Jewish Belarusians of the Chess World

by Debra Brunner, Founder of The Together Plan

Belarus is Slated to Host World Olympiad in 2022!

How very strange the world has become. In the new reality of 2020 pandemic life, so many doors have closed physically, but so many others have opened virtually. And so here I find myself in a new world among the chess community. I am the co-founder and CEO of The Together Plan Charity, based in the UK, and our mission is to revive Jewish community life in Belarus. Our latest and most ambitious project to date is to build a Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail through Belarus – giving Belarusians voices, both inside and outside of the country and putting Jewish Belarus back on the world map. It is April 2020 and most of the world has gone into lockdown in the fight against Coronavirus. With all our fundraising events shelved, we have had to think outside of the box, strategize and become creative. A bit like chess really, but I get ahead of myself.

I am a member of BNI (Business Network International), a network of over 9000 global chapters which meet weekly, in physical spaces of course, to help one another grow their businesses. When the pandemic hit, BNI took the whole network online and I grabbed the chance to attend meetings overseas. It was an excellent opportunity to extend my search for Belarusians and their stories, and to promote our genealogical research service in Belarus. Suddenly, at the click of a button, I was ‘virtually’ in Manhattan, and just like that, I was making the acquaintance of one Evan Rabin, National Chess Master and CEO of Premier Chess. Two meetings and a one-on-one later we discovered that he had an address book with Belarusians (not that he had ever realized) and then, I was in the world of chess.

Our conversation led us to the famous Jewish chess players from Belarus. ‘Will you write an article about them’ asked Evan. Sure, I replied tentatively. What did I know about Belarusian chess players? Research was definitely needed, but this would all be valuable material for our Belarusian Jewish Cultural Heritage trail so I dived in with excitement. A few days later, an email arrived from Evan, introducing me to Ben Graff, writer, chess journalist and author of The Greenbecker Gambit, and I told him my story. By now I had a list of Belarusian chess players and was about to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). ‘Ben’ I asked ‘why is it that so many Jews in the Soviet Union were famous in the world of chess?’ Ben was quick to point out that so many famous Jewish mathematicians and musicians hail from this part of the world, could there be a correlation? What was more poignant was Ben’s observation that you didn’t need to have wealth to play chess. You just needed a chess set, or to know someone with one. Jews in the Pale of Settlement would have been poor since they could not be landowners. They were the artisans – the carpenters, the blacksmiths, the tailors. Would they have made their own chess sets? ‘Ben’ I repeated…’I wonder if I could find someone in the diaspora with a chess set with a provenance from the old country?’ What a story that would be!

So on this new quest to understand the relationship between Jews and chess, Ben led me to some essential reading. The Jewish Miracle Checkmate – Jewish Chess Players tells us that there have been sixteen world champions. (The article cites fifteen, but it was written before Magnus Carlsen became world champion). Six (40%) of them have been Jewish, and a seventh, Garry Kasparov, rated the best chess player of all time, had a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. 28 of the best 64 (44%) chess players of all time have been Jewish (according to a somewhat dated study from 1989). Not a bad record for a people that constitutes 0.2% of the world’s population. Natan Sharansky,  Israeli politician, former Soviet refusenik and prisoner and human rights activist was also a chess prodigy as a child. At the age of 15, he won the championship in his native Donetsk. When incarcerated in solitary confinement, he maintained his sanity by playing chess against himself in his mind. Sharansky beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a simultaneous exhibition in Israel in 1996.

In Chess and Jews by Edward Winter “Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) once expressed the opinion that the reason why Jews are so clever at chess is because of their patience, pure breeding, and good nature. Having been the most persecuted race in the world, they have had the least power to do harm, and have become the best natured of all peoples” from 1911 Chess Amateur. Steinitz was himself Jewish and the first world champion. In the Australian Chess Review 1938 – H.G. Wells, himself a chess player, mentions the eminence of the Jewish race in chess, in his History of the World. He appears to attribute it entirely to an innate sense of values – a capacity for judging between relative gains and losses with the utmost subtlety.

