The southern desert city of Be'er Sheva may be Israel's chess capital, but the northern coastal town of Kiryat Motzkin is a close runner-up. Its local municipality instituted a chess curriculum last year in its schools, and has since hosted city-wide competitions.

Dov Zaltz, the Israeli chess champion who manages the program, says that most of Kiryat Motzkin's schools now teach their students the intricacies of the two-person game.

"It is wonderful to see the brilliance of the younger generation," says Zaltz, 52, stroking his white and grey beard. "It is necessary to teach the children chess, it helps build the children's self esteem and their learning capabilities."


Zaltz's eyes light up when he talks about the latest competition he organized.

"I was expecting a small crowd, when 52 children showed up for the competition," he relates, sitting in front of the dozen or so trophies he's earned over the years.

Like those he instructs, Zaltz was first drawn to the game as a child.

"One day, I observed a group of students playing chess," he says. "I had no clue how to play, and was worried that the children would laugh at my moves."

His early years taught him a lot about self-esteem and sportsmanship.

"I was going to give up on the game," he says.

But he later thought up some moves that gave him the upper hand in a game built solidly on strategy; it soon became his favorite past time.

Zaltz, a one-time Master with a current World Chess Federation rating of 2307, was born in Jerusalem to Efraim Tzvi and Yehudit Zaltz. He went to school in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Bialik and later at the agricultural school in Nahalel.

Later, a missed fast on Yom Kippur caused him to question his Jewish identity. A search for the meaning of life led him to travel throughout Europe, where he eventually came across a boyhood friend who had become religious. Zaltz bombarded him with questions.

That began the next journey in his life, that of slowly taking on more and more Jewish traditions.

At one point, another friend asked him: "You're going from a champion chess player to a champion in Torah?"

Zaltz, who today is a Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid, replied, "I will be both!"

Teaching Chess and Its Lessons

Israeli schoolchildren take part in a chess competition organized by champion Dov Zaltz, a Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid.
Israeli schoolchildren take part in a chess competition organized by champion Dov Zaltz, a Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid.
He married in 1986 and, at the urging of his wife, spent two years learning Torah. He then became a chess instructor at a local school and, over time, developed quite a following among the children and their parents.

His team even won Israel's national chess championship, leading to his appointment as director of Kiryat Motzkin's chess program. Chief among his accomplishments, he emphasizes, is narrowing the gap between religious and non-religious students by giving them a common ground: the chess board.

"Chess teaches us that every individual has to be careful in their ways," Zaltz says, quoting Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, an early 19th-century Polish Chasidic leader. "Every step needs to be planned. The more thought out the moves in chess, and in life, the better."

Every piece in chess has a set of rules about what it can do and where it can do, he points out. "The lesson is obvious."

Referring to a teaching of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Zaltz identifies which pieces today's generation should identify with: "We are the foot soldiers, the pawns. We need to bring goodness into this world step by step."

He explains that far from being unimportant, the pawn can actually be a very important piece in chess. Despite the fact that it may only move one square in any given move, when used in combination with other pieces as part of a comprehensive strategy, a pawn can actually affect the course of a game.

"Through going step by step," he continues, "we collectively change the world into a better place."

Such an attitude has had an effect on the students, asserts Zaltz.

"On their own, many of the students have taken it upon themselves to put on tefillin," he shares. In addition, some, without any apparent intention, have begun to mimic their teacher's speaking habits. Now, they respond to questions in the characteristically Jewish way of saying, "With G‑d's help."