Boris Gelfand, beating expectations, drew his world championship match with Viswanathan Anand, only to lose in a quick-play playoff. Moshe Slav, the head of the Israeli Chess Federation (ICF), complains Gelfand is a virtual unknown (at least, until the match started), while sportsmen whose achievements aren’t nearly on the same level in tennis, football and other fields are lionized. Indeed, the history of support for chess in Israel and the prestate Yishuv is that of neglect and underfunding, despite chess consistently achieving more than other sports, and being surprisingly politically important.

Consider only the chess Olympiads (the world team championships): in 1935, a Jewish team from British Palestine participated in the Warsaw Olympiad, the first time a Jewish sports team was recognized internationally. In 1954 Israel took the 7th place in the Amsterdam Olympiad, defeating Yugoslavia and drawing with the USSR – analogous to beating Argentina and drawing Brazil in the world soccer cup. Israel also hosted two Olympiads (1964 and 1976) and, in the latter, the women’s team won the gold. Can anyone imagine Israel hosting, let alone winning, the world soccer cup? All this before the “Russian invasion” of the 1980s and ’90s, when émigré players vastly improved the already high standard of play, and making Beersheba the city with the highest proportion of chess grandmasters to population in the world.

Politically, chess encouraged Jewish-Arab understanding.

Jordan’s Abdullah invited Moshe Marmorosh, a leading player from Tel Aviv, to play chess with him in 1928, sending his Rolls-Royce to fetch Marmorosh to Amman. In the 1962 Varna Olympiad, the Israeli team – for the first time in any sport event – played an Arab team, the Tunisians. They also gladly signed the Israeli team captain’s autograph book – as did the Lebanese.

(They were later roundly condemned by Tunisia’s president.) The very first chess club in Palestine, the Jerusalem “International Club” (est. 1918) was explicitly intended as a meeting place for all nations (Jews, Arabs, Europeans) – again a first in any sport. Today, Jerusalem’s “Yeru-shachmat” chess club’s logo incorporates the crescent, Star of David, and cross, symbolizing its continuing dedication to toleration. The ICF promotes inter-faith chess meetings.

Still, funds were always lacking. For example, when the Lasker (Jerusalem) club made a collection in 1924 to support their fledgling chess magazine, they raised 4.20 Egyptian pounds. The 1956 Kibbutz Union championship required every participant work four hours daily in hosting kibbutz’s farm to cover expenses, surely a unique entry fee in chess’ history. Prizes, even in important events, were typically chess books, or nominal sums. Finally, to pick a date at random, the ICF’s’ entire assets on December 31, 1960, were (official records show) 5,374.39 Israeli pounds – about NIS 50,000 today, or about 1/100th of what Anand, the winner, will now receive. Examples could be multiplied.

It is easy to blame the state for not giving chess what it deserves, given the field’s achievements and the Jews’ historical affinity with it (a majority of the world champions were Jews or half-Jews). But perhaps this is not the way forward. True, the USSR, which dominated chess after WWII, massively supported chess as a way to prove the superiority of the homo sovieticus. But no western country did.

Chess is no better supported in other countries with a glorious chess tradition, e.g. Britain or the USA, than in Israel.

The reasons are obvious. Chess is a minority activity which means nothing to non-players. It is not a spectator’s sport: watching two persons deep in thought next to a board is hardly must-watch television – one reviewer noted the BBC’s live broadcast of the Kasparov-Short 1993 world championship match was most useful as a free lesson for amateur portraitists. “Spicing up” chess by making time controls shorter deteriorated the quality of the play without noticeably increasing its popularity.

All this is no reason to stop fighting for government recognition and funds, but perhaps there’s another way to make chess more popular and noticed – which would then make better funding more likely. Chess has one great advantage in the age of the Internet: what matters in chess are the moves themselves. When chess fans followed the Gelfand-Anand match live, they did not watch the players on television. They watched the position on the internet, the moves being updated in real time. At every moment, they saw the current position, all the previous moves (and games), and what top grandmasters think of both players’ performance.

Strong chess-playing programs, availably very cheaply (or for free), analyzed the moves on the viewers’ computers in real time. It is not even required that anyone record the moves: the players used a special “e-board”, costing a few hundred dollars, which directly transmits their moves to the web. Such boards – and online coverage – are similarly used in most top tournaments, but so far, not in Israeli ones, for lack of funds.

For less than the equivalent of the ICF’s 1960 assets, chess clubs in Israel’s top league, or those hosting the Israeli championship, can be supplied with such e-boards, and broadcast the games live online on an improved ICF web site.

Also, the internet is ideal for promoting instruction videos, simultaneous exhibitions by strong players, online chess columns, and so on. One cannot improve in football, nor is it possible to spot talent, just by visiting football web sites; but in chess one can play, improve, and be discovered, online. Putting the ICF “in the picture” online in this way is (relatively) dirt cheap, and would reflect well on a government or private sector donor.

Is anybody willing to pick up the challenge?

The writer is a philosophy instructor at the University of Haifa, the Interdisciplinary Center (Herzliya), and elsewhere. His “Jewish Chess History” blog (http://jewishchesshistory.blogspot.com/) deals with the history of chess in Israel and pre-state Palestine. His home page is www.avitalpilpel.com .

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