Monday, July 9, 2012

Early Mentions of Chess in the Hebrew Press -- 1880

Credit: see below.

Another early mention of chess in the Hebrew-language press is -- again -- HaZefira. On April 27th, 1880 (p. 7), S. Chervhevesky from Odessa [phonetic spelling of the Hebrew שערשעווסקי -- clearly a Polish name, but I am probably mis-transcribing it]. The author notes that chess is called in Hebrew nardshir, based on the mention of a game by that name the Talmud, which Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, whose commentary on the Talmud appears in most editions of it) translates as "chess" [Ishkakish, a corruption of the French echecs] in the Ketubot tractate, p. 61.  

The article describes the pieces, the board, some poetry mentioning chess, the old legend about the Indian sage who asked the king, as a reward, for one grain of wheat on the first square, doubling every square, and so on. It is notable for two reasons. 

First, the author does not mention a queen, but a vizier [משנה למלך], as in the Arab game. Second, the editor, in a footnote, disagrees with the author's claim that nardshir is chess. The reason given? Not any knowledge of chess' history (i.e., the that game was invented in India in the 6th century at the earliest, long after the Talmud's time), but that nardshir is mentioned in the Talmud in the context of a man who complains that his wife plays nardshir excessively, so the editor claims surely the game cannot be chess, but probably "some sort of easy game women like to play". 

I wonder what Susan Polgar would say about that.

Early Mentions of Chess in the Hebrew Press: Lasker - Steinitz 1894

Credit: see below.

In what is an early mention of chess in the Jewish press, on 6/6/1894 (new style -- the paper's cover uses the old style and Hebrew dates), Ha'Zefira (Warsaw) mentions (p. 2) the Lasker-Steinitz match. In the usual dramatic language of the time, the paper notes:
About the game of chess it is proverbially said that it is too serious for a game and too much of a game for a serious occupation. Be that as it may it is remarkable that many of the masters in this wise occupation are Jews, which is evidence that this game agrees with our national talent. It is now much spoken about in the chess world about the latest war between Steinitz and Lasker. Steinitz has been considered until now an unbeatable hero on the chess board, an incomparable old hero. But this Goliath was defeated by the little David, Lasker, about 26 years old, who battled with him in a match and beat him. They are both Jews, and Lasker is a relative of the late political leader [Eduard] Lasker, and is also known for his engineering [perhaps "scientific" or "technical" is a better translation in context -- A.P.] What does chess have to do with Jews? Intelligence, hard work, study -- these are the qualities which the Jews have always excelled in. The history of the Jews and their war with their enemies are very similar to chess, and the Jews are the player which no opposing peace can beat. 
Obviously the love of non-playing writer's penchant for cliches about Jews and chess, or chess and war, had not changed much in the last 120 or so years; nor does the writer bother to give any details apart from the mere fact that Lasker won, or shows any awareness that Lasker's young age was a significant advantage, not a disadvantage, in his match against Steinitz. (Tarrasch allegedly quipped, "the old Steinitz is no longer the Steinitz of old".) It is also curious that Lasker is assumed to be known, if at all, as a cousin of a German politician.


While Tarrasch's pun would work equally well in German, presumably the original language, does anybody have an exact -- original -- quote? Tarrasch is the chess world's Mark Twain, a man which any witty remark could safely be attributed to without any need for verification.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Celebrities and Chess -- Winning, this Time

Reuven Dafni (standing at right),  with other parachutists, Sept. 1944,  Barry, Italy. Credit: 

On Saturday, Feb. 16th, 1946 (reports Davar on Feb. 18th, p. 4), Moshe Marmorosh gave a simultaneous display, (+18 -2). Not noteworthy in itself; but, as the indefatigable Moshe Roytman who alerted us to the report notes, the winner was no other than the parachutist Reuven Dafni, who parachuted into occupied Europe in 1944 with Hanah Senesh and others on a commando mission, and in particular saved her most famous poem, Ashrey Ha'Gafrur [Blessed is the Match] from oblivion, as she gave it to him before going on the mission in which she was caught. Dafni later had a long and honorable public career as a diplomat.

To the non-Israeli readers, an explanation is in order. These Jewish parachutists were trained by the British as commandos, and were inserted, by parachute (usually) or otherwise, into German-occupied Europe. While numbering only 37 men and women, they, like the Jewish Brigade, they were a symbol that, for the first time in 2000 years (as the saying goes) Jews are fighting back -- and, what is more important, not as individuals (there were of course Jewish soldiers in the allies' armed forces), but as representatives of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine.