"After we have a big accomplishment like taking second place in the Chess Olympics or my win in the World Cup," says Boris Gelfand, "the politicians and the media show up right away and make a lot of fuss. There are all kinds of events, photos, etc. Then a few days go by and no one remembers that chess is such a great representative for Israel. I'm not worried about myself, or the other senior chess players, but we won't get anywhere this way."
Last year, Marsel Efroimski from Kfar Sava won the European and World championships for 14-year-old girls; Gil Popilsky won the European under-16 championship; Gelfand won the adult tournament. "How many titles of this kind does Israeli sport have? Not just in one year, but in general?" asks Israel Chess Federation chairman Yigal Lotan. "Where else, in such a small area, do you find such a tremendous amount of knowledge, of senior players, of hundreds of superb coaches? The ground is ready for Israel to become a world chess superpower, at a relatively laughable cost compared to other branches of sport. All that's needed is a little watering and fertilization and it will really bloom here."
Last year, the Sport Administration invested a grand total of NIS 194,000 in chess. Lotan: "There are some good people in there, who try to help, but nothing significant will happen until the policy-makers understand what chess can contribute, both to our society at home as well as to our reputation in the world. Think about it - the team just went to a major competition in Turkey, and we all know what the attitude toward Israel is like there. We almost had to cancel the trip before we were able to scrape together the money."
The Israel Chess Federation has 64 clubs, like the number of spaces on the chess board, and these are visited by 430 groups of teens, men and women, in leagues ranging from the National League to the Third League. The players and clubs pay dues, the Israel council for sports gambling contributes about NIS 280,000; Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi and the French bank BNP also provide assistance, as does the Yoel Geva project for gifted young players. A large portion of the activity is funded by what Lotan calls "anonymous gifts" from private donors. All together, it adds up to less than NIS 2 million per year.
In recent years, the Israel Chess Federation has been focusing on promoting chess in the periphery, via connections with local government centers and educational institutions.
"Where else in Israel," says Lotan, "can you see 700 children spending a full day in competition, and in such quiet that you could hear a pin drop? We're encouraging thousands of children all over this country. It's hard to believe how many of them fall in love with the game. It happens with adults sometimes, too. Just recently, a kindergarten teacher from Dimona contacted us. Chess was starting to be taught to kindergarteners there and she wanted to learn the game so she would know what the kids in her kindergarten were talking about."
Dozens of studies have proven the benefits of teaching chess to children, even in the short term. The dream of Lotan and other chess enthusiasts is for the Education Ministry to make the game part of the curriculum, "even just gradually for one hour a week." In the meantime, it's only happening as a result of local initiatives, such as that of the Shevah Mofet High School in Tel Aviv, which the young champions Popilsky and Efroimski attend.
"The last education minister who really cared deeply about chess was the late Zevulon Hammer. We know that the Education Ministry hasn't ruled it out and we've been proposing that they see if 'Chess for Every Student' would be an effective and educational project that would also boost scholastic achievements, and at hardly any cost. What do you need anyway? Just a few good instructors and a few chess boards."
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