Local chess in serious need of funding

Governmental allocation of funds to the sport is declining every year.

chess 88 (photo credit: )
chess 88
(photo credit: )
Despite the national team being ranked fourth in the world, Israeli chess is "woefully underfunded," according to Aviv Bushinsky, chairman of the Israel Chess Federation (ICF). Governmental allocation of funds to the sport is declining every year, with a detrimental effect on both professional and amateur chess nationwide. "While we are considered one of the world's chess superpowers, there is a distinct lack of interest when it comes to funding the game," said Bushinsky. "The Iranian national team has a budget at least ten times higher than that of Israel's, and the discrepancy is even wider when compared with Russia or Armenia." Israel's performance at the Turin Chess Olympiad in June - where the team achieved fourth place - has not been matched by assistance from the government. The reasons for the shunning of the sport are manifold, according to Bushinsky - and the debate over whether chess is a sport at all lies at the crux of the problem. "Every year we are informed that chess falls between the cracks - we are told that it does not fall into the category of sport, since it is not a game played at the Olympics, but that it also does not quite fit into the culture and science department. This is just one of the many excuses we hear when our funding is reduced year upon year," he said. Again citing Iran as an example, Bushinsky pointed out that the Iranian team has one coach per player, while the Israelis have just one for the whole six-man team, which greatly disadvantages the side. Coaching is a vital part of each player's prematch preparation, and the lack of funding for the sport consequently stymies the performance of the national team. Meanwhile, eight of the world's top 20 chess grandmasters are in Rishon Lezion this week, participating in the World Blitz Championship. Blitz chess - a version of the game where each player has just five minutes in which to complete all of their moves - relates to "real" chess in the same way that five-a-side soccer does to the eleven-a-side version. Although the underlying game is the same, the skills required mean that the players must be far faster and deft in their analysis of the situation and the way that they react. The tournament is a lucrative opportunity for the contestants, with the total purse for the event set at over $90,000. The prize money, combined with the cessation of hostilities in the north of the country, means that "absolutely no one" has pulled out of appearing at the tournament, according to Bushinsky. "While we were surprised to find that all of the participants would be attending, we had always anticipated that sponsorship would be the main problem - and that has proved to be the case," he added. With the tournament seemingly in jeopardy while the war between Israel and Hizbullah raged, the ICF decided not to seek sponsorship until the cease-fire was put into effect. "By this time, many of the sponsors had allocated money elsewhere - to causes related to the conflict - and we were left struggling for funds," said Bushinsky. As a result, the Rishon Lezion municipality became the main financial supporters, alongside the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers - who were drawn by the staging of an IDF-only tournament to be held during the week-long "festival of chess." Judit Polgar of Hungary, the world's top female player, will be taking part in the Blitz Championship, alongside Israel's Boris Gelfland - the world's number ten - and Viswanathan Anand of India, the world's number two and favorite for the title, according to Bushinsky. "There are no official odds for the tournament, but if I were betting, I would go with Anand," said Bushinsky, citing the player's past form at events such as these. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres is due to appear at the closing ceremony of the tournament on Thursday, and Bushinsky hopes that high-level attendees such as Peres will help convince the authorities to pump more funds into the sport. Governmental contributions to the Rishon Lezion tournament total less than $8,000, with only "a few tens of thousands of dollars" allocated to Israeli chess in its entirety every year, said Bushinsky. "It is all to do with having a powerful lobby [in government circles] who can assist in getting better funding - the Israeli football team's spokesman earns more on his own than we receive to spend on chess for the whole country."