chess - Yuval Tebol - October 29 2010
Alik Gershon, studying a chessboard. 200 wins in the first seven hours alone. Photo by Yuval Tebol
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Yuval Tebol
Gershon vs. Sharansky. Celebrating 20 years of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Photo by Yuval Tebol
Yuval Tebol
Chess tournament. Photo by Yuval Tebol
Yuval Tebol
Players in the tournament. They nearly set a record for simultaneous sunstrokes. Photo by Yuval Tebol
Yuval Tebol
Alik Gershon receiving his certificate from Guiness World Records adjudicator Jack Broadbank. A new Iranian challenge is anticipated. Photo by Yuval Tebol

Last Thursday, 11 A.M. In half an hour, Israeli chess grandmaster, Alik Gershon, will begin a marathon journey toward entering the Guinness Book of World Records. Right now it's too soon to tell whether he will achieve his aim, but it's quite likely he will set another record - for "Most Sunstrokes in the Shortest Time." A scorching heat beats down on Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, as befits an Israeli October, but Yigal Lotan, general manager of the Israel Chess Federation, is thanking God up above that the temperature, which reached 36 degrees Celsius just the day before, is coming down. "If it were like yesterday, I don't know how people would have survived here," he says. Meanwhile, the buses keep arriving from all over the country, bringing lots of kids and lots of adults. All coming to Rabin Square for an event organized by the Jewish Agency: to break the Guinness World Record for the number of simultaneous chess games played in one day by having 523 people compete against Gershon.

Gershon, 30, who immigrated to Israel in 1990 from Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, doesn't look particularly nervous. He is no stranger to the clicking of cameras and swarms of microphones. Twice he was youth world champion: In 1994 he won a competition in Hungary for players up to age 14, and in 1996, in Spain, he was the champion in the up-to-16 age bracket. He has also won the Israeli adult championship.

He first touched a chess piece at the age of two, and was five when he really began to delve into the magic of the chessboard. When he was just 13, he racked up an unusual achievement: championship of the Israeli under-16 bracket. At 17 he became an international master, at 20 a grandmaster, the highest ranking in chess. He even wrote a book about chess that was named Book of the Year by the English Chess Federation. But for five years now Gershon hasn't been considered a professional chess player, for he chose a more stable profession - engineer - rather than devote himself entirely to this exhausting and demanding pursuit.

At this point it is worth noting an essential difference between chess and, say, soccer. Practically speaking, even the title of grandmaster does not guarantee an easy living. The title doesn't even let one dream about earning anywhere near the $70,000-$80,000 taken home annually by soccer players at the bottom of the Israeli league. During the "austerity period" of the 1990s, when dozens of high-level chess players immigrated to Israel seeking a livelihood and a better life, one could observe international masters and grandmasters wandering in groups to competitions from Hadera to Bat Yam, all to win a grand total of NIS 1,000. It was embarrassing to watch a professional chess player who invests four to five hours a day in meticulous preparations finishing three days of competition, sometimes even a week, all for an NIS 50 prize.

But their luck has improved somewhat since then. Today chess is taught in many schools and also privately (though this is quite rare ). Generally speaking, to make a decent living from tournament play an Israeli chess player must be one of the top 30, or maybe 50, players in the world. In civilized Europe, in America, and even in more than a few Third World countries, chess professionals are better off. Their countries view them as an asset, not a burden, and see to their livelihood insofar as possible.

But back to Gershon, perhaps the only Israeli chess player capable of meeting the physical challenge of simultaneous games against so many people. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it would be beyond the ability of nearly any other senior chess player to make the rounds of the vast space, at the pace of 30 minutes per move. But Gershon is a strong fellow who has been a regular gym-goer for years. Still, preparing to break the world record required a special effort.

"I began preparing for the event a little over two months ago," he said. "In addition to my regular workouts, I ran five to eight kilometers a day, sometimes 10. I swam up to two kilometers a day. I didn't need to be told that the professional aspect would not be the decisive thing in a simultaneous tournament of this magnitude. I knew that if I wasn't ready, mentally and physically, for the effort that takes a tremendous amount of energy, I just wouldn't have a chance."

