Saturday, September 6, 2008

I am the Greatest!

Source: Ha'Sachmat, Sept. 1936, pp. 6-7. Click to enlarge.

Moshe Czerniak, Israel's "Mr. Chess", caused strong--and opposing--reactions among Israeli players. The majority (esp. the many students of the game he had) saw him not only as a chess legend, but also as a very nice person. Yet, a minority couldn't stand him and considered him a vain, arrogant man.


It was not inaccessibility: he had not a drop of haughtiness in him and was willing to play chess with anyone, anytime. It was not having a cold or aloof personality: he was a natural extrovert, an extremely friendly and charming man who made friends easily (unlike Yosef Porat, whom everybody respected as a perfect gentlemen and had not an enemy in the world, but few were close to.) It was not under-appreciation of his opponents: his writings are full of praise for them, even--perhaps especially--in games played against himself. It was not an attempt to portray himself as unbeatable: he published, as an editor, games he lost, including a loss to Sonja Graf (64 Mishbatzot [64 Squares], No. 5-6 (June-July) 1956, p. 99). For a professional player of Czerniak's generation, admitting in print he lost to a woman--even if she was the strongest, or second strongest (after Vera Menchik) female player in the world--was quite a brave act. What's more, he had no reason to think his readers in Israel would encounter the rather obscure game (Czerniak-Graf, Mar de Plata, 1942) unless he "confessed" it.

The problem was his annotations. Czerniak was quite objective about other people's games. But, as Moshe Cna'an (one of his students) told me, when he annotated his own games, all objectivity went out the window. His own games are full of excalmation marks and long annotations--both for himself and his opponent--while other games, including those by world champions, are given far less attention. Every game of his is a clash of chess titans, in which he defeats his powerful opponent with even more powerful brilliance.

I am exagerrating, but not by much, as checking his numerous published games shows. In the above photograph we see a wholly typical example. In game #3 (Abram Blass - Meir Rauch, 1-0), the winner gets two '!' & one '!!' (marked with a red dot) while the loser only gets one '?'. There are five text annotations. But in game #4 (Moshe Czerniak - Abram Blass, 1-0) the winner gets four '!' and one '!!' (marked with a green dot) and the loser another '!' (no '?'). There are 18 text annotations--one of the reasons the game takes up nearly three times as much space despite only being a few moves longer (40 vs. 31).

Other players--Howard Staunton, Alexander Alekhine, and Jose-Raul Capablanca, to name a few--were also accused (rightly or wrongly) by some of puffing themselves up with self-praise, and, in Stauton's case in particular, of praising their opponents only to make themselves look good. (See Edward Winter's amazing "chess notes", now online at , and search for "anti-Stuanton"). Without claiming these accusations are necessarily true (I tend to agree with Winter's claim that describing the masters of the past as "crazy", "incredibly arrogant", "narcissistic", etc. is simply libel), there is no doubt that Capablanca, Alekhine, and Stuanton did think of themselves as the best players in the world. They were just that in their day, of course, so their views were certainly not "narcissistic" or "delusions of grandeur"; but nevertheless believing this about themselves was bound to be seen by some as bragging.

But Czerniak's case is that his self-praise was not like that at all. As noted above, apart from being personally a very nice man, he never considered himself unbeatable or superior to his opponents (let alone the best player in the world). He simply suffered from the common amateur malady of always thinking he's winning and that his moves are the best on the board. (As Cna'an, Shrenzel, and Yochanan Afek--to name a few of his "boys"--told me.) A natural extrovert, he saw no reason to hide his beliefs in print. Is it his fault, after all, that he plays well?!

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