Jews In Sports: Exhibit Page @ Virtual Museum


Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow
Page 13 of 54

The Great Jewish Chess Champions

They include: Aron Nimzowitsch; Richard Reti, who won fame through his fine books on chess and because he beat Jose Capablanca when nobody else was winning from the Cuban master; Rudolph Spielmann; Akiba Rubinstein, whose exploits have earned for him many pages in various chess histories and books of anecdotes; Siegbert Tarrasch, one of the best teachers of all time; Sewilij Tartakower; Salo Flohr; Isaac Kashdan; Israel Horowitz; David Janowski; Reuben Fine; Miguel (originally Mendel) Najdorf; David Bronshtein; Mikhail Tal; Boris Spassky (whose mother was Jewish); and Mikhail Botvinnik, among many others. The list could go on indefinitely; these are just some of the most distinguished names in a long, long line.

Steinitz, the great champion who reigned before Lasker, is not accorded a separate chapter in these pages, but his importance and prowess are so commanding as to demand special attention here. The first universally acknowledged world champion, he won the title in 1866 in a match with Adolf Anderssen, then went on to defend his title successfully for twenty-seven years against the foremost players of his time, including Blackburne, Zukertort and Tchigorin. One of the notable characteristics of Steinitz's game was that he was far more effective in match play; consequently, he was usually at his best when he played his worthiest opponents. But Steinitz lived an unfortunate life. The son of poor parents, he also had bad eyes and lungs. He was compelled to give up his engineering studies in Vienna and yet was unable to earn more than a scanty living at chess, in spite of his vast abilities. When he finally did lose the world title to Lasker in 1894, his advanced years had taken their toll; years of impoverished living had caused his gradual but steady physical decline. It's worth noting, though, that when he did lose, he lost to a man generally ranked as one of the three best players in history.

As a player, Steinitz was an original thinker. "Steinitz was the first to realize," writes Edward Lasker in The Adventure of Chess, "that it was idle for a player to expect the gods to send him an ingenious winning idea, unless the strategic plan he followed was based upon correct evaluation of the strong and weak points in the position before him. In other words, he proposed to substitute an objective approach in place of the almost entirely subjective manner in which his contemporaries were treating the game. Nearly all of them . . . were superior to Steinitz in the conception of complicated combinations. But he defeated them one after the other, by the irrefutable logic of his reasoning, by leading them on into making attacking combinations in which they had no positional advantages, so that an attack was doomed to failure from the start."

Perhaps the revolutionary logic of Steinitz's approach to the game—an approach that has made him known as the founder of modern chess—is related to his own Jewish background. Descendant of a prominent rabbinic family in Prague and himself trained for the rabbinate, he learned chess from his rabbinic tutor.

Steinitz had a legendary career, achieving fame not only as a player but also as the head of a chess academy in New York and as a writer of chess articles for leading newspapers. But he died a pauper, after a mental breakdown, in a public charity ward. It was a sad end to the life of one of the greatest figures the world of chess has ever known.

The three men who succeeded Steinitz as the most famous of the many great Jewish chess-masters are each discussed in the following chapters. Lasker and Fischer, the world champions, and Reshevsky, the celebrated prodigy, have dominated American chess in the twentieth century. They are the best known and probably most notable Jewish players of their eras. But the entire history of their sport is distinguished by fellow members of the faith into which they were born.