Jewish people have always seemed innately good at chess. It may be because of their culture of hard work and education. Nevertheless, the history of Jewish people playing chess is assuredly fascinating.
Although sources differ on when Jewish people started playing chess, there is conclusive evidence of Jews playing chess by the 12th century. Chess poems were written at this time. Many World Chess Champions and Grandmasters have been (and are) Jewish, including Garry Kasparov, Judit Polgár, Bobby Fisher, Emanuel Lasker, and Wilhelm Steinitz, to name a few.
The history of the relationship between chess and Jews is a captivating one. Read on to learn more about the illustrious history of Jewish people playing chess.
These are 24 things to consider about the relationship between chess and Jews:
1. There Is a Myth That King Solomon Was Proficient at a Chess-Like Game
Some legends state that King Solomon was a prolific board game player. However, chess had not been invented when he was thought to have lived. Instead, early versions of the game are likely to have originated in India. The first historical records of it originated in Sassanid, Persia, in the 6th and early 7th centuries.
2. There Is No Clear Record of When Jews Started Playing Chess
The game gained popularity among Arabs after the Arabs conquered the Sassanid Empire. The large contingent of Jewish people living in Baghdad likely played chess. Still, there is no conclusive proof to that effect.
3. Evidence Suggests Jews Played Chess by the 11th Century
Some sources indicate that by the 11th century, chess was commonly played by Jews in Spain and France.
4. Rashi Believed the Talmud Referenced a Chess-Like Game
Rashi, a Jewish scholar, likened the term Naradshir to chess. However, the game mentioned in the Talmud was most likely an early form of backgammon or a game played with dice. This is thought to be one of the first references to chess in European records.
5. The Hebrew Term for Chess Is Shechmet
This term possibly comes from the Persian words for “king” and “death,” namely sheikh and met.
6. Chess Was Mentioned by Rabbi Halevi in 1140
Jewish philosopher-poet Rabbi Judah Halevi mentioned chess in his correspondence with the Khazar king. The series of letters was called The Kuzari. In the letters, the Rabbi compared chess to life, both where it is “crucial to wisely choose our course of action.”
7. Jewish Lore Tells a Tale of a Jewish Pope Who Plays Chess
This story originates with Rabbi Shimon ben Elchanan HaGadol, who was living in Mainz, Germany, in the 1100s. The Rabbi’s son was abducted by Christians and raised as a Catholic. After that, the legend states that he became the Pope.
As the story goes, the Rabbi asked for a meeting with the Pope without knowing the Pope was, in fact, his son. Then, while playing chess together, it became apparent that the Pope was his son.
This story is only verifiable in a very small part. Rabbi Shimon ben Elchanan HaGadol’s son was indeed kidnapped and baptized without his family’s permission. However, the ordeal produced a prayer written by the Rabbi to honor his son, which is still recited on Rosh Hashanah.
The story highlights the prominence of chess and that it was played by Jews at the time.
8. Jewish Chess Poems Were Written in the 12th Century
Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra was a Jewish sage born in the late 11th century. He penned at least three poems dedicated to chess. These poems were in Hebrew, and he described the rival chess pieces as Edomim, meaning Europeans, and Kushim, meaning Ethiopians.
These poems are exciting because they describe how chess used to be, in opposition to the rules we all know so well now. According to ibn Ezra, the bishop or pil could only move two spaces diagonally, and the pawns or ragli moved first.
9. Maimonides Decried Playing Chess for Gambling Purposes
Maimonides, a Jewish scholar in Spain, commented on chess when discussing the Mishnah, an ancient Jewish code. He said people shouldn’t play chess (Shatranj) or backgammon (Nard) for money.
10. Some Scholars and Rabbis Denounced Playing Chess
Kalonymus ben Kalonymus condemned playing chess as being against the tenets of Judaism, whether played for money or not. Various rabbis came out for and against it in the next few centuries.
Sixteen-century Rabbi Moses Isserles approved of it being played even on the Sabbath, as long as it was not played for stakes. Evidence exists that shows rabbis even sanctioned playing chess in Spain. Moreover, the three rabbis of Cremona decried all games except chess as “primary evils.”
11. Chess Was Banned by Jews in Frankfort-on-the-Main
Now known as Frankfurt am Main, Frankfort-on-the-Main was a town where, according to Schudt, after the great fire of 1711, chess was banned by the Jewish community for a period of 14 years for playing by anyone except lying-in women and sick persons.
12. Playing Chess on Shabbat Was Problematic for Some
Whether chess could be played on The Sabbath was considered by many Jewish scholars over the centuries. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles, who was based in Krakow, held that it was permitted but that playing for money was not.
13. Using Silver Chess Pieces for Shabbat Became a Custom
Although wooden pieces were not disallowed, Jewish people often used special silver pieces on Shabbat and other holidays.
14. It Became Traditional to Play Chess on Christmas Eve
Jews began to play chess on Christmas Eve, which was a day Eastern European Jews, in any event, refrained from Torah study.
15. Wilhelm Steinitz Became the First World Chess Champion
In 1886, the first World Chess Championship was held. It was won by Prague-born Jewish player Wilhelm Steinitz, who had widely been considered the world’s best player for 20 years before the Chess Championships.
16. Steinitz Had a Feud with Chess Player Zukertort
Zukertort was antisemitic and tried to insult Steinitz by saying he was not a chess player but a Jew. Quick-witted Steinitz retorted that Zukertort was neither!
17. Lasker Beat Steinitz to Become Chess Champ in 1894
Emanuel Lasker went on to win the World Chess Championship in 1894. He held the title for 27 years before being beaten by Capablanca.
18. Many of the Chess World Champions Are Jewish
A disproportionately high number of chess players are Jewish. From Steinitz to Garry Kasparov, there have been several chess World Champions who were Jewish.
19. Israel Boasts Many Chess Grandmasters
Israel has a high number of Grandmasters and International Masters when considering its population.
20. Beersheva, Israel Boasts the Most Chess Grandmasters
This Israeli city is home to the most Grandmasters per capita.
21. Israeli Kids Learn Chess While Young
Many Israeli first graders and kindergarteners are taught how to play chess.
22. Famous Female Chess Players Include the Polgar Sisters
László Polgár, a Hungarian-jew, trained his three daughters, Zsuzsa, Zsófia, and Judit, to be chess prodigies. It certainly worked, as evidenced by his daughter Judit becoming the youngest person to be awarded the title of Grandmaster in 1991 and was the highest-rated female player in history.
23. A Jewish Chess Champion Made Antisemitic Comments
American Grandmaster Bobby Fischer is one of history’s most famous chess players. However, many will be surprised to know that he denied the Holocaust and made antisemitic remarks, despite being Jewish himself.
24. Jews May Not Own Chess Pieces with Crosses on Them
According to a strict reading of Jewish law, Jews may not own Christian religious symbols. Therefore, kings with crosses on them may not be owned by practicing Jews.
However, according to Rabbi Asher Bush, this prohibition does not extend to chess pieces as the pieces are not connected to Christianity.
There’s no doubt that the amount of Jewish people who are good at chess is disproportionately high. This may be through natural talent or, like László Polgár showed, through hard work and determination. Either way, Jewish lore and the history surrounding chess makes for a fascinating read!