The Jewish penchant towards chess is the result of intellectual and cultural factors which designate chess as a game well-matched to Jewish historical development. Jews have a long and close relationship with the game, excelling as masters, world champions and theoreticians. In his 1978 book, The Rating of Chess Players, Past and Present, Professor Arpad Elo numerically rated some 476 major tournament players from the nineteenth century onward. Of the fifty-one highest ranked players, approximately one-half were Jewish, or of Jewish descent. The Academy of Chess, founded in Tel Aviv a few years ago, is due not only to the massive immigration of Russians in the last few years but also because of Jewish inclination. Israel was ranked second and third in the last two Olympiads.  It is still unclear when Jews first started playing chess. Rashi interprets the word Nardeshir, mentioned in the Gemara (Ketuvot 61b), as referring to chess and the word Ashkuki (also used by Rashi), is still used today as a valid word for the game in the Hebrew language.

                                                          The chess player by Isidor Kaufman

In the nineteenth century, the scholars Franz Delitzsch and Moritz Stenschneider both refuted this theory and claimed that the first Jewish chess player was the son of Rabbi Saul of Taberistan, Ali (in the ninth century). During the twelfth century, Jewish interest in chess grew by explicit references by Maimonides and Judah Halevy.  Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote the oldest existing chess rules, which he called Haruzim.  Sepher Hachasidim recommends it in the thirteenth century and in 1575 the Rabbis of Cremona declared “all games bad… except for chess”. In 1837, a German born Jew, Aron Alexander wrote the first Encyclopaedia of Chess and in 1839, Jacob Eichenbaum, a Haskala educator and a mathematician wrote Hakerav (the Battle), which is a Hebrew poem on the game and is five hundred lines in length. Among recent great players are: Alexander Khalifman, Boris Gelfand, Judit Polgar, Peter Svidler, Mikhail Gurevich and Ian Nepomniachtchi who all maintain a disproportional Jewish presence. (A full list of Jewish players can be found here) Emanuel Lasker is considered to be one the most exceptional chess players at this time. He is the son of a cantor and the grandson of a rabbi and he combined three scientific careers: chess master, philosopher and mathematician.  Lasker’s first biography was prologues by Albert Einstein. Jews dominate in blindfold chess. Gyula Breyer attained the world record of simultaneous blindfold games when he played twenty-five games during Berlin’s Tournament in 1920 and Miguel Najdorf played forty-five games in 1947. George Koltanowski surpassed all existing records in 1960 when he played fifty-six blind games, winning fifty of them after ten hours of play. Miguel Najdorf, George Koltanowski and Moshe Czerniak, one of the founders of the Israeli Chess School, were saved from the holocaust because they happened to be in a World Tournament in Buenos Aires when the war broke out and consequently did not return to Europe.  Unfortunately many others didn’t have this chance and perished in Nazi camps. Since 1977, chess have been included in the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish athletic event similar to the Olympics held in Israel every four years. The last winners were: 2001 Evgenij Alekseyev, 2005 Evgeny Najer and 2009 Ian Nepomniachtchi. Gerald Abrahams gives four possible explanations for Jewish Chessophilia:

  1. Jews love studying and learning;
  2. They are perseverant;
  3. They are talented at languages (due to migrations), including the language of chess; and
  4. Jews strive to produce the pure intellectual.

Even Judeophobia infected chess.  During WWII, Alexander Alekhine, World Champion for twenty years, wrote a series of articles parallel to Wagner’s infamous essay Jewry in Music (1850).  The composer denied the creativity in Jewish artists and the chess master “exposed” how the Jews are opportunists and ready to win at all costs.  His articles Aryan and Jewish Chessopened with a question: “can we hope that after Lasker’s death – the second and probably the last world champion of Jewish descent – Aryan chess will finally find its path after having been led astray by the influence of Jewish defensive thinking?” Aryan chess was by nature aggressive; defence was valid only after a mistake.  However, in Jewish chess, defence is a legitimate way of winning.  Aaron Nimzowitch’s theory of “overprotection” was defined by Alexander Alekhine as ‘purely Jewish…it is fear to struggle, doubts about one’s own spiritual force, a sad picture of intellectual self-destruction”.  He describes the first half of the century as a “period of decadence when the Viennese school, founded by the Jew Max Weiss and propagated by the Schlechter-Kaufmann-Fahndrich trio, dominated the chess scene.  Its secret relied not in victory but in losing”. In the first International Tournament in London in June 1851, the German Adolf Anderssen defeated the Jew Lionel Kieseritzky, both mathematicians, in a match that was named The Immortal.  For Alekhine, that triumph marked the conquest of Aryan Chess over Jewish Chess. Chess requires a type of thinking similar to that required for Talmud study.  Aron Nimzovitch, Samuel Reshevsky and Akiba Rubinstein were all educated in Yeshivot.  Talmudic thought is similar to chess thinking in seven ways: the indispensability of study, memory, the importance of debate, visual comprehension, the centrality and inflexibility of the law, the need for bold intelligence and an anti-authoritarian and creative way of raising alternatives. Moritz Steinschneider conjectures that the first Jew to recommend chess was the convert Ali, son of Rabbi Saul of Taberistan, who considered the game a cure for low spirits and despondent mental conditions.  By the eleventh century it was commonly played in Spain.  After Rashi, the first European to mention chess was Moses Sepharadi, (born in 1062 in Spain), author of Disciplina Clericalis,where he includes chess in the seven accomplishments of a knight. Chess is also referred to by Maimonides, who mentions a forced mate and declares professional chess players as unworthy of trust in the Law Courts.  During the thirteenth century, up until the seventeenth century, chess was frequently played and Jewish literature contains numerous rabbinical opinions for and against the game.  After a visitation of the plague in 1575, the three Rabbis of Cremona declared that all games were “primary evils and the cause of all troubles” except for chess.  Samuel Lampronti records that after the great fire of Frankfort-on-the Main in 1711, the Jewish community passed a decree forbidding any Jew to play chess for a period of fourteen years.  When it was played on the Sabbath it become common in Germany to use chess pieces made of silver in honour of the day.  Chess was also popular among Jewish women.  In 1617, a Jewish woman from Venice became well known for her chess skills and it is believed that chess first made its way among Jewish circles as a women’s game.  Children under the age of fourteen were allowed to learn the game because it was believed to make the intellect more acute. (source: Jewish Encyclopedia) [nggallery id=105]