SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
The magnitude of the recent success of number-one ranked Israeli grandmaster Boris Gelfand in the World Cup has began to stir interest in the Israeli media. And debate.
Israel, with 34 grandmasters,43 international masters and (in total) 142 titled players, is one of the power houses of chess in the world today. FIDE ranks Israel as the 3rd strongest chess country in the world. At last year’s chess Olympiad in Dresden, the Israeli team (headed by Gelfand) won the silver medal, and narrowly missed the gold. Twice Israel has finished second in the European Team Championships.
But the most curious aspect of chess in Israel is that, despite having so much internationally recognized chess talent (homegrown as well as imigrants), there is virtually no financial support for the game in the country! The Israel Chess Federation is one of the poorest federations in europe!
Truly a case of prophets abroad but paupers at home…however, this may change with Boris’ recent success. I present two recent news items in the Israeli press.
Israel’s chess gurus: Kings abroad, but pawns at home By Eli Shvidlerhttp://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1135957.html
The accomplishments of Israeli grand master Boris Gelfand, who this week won the Chess World Cup, may be unusual when considering Israeli sports in general, but he very much represents the level of Israeli chess, which is on a hot streak despite its paltry funding.
One might quibble over whether chess is actually a sport, which most athletes deny, a science, which the Culture and Sports Ministry denies, or a source of entertainment. But it’s not so easy to devote five or six hours straight seized with constant fear of even making one mistake.
Gelfand’s chess title, however, is clearly a big accomplishment for Israeli sports, at least when compared to the country’s recent performance in soccer and basketball.
About a year ago, the Israeli national team, headed by Gelfand, won a silver medal at the World Chess Olympiad, and Israel has twice placed second in Europe. Gelfand’s Chess World Cup victory, which took place in the Russian city of Khanty Mansiysk, earned him a cash prize of $120,000. He is now ranked sixth in the world.
The Israeli Team receiving the silver medal
In an interview with the major Russian sports newspaper Sport Express, Gelfand was asked whether Israel’s silver medal a year ago improved Israeli officials’ attitude toward chess. “Maybe just a little bit, but really almost not at all,” Gelfand said.
And currently, when preparations are underway that could propel Gelfand to contend for the number-one spot in international chess, Gelfand will have to invest his own funds. While politicians might sometimes be willing to be photographed with Israel’s chess champs, they seem to disappear when it comes to funding.
“The budget of the Israel Chess Federation doesn’t exceed NIS 2 million,” said federation director Yigal Lotan in a voice that seemed to betray a bit of embarrassment. He said the state’s funding doesn’t amount to a portion of the salary of an average player in Israeli soccer’s Premier League. Without support from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the chess scene here would have become truly catastrophic, he added.
The combination of an experienced grand master and a fantastic new generation of chess players might transform Israel into a chess powerhouse for which medals at the olympiad become routine. “We are succeeding in injecting chess studies into the education system in the schools,” said Aviv Bushinsky, who serves as chairman of both the Israel Chess Federation and the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club.
He said Tel Aviv’s Shevach Mofet school, which many Russian immigrant students have attended, boasts the highest average accomplishments of any school in the world, and not only in chess.
“The Israel Chess Federation,” Bushinsky said, “with the meager resources at its disposal, is trying to promote [chess] education in peripheral areas of the country, especially in the Arab community, and there is serious interest there.” He said the federation is also organizing chess competitions for children as young as 6.
In cooperation with the Ashdod Municipality, the Israeli federation organized the first international championship of the so-called lightning version of the game, but Bushinsky has more ambitious plans as well. “We are absolutely capable of organizing a [world] chess Olympiad, as was done here in Tel Aviv in 1964 and in Haifa in 1976. The budget required for it is minuscule, compared to other sporting events, [and would involve] NIS 4 million.”
It turns out that one of the major funders of Israeli chess is French bank BNP Paribas, which is also the major sponsor of tennis’ Davis Cup. Some might ask why an Israeli bank doesn’t pick up the mantle to support Israeli chess.
Even though almost half the world chess champions have been Jewish, Gelfand has not received the privilege of meeting with a government minister or even a government clerk. It might be suggested that this reflects the state of chess in Israel today, in which Israelis are celebrities abroad but beggars at home.
You call that a sport?
By Eitan Bekerman
Chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand is one of Israel’s greatest athletes of all time. This was true even before Monday, when he won the Chess World Cup 2009 competition in Siberia – and yet few people know it. Only a few even know that Israel is the deputy world chess champion.
Even before the tournament – almost a month of head-to-head matches against the greatest minds – Gelfand was ranked sixth in the world. Had he been one of the 20 best tennis players, we would have heard about him ad nauseam. If he were among the world’s top 50 soccer players, they’d give him his own television program. But chess? You call that a sport?
Such a question is laughable to countless people in countries, from India (home of 2008 world chess champion Viswanathan Anand) to Iceland (which has the largest number of chess players per capita). If sports must entail physical movement, how do you explain prone rifle shooting, which is a recognized Olympic event? Why do sports superpowers such as the former Soviet Union and other East European countries consider chess a major sport, whereas Israel does not?
And in general, why is a field in which Israel so excels (three weeks ago, Marsel Efroimski of Kfar Sava became the Girls’ Under-14 World Chess Champion), a game that so many people know on some level, in which fascinating competitions are held year-round throughout the world and right here under our noses, between individuals of both sexes, local groups and national teams – why is it pushed to the sidelines?
The answer might lie, paradoxically, in the fact that chess is considered a “Jews’ sport.” The list of male and female Jewish champions may be as long as your arm, but our Sabra, the New Jew, is better off excelling at surfing, mastering a bow and arrow like the Maccabees, shooting a rifle, or kicking a ball. What do we have to do with Boris, a bespectacled Russian Jew untouched by the Mediterranean sun? Give us a Gal or Shahar or Yael or Arik.
Don’t misunderstand. The latter too deserve respect: The windsurfers Fridman and Zubari and the judokas Arad and Ze’evi are wonderful athletes, in sports that likewise require high-level tactical thinking. And if some Alex of the House of Averbukh does come along, then let him be the highest pole vaulter, instead of messing around with queens and kings and pawns. He may also spend his time playing the violin or piano – we certainly respect every culture – but let him not presume to be called an athlete. Chess is not what Max Nordau had in mind when he spoke of “muscular Judaism.” Witness the fact that chess has never been included in gym class.
For whatever reason, Israel has a hidden treasure of thousands of top-quality chess players and instructors, many of whom came from the former Soviet Union, who would be capable of conveying their wisdom to tens of thousands of young people and adults, at a negligible cost – but this asset goes unused. The state institutions do not recognize chess as a legitimate sport deserving equal rights, because it is not “Olympic” – not part of the Olympic Games (despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee is an independent body that does not answer to any interstate organization).
“No matter how hard we try, we cannot even figure out whether we need the Education Ministry or the Culture and Sports Ministry to give chess a boost,”
says international grandmaster Boris Alterman, a leader in the Israeli chess field. Alterman heads the thriving chess academy at Shevah Mofet High School in Tel Aviv, whose students include Efroimski and Gil Popilski
, winner of the Under-16 Boys European Chess Championship.
There is another chess program at the elementary/middle school in Savyon-Ganei Yehuda, but they are among the country’s only programs.
“We can give hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren skills like developing thinking, perseverance and determination, improving memory,” Alterman says, “but the feeling throughout the years has been that we are simply not wanted.”
What can you do, Mr. Alterman? That’s how it goes in a place that has difficulty seeing more than two moves ahead.