Checkmate in Jerusalem

Growing up with a chess-playing dad

Chess pieces (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Chess pieces
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Growing up with a chess-playing dad, I was schooled in the art of board game tactical maneuvering from a pretty young age. And, while I never quite made it to grandmaster status or, for that matter, anything beyond the regional school league level, I enjoyed playing and appreciated, and still admire, the genius of those who have attained the loftier rungs in the discipline’s hierarchy.
Along with my paternally guided training, I also grew up with the idea that chess was “a Jewish game.” After all, didn’t King Solomon enjoy some downtime chess with one of his advisers? While the jury may still be out on the latter, there have been quite a few Jewish chess players in the upper echelons of the global scene.
Thus, it is only natural that the final round of this year’s FIDE World Chess Grand Prix should be held in this part of the world. Ilya Merenzon is certainly delighted to be here to help oversee the Grand Prix matches scheduled to take place the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, December 11 to 23.
The contestants are bona fide members of the sport’s A-lister league, with the world’s 16 top grandmasters convening in our capital, determined to land spots at next year’s Candidates Tournament, which also takes place under the aegis of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs – International Federation of Chess (FIDE). Merenzon says next week’s event is very important.
“This is the final stage that determines who has a shot at becoming world champion,” he notes. The winner of the Candidates Tournament earns the right to match up, in 2020, with current reigning world champion, 29-year-old Magnus Carlsen from Norway.
Merenzon, who hails from a Jewish family, from Chelyabinsk in west-central Russia, near the Ural Mountains, and has a PhD in economics from New York University’s New School University, says the tournament’s Israeli berth has been quite a while coming.
“There has never been an event of the World Chess cycle in Israel before. We wanted to a footprint in Israel ourselves, because we feel it is a very good country to deal with. First of all, there is a huge interest in chess, although it is a little bit unsubstantiated so [you can say] theoretically there is interest in chess.”
There may not be cold hard statistics available on the level of local interest on the game, but Merenzon thought it was a worth a shot.
“We wanted to a real look at it, and see if there is indeed interest [in Israel].”
For those – and, presumably, there are quite a few out there – who think of chess as the definitive geeky pastime, think again. Merenzon says it is one of the most popular sports around, and has the figures on the ground to back that up.
“In Germany, for example, there are hundreds of chess clubs and over 100,000 paying members of the federation. In Germany, almost 25% of people play chess regularly. That’s a huge amount of people. It is by far more popular than golf or tennis or anything else, because of online gaming.”
That is truly astounding, especially in a day and age when it said that attention spans are rock bottom, primarily due to the immediacy and brevity of entertainment and information facilities channeled to us via cell phones. Merenzon says that chess matches, which can go on for hours, offer precious communal added value.
“It is a way to have social interaction. In Israel, like in any other country, it creates a sort of community.”
In fact, the sport has had its megastars over the years, and characters and clashes that have infused chess with a consummate seasoning of “sexiness.” Back in the early 1970s, the whole was agog at the emergence of American grandmaster – as mercurial a character as you could ever expect to meet – Bobby Fischer. His battle with Soviet champion Boris Spassky took place at the height of the Cold War and, hence, took on unprecedented political importance. Fischer won the duel, but three years later, he sensationally refused to defend his title against another Soviet counterpart, Anatoly Karpov, when agreement could not be reached with the FIDE over one of the conditions for the match.
That helped to out chess firmly on the global media map, and the game, which is said to be at least three a half millennia old, appears to be going from strength to strength. There should be plenty of fireworks over at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center next week.
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