Chess and Jews

Edward Winter

(2003, with subsequent additions)

We have compiled a non-exhaustive list of magazine items (pre-Second World War) on chess and Jews:

‘Jewish Players. The Jewish Standard says: “It seems strange that the chess championship of the world should be again fought out between two Jews. The pre-eminency of our brethren in this particular game is hard to understand, and certainly ought to give the lie to the current accusations that Jews are not fond of acting on the square.’

‘If there is such a thing among the Jews as a “National game”, surely that title belongs by overwhelming right to the royal game of chess. The peculiar charm of chess, which affords entertainment at the same time that it instructs, has appealed from time immemorial to the race. Chess is more than a mere game, and those who “play” at it are known to the really expert as “woodshifters”. The masters have raised it to the dignity of a study, and many there are who regard it as equal with the arts and sciences. For upward of 50 years there has not been a tournament of any account in Europe or America that has not had a Jew taking a prominent part therein, and today, as has been the case often [sic] before, the world’s champion is one of them.’

After listing various Jewish chess figures, the item concluded:

‘All these form a goodly company, who, were it possible to array them side by side, could easily sweep from the field any team of equal numbers composed of all other nationalities. What more indeed could be said in support of the claim that in the world of chess the Jew reigns supreme?’

‘“I have often been struck with the ubiquity of the Jewish chessplayer”, writes Mr A. Porter, in the American Hebrew. “I once saw in a café in Tunis two well-to-do Jews playing a game that would have done credit to the leading players of New York or London; in going through the steerage of a North-German Lloyd liner, westward bound from Bremen, I noticed three games by German Jews in progress, and on a summer’s day at the Delaware Water Gap, on reaching the top of Mount Minsi, expecting to be the monarch of all I surveyed, I found the summit already occupied by two young Jewesses engaged in mimic warfare on the chess board.”’

‘Mr Sharp, chess editor of the Reading Observer, gives a very interesting account of the connection of the late Dr Hermann Adler (Chief Rabbi) with chess. In his younger days, in common with so many learned Jews, he was very fond of chess. Lasker, of course, it is well known, is a Jew, and that great man Steinitz was of the same persuasion. Wilhelm Steinitz once expressed the opinion that the reason why Jews are so clever at chess is because of their patience, pure breeding, and good nature. Having been the most persecuted race in the world, they have had the least power to do harm, and have become the best natured of all peoples. Their religion, also, is a factor which contributes in the same direction, because it is combined with persecution to preserve their morals and good nature. Then the purity of their breed, as Steinitz asserted, largely helps the Jews in every walk of life, and contributes to their remarkable success, even in the science of chess …’

More particulars are sought on the above statements by Steinitz.

‘It is a curious fact that of the 26 competitors no less than half were Jews. The rivalry on strictly logical lines characterizing the game of chess, and the scope for ingenuity it affords make, we fancy, a special appeal to the Jewish temperament. Anyway, in a considerable experience we hardly remember to have met a single individual of that race who did not display at least some intelligent appreciation of the game.’

‘Since chess entered upon its third period of splendour, the period in which we actually are, the Israelitish element has exercised a predominance out of all proportion to the number and position of the Jews.

The branches of activity are well known in which the Israelites have excelled for so long, and, as it were, by the force of atavism – banking, business, industry. In chess their supremacy began to manifest itself scarcely two generations ago. It has not ceased to grow stronger and stronger since then.

If this fact has a meaning from the point of view of culture, it must be this, that the nineteenth century is the century of the emancipation of the Jews.

When we apply our observations to Russian affairs, we see the latter suddenly made clear in a blinding flash of light. The expansion, the formidable development of Russian chess, is more or less confined to the short space of time between 1904-1918; the period in which the Judaeo-Russian masters affirmed themselves victoriously, the period of the tournament triumphs of Rubinstein - the same Rubinstein who used to conduct in his native town of Lodz a chess column in a little Yiddish paper, printed in Hebrew characters.

