Israeli Chess Master makes all the right moves

Israeli chess master Ronen Har-Zvi. Photo courtesy The Chess Club and Scholastic Center.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

For three weeks, Ronen Har-Zvi, a chess grandmaster at age 18, has been Chess Master in Residence at The Chess Club and Scholastic Center, 4657 Maryland Ave. in the Central West End, giving classes and demonstrations to promote the game he topped as a teenager growing up in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. The Light caught up with him last week. He’s 36, married and lives in Boston. He continues his stint at The Chess Club through Feb. 8, though he will visit the Millstone Campus in Creve Coeur for a talk at Covenant House (see infobox).

What’s the origin of your name?

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Har-Zvi is an Israeli name. Both sides of my family are from Poland. Most of my mother’s family came to Israel close to 200 years ago. I am probably the seventh generation there. My grandmother was living in Jaffa, speaking Arabic. My father’s side came to Israel a tiny bit before World War II. Most of his family died in the Holocaust. It was just him, his sister, his parents.

Where did you go to college?

I never went to college. I was a chess professional since I was 12 or 13. I was in the army for three years. The army is very considerate of people who have skills. They have special status for sports people. People raise an eyebrow when I say I was a chess player in the army. It’s a brain game. I was there for a few hours every day, not really doing anything. Because the army is for everyone, in Israel it doesn’t matter. 

Has your Israeli passport caused problems?

Yesterday I had a discussion with someone about this. In my family, everyone was a rabbi. I am a big exception. It’s part of chess to write down the moves because there is a time control for each move. Some tournaments are on Saturday. I said, “Look, I can play on Shabbat, but I cannot write down the moves.” I grew up playing chess against my grandfather, a very religious man. We played on holidays. Most of the organizers were okay. There was one tournament in Austria where they didn’t allow me [to not write down my moves]. So I left.

I just spoke with someone who’s going to a tournament in Dubai, and they invited me to go there. I really want to go, but I don’t know.

Israelis go to Dubai all the time, don’t they?

You’re right. Chess players sometimes get paranoid because you suspect what your opponent is doing. It’s part of the game. Dubai—I really want to be there. I will write to the organizers and see what they think.

Where is the best place to play?

When you are a kid, you like a nice hotel, if you play the tournament well, that’s the best place. I played my first world championship under 14 in Wisconsin. I saw the fountain drinks: Push a button, and you get unlimited drinks. That’s a miracle. I finished at the very top, but I remember the fountain. 

What sort of mind makes a good player?

It’s a bit arrogant to say chess players have a high IQ, but it’s true. Most world champions are amazing. You need to have memory because the amount of data you remember is endless. You need to be able to calculate, to connect patterns. 

Are these innate skills?

It depends on the level. At the high level, it’s like any sport. For some reason, nature gave [champions] something it didn’t give others. In chess, it’s those things, without mentioning physical ability.

When you play a world championship match, you are stuck somewhere for one month, two months, five to six hours every two days. You’d better be in amazing physical shape. 

How do you stay fit?

I walk a lot. During the game, I am one who does not like to sit and think while my opponent is thinking. I walk many miles every time I play.

How long is a game?

Three to six hours, if you’re well matched. No break, straight through. Each player gets two hours for the first 40 moves. For the next 20 moves, you get another hour. Let’s say another half an hour for the rest of the game. A game can last more than six hours. I had two games that lasted seven hours, one after the other. Back to back, with sleeping in between.

Are some people better at chess than others?

Yes. Chess is a Russian game. Russians have been best for about a hundred years. And it’s a very Jewish game. Somehow it is a part of tradition. The Jewish brain works very well. The amount of Jewish world champions is beyond any proportion.

Does chess apply to business, politics and the battlefield?

It’s very much the same skills. I know some chess players who are into hedge funds and doing extremely well. It’s about war. Where you’re going to put your pieces, what you’re going to do? Are you ahead? You should think more about attacking. Are you behind? You should think about defending.

Those things every chess player considers many times during one game. Everything is on the table. There is nothing like, “I have this weapon you don’t know about.” It’s a very fair game.