16 August 2016

Boris Gelfand: How I Ended Up Being Enemy of the Israeli Chess

The many-year leader of the Israeli chess team answered the questions of Vladimir Barsky.

– Boris, how come you ended up being a "persona non grata" for the Israeli chess?

– A year ago, new people took over as the Israel Chess Federation management, Dani Porat winning election by a narrow margin. According to mass media reports, he used to be the highest-paid Israeli employee before retiring. He runs a decent weekend tournament and was an arbiter at the 1976 Olympic Games. I am not aware of any of his other achievements in Israeli chess beyond that.

– How is your Federation chairman elected?

– Only club representatives are eligible to partake in elections. I, for one, am not eligible to vote. A club is granted a certain number of votes depending on which league it performs at. The management board consists of 15 members, four of them rated as masters and higher, the rest being first-category or candidate master players at best. Many of them are parents of junior chess players. Since the majority of their names are unknown to me, they would be even less so to the reading audience.

Some of these people have been part of the Federation management for as many as 20-30 years already. They grew up with slogans "Chess is not a profession", "Playing chess is not worthy paying for." They regard involvement of the Federation at the international arena as a meaningless affair. Our team’s incredible success has been a likely many-year torture to them, not to mention my individual achievements. For the latest period of ten years the federation leadership considered it important to support the team. Nine times out of ten latest Olympiads we have made it into top ten, three times into top five, and took medals on two occasions. We took medals at the European Championship twice and would almost always qualify into the World Cup. We demonstrated worthy performance at the 2014 Tromsø Olympiad, making it into top ten.

– What can you say about organization of professional chess life in Israel?

– It is absolutely not organized. Chess players get zero support from both the state and federation. There are no such things as training sessions, scholarships, or reimbursement of travel expenses to official tournaments. Even though during the latest couple of years the national team members were compensated for expenses related to participation at the European Championships, Porat has discontinued this practice. The only thing given to professionals qualifying into the team was a certain amount of money that allowed preparing for several tournaments.

– So what is going on with your Olympiad team?

– Porat assigned the position of Federation Director to Gil Boruchovsky, father of the currently most promising junior Israeli chess player and member of one of the most influential clubs of Kfar Saba. It is indeed surprising that such a person has been assigned responsibility for the national team because a clash of interests is quite obvious! Even before Boruchovsky's assignment the discussions around the topic of putting up or not the team for the European Championship in Iceland were underway. However, Porat’s feelings about it were rather strong because we had already been to the 2015 World Cup, making yet another trip simply “too much” of a pleasure, if allegedly for no other reason that it was essential that money be saved for the upcoming Olympiad.

In January-February Porat and Boruchovsky came up with a novice idea, which the best minds have failed to figure out so far. They obligated the captain to prepare two lists of players: the “expensive” and “inexpensive” ones, which they would later use to choose the lineup from. When this idea fell short, captain Alex Kaspi and me stating that we would go only as part of the strongest lineup, they began singing another song about the Federation owing huge debts and it being therefore necessary to reduce expenses wherever possible. It is for this reason, for example, that women's and juniors' budgets were increased, whereas that of the main national team was decided to cut down upon. The Federation management would give altogether incoherent statements about the amount of funding available so that complete lack of financing would change to statements of being slightly short on available funds. It is noteworthy that within a single day Porat and Boruchovsky would produce conflicting statements. Some funny business was clearly underway. Our Federation management seem to be of an opinion that going to an Olympiad is like going on a holiday trip. They started by nominating their people as delegates to FIDE and ECU Congresses and as a delegation head. Porat, despite having virtually wiped the country off the chess map, will go to the FIDE Congress anyway.

They obviously wanted to get someone a place with the national team; Kaspi was asked not to announce the lineup until after the end of the European Championship in Kosovo, claiming that it was necessary to give a chance to those who were performing there. Unfortunately, however, none of the Israelis made it into a hundred even. The captain announced the following lineup: Gelfand, Rodshtein, Smirin, Sutovsky and Postny.

– Boris, this is exactly the lineup that your team has featured for some ten years already. Is the federation management not right in pointing out the need in getting next generation players trained?

– Yes, this is exactly the way to go about it. It is for this reason that I came up with an offer that all team members should share their experience with young people by way of giving lectures, taking care of young talented children and assisting them in their training. We were ready to take up this responsibility. As this approach was to Mr. Porat's liking, it started looking as though we finally managed to address the problem appropriately. However, a few days later another pretext surfaced about the Directorate having allegedly condemned this decision. They said that team members’ fees were to be reduced by 20%. Ilya Smirin aptly noted that Mr. Boruchovsky acted in the style of a well-known character from "The Heart of a Dog" by stating that our house committee members "are charged with the problem of increasing the occupancy of this house." They threatened anyone disagreeing with their point of view to be expelled from the team. They orchestrated small shameful bargaining, the details of which would be quite embarrassing even to mention here. Like my favorite character Professor Preobrazhensky, I requested that list of "the of House Committee members" together with their merits and qualifications be provided - this is how I ended up being expelled from the national team.

After the story hit the press they informed me about the “party rally” taking place, which demanded that I disarm myself in front of the Party: I was to apologize to the federation management and to admit to having told a lie, upon which I was supposed to never stir up the federation management activities issue with the mass media. Despite our awareness as to the amount of efforts directed nowadays by all countries towards making sure that chess events are covered in the mass media, here the opposite is true.

Eventually they threw Ilia Smirin, Emil Sutovsky, our captain Alex Kaspi and me out of the team. Under the shelter of team rejuvenation they invited a 54-year-old Sasha Huzman, while involvement of a 52-year-old Alon Greenfeld was also on the agenda at a certain moment. They ended up enrolling Michael Roiz, an excellent coach, but out of tournament practice for almost a year as he has taken up coaching.

–  Have uninterested people tried to step into?

–  They certainly have. Porat was addressed by FIDE management, prominent journalists and other respected people. However, nothing would sway his ego. Even though they now attempt to present the affair as having the fees disagreement aspect in the gist of it, this is just another pretext to use as a leverage hook. In fact, there have come to power such people who display no interest in a high-level chess. Beginning from 1935 on, long before formation of the state, Israel has been putting up strong teams for chess Olympiads. Nevertheless, Porat has discontinued this tradition.

– Has Avital Boruchovsky been included into the team?

– No, he has not. However, talking about team rejuvenation, you should take a promising young chess player who works hard on chess. Having said this, he has not come up with any outstanding performance within a recent half year. Caissa is admittedly taking revenge on him for his dad's actions.

Young chess players, which they are allegedly so concerned about, have been deprived of an opportunity to be coached by best players. Besides, they have been taught a lesson: even if they ever reach the very top, same incompetent bureaucrats will give them a rough treatment, insulting and telling them how to “increase the occupancy.”

– The whole affair is very sad...

– The other day I received a letter from the federation management, stating my not being able to rejoin the national team unless I apologize in public to Messieurs Porat and Boruchovsky. Therefore, my fans have to arm themselves with patience.