Thursday 4 December 2008

Chess Masters, or Maybe Not

The Israeli chess team returned from the recent Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany, with the silver medal. This has been hailed as a significant achievement for the Israeli team, which has never previously won a medal. The Israeli team comprised Grandmaster Boris Gelfand, Boris Avrukh, Michael Roiz and 19 year-old Maxim Rodshtein. The winner of the gold medal, for the second time in a row, was Armenia.

There can be no doubting the fantastic influence and contribution made by the Russian immigrants to Israeli chess. Israel appears 7th on the list of the countries with the most Grandmasters. Israel boasts 33 GrandMasters as opposed to the Russians at the top of the list with 156. Armenia, the tournament winner, has 17 GrandMasters and appears in 17th position. On the list of GrandMasters per capita, Israel is even higher up the list at 4th place with 0.526 per 100,000 population. Iceland is at the top of the list with more than 3 GrandMasters per 100,000 population and Armenia is only marginally better than Israel on this list with 0.57 per 100,000 population. So, whichever way one looks at the current status of world chess, Israel has achieved a great result in being beaten into second place by a narrow margin. This, after defeating the Armenian team in a direct contest between the two countries.

Although the Israeli team continues to be dominated by Russian immigrants, the impact of the chess-playing revolution is clear up and down Israel. And this is not limited to those with Russian roots. My young nephews are excellent examples of this. Adar and Noam are nearly 11 and 9 respectively, and are regular kids who have been turned into chess geniuses by effective coaching. All of the members of our family have had to learn this in the most difficult way possible. I will not forget the lesson that was dished out to me, but even more comical was the lesson dished out to my father who considers himself a reasonable player who likes to devise effective strategies. It took Adar only a few moves to completely destroy any pretences that my father may have had of providing a contest of any sort. Noam, then 7 years old, followed closely on his heels. Needless to say, none of us will take up a challenge of playing against them for fear of utter humiliation. Both boys have performed well in the numerous competitions available to children of their age, and this is laying the groundwork for the next generation of Israeli champions. The likelihood is that the Israeli team that attends the next Olympiad will be relying less on players with Russian-sounding names.

Chess is one of those games that is often used in other contexts. It is frequently said that successful negotiating skills require the ability to "play a good game of chess". The reason for this is because it is a good skill to be able to think a number of moves ahead, and to be able to work out a range of responses to various possible moves that the opponent may undertake. It is also used in the context of politics and politicians where the ability to think like a chess player is regarded as a required skill.

It may be, however, that these burgeoning chess-playing skills have not quite reached the upper echelons of Israeli politics and business. Although a number of Russian names are evident in the business and political world, there still seems to be too much short-termism in the decisions and actions taken. These frequently smack of being knee-jerk reactions to cover today's problem without much consideration for the impact that they may have on tomorrow and the next day.

Hopefully the achievements of the Israeli chess team can begin to rub off more broadly on the wider population, particularly business and political leaders, to encourage a greater measure of long-term thinking.

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