Chess in Jerusalem – a journey through time

by Yochanan Afek
1/28/2015 – Next month the city of Jerusalem will host the European individual championship, arguably the most important chess event in its 3000-year history. There have been many ups and downs for chess life in Israel's capital, and many personalities who contributed to promoting the noble game. In a two-part report Yochanan Afek traces the development in the past and current centuries.

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Chess in Jerusalem – a journey through time

By Yochanan Afek

"The Chess Game" – painting by contemporary Israeli artist Boris Dubrov

There has been chess life in the Israeli capital for almost a whole century. In fact it was the cradle of chess in Israel (or Palestine-Eretz Israel before 1948) in the beginning of the 20th century. The country’s first chess club was the International Chess Club founded in Jerusalem in 1918 by Sir Ronald Storrs, the first military governor of Jerusalem and Judea, following the conquest of Palestine by the British army under the command of General Allenby.

"International Chess Club" was an expression of the hope that it would be a chess club that would unite the different nations – local Arabs and Jews, and European Christians of various nations who were then stationed in the city – and help promote peace and understanding. Unfortunately the club closed within a year of its founding, due to the increasing tensions between the Arabs and Jews.

Ronald Storrs platying Rabbi Citron [photo from Rafi Kfir's web site in Hebrew]

A genuine chess enthusiast, Strorrs also helped to organize in 1919 the first championship of the city which was won by Shaul Gordon, the founder and director of Mercantile Bank and a pivotal figure in the city’s public and cultural life of those days.

The International Chess Club did not last long owing to the increasing inter-communal tension in the city. However the void was soon filled by Dr. Aryeh Leob Mohilever (1903-1996), one of the country’s strongest players at the time, who was among the founders in 1922 of the first Jewish chess club in Palestine: the Emanuel Lasker Club in Beit Haam (it was only later that big clubs commemorating the second world champion were also founded in Tel-Aviv and Haifa).

This very rare picture of Aryeh Leob Mohilever, who was extremely modest,
so that the only image we could find was one published after his death.

Mohilever was involved in almost every local chess activity for the next 50 years and in fact was active in his club for nearly seven decades! He was a genuine pioneer in almost any aspect of chess life in the would-be Israel in general and in his hometown of Jerusalem in particular. He was the first champion of Lasker club in the years 1922-24, the first one to publish chess problems already in 1921 (in Egyptian Post and then in Palestine Post), the first chess columnist in a daily newspaper (Doar Hayom) and the first editor of an experimental chess magazine (Hashachmat 1923-24 with four issues only).

It was in the beginning of the twenties that the first regular club and interclub tournaments were held (though still with the help of wrist watches rather than real chess clocks). Of the first two decades we should mention also three unique visits of world-class Jewish players in the thirties: Akiba Rubinstein (1931), Salo Flohr (1934) and Jacques Mieses (1936).

Akiba Rubinstein giving a simul in Palestine 1931.
In front of him, supporting his head, is the national poet of Israel Chaim Nachman Bialik

In 1934 the strong master Moshe Czerniak, a newcomer from Poland, settled in Jerusalem. The name of Jerusalem Lasker Club was subsequently changed to Akiba Rubinstein Club, remaining as such until its fusion in the nineties with another major club and consequently disappearing following Mohilever’s death in the mid-nineties. The club had for many years a strong team in the premier division and even organized an International tournament right after Tel-Aviv Olympiad in 1964. Its leading player for many years was NM Joseph Richter, a famous lawyer in Jerusalem.

In the next decades three other strong clubs were founded in Jerusalem, all affiliated to major national sport federations: Hapoel, ASA and Elitzur. Prominent organizers of numerous events and youth tuition were Arieh Rosenberg, Hertzel Sigalov, Icho Gur and Yanai Simchon. Yoel Temanlis, the most promising junior player in town at the time, won the national youth title in 1969. Generations of strong players spent their academic studies years in the reputed Hebrew university, and just like quite a few members of the academic staff, played an important role in the capital’s chess life.

The mythological Café Ta'amon (photo by Hans Albrecht Lusznat) and later Café Sport in the city center, hosted chess enthusiasts from all walks of life. In the seventies a wave of new immigrants came from the Soviet Union: Itzchak Veinger and his wife Luba Kristol, Victor Manjevich, Shaul Dudakov as well as Alexander Ginsberger from Rumania, to name just a few strong masters, settled in Jerusalem and reinforced its clubs.

Jerusalem hosted in 1967 the World Youth Championship, won by the little-known Julio Kaplan from Puerto Rico ahead of would-be well known GMs Keene, Timman and Hubner! However the strongest International tournament in Jerusalem so far was held in 1986 to protest against the exclusion of Israel from Dubai Olympiad. Leading western grandmasters, notably Victor Korchnoi and Genna Sosonko, who boycotted the Olympic Games that year as an act of solidarity, took part.

The new millennium however witnessed a considerable recession in Jerusalem chess life mainly due to serious conflicts between the clubs, the retirement of numerous past players and organizers and a lack of new forces to carry on the torch. Nevertheless a surprising turning point in this saga suggests that a new era has started and the best is yet to come…

The author was assisted by Dr. Avital Pilpel’s weblog (link below), his own memories and a conversation
with Yoel Temanlis.
Get the full story in the upcoming part two : Jeruchess – the great revival!


Jewish Chess History – Chess History in Palestine and Israel

Yochanan was born (1952) and grew up in Tel-Aviv, and now lives in Amsterdam. He has been involved in nearly every aspect of chess, both as a professional and a volunteer, for the last 50 years, and remains an active player, composer, writer, organizer, trainer and commentator. He is an International Master and International Arbiter for chess as well as International Grandmaster for chess composition, and the author of Extreme Chess Tactics (Gambit 2017) and Practical Chess Beauty (Quality Chess 2018).


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