Board Room Drama

The World Chess Championship is currently under way in the southern city of Be'er Sheva. The Egyptian team canceled its participation, the judge from Malaysia needed an entry visa from the Shin Bet and the Chinese team quickly hooked up with the Cuban team. However, most of the players, and nearly all the spectators, are of Russian origin.

Boris Gulko doesn't have much more time to deliberate. A little over two hours have passed since the opening of the game, and Giorgi Giorgadze of the Georgian team is asking the chess player from the U.S. team to decide: Should they part with a draw, or continue?

So far, there has been no serious chance of winning the game. Giorgadze is playing it safe. Closed. He doesn't leave options. Gulko is hesitant: This is already the third time in the past minute that he rubs his hands on his face. It is obvious he feels Giorgadze is not offering him the deal of his life; he can still win. The distress of trying to decide is apparent on his face. Another sip from his bottle of water, already his third, accompanies the decision: They'll stop. A draw. A practical handshake.

Now Gulko shoves his hand into his pocket, takes out a blue-and-white skullcap, straightens it out a bit, and places it back on his head. "A skullcap and chess don't go together," he says; it's unclear whether he is explaining or apologizing. "I don't feel I can play with it. A skullcap on my head is a recipe for a loss. I can't explain why. It's definitely not a superstition. It's a mystical thing that's hard for me to explain."

For seven years, from 1979-1986, Boris Gulko was a "refusenik" in the Soviet Union. "The seven lean years," he says. Before that, from 1972-1979, he was the champion of the Soviet Union. Had it not been for the advantage afforded him by his fame as a chess player, it is almost certain during his years of protest against the Soviet regime, he would have become friendly with the rats in solitary confinement. "But they had a problem with me, because of the worldwide support I received. In such a situation, they couldn't make me disappear, and so they made do with attempts to wear me down. Not a month passed without my being invited for a few days with KGB interrogators. I entered and left the interrogations regularly."

The damage he incurred was professional as well: "In 1979 I began a hunger strike that continued, with breaks, for almost two years. Even afterwards the interrogations continued. That was why I didn't practice regularly, my skill declined, and my career was affected."

He is here as a representative of the U.S. chess team, as part of the World Team Chess Championships that began last week in Be'er Sheva. This is not his first time in Israel. In effect, he is the only contestant in the world who has managed to represent three teams: the Soviet Union, Israel, and now the United States. It's not the route he dreamed of, but a life decision dictated to him by the chess board.

His talent was revealed to the general public when he was of bar mitzvah age, after his parents registered him at a chess club in Moscow. In the Communist Soviet Union at the time, chess had a position of great importance as a competitive sport, as one of the significant expressions of Soviet superiority over the West. Young people like him were enticed with promises, mainly of a good life, so that they would continue their training. At first he practiced twice a week, and gradually he began to practice five days a week. The big money he was likely to earn in competitions was not discussed in the chess club, but there was no need. Alongside love of the game, the opportunity to travel around the world freely, in the context of the competitions in which he would participate, made up for the exhausting hours in front of the board. In addition, being an outstanding chess player was also an excellent way to overcome the restrictions that applied to him as a Jew.

Chess training is similar everywhere, says Gulko - but the need to practice moves from great chess games that took place even 100 years ago was a Soviet invention. A very successful invention, because in the 1970s, Gulko became the champion of the Soviet Union. In the Chess Olympiad in 1979 - chess has yet to penetrate the official Olympics as a sport - he won second place with the Soviet Union. Afterwards, he upgraded his Zionist awareness. He refused to represent the Soviet Union, and the fact that he had submitted a request for immigration to Israel was already one step too many for the authorities. From then on he suffered from various forms of persecution, mainly interrogations and surveillance.

Only in 1986, shortly after the transaction in which Natan Sharansky was freed, was Gulko also allowed to leave the borders of the Soviet Union, in no little part thanks to the efforts of chess lover and foreign minister in the Gorbachev government, Eduard Shevardnadze. Gulko didn't think twice before coming to Israel with his wife, Rachel. It was a short stay; not much more than six months. "I arrived with a lot of enthusiasm, as a Zionist, and I'm still a Zionist, but I'm a chess player by profession. That's what I know how to do. And unfortunately, I understood I wouldn't be able to make a living here from chess. It's not that in the United States or in Russia a chess player earns a high regular salary, but you live from the prizes. When I arrived in Israel, and I understood that I wouldn't be able to earn a living, I encountered the greatest dilemma of my life. In the end, we moved to the United States."

He is 55 years old. "I feel that half of the contestants here could be my children; the other half could be my grandchildren." But at the end of the game he rushes for consultations with the other four members of his team. Tomorrow he is going to compete with another player from the Georgian team, and it is important for Gulko to know about him. In that way, he can study his opponent's moves.