Later, after seven hours of play with just two short breaks (under the agreement with Guinness, Gershon was permitted a 30-minute rest every three hours ), he acknowledged that thanks to all his preparations he was fitter than ever. Food for thought for anyone who is still undecided about whether or not to recognize chess as a sport.

Don't get me started

The initial Guinness World Record for simultaneous chess games was set in 1996, when the Swedish grandmaster Ulf Andersson played against 310 opponents, moving constantly among the chessboards, making a move and continuing to the next table. Eight years later, Andrew Martin played against 321 opponents, achieving a phenomenal score of 294 wins, 26 draws and just one loss. In 2005, Martin's record was beat by former female world champion Susan Polgar, who played on 326 boards at the same time. In February 2009, the Bulgarian grandmaster Kiril Georgiev claimed the record. He played 360 games simultaneously, winning 284, drawing 70 and losing only six. But just a few months later, on August 13, with the backing of the Iranian government, the last record-holder, grandmaster Morteza Mahjoob, took the crown. In the course of playing against 500 opponents Mahjoob walked 43 kilometers. He won 397 games, drew 90 and lost 13 - and after nearly 19 hours of play he was still able to drive himself home. There are those who claim that at some point a number of his opponents "received orders" to surrender. But the Guinness judges did not report any irregularities, and the record stood.

"Our biggest fear was of a technical problem with one of the buses transporting the players," admits Lotan. "If just one bus didn't show up, the whole event that we worked so hard on would go down the drain." And how much did this undertaking cost? "I'd estimate about NIS 500,000, nearly 80 percent from the Jewish Agency, largely thanks to the fact that JA chairman Natan Sharansky is a big chess aficionado himself, with the rank of candidate master. That sum covers the entire event in honor of the 20th anniversary of aliyah from the former Soviet Union, with the federation organizing the simultaneous tournament."

Did the event, that was held in Tel Aviv, in Rabin Square, receive any assistance from the Tel Aviv municipality?

"Don't get me started," says Lotan, normally a gentle, easygoing type. "Because of them we had to change the date three times, which almost led to its cancelation. They only made trouble. I would expect Mayor Ron Huldai to work on behalf of an international event being held in his city rather than to only leave his office for photo opportunities."

Huldai did visit the tournament twice, but did not attend the opening ceremony or the ceremony at which Gershon was officially awarded the new Guinness World Record. On the other hand, it did take place at 6:30 A.M.

The municipality, for its part, said it did everything within its power to help, including not charging the organizers a usage fee for the square and providing various services prior to and during the tournament, "despite the amateurish and questionable conduct of those involved in the event's production." The municipality said that the scheduling changes had to do with the Yitzhak Rabin memorial gathering, which was not its responsibility. Huldai, according to the municipality, "was occupied with previous commitments, and to his regret he was unable to take part in this special event."

Lotan characterizes as "mission impossible" obtaining state funding for "this kind of event, that resonates positively in the world media. Aside from a few people the attitude is one of disdain, along the lines of, 'Why are you bugging us about these little wooden pieces when we have other things to worry about?' Just think about it: Not a single cabinet minister congratulated the Israeli chess team when it won a bronze medal at the Olympics at the beginning of the month. As if we're a country just overflowing with such achievements every other day."

Chess is most widespread in the schools, including some kindergartens, with the Shevah-Mofet School in Tel Aviv, which we shall come to shortly, acting as the real hub (and source of achievements ). But first, take note of the sums received by the Israel Chess Federation, which oversees a chess team that in the last two Chess Olympics has managed to take home a silver and bronze medal and a lot of honor, and includes world youth chess champions of different ages.

"In 2010 the Sports Administration allocated NIS 280,000 to us," says Lotan proudly. "In 2008, we received just NIS 114,000." A quick calculation: NIS 280,000 is about what the coaches of the national youth soccer teams earn in seven months.

