Chess and the Jews

There is no question that Jews and chess have a special relationship. Many reasons have been postulated for this - a love of learning, the ability to persevere and excellence in languages, the language of chess among them - and the majority of the best players in the world have been Jews, even if some have denied their Jewish roots. The exact origins of chess were lost with time, but the two main candidates are India and China, around the sixth century C.E. There is a Midrash that King Solomon played chess with his advisor, Benaya Ben Yehodaya, but the first real clue comes in the Gemara (Ketubot 61b) with the mention of the game nardeshir, which Rashi says was in fact chess. He calls it ashkuki, still a valid Hebrew name for the game and related to the French echecs. The 12th-century poet Ibn Ezra wrote the oldest extant rules for chess in his poem "Haruzim," in which he uses the analogy of a war but calls the game "the wars of the mind." Chess can, of course, be played on Shabbat, as there is no gambling involved. "We've produced 13 world champions," says Nick. "Israel is ranked joint third in the world with the United States at the moment, even ahead of Russia." I ask Nick if the influx of Russians changed the situation for the better. "Without any question, although we were very strong before they came," he states. "Let's put it like this. If you are Jewish and Russian, the chances are you will be a good player. If you are Jewish and not Russian you can be a good player. If you are Russian and not Jewish you can still play well. But if you are not Jewish and not Russian - well, you might as well learn to play tiddleywinks."