King to Rook, Rabbi to Bishop

Chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand has made the game hot in the Holy Land, but another expert says Jews have long loved the game.

Andrew Friedman
Andrew Friedman
Andrew Friedman
Andrew Friedman

Chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand may have lost the 2012 World Chess Championship in a sudden-death tiebreaker, but according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has scored a major victory for the status of chess in the Holy Land.

Gelfand, 44, was born in Belarus and made aliyah to Israel in 1998. His stunning turn on the 2012 global chess circuit took him to the very final round of the world championships, where he faced, and ultimately surrendered to, World Champion Viswanathan Anand of India.

Gelfand's global dominance in the great game of strategy elevated the grand game's status in Israel, sparking interest in the game among many previously uninitiated Israelis, says the prime minister. "The State of Israeli is a brain power, and chess is a game of the brain," Netanyahu told Gelfand. "Thanks to people like you, we will turn Israel into a chess power."

No offense to Gelfand, who has certainly played his part in bringing some sheen to a decidedly unsexy sport: but according to one Israeli author, Jews have had ties to the game for at least a millennium.

“[Chess] lends itself naturally to a Jewish culture that has traditionally stressed study and literacy,” says Gustavo Perednik, former head of the four-year program at the Hebrew University's Rothberg School and the author of a new Spanish-language book "La Humanidad y El Ajedrez"(Chess and the Humanities), from Certeza Publishing.

Perednik, a native of Buenos Aires who has lived in Israel for nearly 30 years, says there have been a disproportionate number of Jewish chess theoreticians and champions throughout history. This can be chalked up to a cultural affinity for study and problem solving that penetrates all sectors of the Jewish community.

“Chess has been present in Jewish culture for more than 1,000 years,” Perednik says. “In the 12thcentury, during Spain's Golden Age, the major figures in medieval Judaism were writing about chess. Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi both talked about the game, and Abraham Ibn Ezra’s work 'Haruzim'is considered the oldest rule book for chess in existence. Some scholars believe Rashi might have been referring to chess in his commentary on the Talmud (Ketuboth 61b), where he defines the Aramaic word nardashir as “a game played with little wood pieces and played on a board.”

A metaphor for religious life

The friendship between Orthodox Jewish theologian Moses Mendelssohn and German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, which influenced Jewish emancipation and enlightenment, blossomed over a chess board. In 1837, a French Jew named Aron Alexandre wrote the first encyclopedia of chess and Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), the son of a cantor and grandson of a rabbi, held the title of world chess champion for 27 straight years and is widely considered the most well-rounded chess player of all time.

According to the website jinfo.org, approximately 55 percent of the international chess champions since the competition was founded in 1886 have been Jewish.

As to why the Jews love their chess so much, theories abound. To observant Jews, the game can seem like a metaphor for religious life: a tight set of rules leading to nearly infinite possibilities. Consider the fact that 32-piece set – played over 64 squares of a chess board – yields 2.5 times 10 to the 116thpossible move combinations. That is more than the number of atoms in the universe.

If every person on earth was playing chess nonstop, making one move per minute, it would take 217 trillion years to play out every option.

There are other reasons that Jews seem to love chess so much. Gerald Abrahams, the 20th-century British chess master and author, offered three possible explanations. First, Jews have traditionally striven to produce "pure intellectuals." Second, Jewish culture places a heavy emphasis and study and learning. Third, centuries of migration and city life forced Jews to learn both patience and perseverance, two vital skills for domination a chess board. Jews have also developed a penchant for languages, including the language of chess, he postulated before his demise in 1980.

Perednik, himself a religious Jew, looks at the Jewish chess story through a more holistic lens.

“There are many similarities between Talmud learning and chess study, like the importance of visual memory, viewing the law from many different angles, and the importance of debate between different schools and masters," he says. "I think that it is no coincidence that the Talmud is organized into 64 tractates, the same as the number of squares on a chess board,” he said.

Talmud study and chess, Perednik says, employ the same sort of brainpower. To support his claim, he cites several chess masters, including Aron Nimzovitch, Samuel Resehvsky and Akiva Rubinstein, all yeshiva graduates.

“I’d say there are seven ways in which Talmudic thought is parallel to chess training: the indispensability of study, memory, visual comprehension, the centrality and rigidity of law, the importance of debate, the need for bold intelligence and a way of raising alternative scenarios that thinks outside of the box and shirks authority,” says Perednik.

The game heard 'round the world

Chess's influence reaches beyond the Jewish community into the whole of humanity, Perednik says. The game has such far-reaching implications that it deserves its own field of academic study, one which he would coin "chessology."

“There is no area of human development that has not been influenced by the neat, mathematical movements of the pieces,” he said. “In culture, chess appears from Shakespeare to Woody Allen. The author and intellectual Ayn Rand used chess as a means to refute socialism."

The list of great minds whose work was influenced by chess continues, Perednik says. Sigmund Freund, he claims, found in chess a model for psychoanalysis, and language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that words were like chess pieces. "There are many, many more examples," he adds.

Ironically, Perednik admits he's no better than average at chess. It's chessology, rather than chess itself, that preoccupies him. When he is not studying chess, he lectures at universities around the world about Israeli, Judaism and modernity and also about the politics and international relations of the Spanish-speaking world.

Perednik has written 15 books and more than 1,500 articles, and in recent years has shifted his focus to what he calls Judeophobia, a term for anti-Jewish racism.

Perednik believes the study of “chessology” could shed light on the importance of the game to many world civilizations, including to Judaism. In addition, he says Israeli schools should harness the game’s rising popularity to encourage young people to play the game.

“Research has shown that children who play chess at school go on to become more successful in most aspects of the school curricula,” he says. “Chess is too important not to be studied. It’s more than just a game.”

Chess influences the Jewish community and all of humanity, says Gustavo Perednik.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
"In culture, chess appears from Shakespeare to Woody Allen," says Perednik.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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