The world of Israeli chess could be facing a watershed moment next month, when grandmaster Boris Gelfand of Rishon Lezion plays for the top prize at the World Chess Championship in Moscow, according to the general-secretary of the Israel Chess Federation.
“It’s a historic event for Israeli chess but also Israel altogether,” said Almog Burstein, general-secretary of the association, comparing the match to the 1972 World Championship between American Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky for the USSR, which Fischer won, helping boost the popularity of the sport in the United States.
Burstein said that there are a few thousand Israelis who take part in chess competitions, but that the association is looking for ways to spread the sport among Israeli youth, something he hopes that a victory by Gelfand will help secure.
Gelfand, who moved to Israel from Minsk in 1998, qualified for the world championships last May, when he bested Russian challenger Alexander Grischuk in the six-game candidates final in Kazan, Russia. He will face India’s Viswanathan Anand, the reigning champion, in the tournament in Moscow.
As a young man in Minsk, Gelfand was a demon on the chessboard, becoming the junior champion of the USSR at age 17. He later played in nine Chess Olympiads, representing the USSR once, Belarus twice and Israel six times, including at the 2010 Olympiads, where he won bronze. Gelfand also won the World Chess Cup in 2009.
No stranger to trophies, over the course of his 44 years Gelfand has won more than 30 major chess tournaments.
Anand is also not a newcomer to the pantheon of chess greats, winning the World Chess Federation Championship from 2000- 2002, and 2007 to the present.
He has also been awarded a bevy of civilian and sporting honors by the authorities in India, where he is a highly celebrated figure.
Gelfand faces a rather different reality back in Israel.
Like most of Israel’s top chess players he is a native of the former Soviet Union, where chess was a wellrespected sport, as opposed to Israel where it is far down the list of beloved sports long after soccer, basketball and matkot, beach paddleball. In Israel, Gelfand enjoys a meager level of support from the country that belies his prominence in the international chess world.
According to Burnstein, Gelfand has a team of 4 or 5 coaches that he pays for mainly out of his own pocket, using the prize winnings from former tournaments to support his training.
He should have an easier time paying for his training if he wins the World Chess Championship, which has a first prize of $2.55 million.
Before leaving for the Swiss Alps last week, where he has shut himself off from distractions back in Israel, Gelfand gave a press conference in Tel Aviv where he spoke about being a chess grandmaster in Israel.
“In the USSR if you tell people you are a chess player they tell you way to go, bravo. Here, you tell people and they say, OK, but where do you work, what do you do? “I hope that in the coming years, there will be respect for the profession in Israel, and kids who study chess will get respect,” he said, his words breaking with emotion mid-sentence at the prospect of a better future for chess in Israel.