The brighter side

Coronavirus creates online opportunity for disabled chess players

Games go online during the pandemic, making it easier to hold global competitions and play with just about anyone

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Andrei Gurbanov, a chess player from Haifa who won second place in the May 2020 World Chess Championship for disabled players held online due to the coronavirus (Courtesy Lior Aizenberg)
Andrei Gurbanov, a chess player from Haifa who won second place in the May 2020 World Chess Championship for disabled players held online due to the coronavirus (Courtesy Lior Aizenberg)

The coronavirus pandemic won’t be remembered fondly around the world. But for some chess players, it has a silver lining.

Last week, 124 players with severe physical disabilities from 24 countries played chess for two days in a global online competition.

Organized by an Israeli chess forum and an international chess association, the competition produced one winner, Sander Severino, from the Philippines, and two Israeli runners-up, Andrei Gurbanov from Haifa in second place and Beersheba’s Alexandra Alexandrova, who was named best overall player.

But none of it could have happened without COVID-19.

“Coronavirus created a situation that we’re having even more tournaments. It creates an opportunity,” said Lior Aizenberg, who runs chess clubs around Israel and helped put together the recent competition.

Sander Severino, the winner in the online global chess competition for disabled players (Courtesy Lior Aizenberg)

In this competition, run by the Israel Chess Association and the International Physically Disabled Chess Association, all players had to be partially disabled. Most players were able to move the pieces themselves, said Aizenberg, but some did require aides.

Holding the competition online, however, allowed anyone with a screen to participate.

“This really helps us have everyone participate, including those who can’t fly because of budgets or their physical condition,” said Aizenberg.

The competition was held live over two days, for five hours each day, and with full commentary throughout.

Coronavirus, said Aizenberg, has been”a blessing” for chess. He said there’s been a 40 percent increase in players participating in games online and through apps.

During the height of the pandemic, he was able to help older players learn how to play online and to encourage different players to play against one another, each from their own home.

While the classic game hit something of a crisis when computer Deep Blue beat champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it has seen a surge in popularity due to the ability to play it online.

Lior Aizenberg, who organized an online chess competition during the 2020 coronavirus (Courtesy Lior Aizenberg)

“It’s a kind of full circle for chess that’s happened,” said Aizenberg, 44, who has 1,000 kids participating in his various chess clubs.

The game has completely shed its nerdy image, he said.

“It’s not only Russian immigrants who play,” said Aizenberg. “Kids are learning to play chess in second grade.”

Aizenberg said research has shown that children who play chess tend to learn better as well.

The coronavirus has proved to be a boon for the game. People are learning chess through Zoom group lessons, playing against other players worldwide, and some are learning chess in Hebrew in order to improve their language skills.

“Right now, there’s better public relations than ever before for chess,” he said. “You can do good things through chess online, you can connect people, because there are no borders on the internet. If you think creatively, there are opportunities.”

Got a feel-good story to share for our The Brighter Side series of articles? Email Jessica Steinberg at

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