Across the board

Dozens of Jerusalemites of all ages are joining the city's fast-growing chess club.

lupolianski plays chess 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lupolianski plays chess 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alon Cohen-Revivo is the guru of chess in Jerusalem and its pied piper. Two years ago, the 2008 Chess Champion of Jerusalem founded Jeru-Chess to promote chess in the capital. Since then, club membership has grown from a handful to some 60 regulars. Cohen-Revivo has also introduced chess to 30 community centers, schools, old age homes and special needs groups throughout Jerusalem. "Several solid research studies show the beneficial effects of chess on mental health patients, CP patients, people with Alzheimer's disease and Asperger's syndrome," says Cohen-Revivo, 35. "Chess is also a good outlet for children with ADHD." Jerusalem now has several chess teams, which compete in league competitions throughout the country. And every week chess tournaments and competitions take place in the city, most recently Jerusalem's first International Chess Festival at the end of July, in which hundreds participated. Among the festival highlights were a live screening of matches on the Old City walls, games with a blindfolded player and simultaneous matches by Israel's 20-year-old chess pro, Maxim Rodstein, against more than 30 players. "Chess can be very exciting. It takes the player into the fantasy world of creativity, battle of minds and victory of spirit over the material world," says Cohen-Revivo. "There are lots of hidden feelings, tension and suspense." Cohen-Revivo's passion for chess began as a child in Lyon, France. "My father taught me to play as a child; he bought a book and we learned together. I went to the library to find more books, but my parents wanted me to have a degree, to be like the neighbor's kids." He went on to earn two degrees - in political science and law, mediation, negotiation and facilitation - before making aliya 12 years ago. He added to his academic pedigree with a master's in diplomacy at the Hebrew University. When he's not busy with Jeru-Chess, which will move back to the newly renovated International Cultural and Community Center next week, he works as a computer-assisted negotiation specialist. Mediation and listening skills are also useful in chess, he says. "I listen for the unmet needs of my pupils, what they need to improve. I also try to give a feeling of self-confidence, ability to contain and understand complexity, and, of course, pure chess knowledge." Cohen-Revivo's love for the game comes through in his teaching. "He teaches in context," says Estherlee Kanon, whose son Michael began playing chess two years ago at the age of five, and is now Jerusalem champion for grades 1-3. "When Alon teaches a French opening, he asks: 'Do you know where France is?' Then they take out the atlas, and find France. Or, if he uses a word he thinks Michael does not understand, he asks him: 'What does it mean?' Then they look up the word in the dictionary. It is a unique way of teaching about the world, history and the game." Cohen-Revivo's innovative teaching approach doesn't end there. "The queen is like an octopus that can go eight different directions; she has a long arm and can move forward and backwards and sometimes on the diagonal," he explains. "Danny Deen, a famous comic character, is the knight. "I use a lot of metaphors and techniques that are relevant and effective," he says. For example, "Sometimes kids only use pieces on one side of the board. I begin to shake the 'dozing hand' and make snoring sounds to wake up the sleeping pieces." He adds: "I might also encourage a strategy which I call organizing a tiyul shnati [annual field trip] adventure. The object is to take the opponent's king all over the board and get the opponent's king closer to your pieces so that you can easily checkmate him." To keep his students modest and vigilant, he tells them: "Remember, for every smart guy, there is a guy who is smart-and-a-half; for every guy who is smart-and-a-half, there is a guy who is...." When Yehuda Mayerowitz started playing chess at five, there were no clubs for children, so he played with adults. Seven years on, Mayerowitz is the Israel champion in the 12-and-under age group. "A lack of youth players was a drawback," recalls his father. "Alon [Cohen-Revivo] has changed the face of chess in Jerusalem. [Now] there are quite a few decent youth players. The games are more fun when a kid can chat and joke with someone his age." Jeru-Chess hasn't drawn children alone. Adults who have played chess all their lives were among the first to join the club, which offers them a social exchange as well as a mental challenge. "Most of the regulars were Russians, but now we are getting more and more Israelis," says Peter Charles, who goes once a week to the club. A retired finance manager, Charles played on a team in Sydney before moving to Israel. "I really enjoy going [to the club] once a week. The personal contact, the social aspect of the game is very important. The Internet does not do that." Cohen-Revivo hopes to get more people involved and change their prejudices about chess and chess players. "People can start to play chess at any age," he says. And regardless of creed: The Jeru-Chess logo consists of Islam's crescent moon, a Star of David and the Christian cross. "When people play chess, politics are not important," says Cohen-Revivo.