Ian Nepomniachtchi is currently playing a match for the world chess championships. He is Russian – and he is Jewish. Among his accomplishments is winning a gold medal at the Maccabi Games.
For the majority of the years since Wilhelm Steinitz was recognized as the first world champion in 1886, the title has been held by a Jewish player. Many national champions have been Jewish, and many challengers for the world title – such as the Israeli strategic maestro Boris Gelfand.
The greatest women player ever is Judit Polgar, who is of Hungarian Jewish origin. So is a recent women’s world chess champion, Anna Ushenina.
Why has such a tiny part of the world’s population contributed so much to the game?
Antisemites like to attribute Jewish success in an area to tribal cronyism, rather than as the overcoming of barriers by individuals and as a tribute to Jewish cultural values. Chess is a case in point on why the antisemitic lie is just a lie. Chess has been open to any competitor, regardless of credentials and connections, and success in it is ruthlessly evaluated by whether you win or lose on the board. The rules are clear and objective, and every move is transparent to the opponent and to all observers.
As in some other fields where Jews have been leaders – like cinema or sequential art – chess is a field where you did not need to come from wealth or connections or have an advanced formal education. A poor child in an often-hostile society could still aim for the top. The love of chess, however, is supported by traditional Jewish cultural values. It is a mind game, and Jewish families and communities tended to encourage and admire intellectual achievement.
Perhaps some Jewish players were attracted by the fact that it was a form of battle open to Jews – who did not have their armies, and in many places were excluded or discriminated against in mainstream military organizations.
Despite the claims of antisemites – like the opportunistically pro-Nazi former champion Alexander Alekhine – there was never a distinctively Jewish chess style.
Just compare some of the Jewish world champions. The first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz-at least in the mature phase of his career -pioneered the positional approach to chess. It involves seeking enduring advantage based on the harmonization of pieces and the avoidance of structural weaknesses. (Steinitz had been more of a romantic swashbuckler in his youth.) Emmanuel Lasker was a never-say-die eclectic, always battling no matter how grim his position, always open to finding moves that worked in practical situations rather than being bound by general maxims. Mikhail Botvinnik approached the game professionally; he was highly disciplined in his training and preparation. The “magician from Riga,” Mikhail Tal, was a wondrously Imaginative player and charismatic personality. Gary Kasparov (whose father was Jewish) reigned for two decades through an aggressive style that emphasized the mobility of his pieces and holding the initiative rather than grimly hanging on to material advantages.
One noticeable tendency among Jewish players, however, has been to conduct their careers as scholars and teachers of the game, not only combatants. Many published detailed post-game analyses of prominent games in chess journals, book-length autobiographies of their own careers or those of their own chess heroes, instructional manuals for newer players, and tomes with grand theories on the strategy of the game. As with practical play, there is no distinctively “Jewish” preference among differing strategic approaches to the game. Aaron Nimzowitsch and Richard Reti (not world champions, but top players) authored books that championed a “hypermodern” approach to chess – one that challenged earlier positional doctrines It proposed that the center of the board can be contested from the flanks, after some careful preparation, rather than head-on on the very first moves of the opening.
While some of the Jewish chess greats were monomaniacs – like the Jewish-born genius Bobby Fischer, who ended up his life as a paranoid antisemite – others pursued more mainstream scholarly pursuits. Mikhail Botvinnik was an engineer and an early theoretician of computer chess. Emmanuel Lasker was an excellent academic mathematician who made last lasting contributions to the field.
Daniel Mendoza, one of the inventors of the scientific approach to boxing, recalls in his autobiographical notes that he was educated in the Jewish tradition, His teachings have the flavor of Talmud dialectics – if your opponent does this, you respond with that… and so on and so on. Chess analysis works the same way. Some of the Jewish chess greats did have a traditional Jewish education. It is not clear, however, whether Talmudic methodology was a highly specific model or inspiration for their chess, as opposed to their being inspired by the wider Jewish dedication to intellectual inquiry and debate.
A substantial proportion of the Jewish chess greats were born in Central and Eastern Europe. Some escaped to other countries before the Shoah, some perished as impoverished emigres in Europe, and some were murdered. We will never know how many children who perished would have been great players. The Jewish generations of the same time who grew up in the United States or managed to survive in the Soviet Union produced dozens of outstanding players and theoreticians.
In the last few decades, Chess has been an entirely global game. Top players are now emerging from the two biggest population centers in the world, China (for example, Ding Liren, Ian Nepomniachtchi’s opponent) and India (Viswanathan Anand was Boris Gelfand’s opponent in the title match). There is some enthusiasm for chess in modern Israel, partially the product of an infusion of talent and enthusiasm from the former Soviet republics, but the sheer demographic odds against further Jewish world champions emerging are growing longer and longer.
If he wins, it might be that Ian Nepomniachtchi will be the last Jewish world champion.
Members of the Jewish people, however, have already left behind an enduring literature of their games and their reflections.
Siegbert Tarrasch – born Jewish, converted to Christianity – was a challenger for the world championship, and another teacher and theoretician. He was also a physician. He wrote once that “chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy”. The Jewish legacy in chess is the product of personal overcoming of societal obstacles and joy in the form of intellectual study and reflection for its own sake.