The Chess Prodigy

A large crowd gathered around a small table in the center of the room where Sammy sat planning his next move. Young and old were spellbound by the child with the focus and composure of a 60-year-old. Cameras clicked away; all eyes were focused on him. He was taking the moment very seriously, and so, for that matter, was the older man sitting across from him, his silver hair combed to one side.

Sammy became famous as one of the youngest ever to compete in chess championships. At the age of eight, he competed against older contestants and won. He was featured in newspapers and branded as a chess prodigy.

Samuel Reshevsky was born in Ozorkov, Poland in 1911, to parents who belonged to the Gerrer Chassidic dynasty. When he was nine years old his family moved to the United States, and it was there that he later became champion in the Western Championship, the US Chess Championship and the US Open Championship. He was famous for his slow and thoughtful moves, contemplating every move and strategizing every step, sometimes for hours.

Reshevsky never played in a chess championship on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. His strong religious upbringing and his own firm faith didn't allow him to waver in his commitment to Torah and mitzvot, and his many successes did nothing to change his religious resolve.

In the years before his marriage, Reshevsky developed a relationship with the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. This bond was greatly strengthened during the years following his marriage, when Reshevsky resided in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; the same neighborhood where Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak lived for the last ten years of his life.

Reshevsky once asked Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak for his blessing for success in a particular chess match. The Rebbe responded that he would grant his wish if he would resolve to study Torah every day. Reshevsky readily agreed, and indeed, the blessing the Rebbe granted was fulfilled.

A Supernal Game

Crown Heights 1949. Shabbat afternoon. Tranquility enveloped the streets; friends greeted each other and made small talk.

On the busiest thoroughfare of this upper-class neighborhood, in a red brick building that towered above the neighboring two-story homes, a crowd of Chassidim listened intently as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, expounded upon abstract ideas in Chassidic philosophy and made them relevant to his mostly-layman audience.

This gathering was conducted at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Rabbi Menachem Mendel's father-in-law. Upon his son-in-law's arrival to New York in 1941, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak handed money to a disciple, instructing him to purchase cake and drinks for a chassidic gathering. "Tell my son-in-law, in my name, that he should conduct a Chassidic gathering for the public once a month," he said.

The monthly gatherings were characterized by the attention Rabbi Menachem Mendel paid to each of the participants. Sometimes he would take a single participant's name, explain its source and mystical meaning, and then discuss and explain its relevance to the individual's occupation.

When Sammy once attended one of these gatherings, the crowd was delighted when Rabbi Menachem Mendel explained the meaning of chess, "the Game of Kings," as it is seen in the upper worlds.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel:

The king is the most valuable piece on the chessboard. Protecting the king and attacking the pieces which threaten the king's "dominion" is the objective of the game, and the goal of all the pieces at the king's disposal.

The same thing is true with all of created reality. The king represents the King of the Universe. When G‑d created the world, He had an end-goal in mind – that this G‑d-denying reality be made into a place where His dominion is known. Just as all of the pieces in the chess game exist only to protect the king and further his goal, all components of creation only exists in order to fulfill this deepest desire of the King of kings.

While the king represents the transcendent quality of G‑d, the queen represents malchut d'Atzilut, G‑d's immanent quality. This quality of G‑d generates the rest of the spiritual hierarchy, including all the angels and souls.

The officers — rooks, bishops and knights — represent the angels. They inhabit the spiritual worlds and channel Divine energy to the worlds below and are imbued with great powers.

And on the lowest rung are the pawns, which represent the souls of Jews as they are embodied in physical bodies in this world.

Every level of this hierarchy has a unique position and method of moving, in accordance with its mission.

On the lowest rung, but on the front lines, are the pawns. Like the pawn that can only go forward one step at a time, we make the world into a place where G‑d can feel at home by moving slowly, step-by-step. We do our work with simple actions that are often not very glamorous. Although we can achieve a lot, we must work within the limits of the natural universe.

However, when a pawn finally completes its step-by-step progression and reaches the other side, it can be swapped and promoted to a higher level. It is even possible for a pawn to attain the level of queen.

This is also true spiritually: It is possible for a simple human soul to be united with its source in malchut d'Atzilut, to be charged with the level of G‑dliness that is higher than all the angels and souls. We are the only ones in all the realms of created reality that are capable of this kind of drastic transformation.

