Jews In Sports: Exhibit Page @ Virtual Museum

Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow
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The Great Jewish Chess Champions

Chess is perhaps the most fascinating game ever invented by the mind of man. Its followers are avid fans, studying a player's every move with an exhaustive examination that bemuses the outsider. Quite often, dedicated chess players are so involved in the game that they subordinate every other activity in life—including family and profession—to chess.

What, then, accounts for the phenomenal hold that this pastime exercises over its devotees?

For one thing, chess is the most intellectual of all games. In contrast to other types of contests, in chess there is absolutely no luck involved. Each of the two opponents starts the game on exactly equal terms, with the identical opportunity to win. Age, height, strength, wealth: these factors make no difference in chess. The superior intelligence wins.

These two defining elements—total equality and the intellectual nature of the game—have made it a favorite among nomadic people who can demonstrate through this game—as they are not permitted to in other social spheres - that they are the equal of anyone else from any other background. It is no coincidence that those running "challenge" games for a dollar or two on city streets are often Jewish or black.

In addition, chess is completely accessible to anyone. It needs no special or expensive equipment: no skates, fields or courts. The poorest girl, the most isolated boy can play. Even those who don't have the pieces and a board can make them by hand—or, failing that, can play games by making the moves on paper. There is only one absolute requisite for playing chess: a brain.

In addition to its equality, accessibility and appeal to intelligence alone, there is another major attraction of this game: it has an infinite variety of possibilities. Each move one makes invokes countless variables. Every game echoes numerous contests from the past, which have been studied and absorbed by later generations of players. Yet at the same time, every game is also new and unique. Thus there is a link between past and present, so that the sense of history and the heritage of chess is palpably present at each new game. It can be played at any level, from duffer to grandmaster, with enjoyment and intricacy: for its ultimate mysteries can never be solved. There is always more to be learned, always a new combination to explore, always a fresh insight to discover and develop. Even the world's greatest player is always learning in this infinitely challenging mental game. "Mathematically speaking," The Great Chess Movie observes, "there are as many possible chess games as atoms in the universe."

Chess is an ancient game; its precise roots are not known with certainty. It probably originated in India several centuries into the common era, and from there spread to Persia, on to the Arab world and eventually to Europe, by which time there were versions in most of the rest of the world.

From the very beginning, the intricacies of this challenging, sometimes maddening game were appreciated for the subtle skills and values they reflected. In his informative and lively Chess to Enjoy, Andy Soltis relates that in Persia many centuries ago, a potential minister of state was put to a test: he was made to watch a chess game. If he watched carefully and said nothing, he was considered fit for office; but if he made any remarks about the game, if he kibitzed at all (of course, they didn't call it that, then), he was considered unsuitable for great affairs of state.