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.
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
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
(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.
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.
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’
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.
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
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.
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 .