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Can a Rabbi beat a World Champion?

The World Chess Championship, held next month in London, pits together two of the modern greats of the game. The World Champion, 27-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, has been the top rated player since 2011 and the World Champion since 2013, and has a good claim to be the strongest chess player of all time. His challenger is 26-year-old Italian-American, Fabiano Caruana, the current World Number Two, who will provide a formidable test for the champion. 

Both Carlsen and Caruana are now in their mid-20s, already veterans at the very top level of the game. Both gained the title of Grandmasters as teenagers, Carlsen at the age of 13 and 4 months and Caruana at 14 and 11 months. While this seems a prodigious feat, the record for youngest GM has been held since 2002 by the Russian Sergei Karjakin, who earned the title at 12 years and 7 months. There have been a couple of talents coming close this past year, namely Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu of India (12 years and 10 months) in June 2018 and Uzbeki Nodirbek Abdusattorov (13 years and 1 month) in October 2017. They are not yet household names, but previous “youngest Grandmasters” include the better-known Bobby Fischer (z’l, 15 years and 6 months, 1958) and Judith Polgár (15 years and 4 months, 1991).

All this is to say that if you want to be a chess champion then you need to start young. And if you want to beat a chess champion, then you need to be quick, as they become fiendishly strong at a very early age. Once they have had their bar mitzvah, for example, it’s already far too late!

After finishing university I spent a year living in Budapest playing chess. Far less talented than all of the above, nonetheless I wanted to try my luck on the professional chess circuit, and pit my wits against the top players to see how good I could become. Hungary was well-known for its tournaments and chess culture, and I benefited from clashing swords with veteran masters and up-and-coming talents, many of whom went on to claim the Grandmaster title and play professionally today. I learnt a lot in this year, both about chess and myself, and became very involved in the Szim Salom Progressive community, where I acted as their chazan and youth leader. 

Although I was far from achieving the title of Grandmaster, I did become a Fide Master (the third level of chess mastery). Thankfully I had a Plan B: becoming a rabbi! But among my opponents in Hungary was a certain youngster called...Fabiano Caruana. I remember distinctly my coach’s instructions on the eve of the game: “This boy will be very special one day, he is very talented. But you can still beat him. Just do nothing! Then he will try something unusual, and then you will stop him. But do nothing yourself!”

It was a valuable lesson, that doing nothing can be an active and successful plan. I played the solid Torre Attack and just tried to put my pieces on normal squares, to wait and see what he would do. And lo and behold, he tried an unusual queen manoeuvre that led to my advantage. And happily I could finish the game with a knight sacrifice. The whole game can be replayed here: - suffice to say, I will be rooting for Fabiano next month, so that I can say that indeed, a rabbi can beat a World Champion! 


Thu, 27 June 2019 24 Sivan 5779