The dates mentioned are those of the two Russian revolutions, the first of which, as we know, was averted, while the second succeeded completely. If it brought to the Allies the cruellest surprise and deception, on the other hand it procured for the Russian Jews their absolute emancipation, if not power. Yiddish has henceforward become an officially-recognized language, and the German philologists, who up to now have neglected and despised this idiom, are devoting themselves to it with fervour.

So the evolution of chess proceeds equally with the formidable Messianic movement which has been manifesting itself for some decades in the Jewish people, and is now crowned by the hope of seeing the ancient kingdom of Israel re-established in the land once flowing with milk and honey. I can foresee, in the not very distant future, the great world’s championship tournament being held in Jerusalem.

I trust that a Gentile will be pardoned for thus pointing out the meaning of the development of chess among the Jews. The question whether this development is favourable to our game or not is quite immaterial. The phenomenon exists, plain and indisputable. Philosemitism, Antisemitism, Indifferentism have no existence in face of the reality of things. It is a curious and significant fact that chess, which in its early form, at the dawn of the Middle Ages, was brought to its height by the genius of the Semitic race, has in its modern form been actually carried to perfection again by the genius of the same race.’

‘I presume it relates more particularly to chess professionals. In this country, at any rate, it does not seem to me that the Jews hold rank amongst first-class amateurs in proportion to their numbers. In London there are very few if any of the class of R.C. Griffith, G.A. Thomas, J.H. Blake, H.G. Cole, E.G. Sergeant, and many others, to say nothing of the youngest recruits, W. Winter and R.H.V. Scott. It has, of course, been questioned whether it is desirable for a man of intellect to become purely a professional chessplayer, though no doubt in many cases it means a gain to the chess world and no very great loss otherwise. With regard to “Chess and the Jews” I feel inclined to think that in absolute genius the non-Jewish element holds the palm, from Philidor, Labourdonnais, Morphy, down to Pillsbury and Capablanca. I think a team of “gentiles”, as your correspondent calls them, could hold their own against any combination, if selected from Capablanca, Alekhine, Teichmann, Schlechter, Maróczy, Marshall, Atkins, Duras, Vidmar. In point of number I suppose the Jews would prevail. At Petrograd in 1914 there were only four “gentiles” out of eleven, but three of them were amongst the five prize-winners, and the fourth, J.H. Blackburne, was 72 years of age at the time. As your correspondent says, Philosemitism, Antisemitism or Indifferentism have nothing to do with it, but the facts are not quite so convincing as he makes out.’

‘The well-known chess enthusiast, Peter P. Saburov, writes to point out some errors in Mr Fainlight’s article from the Jewish Encyclopedia. He states that Schiffers, Schlechter and Zukertort were not Jews. Zukertort was the son of a Pastor. Emanuel Schiffers (not B. Schiffers as stated on page 239) was a Russian of German origin; he was born in Petrograd, but his ancestors were from Aachen. Schlechter was a German-Austrian and a catholic.’

(On page 13 of Carl Schlechter! Life and Times of the Austrian Chess Wizard (Yorklyn, 1994) Warren Goldman wrote that Schlechter ‘was born of a Catholic family known for its industry and creativity in the field of music’.)

‘A correspondent writes: “With all deference to M. Saburov (BCM, page 371), the great Zukertort was of Jewish race, whatever the religion of his father. The name Zukertort (? Zucker-torte, ‘sugar-tart’) probably derives from the period when the Jews were compelled by the authorities to adopt surnames very often fancy, in place of their original patronymics. Is it not also a fact well known to such as are sufficiently veteran to remember him distinctly that the famous master was clearly a member of the race which has given the world so many illustrious chessplayers? My own recollection of him is perhaps too juvenile to trust.”’

‘The Wiener Schachzeitung has become a weekly instead of a fortnightly, and its great popularity is likely to increase thereby, as there is something very attractive in the idea of getting a chess paper with hot news every week.