And things are improving: "This year we will also receive NIS 350,000 from the betting council, because of our achievements," adds Lotan. "Two years ago, it was NIS 240,000. We are also negotiating with the Education Ministry over a pilot program to make chess a formal part of the educational curriculum, beginning with 10 to 12 schools in the periphery. All the top officials at the Education Ministry - Minister Gideon Sa'ar, the director general and the deputy director general - are in favor, but there are still the usual struggles with the bureaucracy. I hope that this simultaneous tournament will also affect them."

An hour a week

In the meantime, dramatic things are happening in the competition. Guinness World Records adjudicator Jack Brockbank has disqualified two of the 525 official participants for touching pieces out of turn - a serious violation, according to Guinness' strict regulations. Of the remaining 523 games, Gershon must win 418 to meet the 80-percent threshold that is an inviolable condition for the Guinness World Record.

Sharansky, meanwhile, has started his own simultaneous match, alongside Sofia Polgar, who with her sisters Susan and Judit are one of the most amazing phenomena ever in women's chess. The eldest, Susan, was women's world chess champion and holds the rank of grandmaster for both women and men. International master Sofia Polgar is married to grandmaster Yona Kosashvili, a physician. The youngest sister (and strongest player ), Judit, is equal to the top ranks of the male players and has no competitors remaining among the females. She, too, was a women's world chess champion and also holds the title of grandmaster for both genders.

The public relations aspect of the tournament is important to Sharansky, but marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union is the real event. In the background an orchestra comprised of immigrants is playing so loudly that it could sabotage Gershon's efforts to break the Iranian's record, but he and Sharansky are not bothered by it. "I just don't hear the music," Gershon says during a break. He also admits that he prefers something with more of a beat as a backdrop to his moves.

"When I came to Israel, they played backgammon here," says Sharansky, neglecting to add that it's as popular as ever. "Chess is part of the culture of sport that the mass aliyah from the Soviet Union brought with it. We are strong in this. We've always been strong at it and we must remain among the leaders. Chess is sport, culture and science all in one. A tremendous game of thinking, one of the foundations of human intellectual progress. I'd much prefer to fight the Iranians here, on the chessboard, and to beat them."

More than 300 students from the Shevah-Mofet School - a third of the student body - are at the square. Yonatan Amir, 16, is about to get a special treat: He will be the first of his classmates to beat Gershon and win an NIS 10,000 scholarship. For three years now chess is a mandatory subject at Shevah-Mofet, overseen by grandmaster Boris Alterman. This year, about 300 students - the entire seventh grade and some eighth and ninth grade classes - are in the program.

"It's one hour a week," says Alterman. "Players on the school team study with grandmasters and international masters, up to six hours a week. This team has won championships at school competitions, and is also producing champions on an international level. Marsel Efroimski is the girls' champion for ages 12-14, and in 2009 Gil Popilski was the world under-16 champion. Both are international masters, with a high skill level for their age. It's rare for one school to produce two world champions simultaneously."

And the count could continue. For example, there is Nimrod Weinberg, who was the Israeli under-10 champion and now represents Israel in the world under-14 championships. But the numbers are what is really impressive. Out of about 1,000 students at Shevah-Mofet, nearly a third are studying and playing chess. Alterman attributes this to the principal Dov Orbach, who sees studying "the Jewish sport," as chess is often called, as an important component in developing character and intelligence.

The 15 instructors who work with Alterman are apparently doing more for chess in Israel than a whole lot of competitions and medals. Chess is taught in 15 schools, to about 10,000 students, and to 1,000 young children in 30 preschools. The national center for chess studies is at Shevah-Mofet, which a year ago was acquired by the Amal network and has become a model of excellence in many fields.

It is nearly 6 A.M., and Gershon has defeated his final opponent. Not surprisingly, it was Daria Tzivolskaya, 13, from Israel's most chess-crazy school.

