Eleven-year-old Ariel Erenberg was scheduled to play a chess match in just under two hours, but sat calm and unfazed on a couch in Jerusalem’s Dan Hotel.
“I don’t get scared,” he said, shrugging.
Given the week’s events, it was clear that Erenberg had already accomplished what he’d set out to do. In what may have been one of the largest upsets in Maccabiah chess history, Erenberg, who had entered the open tournament ranked 29, drew with the top-seeded player, 17-year-old Filip Kumic of Serbia.
“I studied Kumic’s previous games, so I knew his weaknesses,” Erenberg said following the match. “I was prepared.”
Kumic and Erenberg played in the Open Tournament, one of six chess tournaments at the Maccabiah games — a nine-round, so-called Swiss event. A player who loses is not disqualified; rather, all the points are tallied at the end of the tournament on Sunday. As of Wednesday, the fourth day of the tournament, Erenberg had gained an impressive 3.5 points, thanks to three wins and one draw.
The entering-sixth grader, who lives with his family in Rishon Lezion, started playing chess when he was just five. Until recently, Erenberg was ranked number one in the under-12 bracket in Israel. However, Saar Drori, another talented youngster, knocked him down to the number two spot. Despite their competition, the two boys have little animosity towards each other.
“He’s my friend,” Erenberg smiled.
Erenberg is clearly accustomed to playing against top opponents, having participated in four chess events outside of Israel, including championships in Turkey and Bulgaria. Shmulik Erenberg, Ariel’s father, is also heavily invested in his son’s chess career.
“I take my son to all of his competitions, whether abroad or in Israel,” he said proudly.
The Erenberg father-and-son pair was supposed to jet off to the European Championship in Montenegro later this year, but according to the elder Erenberg, the trip will probably be too expensive for the family to handle.
The Israel Chess Federation has helped in the past with scholarships for players, but Shmulik Erenberg said the federation has been too strapped for cash of late to help cover the immense costs of traveling to matches abroad.
The spokesman for the federation, Arik Eldar, was indignant about the lack of funding.
“The government gives millions to soccer, tennis and basketball. What about chess?” he exclaimed. “What about the kids who use their heads to think, rather than their feet?” he added. “They say chess isn’t a sport, or a science or a culture. So where does it belong?”
Eldar pointed to the governments of Russia, China, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all of which reportedly devote significant money to chess. “The demand is high here,” he said. “We have over 50,000 kids in Israel playing chess. The problem is we can’t afford to open new chess clubs.”
According to Moshe Slav, the chairman of the federation, more than 100 of the players competing in the Maccabiah International Chess tournament are from Israel, and, in fact, many of them are young players.
It doesn’t get much younger than Ronit Levitan, a five-year-old chess player from Haifa who competed in the Open Tournament against kids and adults of all ages.
With a chess prowess that is equivalent to an adult, chess prodigies Erenberg and Levitan, as well as Drori, make it easy to forget that they are just kids.
Still, like most boys his age, even Erenberg loves watching television and playing on his Xbox.
“He has to learn English somehow,” joked his father.
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