ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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'Instead of just worrying about the war, it’s therapeutic'

Chess tournament makes mates of Arabs, Jews and Druze amid Gaza war

In late January, the Israeli Open Championship in Acre brought all of Israel’s diverse sectors together to battle it out on the board, fostering community through love of the game

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Melan Halbi, standing, watches her peers compete at the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Olga Volkov)
Melan Halbi, standing, watches her peers compete at the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Olga Volkov)

Amid the war against Hamas, 132 chess players ranging in age from 9 to 78 competed in the Israeli Open Championship from January 21 through January 29 in Acre, northern Israel, including about 20 international masters and grandmasters, considered the highest ranks in the world of chess.

The nine-day Israeli Chess Federation tournament drew people from all over Israel, including children from the Druze villages of Beit Jann and Peki’in in the Galilee. Despite the war — or maybe because of it — everyone was there to play chess.

“Instead of sitting around worrying about the war, it’s therapeutic,” said Avi Cohen, whose son, Israel, the tournament’s youngest competitor, won the eight-and-under Israeli chess tournament in 2022. “Chess is like an escape.”

The organizer of the event, Olga Volkov, runs the chess club in nearby Nahariya in addition to coaching chess players in Shlomi, a town on the border with Lebanon.

In the weeks after the war began on October 7 with the Hamas-led massacre that killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, and saw 253 more abducted to the Gaza Strip, Shlomi’s residents were evacuated due to sympathy attacks from the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization stationed in southern Lebanon.

Since then, Volkov travels to Haifa each week, where she coaches her chess players who have taken up temporary residence there.

“We worry about the players and make sure to take care of them,” she said.

Olga Volkov, chairwoman of the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Volkov works at various schools in northern Israel as part of the educational program “Chess in School,” which began in 2016. The program has introduced chess to more than 300 schools around Israel, in the Jewish, Arab and Druze sectors.

Volkov says there are thousands of Israeli children now playing chess — a phenomenon that was well underway even before the popular Netflix TV series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” about a female chess player.

Melan Halbi, 10, from Beit Jann in the Galilee, fell in love with chess the first time she played the game, said her father, Walid.

Melan Halbi and her father, Walid, after a game at the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Diana Bletter)

“She found that it suited her character in all respects, whether it’s patience, thinking, or competition,” Halbi said. “For her, it’s more than just a game, it’s a matter of falling in love, and it’s an addiction.”

During the competition in Acre, Halbi found herself in a match against a man more than four times her age. Her coach, Andrei Gurbanov, said that Halbi had a “big advantage during the game,” but her opponent won. Competitors in the tournament play a total of nine games, receiving 90 minutes for 40 moves. After that, each player receives an additional 30 minutes for the game’s duration.

Melan Halbi playing against Yuri Khokhlov at the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Courtesy)

Chess has grown in popularity in Israel in recent years, said Gurbanov, who is the vice-chairman of the International Physically Disabled Chess Association (IPCA) and the founder of IPCA Israel, which he established in 2022.

Gurbanov, who was born with one arm, is a three-time winner of the Physically Disabled Chess Association Championship. And now, with so many soldiers wounded during the war, he feels that chess can help them. A few years ago, he helped to establish a chess club in the Beit HaLochem, the soldiers’ rehabilitation center in Haifa.

“Playing chess during the war shows that we continue to live,” Gurbanov said. “We don’t talk about the war, we talk about other things.”

Many of the chess players at the tournament learned the game from their parents. Gurbanov said his father taught him to play when he was 6 years old; he has been a coach for the last 17 years.

Gurbanov is passionate about introducing the game to new players. With the help of IPCA Israel, he has opened clubs in many Druze settlements in northern Israel, including Peki’in, Yirka, and Beit Jann. Last year, he organized an international chess championship in Peki’in, attracting players from around the world, including Jordan. There were also tryouts for the national championship in which nearly 100 Druze participants participated.

“There is no Druze community without chess right now,” Gurbanov said.

Israel Cohen with his father, Avi, before the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Avi Cohen, a chess player with the rank of candidate master, taught chess to his son, Israel, when he was 5 years old. During the coronavirus pandemic, father and son played for hours. But, Cohen said, chess is a “collision between the nature of a child, which is full of energy, and doing something that requires a lot of discipline, a lot of study.”

Cohen said that unlike in basketball, where “if you’re leading 20 points, you can win the game,” chess is “cruel.”

“You make one small mistake and you lose,” he said.

Israel Cohen during a game at the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Diana Bletter)

Cohen thinks his son has talent; he has invested a lot of his time and energy into training him, including working with coach Moshe Rothman, a former champion of Moldova who now lives in Haifa.

“It’s a goal to be a chess champion, but you never know what can happen in the future,” Cohen said.

Chess is a discipline, he added. “You have to be able to calculate. You have to have a certain mentality.”

Players compete at the Israeli Chess Federation tournament in Acre, January 2024. (Olga Volkov)

Research shows that very few children can sit and concentrate for hours, said Cohen, which is what is required in chess. He proudly added that in a game at the tournament, his son Israel played for five hours, from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. The game finally ended in a draw.

And for parents who want their children to succeed, Cohen said, “You need time, resources and money.” He knows a man in Europe who recently quit his job to help foster his son’s chess career.

People need to be able to travel a lot to different tournaments, not only within Israel but abroad.

“I think chess teaches you to make decisions on your own,” Cohen said. “It enhances your mind.”

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