They tell him that only the next morning will the games be decided on, and Gulko consoles himself on one issue: "Today I played black, and that's not good. Black has one less move. In the next game, I'll be white."

At his age, he has already abandoned the dream of become the world's No. 1 chess player, but he is not willing to lose. The U.S. team is in second place in the world, and Gulko wants to move it forward, at least a little further. "In individual games I allow myself to take more risks. In the team games, each one has responsibility, because the result is determined by the final calculation of all the games. That is one of the reasons I agreed to a draw, in addition to the fact that he played a closed game, and I was black."

Be'er Sheva - a world power

Aside from the somewhat hollow nickname "Capital of the Negev," Be'er Sheva is a city of about 190,000 that is hard to label. Thanks to the 55,000 new immigrants from the Soviet Union who have settled there since the 1990s, it is a world power in chess. The choice of the city to host the world championships was a natural step, but this is a game that is unfamiliar to most of Be'er Sheva's residents. An attempt to locate the competition, which took place at Yad Lebanim (the memorial hall for Israel Defense Forces soldiers), arouses surprise there. Even the simple sign at the entrance to the city, "Welcome to the World Championships" finds it difficult to attract attention. "What are you looking for at Yad Lebanim in the afternoon?" asked the taxi driver.

As opposed to him, at the entrance to Yad Lebanim, stood those who knew what to look for there this week: Dozens of curious onlookers - to say that virtually all of them were Russian is an understatement - moved quietly around the game tables. From there they went to the commentary hall that was set up in order to issue diagnoses.

Ropes create a separation of half a meter between the audience and the players, but their looks meet; it looks as though they are all playing together. They are not really new immigrants anymore, but most of them speak Russian among themselves. The ushers remind them that talking on cell phones is forbidden. Those who disobey the order prove there are even some Israelis here.

Igor Lukimayev, 75, immigrated in 1992 from Moscow. Now he is looking for someone "in charge" who will let him compete. "For whichever team you want," he says, generously. Lukimayev knows this is a world championship. That he can't simply join. But after all, he "can beat everyone here. I've been playing since the age of 6." And he is not the only one here who is seized by excitement.

Wearing a suit of the kind Israeli politicians have yet to learn to appreciate, Aviv Bushinsky, the present chair of the Israel Chess Federation and former media consultant to Benjamin Netanyahu, explains his philosophy: "Chess is a fascinating thing, a type of genius. For me, this is fun. I do it on a voluntary basis." His brother, Shai Bushinsky, developed a chess software program that is enjoying success all over the world. Aviv, an amateur player, is here to exploit his talents in order to promote the game. "Chess has tremendous potential in Israel. But it's hard to increase awareness of it. When I tried to find sponsors, they said they would rather sponsor folk dancing. This year, Israel won second place in the European championships. Has anyone heard about it? Only the deputy education minister was sent to be photographed with them. Judo wasn't popular either, and today everyone knows [Olympic champions] Yael Arad and Oren Smadja. But I'm the chair of the federation because I believe in change. It's a matter of exposure."

Boris says it all

The Israel Chess Federation was founded in 1962, in the wake of the Israel national soccer team's loss to Poland, 7:2. Even then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion found it hard to bear the shame. He gathered advisers in order to decide on promoting a field of sport in which we would be a light unto the nations. Chess was chosen, but its popularity among the general public has declined over the years. Not only in Israel. Today most of the players on all the teams - with the exception of the Cubans and the Chinese - were born in the Soviet Union. If you say Boris, you've said it all.

The waves of immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s revitalized the sport. In Ashdod, Rishon Letzion and Be'er Sheva there are chess clubs on an international level. Gary Kasparov spent the last days of his career as a player in the Rishon Letzion club. In the federation, they are proud to mention that the best woman chess player in the world, Judit Folger, 26, of the Hungarian team, is Jewish. But the fact that as opposed to her sister Sofia she has preferred to remain in her homeland, in spite of the chess federation's attempts to entice her, testifies to the hard-pressed economic situation of chess players in Israel.

"I don't like to complain," says Sofia Folger, 29, in a conversation from her home in Rishon Letzion, "but there is no question that the conditions in Israel make it very difficult for anyone who dreams of being a chess player. In Israel chess is a game, not a profession, although there is potential here."

Until she immigrated to Israel, in 1997, Sofia also dreamed of a chess career. Her elder sister, Susan, was already the Hungarian champion, and one of the best female players in the world. "In addition, Dad invested a great deal of effort to have us become chess players, and we didn't want to disappoint him. He said he had two goals: to prove that women are just as good as men, and that one can succeed in any field one takes seriously."

