Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why I Created this Blog

Image credite: Hangvirus.
Without comment, I am giving here the English-language version of two letters published in Ha'aretz on November 12th, 2010, in reply to Natan Sharansky's claim in the same paper on Oct. 29th that there was hardly any chess activity in Israel before the 1980s. This blog exists, partially, so that such mistakes will not be repeated...

With all due respect

Regarding "King for a day," Haaretz Magazine, October 29

In Eli Shvidler's article about Alik Gershon, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky says, "When I came to Israel, they played backgammon here" and "Chess is part of the culture of sport that the mass aliyah from the Soviet Union brought with it." The mention of backgammon to insinuate that sport in Israel existed only at a "primitive" level does an injustice to the people who lived here.

With all due respect to the immigrants from the Soviet Union, chess matches were being held in Israel long before they arrived, even before the founding of the state, and in 1935 and 1938 Israel took part in the Chess Olympics. In 1945, my father, the late Shaul Hon, was a major chess organizer, and after the state was founded called for chess to be included in the education system. In 1958, on the state's 10th anniversary, the first international chess competition was held, and other international competitions have been held in Israel since then.

Aliyah from the Soviet Union did indeed bring many strong chess players, but this began with immigration in the 1970s from the Soviet Union; the infrastructure was in place long before that.

Orna Shkedi

Petah Tikva

Cultural snobbism

Natan Sharansky's cultural snobbism knows no bounds, and is especially galling coming from someone who bears the title of Chairman of the Jewish Agency. In one stroke, Sharansky erases the glorious history of chess in Israel, which dates all the way back to the British Mandate period.

Sharansky would do well to learn a little more about the history of Israeli chess. A brief overview: ninth place in the 1939 Chess Olympics, seventh place in the 1954 Chess Olympics (including a 2:2 tie against the team from the Soviet Union ), second place in the 1965 Chess Olympics for students. And here are a few names worth remembering: Yosef Porat, Moshe Czerniak, Zadok Domnitz, Raafi Persitz, Shimon Kagan, Dr. Menachem Oren, Yitzhak Aloni. To the best of my knowledge, all are acclaimed chess players and all are Jewish Israelis, even if they weren't born in the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Michael Edelman

Petah Tikva

"Dosh" and Chess

The King is Mated, Long Live the King -- The Students' Olympiads. Image credit: 'simaniya' [Hebrew]

The Ending in Chess. Image credit: 'simaniya' [Hebrew]

The Hebrew caricaturist Kariel Gardosh, known as "Dosh", was probably Israel's most famous caricaturist. Like his fellow Hungarian friends, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid and Efraim Kishon, he worked for many years in Ma'ariv, the Israeli daily, and were known as the "Hungarian Mafia".

"Dosh" illustrated many books -- and interstingly, some chess books as well. These included not only Shaul Hon's Pt'ichot Be'Sachmat [Chess Openings], as noted in a previous post, but also at least two other books: Ha'Melech Mat Yechi Ha'Melech, Olympiadot Ha'Studentim [The King is Mated, Long Live the King -- the Students' Olympiads] (1970, Tel Aviv: Emanuel Lasker Chess Club) and Ha'Siyum Be'Sachmat [The Ending in Chess] (Tel Aviv: Shach, 1961).

Friday, November 26, 2010

Playing Conditions, 1953

Source: Davar, 15.12.1953
To give the reader an idea about the kind of conditions in Israel in the 1950s, there is this advertisement:

The Kibutizm Union / Culture Department

On Dec. 18-19 there will be a CONFERENCE OF CHESS PLAYERS in Genigar. Details were sent in the mail. The comrades should arrive in Genigar by 3 PM. Participants should bring a chess set and bed sheets.
Presumably, the sheets were to sit on due to lack of chairs and tables...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hon's "Chess Openings"

Image Credit: A.P.
Shaul Hon's book Ptichot be'Sachmat (1957) [Chess Openings] was a very popular book in Israel -- it reached a fourth edition in 1968, unprecedented for a Hebrew-language chess book. It is notable for a few things:

1). Its first section (pp. 3-40 in the 1968 edition) give a very interesting, if by today's standards somewhat inaccurate, history of chess in the world in general and among Jews (whether in Israel, Palestine, or elsewhere) in particular. Specifically, Hon actually asked and received a reply from Israel's chief rabbi in 1957, 'The honorable Rabbi Dr. Itzhak (Isaac) Ha'Levi Herzog', as Hon calls him, about chess in Judaism. The Rabbi's reply was that despite certain rabbis who forbade chess, most authorities in Judaism do not forbid (and often even encourage) chess playing, so long as it satisfies certain conditions -- e.g., not playing for money, not on the Shabbath, it does not become an obsession that stops one from studying the Torah, etc.

