Israeli Chess Grandmaster makes all the right moves

Seated in front of a wall of portraits of chess legends, Israeli Grandmaster Boris Gelfand speaks at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, located in the Central West End. Photo: Mike Sherwin

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The air is filled with letters and numbers delivered in an unmistakable Eastern European accent as dozens in the audience sit in rapt attention. As he deftly calls out notations representing a series of moves from a recent game, Boris Gelfand seems to have the room every bit as much at his command as the chess pieces he knows so well.

How does he know when to play a time-tested strategy and when to break out on his own, a curious audience member asks.

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“It’s called intuition,” replied the Israeli grandmaster. “You can’t explain it. It comes with experience.”

That’s something Gelfand has plenty of. He’s been playing chess since age five. Now at 43, this former leader of two medal-winning Israeli World Chess Olympiad teams is fast approaching the apex of the sport and is set to challenge Viswanathan Anand, the present world champion sometime next year.

In town Sunday to visit family in Chesterfield, Gelfand stopped by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis in the Central West End to recount two of his favorite matches blow-by-blow to a group of the sport’s local enthusiasts.

“It’s really exciting,” said Mike Wilmering, the club’s communications specialist. “Boris Gelfand is potentially the future world champion of chess and we’re ecstatic to have him here. It’s a great treat for our members to hear a lecture from one of the world’s best players. He is a national hero in Israel.”

He also seemed to be a hero to the crowd who appeared transfixed by his analyses of strategies and countermoves, punctuated with occasional humorous observations and one-liners.

“He just wants to checkmate me,” Gelfand deadpanned with a smile discussing an opponent’s aggressive strategy. “No compromise.”

Interviewed after his talk, Gelfand spoke about his love for the game.

“A lot of things about it excite me,” he said. “Looking for ideas, looking for great games that other players have played. Chess is a magnificent game. It’s at the border of art, science and sport.”

Introduced to the activity by his father, the Minsk native devoured a book on the topic within a day or two. From there, he was hooked.

He said that he knew many would be cheering him on back home in Israel. Did the pressure bother him?

“If you get nervous, you have to control your nerves better than your opponent controls his,” he chuckled.

Still, he is looking forward to playing Anand, whom he called a very formidable competitor. He has gone up against him previously, winning five matches to Anand’s six.

“It’s a big challenge and a big honor to play such a world championship match,” Gelfand said. “A lot of players fight for it their whole career. Some succeed. Some not. I’m very privileged that I succeeded.”

He said one intriguing part of chess is in studying classic matches. The most memorable games, he said, live forever.

“There are some masterpieces that will last for years like a music composition or an art picture,” he said. “In the books in this club there are collections of the best games ever played by certain masters winning certain tournaments.”

But even for those who aren’t destined to play as grandmasters, the game offers a great deal, he said. It teaches qualities like concentration, ingenuity, respect for one’s opponent, and playing by the rules.

“I really believe in its value and I know a lot of people I meet who are very successful in other fields who played chess when they were younger. It really helps in life,” Gelfand said. “Chess is growing as an educational tool in more and more parts of the world both in chess curriculum and in professional chess.”

One of those parts of the world is St. Louis, which has an increasingly active chess scene. In fact, the World Chess Hall of Fame will be setting up shop across from the Central West End chess organization in September. Gelfand’s appearance happened to coincide with the club’s third anniversary. Since opening, it has tried to promote the activity to schools and community organizations.

The chess club is even partnering with the Jewish Community Center to offer classes for beginners. Designed for 16 students each, the sessions are set to begin at the Creve Coeur and Chesterfield JCC locations next month.

“Our mission is really to get as many kids in St. Louis to play chess as we can so we focus on every community in town,” said Alex Vergilesov, the club’s scholastics coordinator. “It’s a wonderful beginning.”

Jim Voelker, a board member with the club, said Gelfand’s appearance was a very stimulating event for area chess players. He liked the in-depth nature of the hour-and-a-half talk, which covered only two matches.

“Sometimes people in that time period do maybe four games but they are more superficial,” he said. “This way I have a feeling we got more and understood the games better.”

Club member Aleksey Kazakevich, a University City resident, said it was very enlightening to hear such a high-level lecture from a figure like Gelfand. Like the grandmaster, he is a native of Belarus himself.

“I am a full-time college student and I don’t have as much time to dedicate to the game,” said the 26-year-old who sometimes attends services at Young Israel, “so I appreciate the opportunity like this to have someone of that caliber to come here and talk about chess. It’s a great opportunity for people in the St. Louis community.”

Last time Gelfand visited St. Louis was in 2002, well before the club’s opening.

“It is fantastic that there is such a center providing chess education in schools which is a big agenda now in many countries,” Gelfand said. “I hope there will be more places around the U.S. and the world like this.”