In the life of every athlete there comes a time when they have to answer an important question: — What is my priority? Winning a medal? Money? Or something else.
Such a moment in my chess career came on a cold winter night in Moscow. The competition, an important world tournament, was in progress and my teammates were some of the best players in Iran that had been sent. I was competing in one of the side tables and was assisting another team member who was taking part in the tournament
Halfway through the event, there was a one-day blitz tournament which was open to all major and minor players. At the urging of other teammates, I registered, but a big surprise awaited me when the first round draw was announced.
My opponent was none other than the former world championship runner-up, the famous Israeli grandmaster Boris Gelfand.
In the past Swiss system tournaments, the software made sure make sure Iran and Israeli players did not face each other. But this time for the Blitz tournament the organizers had not applied this rule. The Islamic Republic didn’t recognize the state of Israel and Iranian players were forced to boycott any matches against an Israeli opponent.
If this was a government sponsored trip, organized by the Federation of the Islamic Republic and with security guards of the Ministry of Sports hovering nearby, the issue was simple: I would be forced to default and not face my Israeli opponent. But now everything was up to me and the how my fellow chess players looked upon me, added to the pressure .
After dinner that night, other players retired to their rooms to prepare for the games that were due to start the next day but I was too nervous and stayed in the hotel lobby to think about what awaited me.
To Play or Not to Play
Years ago, I had started playing chess when the Iranian Chess Federation had been suspended for several years after the 1979 revolution. Chess was more than a hobby, I became immersed in all its aspects, studying not only opening moves and strategies but also the biographies of great chess players. Many were deep thinkers with interest in science and politics — , among whom were many political and scientific figures whose lives had sometimes changed because of their resistance to their beliefs. I read about how the Jewish Miguel Najdorf, fled Poland for Argentina to escape the Nazi invasion; or how David Bronstein almost became World Champion in 1951. Then I read about Bobby Fisher, the American World Champion and of course Garry Kasparov who became politicaly active after his retirement.
As a tournament player, I quickly moved up the ranks and received an international rating. What also attracted me was the international chess federation’s Latin motto: Gens Una Sumus, meaning We are One People.
In the lobby of that Moscow hotel, I felt very embarrassed that my behavior at times did not fit the spirit of this motto.
Yet, I too had paid a price. One time, at a chess training camp held in a Persian Gulf country, I declined to put the flag of the Islamic Republic on my table and I was severely reprimanded. The next week I was removed from the national team list.
GENS UNA SUMUS
Later, when I became a coach and opened my own academy, I warned my students against making such gestures. I did not want my students’ hard work to be wasted by such distractions.
Once, when one of my students asked me what is the most important issue in an athlete’s professional behavior?
And I said emphatically: Respect for the opponent
As these memories circulated around my head, I saw my opponent Gulfand walked past me to the tournament’s pairing board to see who he was going to face. As he scratched his head, I realized that he was as surprised to see the draw as I was.
During my years as a player and coach, some of the best chess theoreticians came from Israel. I had spent many nights absorbed in the books of Mikhail Marin and Boris Avrukh. It was unfortunate that there was no chance of inviting these masters to teach in Iran.
Now I had the opportunity to play two consecutive games against one of the best players in the world in just a few hours later. To be honest, I was an average player and this was probably the only chance in my entire sporting life to face such highly ranked opponent.
Many athletes, from wrestling to judo, had defaulted against opponents so as not confront an Israeli athlete at the next round. They had lost on purpose and been rewarded at home by the clerical regime. Yet, for an athlete it is a mark of shame to lose on purpose, always wondering what if… Many Iranians athletes were forced to abandon their quest for a gold Olympic medal because the luck of the draw put them against an Israeli opponent.
In chess, the odds of facing an Israeli player are greater. Now, by defaulting I could get myself a great deal of publicity in Iran and maybe even get lucrative endorsements. It was a tempting thought.
As Gelfand turned to leave the lobby, I called out to him:
- “Boris! I will play you tomorrow,” I said.
- “Ah. So, you are the one I’m facing. I’m surprised that Iran and Israel face each other”
-“The government forces us not to play!”
-“My dear friend! It has nothing to do with people. I understand the situation and I will not be upset at all if you do not come to the board.”
-“If I do come, I will not have much chance against you. How about a drink?” I offered.
After a few minutes of small talk, Gelfand left, and I was left with my thoughts.
Gelfund was dignified and kind and I didn’t want to play the role of his enemy.
The next morning all the Iranian players had breakfast together and the conversation was mostly about how our group would fare against our first round opponents. Mostly they talked but I kept quiet, deep in my thoughts.
An hour later, in the crowded tournament hall, Gelfand had already taken his place at the table when I slowly approached him, shook his hand, and sat down in front of him.
He looked concerned. Before turning on his clock, he looked at me.
-“Are you sure you will not have a problem?” he asked
- “I hope so,” I laughed it off. But inside, I was worried.
With that, I moved my pawn and the game began. The result was predictable. I lost two games to zero. Gelfand played like a chess legend without giving me the slightest chance.
I was at peace with myself as I felt that I had made the right decision.
None of my fellow players talked about the game and my defiance of the unwritten rules forbidding playing against an Israeli opponent. But I could tell that they all agreed with the decision I had made.
After all, we all want to be the best at our profession without political interference to determine which opponents we can face.
In the end, the director of security at the Iranian Chess Federation never found out about my two games against the Israeli grand master.
BY: Dr. Vashig
Dr. Vashig, is an Iranian athlete based in Tehran. For his personal safety he uses a pen name.