The origins of Jewish prowess at chess are not easily pinpointed. Some have attempted to demonstrate affinities between chess and Talmudic thinking, but others reject such claims. While most, but not all, Jewish chess masters came from Orthodox homes, only a few lived an Orthodox lifestyle. It might be suggested that grandmaster chess offered an avenue for advancement analogous to the free professions: success depended on skill, required little or no capital, and did not impose restrictions based on social class or birth.  The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

So, chess communities of the world, here is my list of notable Jewish chess players, from Belarus or with a connection to the country, on a search for stories:

David Bronstein (Ukrainian) 1924- 2006.

David Ionovich Bronstein was born in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, February 19th, 1924 and died in Minsk, Belarus on December 5, 2006. He was a Soviet chess player. Awarded the title of International Grandmaster by FIDE in 1950, he narrowly missed becoming World Chess Champion in 1951. Bronstein was one of the world’s strongest players from the mid-1940s into the mid-1970s, described by his peers as a creative genius and master of tactics. He was a renowned chess writer, and his book Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 is widely considered one of the greatest chess books ever written.

Bronstein is often referred to as one of the greatest players not to have won the World Championship. He came close to that goal when he tied the 1951 World Championship match 12–12 with Mikhail Botvinnik, the reigning champion. Each player won five games, and the remaining 14 games were drawn.

Botvinnik wrote that Bronstein’s failure was caused by a tendency to underestimate endgame technique, and a lack of ability in simple positions.  It has been alleged by some that Bronstein was forced by the Soviet authorities to throw this match, and to allow Botvinnik to win. Bronstein never confirmed this, but did later write that it was likely better that he didn’t win the world title, since his free-spirited, artistic personality would have been at odds with Soviet bureaucracy. Bronstein’s father was sometimes secretly in the audience during the 1951 title match games, at a time when he was not officially permitted in Moscow.

In The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein, Genna Sosonko says that Bronstein essentially talked about his match with Botvinnik for the rest of his life. Ben Graff believes that for him Bronstein’s error was a sign that even the most brilliant among us are all too human. There, in that moment when the thing he had worked for all his life was in his grip, he let it slip. Graff says ‘I think any of us in his position would have been left with a sense of ‘if only…’

Boris Gelfandwas born in Minsk, Belarus,June 24th, 1968, then part of the Soviet Union. In 1998 he emigrated to Israel and settled in Rishon Le Zion, where he became Israel’s top ranking chess player.

A six-time World Championship Candidate (1991, 1994-95, 2002, 2007, 2011, 2013), he won the Chess World Cup 2009 and the 2011 Candidates Tournament, making him Challenger for the World Chess Championship 2012. Although the match with defending champion Viswanathan Anand finished level at 6–6, Gelfand lost the deciding rapid tie break 2½–1½.

(Evan Rabin Note- I was studying abroad in Israel in 2011 and was pleasantly surprised to see Boris Gelfand on cover of Jerusalem Post day he won candidates.”

Gelfand has won major tournaments at Wijk aan Zee, Tilburg, Moscow, Linares and Dos Hermanas. He has competed in eleven Chess Olympiads and held a place within the top 30 players ranked by FIDE from January 1990 to October 2017.

The great Lev Abramovich Polugaevsky was born in Mogilev, Belarus, November 20th, 1934. He died on 30th August 1995 (age 60). He was a Belarusian/Soviet grandmaster.

Before becoming a professional player, Polugaevsky was an engineer who used his spare time to fill thick notebooks that were packed to the gunnels with highly-original chess analysis. Those notebooks became famous when Polugaevsky’s remarkable theoretical novelties contained within them began to score him a series of victories in the very strong Soviet championships.

He developed his own signature system known as the “Polugaevsky Variation” of the Sicilian Najdorf with 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Bg5 e6 7 f4 b5!? that became something of an obsession for him – and his must-read 1977 classic, “Grandmaster Preparation” (translated from the original Russian title, Birth of a Variation), is hailed by everyone as a testament to the pioneering research gleaned from those legendary notebooks on how the author developed and refined his variation through years of exhaustive trial and error.

Polugaevsky was one of the world’s best players from the late 1960s until the early 1980s; along the way, playing two epic candidates’ matches with Viktor Korchnoi, one in 1977 and another in 1980.

On his grave in the Cimetière de Montparnasse, Paris, there is a granite book engraved with the words “Sicilian Love”.

David Janowski 1868 -1927 Belarusian Polish born French Grandmaster

Born into a Jewish Polish family in Wołkowysk, Russian Empire (now Belarus), he settled in Paris around 1890 and began his professional chess career in 1894. He won tournaments in Monte Carlo 1901, Hanover 1902 and tied for first at Vienna 1902. In 1915 he left Europe for the United States and spent the next nine years there before returning to Paris.

