Checking in with a mate – Boris Gelfand

Interview with World Chess Champion runner-up: I was curious to see if the dramatic events in Moscow had left a scar on him.

Anand, Gelfand in 12th game 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Anand, Gelfand in 12th game 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 as ever.
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 console me.
Gelfand explained that he is very proud and happy with how he played.
“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 reserve.
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 Spain.
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.”
In reply 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?
It should 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 generation.
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 follow.
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 years.
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 successful.
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 disappearing.
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 success?
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 successful.
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.