Hasidic boys playing chess, Łowicz, Poland, 1919. (YIVO)

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European Jews knew of and played chess long before their arrival in Eastern Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Leading Polish rabbis, Mosheh Isserles in the sixteenth century and Avraham Gombiner in the seventeenth, explicitly permitted playing chess, including on the Sabbath, as long as money was not wagered on the outcome (Shulḥan ‘arukh, Oraḥ ḥayim, 338:5). There were also condemnations of chess, notably in Shevet musar, a very popular work of the eighteenth century that took a negative stance influenced by kabbalistic sources (chap. 42). Nevertheless, and particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, chess was widely played in Jewish households of various levels of observance and, often enough, by both sexes.

There were numerous chess clubs in the states of Eastern Europe, and Jewish participation was high, but the Jewish role in chess has not been studied in a systematic way. In the Soviet Union, it was often said that the Communists encouraged chess because it was the one “intellectual” activity without political overtones. The only well-known case of anti-Jewish sentiment interfering with a Jewish chess master’s career was in 1952, when the world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, was prevented from playing in the Chess Olympics by Soviet authorities for clearly trumped-up reasons that were meant to obscure an antisemitic explanation.

East European Jews played a major role in the development of modern grandmaster chess. Many of the most notable figures from 1860 through 1990 emerged from East European Jewry: in that period, about half of the leading chess players in the world (including 12 world champions), were Jews, nearly all from Eastern Europe.

Members of the Michaelevsky family playing chess in the yard of their home, St. Petersburg, ca. 1910. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Genya Markon)

The origins of Jewish prowess at chess are not easily pinpointed. Some have attempted to demonstrate affinities between chess and Talmudic thinking, but others reject such claims. While most, but not all, Jewish chess masters came from Orthodox homes, only a few lived an Orthodox lifestyle. It might be suggested that grandmaster chess offered an avenue for advancement analogous to the free professions: success depended on skill, required little or no capital, and did not impose restrictions based on social class or birth.

The first two recognized world champions—William Steinitz (officially world champion between 1886 and 1894, unofficially from ca. 1866–1894), born in Prague to an Orthodox family; and Emanuel Lasker (world champion from 1894 to 1921), the son of a cantor in Brandenburg—emerged from a background of recent acculturation, as did several Soviet world champions such as Botvinnik (world champion from 1948 to 1957, 1958 to 1960, and 1961 to 1963) and Mikhail Tal’ (world champion in 1960–1961). A very long list of other grandmasters came from similar backgrounds (some of the most notable among them are listed in an appendix to this article). Of the handful who remained Orthodox, the most notable were Akiba Rubinstein (1882–1961) and the Polish-born U.S. champion, Samuel Reshevsky (1911–1992).

Although some scholars have claimed in a general way that chess came to Jewish circles in the Middle Ages first as a women’s game, in modern times championship chess has been almost wholly a male pursuit. The first front-ranking female chess player with an East European Jewish background emerged only at the end of the twentieth century: Judit Polgar (1976– ), the strongest of three chess-playing Hungarian Jewish sisters, became the youngest person ever officially awarded the title of grandmaster in 1991. In 2003 she was ranked the eleventh strongest player in the world, the highest-rated female player in the history of chess.


[The following list identifies and briefly describes Jewish chess players who are not the subject of an independent biographical entry.]

Boleslavskii, Isaak Efremovich

(1919–1977), Soviet player who was one of the top 10 in the world between about 1945 and 1955. Joint winner of the 1950 Candidates Tournament, he lost to David Bronshtein in the playoff, with Bronshtein then playing Botvinnik for the World Championship.

Bronshtein, David Ionovich

(1924–2006), Soviet player, one of the half-dozen strongest in the world from about 1948 to 1958. He played a match with Botvinnik for the World Championship in 1951, controversially losing an apparently won game that brought about an overall tied score, allowing Botvinnik (under the rules of the time) to remain world champion. Bronshtein was noted for his often highly imaginative style of play and his excellent books on chess.

Flohr, Salomon [‘Salo’] Mikhailovich

(1908–1983), Ukraine-born player who grew up in Czechoslovakia. He was a Czech citizen when he returned to the Soviet Union around 1939, where he lived until his death. Flohr was one of the strongest players of the mid-1930s, and in 1937 was recognized by the International Chess Federation as the official challenger to play Aleksandr Alekhin, the world champion, for the title. Flohr’s career then faltered, and he was never again in the first rank. His playing style was noted for its dullness.