It remains to be seen how recent events will affect chess in Austria, but the effect will certainly be adverse. Many, if not most, of the leading masters in Austria, as in many other countries, are of the Jewish race. German chess is now a shadow of what it was.

In no field have the Jews excelled more than in chess. A New Zealand correspondent gives us the following list of famous Jewish masters: Löwenthal, Zukertort, Steinitz, Chigorin, Lasker, Schlechter, Janowsky, Winawer, Tarrasch, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Spielmann.

Among younger masters we have Reshevsky, Fine, Kashdan, Dake, Simonson, Horowitz and many other Americans; Flohr, Botvinnik, Levenfish and so on ad lib. Strangely enough, no Jewish player has won or even competed for the world championship since Lasker lost it in 1921 – yet two Jews held the title for the first 55 years. Steinitz was the son of a rabbi and was to have been a rabbi himself; Lasker is also a professing Jew. Reshevsky belongs to the strictest of all Jewish sects.

H.G. Wells, himself a chessplayer, mentions the eminence of the Jewish race in chess, in his History of the World. He appears to attribute it entirely to an innate sense of values – a capacity for judging between relative gains and losses with the utmost subtlety.

That is almost certainly a factor, but one could also argue from the fact of racial oppression. The reaction to the oppression has been a tendency among Jews to strive to excel in whatever they take up, whether it be commerce, mathematics, chess or purely artistic spheres in which H.G. Wells’ idea would not apply.

Again, in countries where there actually has been oppression of Jews from time to time there would be a tendency for them to seek fields in which they would depend entirely on their own efforts, and not on such things as official preferment.’

An article by Emanuel Lasker, ‘Jude, wohin?’ on page 1 of Aufbau, 1 January 1939:

Lasker jews

Regarding the deletion of Jewish players’ names from Kurt Richter’s book Kombinationen (1936 and 1940 editions) see Patriotism, Nationalism, Jingoism and Racism in Chess.

An item that we wrote on pages 23-24 of Kingpin, Spring 1992 (see too page 197 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves):

Who was the first to claim the title of world chess champion? Those who thought that it might have been Steinitz will be put right by page 23 of The Great Jewish Chess Champions by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow (New York, 1986):

‘Albert Alexandre, a Frenchman who claimed the world title in 1776, was a Jew.’

The co-authors may have meant Aaron Alexandre, even though he was only about ten at the time. Appropriately, the book’s dust-jacket mentions that ‘the Harold U. Ribalow Award is presented annually by Hadassah magazine for an outstanding English-language work of Jewish fiction’.


Another example of the book’s shoddiness is this ‘once’ dialogue on page 28:

‘Steinitz, a German Jew, was also baited by one of his rivals, the fine player Johannes von [sic] Zukertort who, unfortunately, was anti-Semitic. A feud developed between the two and Zukertort once said to Steinitz, “You are not a chessplayer, but a Jew”. The great champion’s cutting reply was, “You, apparently, are neither”.’


A 317-page hardback (biographical entries):


C.N. 10497 gave excerpts from the article ‘Reflections after Reykjavik’ by Gerald Abrahams on pages 84-90 of Encounter, March 1973. The concluding paragraphs:

‘There remains one question. Why has the Chess Crown, since the death of Alekhine, rested on Jewish heads (except when it was borrowed by an Armenian)? To say that it is because there are still many Jews in Russia is not a sufficient explanation.

My own theory is that Jews, through evolutionary processes, have become good at languages. To be good at languages it is desirable to reach maturity early, and grasp the accidence and syntax and important vocabulary at an early age, so that while the mind is still young the student can express himself fluently and with mastery.

Among languages I include mathematics, music and chess. Different inter se, these systems are only grasped creatively by those who early grasp the technique. The particular Jewish control of chess is one instance of this process realized.

As for Fischer’s control of chess, let it simply be said that from now onwards the phrase Grand Master is meaningless.’

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Latest update: 27 June 2017.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.