The kings and queens of chess
“Either you love chess, or you don’t play it.” So says Clive Wolpe, who has been a lover of the game for most of his life. As players celebrated International Chess Day on Wednesday, he says there’s been huge growth in the game in South Africa.
“There are top Jewish players at all levels of chess in South Africa,” says Wolpe, who is the director of Goforchess Academy in Bryanston, Johannesburg.
Local chess moved into the big league back in December 2014 when Kenny Solomon became South Africa’s first chess grandmaster, and the fourth black chess grandmaster in history, by winning the African Chess Championship.
Wolpe’s own most memorable moment as a player was when he beat the other 13 top players in the country to become the South Africa Chess Champion in 1985. While he’s loved the game all his life, he hasn’t always had it as a career. “I’d been doing other things but then slowly I was drawn back in to coach others and that sort of became my career.
“I still play but not as much,” he says. “I’m more focused on coaching. As a coach, I’ve had some good moments with more pupils doing well at various tournaments. I’ve coached players to become African champions and that sort of thing.”
Wolpe believes “chess becomes a way of life. You approach things with a kind of ‘chess thinking’. I think chess players have a lot in common in that respect. It’s an exciting time to be part of the game.”
Chess enthusiast Neil Vardi says that if you walk past Joubert Park in Johannesburg, you will be surprised at how many people are sitting there playing chess.
“It’s traditionally a sport, a science and an art that attracted Jewish people,” he says.
In the 12th century, chess became popular among Jews. Of the first 13 undisputed world champions, over half were Jewish, including the first two.
Jews made up approximately half of the 51 highest-ranked players in 476 major tournaments from the 19th century onwards, according to an analysis by Professor Arpad Elo, the inventor of the scientific rating system employed by the International Chess Federation (under whose auspices International Chess Day has been observed on 20 July since 1966).
“There is something in Jewish people that makes them stand out in the game,” says Manuel Aaron, India’s first international master and a keen student of history. “One of the oldest sayings in chess is, the best players are Russian Jews, non-Russian Jews and the others, in that order,” he adds.
Several renowned players in chess history belonged to the community. Wilhelm Steinitz, a Jew born in the ghetto of Prague, was the first official world champion in 1886.
Emanuel Lasker, the son of a Jewish cantor; Mikhail Botvinnik, born to Russian Jewish parents; and Mikhail Tal, from a Latvian Jewish family, dominated the game during the early 20th century.
Later on, the world number one from 1984 until his retirement in 2005 was Garry Kasparov, whose father was Jewish. The strongest female chess player in history is considered to be Judit Polgár, who was from a Hungarian Jewish family.
In recent times in South Africa, the country has been home to two well-known Jewish chess players in the late Leonard Reitstein and the late Eddie Price.
A new star on the rise is the captain of Yeshiva College’s junior chess team, seven-year-old Shlomo Block. He started playing during lockdown after his dad, Netanel, and zeida taught him to play. He recently won his first tournament, a Goforchess event, against players of all ages, and made the finals of school regionals the other week when Yeshiva College beat the other seven schools in its region.
“Shlomo practises every week, once at home with a private chess coach, and once a week at school,” says Netanel. “Shlomo has a very clever brain, strategic and analytic, so the game suits him. I play friendly games against him, but he beats me all the time.”
Block says he likes chess because of “how all the pieces can move in different ways and the strategy of the game. I like to win.”
Like Block, Vardi was taught to play by his dad as a youngster. “In some respects, the game has changed my life because it teaches you a certain kind of logic, which benefits you,” says Vardi. “You can feel it in your day-to-day dealings and activities.”
Over the last few years, Vardi has been playing chess online, watching live games on YouTube, going through grandmaster games, and reading chess books.
While a coach for Wolpe’s academy for a couple of years, they ran two youth leagues every Tuesday afternoon, which attracted children from King David.
Vardi says his most memorable moments in chess were as a youngster when he participated in tournaments and met people. “It takes over and gets into your blood. Then you see yourself improving, you just want to play more, and it becomes addictive.”