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How Chess Explains The (Jewish) World
Tue, 02/19/2008 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

For a bright yeshiva student, hungry to understand the nature of the world, there is little to distract from the promise and genius of the Talmud — except, perhaps, for chess.

For centuries the rabbis tried to balance the game’s intellectual usefulness, a kind of chochma, or elevated mental exercise, with its potential for catastrophic distraction. One can imagine the struggles that famous yeshiva-trained chess champions, including Akiba Rubinstein, Aron Nimzowitsch and Samuel Reshevsky, must have faced when they had to decide: The God of their fathers or the muse of Caissa? Pilpul or poisoned pawn?

For many other Jewish world chess champions, including Wilhelm Steinitz, Mikhail Botvinnik and Gary Kasparov, the conflict was more likely between chess and, say, math or science.

And then we have Bobby Fischer, the greatest Jewish chessman of them all, for whom winning in chess (to borrow a phrase from the other great Jewish-dominated sport, football) wasn’t everything — it was the only thing. His recent, untimely death in Iceland showed him to be in deepest exile from his Jewish roots, American background and even the game he so thoroughly dominated.

For all these players, whatever their Jewish background or views, the game of chess was like the Bible, and the strategies and commentaries that grew up around it a kind of Talmud. Instead of Rambam, there was the Grunfeld Defense; instead of Rashi, the King’s Indian.

In a way, the Jewish obsession with chess is a subset of the Jewish obsession with other beautiful theories, including Marxism, physics and psychoanalysis. Chess, like those big ideas, is a kind of universal template, a prism through which the world can be understood. A remarkable body of literature supports this, including a sub-field of Jewish fiction, from Sholem Aleichem to Stefan Zweig to Michael Chabon.

The more I looked at the contributions and biographies of five modern Jewish chess masters, the more I wanted to reframe the way that Bobby Fischer’s grotesque anti-Semitism collapses the discussion of how complex the relationship is between Jews and chess. More specifically, I wanted to suggest that these champions represent five modes of Jewish expression in the 20th (and now 21st) century:

Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900): The scientist. Steinitz was the founder of the “scientific school” of chess, in which the strategies for successful play were finally codified. Steinitz was part of the generation of Jewish social and physical scientists of the late-19th and early-20th century (Marx, Durkheim, Einstein, et al.) for whom complete worldviews were developed — worldviews meant to rival the comprehensiveness of the Talmud.

Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935): The Revolutionary. Nimzowitsch was a founder of the “hypermodern” school of chess, which rebuffed the classic, 19th-century approach to chess in the same way that progressive artists and politicians like Emma Goldman and Gertrude Stein rejected the traditional views of society after the carnage of the Great War. Strangely — for this is the flexible nature of anti-Semitism — some prominent anti-Semites saw in Nimzowitsch’s radical ideas a quintessentially “Jewish” and “defensive” approach, which reflected their weakness as a people.

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008): The Jewish Anti-Semite. Bobby Fischer was the angriest chess player ever, reflecting the fact that anti-Semitism may be the world’s angriest prejudice. Fischer was also mentally ill. But viewing Fischer’s style through the lenses of sociology and chess history, one could suggest that his aggressive play, beyond what was necessary to win or to distinguish his personal style, has something in common with Jewish anti-Semites in the West whose animus toward Judaism and Zionism goes beyond what it necessary to make certain political points.

Victor Korchnoi (1931-  ): The Dissident. Russian Korchnoi is the best Jewish chess player you’ve never heard of, still playing at the highest levels at 76. He was famous in the 1970s, when he was the world champion challenger to Anatoly Karpov, who was lucky enough to have the communist machine in his corner. Korchnoi was persecuted and hounded out of Soviet chess, his exile in the West echoing the reality of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews during that time. His tenacious, dogged style of play, which was also enormously witty and sophisticated, reflected Jewish persistence and creativity in a 20th century marked by persecution and exile.

Gary Kasparov (1963 -  ): The Politician/Businessman. Kasparov (paternally Jewish), among the very best chess players ever, played an aggressive but strategic game, both in his 20 years as the world’s top player, and in his other life as a politician. Now running for president of Russia and the author of a new book on chess and business, Kasparov represents the success of contemporary Jews in a global, inter-connected world.

For traditional Jews, chess can’t possibly have the social resonance or practical usefulness as the Talmud. But the game still represents a body of wisdom — much of it generated by Jews – that helps us understand both the flow of Jewish history, and the nature of intellectual inquiry.

Daniel Schifrin, director of public programs at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, has just finished his first novel — an improbable comedy about Bobby Fischer, anti-Semitism and a Jewish family without a sense of humor.

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