Israel's Chess Gurus: Kings Abroad, but Pawns at Home

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.

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.