Friday, July 29, 2022

Ben Gurion and Chess

A frequent correspondent notified us of a funny exchange between David Ben-Gurion and Shaul Hon found in Ben Gurion's archives. In 1955, Hon (letter above) asked Ben Gurion to write an introduction to his book, Chess Openings, describing it (technically inaccurately) as "the first chess book in Hebrew." Naturally Hon emphasizes the importance of chess as the "Jewish game," the importance of the book to Zionism under the "for the first time in 2000 years" principle, and flatters Ben Gurion by saying he (Ben Gurion) is known as a chess player. 

Ben Gurion politely refused, noting that while he supports the publication of the book as a worthy goal and would be glad to read it, he is "unjustly suspected" by Hon of having any chess abilities or achievements.

Incidentally, Ben Gurion repeats the same refusal to write an introduction later, in 1966, this this time to a request by Eliahu Shahaf. Again, he supports the publication of the book and even adds that Gat, one of the best Israeli players and a member of his kibbutz, told him about it, but that he doesn't have the chess skills to write an introduction for a chess book. 

The letter is of interest since Ben Gurion gives some details of chess career (or rather lack thereof), noting that he played as a youth (in Russia) but "was never good at the game." Once in Palestine, he hardly played at all, except for a short time in Sejera, against "Meir Rodberg who was a good player."

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Chess and Class War


A frequent correspondent points out to us that in Ha'mashkif had criticism of chess on the second page on the second page of its 13 June 1945 issue. The revisionist newspaper -- its title means "The Observer" -- was that of those in favor of a maximalist Jewish state, as the map on their masthead shows (top image). As such, it was a minority to the general moderate socialist Zionist leadership of the Jews in Palestine at the time. 

The criticism, under the title "Chess and... Class War" (lower image), is not so much of chess itself but of its coverage in the socialist Al Ha'mishmar (then still just Mishmar). The article notes that the reporting in Al Ha'mishmar keeps inserting socialism into the chess column, by, for example, noting that the winner of the Palestinian championship was the "modest worker" Itzhak Aloni, which implies the existence of immodest workers of the despised upper classes. Or, complains Ha'mashkifAl Ha'mishmar's reports about another tournament (a 32-player elimination tournament in "Lasker"; see e.g. Davar, 11 February 1945, p. 3), said they are glad "comrade Aharon Susna," a plumber by profession, won, thus proving the rise of the working class. 

What really got Ha'mashkif's goat was the short story reported by Al Ha'mishmar about Susna. In his youth, a revisionist Zionist came to Susna's town in Poland and wanted to make Jews there join the revisionists. Susna, a good socialist, played chess with him and won - which was reported by Al Ha'mishmar as a victory, not in a chess game, but of the forces of progress.

It seems Ha'maskhif is over-egging the pudding. Calling someone "comrade" (haver) instead of "Mr." was indeed common in socialist papers at the time, but was just a polite figure of speech. Similarly, Aloni being described as a "modest" worker merely indicates he held a junior, as opposed to a senior, position at work. Finally, it is hard to believe Al Ha'mishmar seriously implied the game Susna won against a revisionist in Poland is truly a case of class war. It seems more of a humorous way to frame the story, or rooting for the home team. 

More Chess Art - Book Covers


In the following book, a Hebrew translation of Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon is illustrated by cubist painting by Jacques Villon. It is hardly surprising Villon, the older brother of Marcel Duchamp, was interested in both chess and art.