Janowski played very quickly and was known as a sharp tactician who was devastating with the bishop pair. Capablanca annotated some Janowski games with great admiration, and said, “when in form [he] is one of the most feared opponents who can exist”. Capablanca noted that Janowski’s greatest weakness as a player was in the endgame, and Janowski reportedly told him, “I detest the endgame.” American champion Frank Marshall remembered Janowski’s talent and his stubbornness. In “Marshall’s Best Games of Chess” he wrote that Janowski “could follow the wrong path with greater determination than any man I ever met!” Reuben Fine remembered Janowski as a player of considerable talent, but a “master of the alibi” with respect to his defeats. Fine said that his losses invariably occurred because it was too hot, or too cold, or the windows were open too far, or not far enough.

In July–August 1914, he was playing an international chess tournament, the 19th DSB Congress (German Chess Federation Congress) in Mannheim, Germany, with four wins, four draws and three losses (seventh place), when World War I broke out. Players at Mannheim representing countries now at war with Germany were interned. He, as well as Alexander Alekhine, was interned but released to Switzerland after a short internment. Janowski then moved to the United States. He died in France on 15 January 1927 of tuberculosis.

The Janowski Indian Defense is named after him.

 Abraham Kupchick 1892 – 1970 Belarusian/Polish born

Born in Brest, then a part of Russia, Abraham Kupchik immigrated to the United States in 1903 and was one of the strongest American players from 1914 to 1940. In 1923 he shared first place with U.S. champion Frank Marshall at the 9th American Chess Congress. Three years later, Kupchik earned second place at the Lake Hopatcong chess tournament behind José Raúl Capablanca and ahead of Géza Maróczy, Frank Marshall, and Edward Lasker. In the 1935 Chess Olympiad, Kupchik earned team gold and individual bronze medals playing Board 3 for the United States. His accomplishments also included playing Board 9 in the famed 1945 U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. radio match and winning the prestigious Manhattan Chess Club Championship a record 13 times between 1913/14 and 1936/1937.

Information source:

Yury Shulman was born April 29th, 1975 in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus was then a part of the Soviet Union. 

Shulman started formal chess lessons with coach Tamara Golovey when he was six years old. He went on to study under International Master Albert Kapengut at age 12, and subsequently under the guidance of GM Boris Gelfand. He achieved his grandmaster title in 1995. Shulman moved to the United States in 1999 to attend the University of Texas at Dallas, a three-time national championship college team.

Shulman completed undergraduate studies from the State Academy of Sports, Belarus, and has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and an M.B.A. specializing in Finance from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Shulman has remained among the top U.S. chess players since moving to the country. He tied for first in the 2001 World Open, was runner up in the 2006 U.S. Chess Championship, and winner of the 2006 U.S. Open Chess Championship. Shulman tied for third place in the 2007 US Chess Championship and qualified for the 2007 FIDE world championship. On May 21, 2008, Shulman won the 2008 US Chess Championship. On May 25, 2010, he tied for first in the U.S. Chess Championship in St. Louis, losing in a rapid tie-break with GM Gata Kamsky, who became the US champion. He formerly played in the now defunct U.S. Chess League, for the strong St. Louis Archbishops, whose roster included Hikaru Nakamura.

A gambit (from ancient Italian gambetto, meaning “to trip”) is a chess opening in which a player, more often White, sacrifices material, usually a pawn, with the hope of achieving a resulting advantageous position. So, there we are, I have made my opening gambit, maybe My sacrifice has been the time spent getting to this point.  If this opening leads me to more Belarusians with a story to tell, or even to learn of that chess set that travelled in a suitcase from Belarus to another world, then that will certainly be a move to an advantageous position. It’s all to play for. Your move.

The Together Plan is a UK registered Charity and a member of the AEPJ – European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture, under the Council of Europe. Please do get in touch if you are from Belarus or know someone who is.

The Together Plan runs a Jewish genealogical research service, and would be happy to help assist people looking for archive materials in Belarus.

And the twist in the tale is that Evan Rabin has now discovered he has ancestry in Belarus! Go figure.

For more information:

Contact: Debra Brunner


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