Janowsky, David Markelowicz

(1868–1927), Polish-born player who lived in France and the United States after 1890. Janowsky (or Janowski) was heavily defeated by Emanuel Lasker in the World Championship in 1909. He was famous for his attacking style and use of two bishops in play.

Kasparov, Garry

(born Weinstein; 1963– ), born to a Jewish father and an Armenian mother named Kasparyan in Baku; Soviet authorities changed his name to Kasparov after his father’s early death. World champion from 1985 after an epic, controversial match with Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov has remained the strongest player in the world since then; noted for his aggressive style.

Korchnoi, Viktor Lvovich

(1931– ), Leningrad-born player of mainly Jewish descent. Reaching the top ranks relatively late, Korchnoi narrowly lost the World Championship to Karpov in 1978 and was again defeated by him in 1981. Korchnoi’s defection to the West in 1976, the first by a Soviet grandmaster, created a sensation.

Levenfish, Grigorii Iakovlevich

(1889–1961), born in Russian Poland and resident of Leningrad after the revolution. Levenfish was probably the strongest Soviet player before the rise of Botvinnik in the mid-1930s.

Lilienthal, Andor

(1911– ), born in Moscow to Hungarian Jewish parents, but lived in Hungary until 1935, when he again became a Soviet citizen. A very strong player in the 1930s, he was the joint Soviet champion in 1940.

Najdorf, Mieczslaw

(later Miguel; 1910–1997), Polish-born grandmaster who was in Buenos Aires for the 1939 Chess Olympics. He remained in Argentina after the outbreak of World War II; his entire family perished in the Holocaust. For a decade after 1945, Najdorf was one of the two or three best players outside the USSR and the strongest Latin American player.

Nimzovich, Aron

(1886–1935), Riga-born grandmaster who lived in Copenhagen from the early 1920s. Nimzovich is widely regarded as the most important chess theorist of the twentieth century, and one of the chief exponents of the so-called Hypermodern School. He was also one of the half-dozen best players in the world during the 1920s.

Reti, Richard

(1889–1929), a major chess theorist of the Hypermodern School. Born in a town in Hungary that became part of Czechoslovakia, Reti was also a noted grandmaster, just below the foremost rank before his death at age 40.

Spasskii, Boris Vasil’evich

(1937– ), world champion from 1969 to 1972. Born in Leningrad to a Jewish mother and Russian father, Spasskii became internationally known when he played and lost the 1972 World Championship match against Bobby Fischer, probably the most famous chess match in history. Spasskii has lived in France since 1975.

Steinitz, Wilhelm

(1836–1900), first official world chess champion. Steinitz was born to a large Jewish family in Prague, but lived in Vienna and then in England and the United States. He unofficially became World Champion in 1866 by defeating Adolf Anderssen, and was officially recognized as world champion by defeating Johann Zukertort in 1886. A short, bearded man with a clubfoot, he was one of the leading theorists of chess and a notable writer on the subject. In his lifetime, Steinitz was arguably the most famous Czech-born person in the world.

Szabó, László

(1917–1998), Hungarian who was one of the 10 strongest players from about 1946 to 1955. Szabó was compelled to do forced labor during the Holocaust.

Tartakover, Savelii Grigor’evich

(1887–1956), well-known grandmaster and chess writer and one of the best players from about 1920 to 1930. Tartakover was born in Rostov-on-Don and lived in Poland until World War II, when he fought in the French Resistance. He remained in France until his death.

Zukertort, Johann Hermann

(1842–1888), born in Poland to Jews who had converted to Christianity (his father probably was a conversionist missionary to the Jews). Zukertort, who lived in Paris and then in London, was perhaps the second-best player in the world from about 1875 until his death. Dying at 46 of a stroke, Zukertort was famous for the Munchausen-like stories he told about his career, and for his photographic memory.

Suggested Reading

David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, eds., The Oxford Companion to Chess (Oxford and New York, 1996); William D. Rubinstein, “Jews in Grandmaster Chess,” Jewish Journal of Sociology 46.1–2 (2004): 35–43.