LONDON — Chess, says Etan Ilfeld, runs in his blood. But even knowing that doesn’t account for the success of the 37-year-old chess master’s bizarre invention, Diving Chess.
Yes, Diving Chess really is a thing, and even more weirdly, it was inspired by Chess Boxing. Ilfeld, who divides his time between London and Israel, devised Diving Chess after seeing the boxing version in London.
“I thought it was kind of stupid, actually. There’s a fighting round and then a round of chess. But it means that someone who is big and strong but not very good at chess could still win. It’s either a knockout or a checkmate,” Ilfeld told the The Times of Israel.
“I thought it would be nice to have some sort of sport version where the body type or the gender didn’t matter. So then I had this epiphany about bringing chess into the pool. Regular chess is played with a clock. If you play in a pool, it depends on breath control,” says Ilfeld.
This is how Diving Chess works: The waterproof, weighted board and magnetic pieces are at the bottom of the pool, and the players take turns diving down and making their move. They can stay down making a decision as long as they can hold their breath.
‘There’s some argument about whether chess is a sport. But Diving Chess is definitely a sport’
“You still have to be a good chess player,” says Ilfeld. “I think it’s exhausting and you have to be able to think under duress. And here, you can never think too long about a move. There’s some argument about whether chess is a sport. But Diving Chess is definitely a sport.”
This year’s Diving Chess championships take place in London next month, two weeks before the mammoth multi-game tournaments which Ilfeld has made his own, the Mind Sports Olympiad, or MSO.
The MSO, comprising about 65 different games, is being held at London’s JW3, the central Jewish community center, and runs for a week in August. Cheerfully, Ilfeld enjoys the teasing notion that the MSO is for Jews who can’t do sports. In fact, the MSO is open to everyone and is a grand celebration of every kind of mental strategy game, from card games to Scrabble, from chess to less well-known board games such as Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan.
“Anyone can come, whether they can play the games or not,” says Ilfeld. “We will have a learning room where our staff will teach people games they don’t know, or people can just leap right in for the tournaments.”
One suspects that there are very serious competitive game-players who will be taking part: There is an overall event called the DecaMentathlon, which is a written examination, over four hours, of 10 different games disciplines. It sounds more like hard work than fun, and Ilfeld agrees, though people come from all over the world to take part in this event and the MSO itself.
There is even a winner of winners event, Pentamind, which celebrates the best overall games player in the world over five different disciplines. The current holder is an Estonian economics professor, Andres Kuusk, who is expected at JW3 this year.
At the other end of the scale is a game called Quoridor which Ilfeld says takes “about 15 seconds” to learn. But the charm of the MSO, he says, lies in the fact that the games are all social and inter-generational.
Ilfeld’s background is that of a stellar academic. Born in Los Angeles (father American, mother Israeli) and educated in Herzliya, he was a prize-winning physics undergraduate at Stanford University in the United States and then went on to achieve a master’s in film studies at University of Southern California in LA, and a second master’s in interactive media from London University’s Goldsmith’s College. En route he served in the IDF and developed his passion for chess (he played in Israel’s national chess league). He is also a competitive strategy player — he won the World Amateur Poker Championship in 2010.
Eight years ago Ilfeld came to study in London and was looking for a chess tournament to play in. He stumbled across the MSO and discovered a wealth of strategy games which appealed to the chess player in him. Eventually he took over as the convenor of the MSO and has brought it to JW3.
Why is it that Jews are so good at mind games, from bridge to chess to Scrabble?
“We are the People of the Book,” Ilfeld laughs, “and we are keen on education. I think games are a form of education because they teach you to think strategically and long-term. In fact, we are having a talk at the MSO this year, on how to relate the lessons learned from games to real life.”
Asked if politicians should hear this talk, Ilfeld immediately reminds me of Natan Sharansky’s many chess games in prison. He doesn’t know which of the current crop of Israeli politicians is also a ferocious game-player.
‘It is part of our cultural DNA that we Jews can argue about anything’
“But it is part of our cultural DNA,” he says, “that we Jews can argue about anything. And games allow you to express different points of view and go with it. And there are also studies to suggest that games-playing sharpens the mind and may ward off Alzheimer’s. So I think games are encouraged, and that is something that not all cultures accept.”
Outside the MSO Ilfeld is involved in publishing contemporary art and films, and runs Watkins Books, London’s oldest Mind, Body and Spirit bookshop, founded in 1893.
MSO 2015 runs at JW3 from August 23 to 31. Run-up events include Diving Chess, a simultaneous chess event at JW3 in which Ilfeld will play multiple competitors, and a training day in which the MSO crew will teach people how to play Ticket to Ride.