2). He has an interesting theory (pp. 49-55, ibid) about why the chess pieces are placed or move as they are -- e.g., that rooks are in the corners since that's where the heavy forces would be in the battle, etc. He thinks that pawns capture diagonally because archers would try to hit armored men from the side!

3). The cover for the 1968 edition was by the well-known Israeli caricaturist "Dosh" (Kariel Gardosh).

4). The book, like many books at the time printed in Israel, tried to "Judaise" chess a little bit -- emphasizing the importance of Jewish masters over that of non-Jewish ones, especially those like the anti-semitic Alekhine. E.g., about 1. e4 Nf6 Hon writes (my translation, p. 113 ibid):
This defense is mistakenly named after Alekhine... in reality it was already practiced in the 1880s, but achieved no success. Only after the Jewish Aron Nimzowitsch published a series of articles before WWI calling for the development of pieces over pawns in the opening [i.e., the hypermodern school -- A.P.] -- only then did this defense's time arrive. Alekhine used it successfully in the international tournament in Budapest 1921 and it received his name, but in reality Alekhine mixed the tactical form of this defense with Nimzowitch's strategic ideas. 
Whenever any Jewish player is mentioned, their Judaism is emphasized. E.g., when Tarrasch is mentioned, his Judaism is emphasized, but not, of course, his conversion to Christianity in 1909 (as when discussing 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2, p. 104); and Hon even divided chess history as a whole into the 'romantic stage', the 'strategic stage' -- 'starting with the appearance of the Jewish Steinitz' -- and the 'modern stage' -- developed 'mostly by Jews: Nimzowitch, Reti, Breyer, Dr. Tartakover -- joined later by non-Jews' (p. 24).  

Jews contributed a lot to chess, true, but saying chess would, in effect, be still in the 19th-century romantic school if it weren't for them (as Hon is implying) is hardly established fact.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Problemists in the Jailhouse

Yehuda Weisberg
Source: Eliyahu Fasher's Ha'Problemai Ha'Israeli: Yesodot Ha'Kompositziya Ha'Sachmetait [The Israeli Problemist: the Basics of Chess Composition], Tel Aviv: Israeli Problemist Association, 1964, p. 47.
In Eliyahu Fasher's book we find the following letter from Weisberg, one of the earliest Israeli (or Palestinian) problemists, to Yechezkel Hillel, another problemist. Weisberg was arrested in 1946 by the British, who then ruled what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, presumably for being involved in actions having to do with the Jewish para-military groups at the time, such as the Haganah. (Weisberg was later killed in action in the 1948 war of independence in the battle in Ahsdot-Ya'akov). After his release he wrote (Fasher's book above, p. 48, my translation):
[T]he material sent to me by Yosef Goldschmidt [another Israeli problemist -- A.P.] and your notebooks arrived only in the last week of my arrest. The rest of the material I didn't receive yet. Your notebooks had nice problems and it's a pity it stayed "there"... I usually didn't use the time for composing and only composed two problems, one of them on the first day of my arrest in the car to the jailhouse... on the way back after my release we went through Rishon Le'tziyon and naturally I stopped and visited "Goldschmidt & co." [a group of problemists, headed by Goldschmidt, who lived in that town at the time, including Grisha Rivlin, Ben-tzion Handel, Meir Shatil and others -- Fasher.]
I doubt many other people would start their trip to a military prison composing a problem and end it with a visit to a problemists' hang-out... But this is not all. In the same letter Weisberg writes (Fasher, Ibid., p. 48):
I got a reply from Dawson (presumably Thomas Dawson, the British problemist and editor) and he will publish my problems.
Was there ever in history a case where a man received a note from a British editor that the editor would be glad to publish his problems... while sitting in jail as an enemy of the British Empire?