"Guinness gained publicity here that was worth a lot of money to them," says Alterman. "It became a very popular and well-covered event in dozens of languages on the Internet." Indeed, headlines such as "Israel Trounces Iran on the Chessboard" were all over Google. Alterman himself hopes to organize, in mid-2011, a chess event in memory of the victims of the Dolphinarium terror attack, many of whom were students of the school, on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

Sleeping between moves

In the square, Israeli Chess Federation chairman, Aviv Bushinsky, states bluntly what Lotan, the organization's general manager, says more delicately. Huldai is the prime target. "It's condescending behavior," he fumes. "The opening ceremony was right under the municipality's nose and he didn't even bother to come out of his office to extend congratulations. Three times we had to change the competition date because of the municipality's inflexibility. We could have received a lot of money for organizing the event somewhere else, like Jerusalem, but we wanted to arouse maximum interest and get maximum media exposure in Tel Aviv, to show everyone what Israel's true national sport is.

"In nine straight games in the Champions League all we've seen here are losses," continues Bushinsky, who as chairman of Maccabi Tel Aviv until recently is no stranger to soccer. "Here, in chess, the national team does not lose to Croatia and Greece. It defeats superpowers like the United States and Hungary and ties with the champion Ukraine on its way to an Olympic medal, and the top government officials here couldn't care less. I returned to Israel with a senior minister, and I told him, 'This is a tremendous achievement here, the government should treat it accordingly. And he said, 'Yes, yes,' and nodded and then rushed off to take care of his political interests. They didn't even send a telegram. Nothing. They're completely oblivious. Chess brings great honor to Israel, and they just don't care. We received a congratulatory telegram from Ukraine, but not a word from the Israeli government. At least we get some understanding from one minister. The education minister. Perhaps we'll receive assistance from there for the sake of future development, so that a decade from now we won't be chasing after developing countries, as is happening in soccer. There's just no money in chess, so don't be surprised if one of these days we find ourselves behind Turkey, where chess has been introduced into the schools. The connection between chess and kids' academic success has already been scientifically proven," Bushinsky said.

The aspiration to excellence is palpable. Any orders to surrender to the Israeli champion would be disobeyed here. The players, including some as young as eight, all put up a heroic fight against Gershon, even when they too are on the verge of exhaustion. Some even fall asleep between battles. In one corner is a group of retirees from Afula. They may be quite old but they are also obviously highly ranked players, with a Soviet chess upbringing. In this corner, deep into the night, Gershon loses points. On several boards he has to consent to a draw, sometimes from an inferior position. The retirees know how to show a grandmaster proper respect.

During the breaks, the players are given sandwiches, fruit and drinks. Gershon rests a bit and eats a little - mostly fruit, especially dates. "It's healthy for the body and the mind," he says. What keeps chess lovers at the chessboard for more than 18 hours? All right, many have already finished and left, but still, what makes them wait 30 minutes for each move? Is this a mass exercise in masochism? No, just fanaticism, devotion to the game. The youngest player in the simultaneous tournament is seven, the oldest 84.

Ro'i Sasson, 8, checkmates Gershon at 5:10. One hour and five minutes later, the record is formally achieved: 418 wins. Scattered around the plaza, players and organizers nod off, unable to lift their heads. Ro'i receives a certificate for participating and is dragged away, nearly somnambulant, by his mother.

Gershon himself seems alert, although he has taken a few short breaks in the last two hours. Soon it is all over: 454 wins, 36 more than required; 58 draw and just 11 losses. Brockbank, who has been running after Gershon for the past half hour, small camera in hand, gathers the 30 survivors - Gershon and his family, the organizers and a few journalists. The 18.5-hour marathon with an 86-percent success rate officially enters the Guinness Book of World Records.

"How many kilometers did I walk?," Gershon says as he tries to calculate. "Maybe 45, maybe less, I'm not sure. It doesn't matter though. Am I happy? You bet. Not everyone could survive this. Plans? First of all - to sleep. For 10, 12 hours, a whole day - as much as the body needs. After that we'll celebrate a little. The personal publicity is flattering but the popularity of chess is more important. I hope this will help the federation and the professional players."

Five minutes later, the gathering disperses, everyone heads for home. In the days to come there will be a few more interviews, a few more pictures in the newspapers, and then everything will go back to the usual routine in this country that stubbornly insists, at least when it comes to sports, on belonging to the Fourth World. W