This is in contrast to the officers: the rook, bishop, or horse. They can hop and skip, several steps at a time. Yet they can each only move in the way they have been assigned. The rooks only move in straight lines, the bishops only move diagonally, and the knights only go two-squares-vertically, one-square-horizontally, or vice versa.

In the spiritual worlds, each angel has its own unique character and method of transmitting the Divine flow to the lower worlds. But while angels are supernatural spiritual forces, they can "hop and skip," they are limited by their own job-descriptions. Unlike humans, angels cannot act out of character, upgrade or improve themselves.

The queen has more power and freedom than any of the officers; she can move infinitely in any direction. But freedom implies risk, and the queen is often thrown into harm's way for the sake of the game. Paralleling this, G‑d allows an aspect of Himself to go into exile, to become embedded in a world that will not necessarily recognize His presence. G‑dliness can be found everywhere and at any time, even in situations that appear foreign to G‑d.

Interestingly, the king, the most important piece, seems to have the least power. While it can move in any direction, it can only move one step at a time, like a lowly pawn. It does not engage in the fighting, and it moves only when it is most necessary, to win the whole game or in a time of danger.

This is because the king represents the innermost essence of G‑d which is completely removed from the mundane world. This aspect of G‑d does not ordinarily become engaged in the happenings of the world. But in a stunning move of extravagance, when the battle becomes a battle of life-and-death, when the whole purpose of creation is at stake, the King of kings, "G‑d" in the most infinite sense, steps in and joins us. We are never far removed even from that most transcendent aspect of G‑d.

And what does it mean to win a game of chess? What is the future that even G‑d Himself will drop everything to save? It means to win the war of all wars: when the world will be a place of good and harmony, peace and tranquility; when no part of G‑d will be in exile; and when the essence of G‑d will no longer be "removed" from creation.

In 1950, after the passing of his father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel became the new Lubavitcher Rebbe.

At the age of seventy, Reshevsky was no longer among the elite winners at chess tournaments. When he asked the Rebbe whether he should retire, the Rebbe replied that he should not, telling him that playing chess while meticulously observing the mitzvot was his way of sanctifying G‑d's name. Not long after that, Reshevsky defeated the world champion, Vasily Smyslov in the Soviet Union. He received a standing ovation from the thousand-member audience who were enchanted by his brilliance.

A short while later, in the year 1984, Reshevsky was proclaimed the joint winner of a major chess tournament which took place in Iceland, a victory for which he had prepared by asking for the Rebbe's blessing.

Following his victory in Iceland, Sammy received a letter from the Rebbe in which the Rebbe warmly praised him for his success in the tournament: "I was doubly gratified because it was good to know that you continue to participate in international tournaments, and especially that you shared the first prize in the tournament at Reykjavik. Needless to say, the most gratifying point is that you continue to display a Kiddush HaShem Barabim,1 insisting upon your right not to play on the holy Shabbat, and that your stance was recognized and accepted..."

At the end of the letter, the Rebbe wrote: "P.S. The following lines may appear strange, but I consider it my duty not to miss the opportunity to bring it to your attention. You surely are familiar with the life story of Bobby Fischer, of whom nothing has been heard in quite some time.

"Unfortunately, he did not have the proper Jewish education, which is probably the reason for his being so alienated from the Jewish way of life or the Jewish people. However, being a Jew, he should be helped by whomever possible. I am writing to you about this, since you are probably better informed about him than many other persons, and perhaps you may find some way in which he could be brought back to the Jewish fold, either through your personal efforts, or in some other way..."

Bobby Fischer was a famous chess genius who became the American Chess Champion at the age of fourteen. He was the World Champion from 1972 to 1975.

When Reshevsky received the Rebbe's letter, his first reaction was one of joy: the Rebbe had chosen him for a special task. However, he understood that this mission would not be easily fulfilled. Bobby had already been out of public life for a few years, and was known to be living reclusively in Los Angeles. Soon after Reshevsky received the Rebbe's letter, he traveled to Los Angeles to play at a tournament. As soon as he arrived, he phoned Bobby and related the Rebbe's request to him. Bobby immediately agreed to see him. This was very unusual, since he did not often receive visitors. Their meeting lasted three hours, during which Bobby asked many serious questions about Judaism.

Shmuel Chaim ("Sammy") Reshevsky passed away in 1992, at the age of eighty.2