Boris Gelfand last year.
Boris Gelfand last year. Photo by Alon Ron
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Boris Gelfand has one month left before the biggest chess match of his life - a battle for the world chess championship - but first, the Belarus-born Israeli chess grandmaster is going to the Alps.

Not for a vacation, of course.

He is leaving for Austria tomorrow with several of his chess coaches for a final bout of intensive chess practice that will also include altitude training. Advocates say the practice gives endurance athletes a competitive advantage and increases mental alertness because they retain a higher concentration of red blood cells for up to two weeks when they return to lower altitude for competition.

Gelfand, who is 43, will be playing against the current world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand of India, in Moscow. The Israeli player qualified for the 12-game match, which will take place May 10-31, after beating Alexander Grischuk of Russia last year.

"Boris Gelfand is an asset to Israeli sports and a model of excellence," Israel Chess Federation chairman Moshe Shalev said yesterday. "The country must invest resources into what we are really good at: the Israeli mind."

Israelis often don't afford chess masters the honor they get in countries that value chess more highly.

"In many places around the world, the term 'chess master' brings respect," said Gelfand. "In Israel, they mostly ask: 'Great, and what's your profession, what do you do?' I hope that there will be more respect here for professional chess players and their achievements."

Over the last few months, Gelfand has been spending eight to 10 hours a day training for the championship match ("from 11 A.M. to 11 P.M., with breaks," as he put it ). He has several trainers, including grandmaster Alexander Huzman, whom he has been working with for 20 years - longevity that is almost unheard of in the chess world.

"Both Huzman and I are motivated to work and make progress, and that motivation has not disappeared over the years," said Gelfand. "I was lucky to have a trainer with such in-depth understanding of chess and endless motivation to succeed."

In addition to securing (or retaining, in Anand's case ) the title of world chess champion, the winner of the match also gets $1.53 million. But just getting to the table is lucrative, as well as prestigious: The loser gets $1.02 million.

The championship match - the first one held in Russia since the 1985 match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov - will be getting a lot of attention around the world.

Tens of millions of people will be watching the match on hundreds of chess websites around the world, Shalev said. "Dozens of television crews will cover the match between the representative of India, a nation of 1.4 billion, where Anand is considered a national hero, and the representative of 7.5 million Israelis, who wish Gelfand good luck."

The match is a milestone for Israeli chess, said Yoel Geva, the deputy chairman of the Israel Chess Federation.

"It never occurred to me that 40 years after the big match between Boris Spassky and Robert Fischer, I would get excited at the very thought that an Israeli representative would take part in the [championship] match," said Geva. "We are very proud that the most accomplished sport in Israel has reached such a milestone."

Gelfand and Anand have played more than 30 games against each other, and they appear to have been almost evenly matched, with Anand winning just one game more than his Israeli rival.

"He's a fast-thinking player," said Gelfand, adding that Anand also has very good intuition. "In any case, I will try to get him to make a mistake. All the components of the game are important - from the opening to the ending - but a strong nervous system is also very important."

Gelfand recommends teaching children chess from the age of 5 or 6, as he has done with his daughter. If Israeli parents follow his lead, perhaps their children won't eventually be asking chess masters what they spend their days doing.

"Boris Gelfand's advancement to a match for the title is a wonderful present for Israel, and we must appreciate its great significance," said the captain of the Israeli chess team, Alon Greenfeld. "The rise of chess in Holland, the United States and India leaves a lot of room for us too."

"We must appreciate the asset," he said.