In her first year in Israel she tried to become a professional, and even went to a European competition as an Israeli. But after a year, when she met Yona Kosashvili, the Israeli champion in 1990, she understood two important things: A, she was in love and B, her father was about to be disappointed. Kosashvili, who was studying medicine at the time, explained to her that chess is not a profession in Israel. She gave it up, too.

"My husband chose medicine because he loves it, but also because it's hard to survive on chess. Today he is the best amateur in the world, in my opinion, and we play between ourselves. The truth is that in Europe chess is not a popular game, either, and there, too, one doesn't earn high salaries. But the difference is in the ability to attend matches - and there are many matches there - and to compete for prizes. When you attend a match in Israel, just the ticket and the stay cost more than the prize, if you win at all. I personally am happy that my husband is an orthopedist, and at this stage, I prefer to raise my two young children. But for an Israeli who dreams of being a chess player, it's a shame that that's the situation."

She prefers not to discuss the pressures that were applied to her sister to convince her to immigrate to Israel. "I don't want to discuss the issue. She's happy in Hungary. When we have a chance to play together, with Susan, too, it usually ends in a draw."

Players are only leaving

In the past four years, not a single chess player has immigrated to Israel. The last was Boris Gelfand, today the best chess player in Israel. Upon his arrival to Israel he lived on a base salary of NIS 2,000 - a special grant for outstanding sportsmen from the Absorption Ministry. "And you have to thank the Absorption Ministry for paying at all," says a member of the Chess Federation. "The problem is the Ministry of Education and Sport. In every properly-run country in Europe, the state funds the members of the team; in Israel they have to rely on their club. But a good club, like Ashdod, for example, is funded by the municipality for a sum of NIS 60,000. That's barely enough for salaries for the cleaning workers. And in order to be a good chess player, you cannot work at anything else. Like a soccer player."

The income supplements of chess players are based on risk: attending matches abroad, some at their own expense. The size of the average prize at a European match ranges from $2,000-$15,000. At the U.S. Open Chess Championship, which was held recently, the first prize was worth $30,000. The largest prize distributed in Israel is in the context of the Chess Festival. Last year in Ashdod, Gelfand collected $10,000.

That is the main reason why in the past four years, outstanding chess players are only leaving. Mikhail Yudson and Igor Khenkin immigrated to Israel in the late 1990s, but today Yudson plays in the United States, and Khenkin, who is seeded 10th in the world, represents Germany.

The federation is still dreaming about Peter Swidler, the best Jewish player in the world (3rd place). They have tried several times to convince him to immigrate to Israel. But in Russia, like every member of a team, he receives $1,500 a month from the state; much more than the federation can afford. This week, Swidler is in Israel. He is representing the Russian team, which is the favorite to win the championship.

It's not only money. Once chess was also a standard for the quality of the Israeli politician. Perhaps the only common hobby of the two great rivals, David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Yoram Aridor was also considered an expert. Today, after the departure of Natan Sharansky, only Yosef (Tommy) Lapid and Netanyahu are known as chess aficionados. The competition that was supposed to take place between Sharansky and Netanyahu, at Bushinsky's initiative, when Bibi was prime minister, was postponed because of a political incident.

According to testimony from the horse's mouth, apparently Sharansky would have won. "Bibi is weak," says Bushinsky, today the adviser of Canadian Jewish businessman Jerry Schwartz. He misses politics less and less.

No longer a Jewish game

The fact that Israel is hosting a world championship is still an endless source for anecdotes. The Egyptian team cancelled its participation, and Bushinsky explains that this may be because they "are afraid of losing." The judge from Malaysia needed an entry visa from the Shin Bet security services, whereas the Chinese team, which arrived with a combined team of men and women - the last women's world champion had the privilege of being the only female contestant among the men - quickly hooked up with the Cuban team.

The Chinese - how shall we say this - are different from the rest. A 19-year-old female player, a resident of Beijing, agrees to be interviewed only after the approval of the escort and the interpreter. She is a professional player, who practices eight hours a day. At the moment she is seeded 13th in the world. She receives her salary from the government. "An average salary," she reports dryly. Her dream is to become world champion. "Otherwise I wouldn't compete."

Already on the first day, she lost, along with her female partners, to the men's team from China, but this is not a significant downfall for her. "Usually the men win," she says. "It's hard to explain why women are not as good at chess. Maybe because men and women have different ways of thinking. Men are more logical, as is necessary in chess. A man allows himself to carry out more moves, and a woman is more sunk in thought. She wants to guarantee the move, to take less of a chance."

