Album 61 - An intimate award-winning documentary

by Albert Silver
8/9/2015 – The year was 2010. Boris Gelfand had ascended the massive world championship ladder to earn the right to battle Vishy Anand for the title. His entire life had been dedicated to making this moment possible. A camera crew followed him throughout the match, filming the drama involving not only him and his team, but all those who helped him prepare the way. A fascinating documentary.

It took the better part of three years to be released to the public, whether due to financial reasons to create the film imagined or because the project mutated as it was recorded, it is hard to say. Whatever the reason, the director Halil Efrat has done a great service in the high quality documentary, depicting not only a champion forged from his earliest years, but a system and structure that westerners can only wonder at.

The film opens with Boris Gelfand taking the elevator in a somewhat non-descript building interior. He is a combination of calm and nervousness: one the one hand displaying a demeanor and body language that suggest he is perfectly under control, yet on the other pacing back and forth as he waits for his ride.

His destination is soon revealed: the first game of a life-defining match: the 2010 World Championship final. Win or lose, he enters a very select group of players who fended off all rivals, overcame all obstacles, to earn the right to stake his claim on the game's greatest title.

GM Ilya Smirin explains in the background the significance of this to Boris Gelfand

While this happens, the camera cuts to a mysterious scene with documents, statistics, comments
on his size, weight, even foot size. We are left wondering what this means. Is this some secret
KGB file on the player? The dates are all from the former Soviet Union after all.

The team behind him is not insignificant. From a chess point of view, we are introduced to his
compatriot GM Rodshtein, as well as Russian GM Tomashevsky and GM Eljanov from Ukraine.

This is not the only aspect of his team, as we see he brought someone to specifically help
with his state of mind, and overall well-being

Among the many testimonies are comments by players who have already trod that very path,
such as Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. Kramnik recounts that in spite of eating the exact
same as always, and not doing any sports, he lost roughly ten kilos during his match against Garry.

Again the camera cuts to albums, but much more intimate ones, with baby pictures of Boris,
already quite recognizable it must be said

The labels under the pictures are now clarified. These are the dedicated documents of Boris
from his earliest days, kept meticulously by his father. The comment above is one of the descriptions
Gelfand's father added.

Father Gelfand kept more than simply a record of pictures and clippings of his son. He kept it all,
from airplane tickets, to luggage stubs and hotel keycards. It was his hobby and passion, and
throughout his life, he amassed a staggering 60 albums. Had he lived, this fight for the title
would assuredly have been a worthy Album 61.

Boris Gelfand's father recognized his son's talent early on, and living in the Soviet Union, this sort of thing never went unnoticed. At the age of six he was enrolled in a special school run by chess coach Eduard Zelkind.

Zelkind explains that there was enormous pressure to produce results with the children in
his care. Not by the parents so much as by the state that paid for it.

In hindsight, after having coached chess in the US for 25 years, he realizes now how unbelievable
it all was. The children were forced to go to the special school early on, and those on teams would
come five times a week, training three hours a day, not including assignments! And don't think this
excluded going to regular school and classes.

This chess centric life-development still persists, with families hoping their children may
achieve elite success with proper guidance and support.

All this to one day, after decades of dedication and sacrifice, to reach just such a moment:
a chance to become the absolute World Chess Champion

Although many of these coaches, trainers, and friends, are long removed from Gelfand's
present-day life, they all played a significant role in helping the Russian-born Israeli to reach
here. They all came to witness the match, and are deeply involved emotionally.

As he grew up, his results allowed Boris to go abroad and compete at a time when such
privileges were far and few between if ever. Gelfand's father told his son to write and allow
him to see the world beyond the Iron Curtain through his eyes. It is a poignant request.

In the end, in spite of his failure to achieve his ultimate goal, we are not asked to pity him.
Quite the contrary: the dedication, care, and love by his family and friends are heart-warming.
Seconds before the very rapid tiebreak to decide his fate starts, Gelfand's mother winks at him...

... and don't for an instant think he was oblivious to it. We see him clearly acknowledge it,
and draw strength from it. This is yet another example of the quality of the filming, able to
capture this intimate moment and allow the viewers to share in it.

The game is followed all over the city, country and world

As we know, Boris Gelfand was unsuccessful in his attempt to win the title, though he can
hold his head high knowing he came as close as is possible without actually winning it. Arriving
home from Moscow, he receives a hero's welcome with his children running into his arms.

