Sholom Rothman
Never Stop Growing

Make Checkmate, Not War

I noticed him early that evening.

I was waiting, somewhat impatiently, for the chess tournament to begin, while the organizer was signing in the last few late entrants. Most were speaking to him in Hebrew, a few older ones in Russian (with a translator nearby assisting them), and he was a young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties, who started speaking in English with a slight foreign accent.

He surprised me when he said his name was Mohammed, but I thought that must be a foreign tourist from Europe (local Arabs speak Hebrew well), or possibly visiting from one of the countries that were signatories of the Abraham accords. But soon the tournament started, and I put him out of my mind.

The tournament was the Jerusalem Lightning Speed Chess Championship. There were to be 11 rounds of play that night, with each game being limited to three minutes of thinking for each side, regulated by a chess clock that each player punched after his move, which stopped his time, and started his opponent’s clock once more.

I had no illusions that I had a chance to win the tournament, even though I am a pretty strong player (a couple of steps below Master), but I was hoping for at least 6 points out of 11, and if I played really well, maybe even 7 points out of 11 (a win is one point, and a draw is 1/2 point). There were a number of Masters and a few Candidate Masters (one grade below Master) in attendance, and I normally would have trouble beating them. My only saving grace was that I play speed chess pretty well, and in a Lightning game, even strong players make mistakes since they don’t have that much time to think before each move.

The rounds moved along at a furious pace. Around three hours later. I found myself about to play my last game. At that point I had scored 6 points out of 10, and I was hoping for a strong finish. I looked at the pairing board to see who my opponent would be, and noticed that it was Mohammed. I approached the table and found him sitting there already, smiling up at me.

I sat down on my side of the board and knew that I only had a couple of minutes before the game was to begin, so I took the opportunity to start a quick conversation with him. I asked him what his rating was, and was not too happy to hear that he was a Candidate Master, a few hundred points above my rating. I asked him where he was from, and he said “Bethlehem”. I perked up, and replied “Wow, I’ve been living in Israel the past 10 years, and you are the first Palestinian I’ve ever had a chance to talk to.” Of course, I had interacted with local Jerusalem Arabs in their occupations as bus drivers, pharmacists, shop workers, and even doctors and nurses, but I never had a friendly conversation with them – it was all business.

I asked Mohammed if he had any trouble getting to the tournament, as I knew the bus he would take would pass through an Israeli Army checkpoint, but he said there were no problems. I asked him how life was in Bethlehem, and he said “Difficult”. I asked him if he was a student or worked, and he said he did on-line work having to do with checking out applications of some sort or other. I didn’t think it was the time or place to get into any kind of political conversation, so I steered clear of that area.

Our game was about to begin, and I asked if we could exchange email addresses, so that we could continue the conversation. He gladly did, and we began to play. As I feared, he was a very tough competitor, and he had me on my heels for the first 20 moves or so. But I was getting ahead on time, so I steered the game into a complex position that he wouldn’t have time to analyze thoroughly. And then I caught a break, as he made one or two small errors. I was able to improve my position as we moved into the endgame, and he had very little time left to make his remaining moves. I felt very fortunate to pull ahead, he conceded the game, and I had my coveted 7 points (he ended with 6). We shook hands, he said goodbye, and we went off on our own ways.

Thinking about my encounter later, I wondered if peace could only grow between our two peoples from the bottom up, with each person seeing that the other was not that much different that himself. Perhaps I am just dreaming, but these days there doesn’t seem to be anything else one can do.

But given this experience, I can only keep trying.

About the Author
I studied in Jerusalem for a year when I was 19 years old, and developed a love for Israel and especially Jerusalem. It took me over 40 years to finally fulfill my life's dream and make Aliyah to Jerusalem. I had been a computer programmer for 37 years, but now, after retirement, study full time in yeshiva, and was granted Semicha two years ago.
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