Jews In Sports: Exhibit Page @ Virtual Museum


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

The relationship between the Jews and the game of chess has been a clear and fascinating one. Jewish players have held the world championship for most of the last century, and dominated international chess to such a remarkable degree that it is impossible to consider the history of the game without considering the contributions of its Jewish stars. So many of the world's top players have been and are Jewish that the phenomenon cannot be ignored unless one is determined to ignore it.

Albert Alexandre, a Frenchman who claimed the world title in 1776, was a Jew. Of the thirty-two major international matches played between 1834 and 1862, only five lacked a Jewish player. From 1862 until 1902 every major international match or tournament involved one or more Jewish players, none of whom finished lower than fifth.

The first universally recognized international chess champion, William Steinitz, was an Austrian Jew. He ruled the chess world for twenty-eight years, from 1866 to 1894. He was succeeded by Emanuel Lasker, a German-born American Jew who held the title until 1921. Thus, these two Jewish champions kept the crown for a total of fifty-five consecutive years! Later Mikhail Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky and Bobby

Fischer added to the list of Jewish world champions.

But not everyone can be the champion. It is safe to say that a truly startling percentage of the leading players of our time have been Jewish. Since 1936, or from the time that Samuel Reshevsky succeeded Frank Marshall as American titleholder, most American champions have been Jews. In the 1938 U.S. Championship Tournament, for instance, fifteen out of seventeen players were Jewish. Jews won the first ten positions in the tourney.

All four international team matches contested by the U.S. and Russia between 1931 and 1937 were won by U.S. teams made up almost entirely of Jews. In the 1935 chess Olympiad, four of Poland's five players were Jews. Lithuania's team the following year was entirely Jewish. When Germany offered to host the 1936 chess Olympiad, the International Chess Federation had to reject the offer, since Nazi discrimination against Jews would have kept away most of the world's best players. The next year, the five leading teams in the tournament—America, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Argentina—were comprised of twenty-five players of whom more than half were Jewish. When the world's eight leading masters faced each other one year later, four of them were fellow Jews.

In the renowned 1945 radio match between the U.S. and Russia, nine of ten Americans and four of ten Russians were Jews. Since World War Two, Jewish champions have held national titles in the United States, Russia, Argentina, Canada, Poland, Rumania, France, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Australia, Czechoslovakia . . . the list goes on and on.

There is no question that Jews have been disproportionately successful at this most intellectual of games. The obvious question is why. There is, of course, no conclusive answer, but there are several theories, which are worth considering.