The defeat – respectable but stinging, historic yet still painful – cannot deprive Boris Gelfand of his deserved glory. One doesn’t need to be a great chess player to realize that. There, even our prime minister, the patron of successful figures in all sectors, was captured by a diligent Government Press Office photographer pointing to a giant screen showing a chessboard and some pawns. Just like the PM, those who aren’t familiar with the rules of the game, or who are still sure that checkmate means “the king is dead,” followed the slew of reports from the slow, quiet and nerve-wrecking game.
Checkmate means “the king is neutralized” or “the king is helpless,” not “the king is dead.” As opposed to the three-dimensional life beyond the striking, symmetrical chess board, the desire to win the game must be accompanied with wisdom, not strength. The more one plays, one realizes victories are nice (did you know that the most successful Israeli sport in terms of personal and team achievements is chess?), yet the game itself is what grants those who stick with it broad vision, the ability to plan long-term moves, perspective, strategy – and much, much calm.
One of the most beautiful sights in my view is that of a child who reads a book, and suddenly laughs to himself. A no less beautiful sight is that of two children playing chess during a break at school: If you ever saw it, you certainly know that they can suddenly become very serious, very focused, quiet and completely unaware of the great commotion bordering on violence raging around them.
Had Gelfand won, it would surely be easy to convince many more children to learn the game because it has the shiny promise of glory, yet the defeat should not deter those in charge of these matters. Gelfand’s achievement in a daunting competition against the world champion is a good reason to ask Education Ministry officials: Please, add the game to the core studies at elementary schools.
Indeed, children in some Israeli kindergartens already play chess, and in many schools the game has already turned into part of the break routine. With the encouragement of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, chess is more popular than ever, or at least as popular as it was in the Jewish world in the Diaspora. However, we can – and in my view should – teach it to every ordinary citizen in the education system. As a game, but also as a parable.
No need to kill enemies
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi was the first Hebrew writer who reminded his readers (in his book The Kuzari,) that the game’s supremacy has to do with thinking, rather than physical strength, writing at a time when the game was used as a common metaphor for life itself, or at least for the need to learn how to live right. He was not the only one who fell in love with the lessons that can be drawn from chess. Another genius, Benjamin Franklin, recommended the game to those who seek to learn how to plan, strategize, and show restraint. Now, admit that the ability to plan, strategize and show restraint is needed like oxygen to the small nation Gelfand lived within in blessed anonymity until his moments of glory.
This ability is needed by children, but also by prime ministers and defense ministers who feel the urge to produce a pre-war atmosphere, whether this is justified or not. Such skill would be beneficial for greedy captains of industry who only wish to make hefty profits, quickly, without thinking six steps ahead. Consumers who are captive to brand names and feel an urge to purchase and show ownership of the next trend will also benefit.
Mostly, these abilities will be of great help to those who show exaggerated zeal and are certain that their sentiments – in favor or against something, doesn’t matter what – are everything, believing that anyone who thinks differently deserves to be sent to a concentration camp, at least.
Should every Israeli child learn to play chess, we could extract from this game a treasure-trove of shared imagery that would help all of us, even if slightly, in cooling the flames erupting at every corner of the public discourse. It would be possible to create yet another narrow bridge between opposites that are more conflicted than the black and white of the elegant pawns. Maybe it would be possible, on occasion, without any desire to compete, to bring such conflicting parties to sit next to a table with a board and see how they cooperate for a moment and say nothing.
Most of all, it would be possible to teach both children and adults that there is no need to kill your enemies if it’s possible to neutralize them consistently, stubbornly, and wisely.