The film was obviously a work of love as much as anything, and it would be easy to overlook that the filmmaker could not possibly have started the project with its final shape in mind. Naturally, the idea of filming the final match and the various people who contributed to this lifelong goal were planned, but consider the title Album 61. The 60 albums by his father  were undoubtedly discovered during the process and the sheer scope of it and its many-layered implications changed the structure of the documentary.  It is a sign of the director Halil Efrat's talent and flexibility that this was embraced and helped give it the dimension it achieved in the end.

The film deservedly won recognition by winning the Art Direction prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival, as well
as the award for "Best Film" at the São Paulo film festival. The film was included in an interview published in
2014
at ChessPro.ru, and lasts just over an hour.


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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excalibur2 excalibur2 8/9/2015 08:36
Very good documentary. I enjoyed it. Boris Gelfand truly is a great champion!
genem genem 8/9/2015 11:31
Highly skilled director, great work. My only complaint is the omission at 43:10 (mm:ss), which I described below.
.....

"Boris doesn't feel that he's going to win or going to lose. He's in the right [mental] state, he's fighting,..." (15:15)

(8th day, Game 6, Gelfand white, Anand black. Later ends in a draw. 15:42) The game will be very tense since the first 5 games ended in a draw. It's emotionally difficult to cope with such a long stretch of draws. You think to yourself: Damn, I can't win and if I lose one game I'm finished.

(17:30, V.Kramnik says...) I'm familiar with the mental stress they're feeling. When I played Kasparov I lost 10 kilos during the competition even though I wasn't dieting. ... The stress was overwhelming. I ate as I should. I didn't do any sports,...

(17:55) Boris is an excellent tactician. I know because I've known him since childhood. Not only were we both born in Belarus and are now Israeli citizens, we've been friends since 1978 and our relationship - we have a long history together. I visited his house often as a boy.

(18:36) [Boris's father] realized when Boris was 6 that his son had a great talent for chess and that it was his calling.

(24:33, Boris's one-time coach) It's different in America. Kids don't specialize in anything in particular.

(25:04) How was it possible? It's madness. How can one demand that a child play chess for so many hours? It seems unreal to me now.

(30:25) They learned all Anand's games by heart. They looked for his weak points, and that's hard work, believe me. I don't think they sleep nights.
[GeneM: Reminds me from the book - From London to Elista - how Kramnik's second slept during the match games, so they could wake up and analyze them. There were few other opportunities to sleep.]

(31:20, Game 7, Gelfand white, will win 1-0, first nondraw)
(34:32, Anand moves 23.. g7-g5?.) g5, wow. Wow. That was unexpected.
(36:15, Anand resigns after 38. Nc5xe6, +8.6 Fritz eval. Clocks reads 2:52 White, 0:55 Black)

(43:10, Poor decision by movie director to skip over Gelfand's blunder 16.. Qf3xh1/R?? in Game 8, and go directly to Gelfand's resignation. Why skip? Directory showed crowd's reactions during final stages of Gelfand's victory in Game 7. And again the documentary skipped the final two games of the tie-break, including the final move and moment when Gelfand lost the match. Two very strange omissions, perhaps as an emotional concession to the Gelfand clan?)

(57:15, near end of first speed game for tie-break) This is an unusual situation. It's rare that the fate of the world champion title rests on a tie-breaker in a speed chess game.
(GeneM: No, not rare since matches were crushed down to 12 games, and speed chess was adopted for tie-break.)

(1:02:54, after tie-break game 2, won by Anand) Child: Will you teach me when you get back? Gelfand: Of course. as soon as I get back we'll continue our chess lessons.
(GeneM: We see lots of professional baseball and football players who are children of former professional sports players. But maybe none in chess - at the grandmaster level?)
.
Offramp Offramp 8/10/2015 11:50
It was the only WC match with the 40+ players since Alekhine-Bogoljubov 1934. I thought Gelfand played badly. Not enough vouloir or pouvoir.
Tartakower777 Tartakower777 8/13/2015 11:27
Quite a nice documentary.
It teaches us how important the role of parents was for the Polgar and Gelfand's generation and how it still is important for a Magnus Carlsen.
Chess is a monomaniac occupation, these prodigies have to be cut off from the outside world.
This is very clearly shown by the childhood years of Gelfand.
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