Saturday, September 6, 2008

Czerniak, the World's only Professional Amateur Chess Player

Moshe Czerniak in the Palestinian championship, 1936. Source: Ha'Sachmat, Jan. 1937, p. 28.

In the last post we talked about why Moshe Czerniak seemed so vain to some people. But it was just this that made him so charming to others. Czerniak, to his dying day, was an amateur at heart.

Professional chess players, out of necessity, adopt a severely objective view of their own games. They also conserve their strength by not playing too much with (actual or relative) patzers, except perhaps for pay during simultaneous displays. They usually attempt to keep a draw at hand first--especially as black--and often offer draws when there's still a lot to be done on the board, simply because they judge the position as objectively equal. They play positionally, trying to accumulate small advantages without taking unncessary risks. They play "for the crosstable", giving away draws when it preserves their place in the tournament.

Czerniak would have none of that. He always was sure his attack is brilliant and that he's winning. He would play with anyone at any time. He would always look for a win: his goal was the opponent's king, not "plus over equal" as white and equality as black. He would see a draw offer almost as an insult: not to himself so much, but to chess in general. ('If you are playing for draws--' he told his students, as Moshe Cna'an and Israel Shrentzel told me, '--why do you bother playing chess at all? Don't you like to play chess?') He played tactically, preferring the open, risky games, in search for the beautiful sacrifice and mating attack. He would always try to win, no matter what his place is in the tournament--even when a draw would assure him first place.

In short, Czerniak was an amateur at heart, a man who loved the game for its own sake, especially its exciting attacks and sacrifices, just like a ten-year-old who learned the moves last month. Czerniak kept this innocent love of the game all his life. Unlike the ten-year-old, he knew (of course) how to play for a draw or maximize small positional advantages. But he usually simply refused to do so, preferring the beautiful attack.

Czerniak was that rare type who gained knowledge of chess without losing his innocent love of it.

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