Friday, November 19, 2010

Hon's "Chess Openings"

Image Credit: A.P.
Shaul Hon's book Ptichot be'Sachmat (1957) [Chess Openings] was a very popular book in Israel -- it reached a fourth edition in 1968, unprecedented for a Hebrew-language chess book. It is notable for a few things:

1). Its first section (pp. 3-40 in the 1968 edition) give a very interesting, if by today's standards somewhat inaccurate, history of chess in the world in general and among Jews (whether in Israel, Palestine, or elsewhere) in particular. Specifically, Hon actually asked and received a reply from Israel's chief rabbi in 1957, 'The honorable Rabbi Dr. Itzhak (Isaac) Ha'Levi Herzog', as Hon calls him, about chess in Judaism. The Rabbi's reply was that despite certain rabbis who forbade chess, most authorities in Judaism do not forbid (and often even encourage) chess playing, so long as it satisfies certain conditions -- e.g., not playing for money, not on the Shabbath, it does not become an obsession that stops one from studying the Torah, etc.

2). He has an interesting theory (pp. 49-55, ibid) about why the chess pieces are placed or move as they are -- e.g., that rooks are in the corners since that's where the heavy forces would be in the battle, etc. He thinks that pawns capture diagonally because archers would try to hit armored men from the side!

3). The cover for the 1968 edition was by the well-known Israeli caricaturist "Dosh" (Kariel Gardosh).

4). The book, like many books at the time printed in Israel, tried to "Judaise" chess a little bit -- emphasizing the importance of Jewish masters over that of non-Jewish ones, especially those like the anti-semitic Alekhine. E.g., about 1. e4 Nf6 Hon writes (my translation, p. 113 ibid):
This defense is mistakenly named after Alekhine... in reality it was already practiced in the 1880s, but achieved no success. Only after the Jewish Aron Nimzowitsch published a series of articles before WWI calling for the development of pieces over pawns in the opening [i.e., the hypermodern school -- A.P.] -- only then did this defense's time arrive. Alekhine used it successfully in the international tournament in Budapest 1921 and it received his name, but in reality Alekhine mixed the tactical form of this defense with Nimzowitch's strategic ideas. 
Whenever any Jewish player is mentioned, their Judaism is emphasized. E.g., when Tarrasch is mentioned, his Judaism is emphasized, but not, of course, his conversion to Christianity in 1909 (as when discussing 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2, p. 104); and Hon even divided chess history as a whole into the 'romantic stage', the 'strategic stage' -- 'starting with the appearance of the Jewish Steinitz' -- and the 'modern stage' -- developed 'mostly by Jews: Nimzowitch, Reti, Breyer, Dr. Tartakover -- joined later by non-Jews' (p. 24).  

Jews contributed a lot to chess, true, but saying chess would, in effect, be still in the 19th-century romantic school if it weren't for them (as Hon is implying) is hardly established fact.

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