Russia was made up of immigrants. And by the way, he adds, most of the players in the US team are of Soviet background too. The Ukrainian team that won just now? Two Jews. The Russian team? Greenfeld knows of one Jew, for sure, and thinks there could be another.

Look back into chess history and Jews are everywhere.

“Jews were very dominant until the 60s and 70s,” he says. Incredibly, staggeringly dominant, actually. Of the sport’s first eight official world champions, from 1886 to 1961, a dazzling four were Jewish: Wilhelm Steinitz (the Pragueborn “father of modern chess” and first official world champion), Emanuel Lasker (his Prussian successor who held the title for a still unrivaled 27 years), Mikhail Botvinnik and Mikhail Tal. And that quartet were the kings of the world for about 50 of those 75 years. Since then, we’ve also had Fischer – though he denied his Jewishness – and Garry Kasparov, who held the title from 1985 to 2000 and is still widely regarded as the greatest ever player.

“As in other fields, in the Diaspora, they had to excel to succeed,” posits Greenfeld. “It’s the same in music, of course.”

But that overwhelmingly, absurdly disproportionate dominance suggests there must be something more to the phenomenon, something about chess itself that resonates particularly with the Jews, with the Jewish condition? Greenfeld doesn’t really think so. “If so, it’s very deep,” he offers after a long pause. “Most of the [top Israeli] players don’t have a real connection to Judaism – not knowledge, not observance.

If it’s something genetic? I don’t know.”

I wonder. Is there some connection, perhaps, to the rich Talmudic tradition of profound study, relentless analysis? Chess, after all, is surely the gemara of board games.

SO WHAT now for the Israeli knights of the burnished board?

Here, Greenfeld’s characteristic enthusiasm begins to dissipate. “Our next team tournament is in a year – the European Team Championship. Because we did well in Russia, we’ll also be invited to the World Team Championship next year, which is actually less prestigious. That’s for 10 teams, playing a league system – all against all.”

Naively, I ask what Israeli chess needs to do in order to improve even further, and what new worlds it can reasonably expect to conquer? “We’re not talking about improving further,” he responds instantly. “That’s the problem… On the plane coming home we were all saying, if something doesn’t change drastically, all these players won’t play any more. The Israel Chess Federation receives a simply ridiculous annual budget. I think it’s about a million shekels, out of which they’re supposed to take care of youth tournaments; to send players to world championships; to train players; and to get to the Olympiad and the team tournaments.”

But the players are paid an appearance fee to represent Israel at the team events? Yes, and Greenfeld readily agrees that it would be far better if that was not necessary. Far more sensible, he explains, to pay them a salary year-round. “The players are professionals,” he points out. “You can’t expect a player suddenly to volunteer for the Olympiad when you leave him without support for the rest of the time. He has to live. The success he has at the Olympiad is a result of the work he puts in through the year. Nobody’s paying him when he’s analyzing eight to ten hours a day.”

Left behind this time from the Israeli team, says Greenfeld, was the current Israeli champion Boris Avrukh – “a simply fantastic player and a terrific man, who has given so much to the team. I always thought that if there was one player who would always be in my team, it was him. But this year I couldn’t take him. Because he’s now got two small daughters he has to provide for, Avrukh has started to coach, mainly abroad, and although he would have played, I can’t take someone who is not a professional player.

“It’s a matter of integrity,” Greenfeld explains. “I can’t take someone who I know is now spending his time not on his own game, working on new ideas to improve his game, but teaching someone else.”

If the three members of the five who did go, who are also doing some coaching, move further in that direction, says Greenfeld, “they won’t be able to play either.’

How much money would be required to finance his preferred solution – of taking the 10 top local players, giving them a salary they can live on, and thus guaranteeing they are properly focused and at their best for the Olympiad and in the European Championships? Nothing vast, he says. “The average Israeli salary, or perhaps just a little more.”

Where might the money come from? Greenfeld says there’s an appreciation that the local federation has tried to find sponsorship, but a sense that more could be done. Mainly, though, “the government obviously is to blame.” Chess is defined in the budget as a “minor sport,” which is absurd, says Greenfeld, both because of the medals its Israeli players have won – including individual world and European championships in various age groups – and because of what he calls chess’s proven value if effectively integrated into the educational system.

“People don’t understand how grave the situation is,” Greenfeld concludes. “They think we’re moaning as usual when we say these achievements won’t be repeated.”

Even if all the financial problems were solved, the medal haul would be hard to sustain. But without the necessary support – for the current players and to create an environment to produce their successors? “Forget it.” As things stand, he says, “we’re largely reaping the rewards” of the former Soviet Union’s investment in chess. Of Israel’s 35 grandmasters, 20 grew up and learned chess in the Soviet Union. “It’s not as though this was our investment in education.”

The interview over, Greenfeld escorts me to the door. “Our success in Russia was unbelievable to us,” he says as I leave. After those early setbacks, “we thought it was over; we thought we had no chance.” But for others, he adds, “it was almost expected that we’d do that well. People are sort of getting used to it.”

They shouldn’t, he insists. “It probably won’t happen again.” Checkmate is looming.

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