Nostalgia Sunday – Chess in Israel, then and now

June 3, 2012 - 11:08 PM by

The game of chess got some welcome attention last week when Israeli Grandmaster Boris Gelfand almost took the World Chess Championship. Israelis, who generally tend more towards football (soccer) and basketball when it comes to spectator sports, were drawn to the tense drama of a stalemate between Gelfand and Indian Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand. In the end, Anand beat Gelfand in a tie-breaker, but we are still proud that our little country now boasts the second highest ranking chess player in the world. Both Gelfand and his wife Maya, who also manages his daily training schedule, noted that it would be nice if this new-found enthusiasm for the game could translate into much-needed funding, too.

Chess has always had a place in modern Israel, even before the founding of the State. During the British Mandate period, chess clubs were united under an umbrella organization, the Land of Israel Chess Society, which held five championships between 1936 and 1945.

During the Thirties, the Land of Israel twice participated in international chess Olympiad; in 1935 the team came in 15th and in 1939, when it reached 9th place. In the 1937 Women’s world chess championship held in Stockholm, American-Jewish competitive player Mona May Karff represented the Land of Isael and came in sixth.

After the founding of the state, the Land of Israel Chess Society was reformed as the Israel Chess Federation, with 20 chess clubs under its wing.

In 1951, Israel’s first chess championship was organized by the Federation in Tel Aviv, with an awards ceremony held in the presence of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Since that time, the national championship has taken place every two years.

The Israel national chess team participated in the Chess Olympiad of 1952 and ranked 11th. In 1954, Israel reached the 7th place, ending in a 2:2 draw with world champion, the Soviet Union — an achievement that brought public funding to Israeli chess.

Israel held its first International Chess Competition in 1958, which took place immediately after the 13th Chess Olympiad held in Munich. 14 chess players from Israeli and abroad took part in the games, which were held in Haifa and Tel Aviv. The following year, in 1959, the first women’s national championship was held.

During the Sixties, Israel hosted several international chess competitions including the 16th Chess Olympiad, in 1964, which was attended by 49 countries.

According to the wonderful Nostal.co.il site, “The games were held in the old Sheraton Hotel [which has since been demolished] and attracted much attention. Audience could follow the game via a closed circuit television system (a global novelty in those days) with commentary… To commemorate the occasion, the Israel Postal Authority issued a set of two stamps.”

Mass immigration from the Soviet Union during the Seventies brought many chess players to Israel as well as a number of chess coaches. In November 1976, Israel hosted the Chess Olympiad again, this time in Haifa but due to a political ban imposed by the Soviet Union and Communist bloc countries on Israel during those years, major chess stars did not attend and the event was a minor one.

In 1986, the 27th Olympiad was held in Dubai but the ban prevented Israel’s participation and several countries from Western Europe, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands did not participate as well as a sign of solidarity with Israel. To counter the Dubai event, an international competition was held in Jerusalem but it was not recognized by the World Chess Federation (FIDE).

The wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the Nineties brought many strong chess players and coaches who have helped Israel reach of its recent major achievements, including Boris Gelfand’s win at the 2011 Candidates Tournament and his almost-win at the 2012 World Chess Championship.

Upon his return to Israel yesterday, Gelfand was greeted as a hero at Ben Gurion airport. As always, he was thinking of the game, telling Ynet: “I didn’t know it would be this way. I hope this will elevate chess in Israel to its rightful place.”

Your move, Ministry of Culture & Sport.

NOTE: This morning, Haaretz reported that in the wake of Gelfand-mania, the Israeli government will fund new chess clubs, a decision that “effectively doubles the ongoing budget for the sport from the ministry and the Israel Sports Betting Board”. Sometimes the good guys do win.

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