That is apparently why in the present championship, her ambitions are concentrated mainly on spending time at "the Dead Sea." Afterwards she asks for privacy, and turns to speak with the Cuban team. What did they speak about? "Nothing special, natural curiosity. There is no other connection between us," she says, almost smiling.

Meanwhile, Gulko, who is seeded 100th in the world, sits on a chair and recovers from the game. Like all of them, he is betting on the Russian team. Swidler is the top Russian player, and he seems to be conscious of his status: Almost every five minutes he gets up from his chair, walks around among the guests, rarely reacts, and returns for another move. On Wednesday, the Israelis lost to him, too.

Bushinsky says their advantage lies in the continuation of the legacy from the days of the Communist Soviet Union, which considered chess an expression of intellectual supremacy. "They invested money in the field, and a tradition was created. A chess star there is a celebrity. Does anyone know who the No. 1 chess player in Israel is?"

Gulko, who has been becoming involved in kabbalah in recent years, has other explanations for the Russian victory. "Chess is no longer a Jewish game," he states. The reasons come from the field of mysticism: "According to the kabbalah, there are sparks that are spread over the world. Since the establishment of the state, the sparks are spreading in a more important place than the chess board."

He also makes light of the idea of the Jewish brain needed by a good chess player. "It's not certain that chess is an indication of being clever. The question is what is cleverness. A chess player doesn't have to invent anything, after all, he only has to understand. You need intelligence, you need tactical ability and you need concentration. Concentration is very important. But being a chess player does not necessarily testify to cleverness."

After arriving in Israel he met with Sharansky, although they didn't get to play. Now he's in New Jersey. He lives, with his son and his wife, from prizes, from chess lessons and from a column in the local newspaper. "Chess is taught, but you need talent as well," he says. Among other things, he has developed options for winning by confusing the opponent. "I have a lot of tricks, but it's too complicated to explain." Nor does he accept the division between women and men. "Women have difficulty beating men, but it's hard to say that it's something fundamental. It's not related to logic. If anything, it's related to aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is important in chess, and if it's a male trait, there's a difference. But the fact is that the best woman player in the world, Judit Polgar, is considered to have a very aggressive game."

The most significant factor, in his opinion, is age. Gulko is feeling his years even at this very moment. "Great chess players remain so until the end of their days. But age affects the ability to concentrate. Experience is an advantage, but it is less significant than the energy of those who are younger. There are games that go on for seven hours, and after two to three hours, it is difficult to concentrate. At one time, chess players used to be heavy smokers, for the concentration. Today, because of the anti-cigarette policy, that has decreased." He recommends water.

Before the next game he wants to sleep well, and to wake up with information about his rival. There are 2.5 million games on the computer, and he can prepare accordingly. Gulko uses a computer program, but sees in it a reflection of the end of chess as a Jewish sport, and in general. "I'm not one of those who gets excited by the question: Is the computer defeating humans, and what does it mean. Chess is very important in terms of being person versus person. The moment you play against a machine, and the machine wins, that only proves how little this is a game of cleverness. Because a human being will always be smarter than the computer. I think that has taken away the challenge, has made us realize that chess is a sophisticated software program rather than an expression of human cleverness. If we want to use explanations from the kabbalah, this may be what has distanced Jews from the game."

Everything is open

Since during every round, one member of the team remains free, Gulko did not play on Wednesday against another Georgian. On Thursday he took advantage of the free day of his entire team to visit the Dead Sea. In the evening he returned to the championship as a spectator, and from there he rushed to the Paradise Hotel, where he met the evacuees from Gush Katif. For the time being, he avoids entering into conversation with those he considers heroes. "We haven't spoken yet, but it's moving to pray with them. A type of participation in the pain over a beautiful place that has been lost."

After Shabbat he finished with another draw, this time against Russian Alexander Grischuk. Compared to his friends, who lost in the overall tally, Gulko could be proud of his draw. Until Sunday, the Americans achieved reasonable results: a draw with the Armenians, a victory over the Georgians and a loss to the Russians. At the moment they are in sixth place, after China, Russia, Israel, Armenia and Ukraine, which was singled out as a candidate for the championship, and meanwhile has been disappointing. In the commentary hall, they promise that everything is open (the competition will end after this newspaper edition goes to print).

Gulko is determined to win, although for good measure, he also holds on to memories. Mainly of his major battles against Gary Kasparov: "Three victories, a draw and a loss may be the best results that anyone has achieved against him," he says dryly, barely concealing his pride. The last time they competed was in September 1999, in Spain. Gulko won on that occasion, too. "That was an achievement. Kasparov was not the only good player, but he really was the greatest of all. Like Einstein. So let's say that if I beat him, apparently I had more motivation."n