Saturday, September 6, 2008

Czerniak, the World's only Professional Amateur Chess Player

Moshe Czerniak in the Palestinian championship, 1936. Source: Ha'Sachmat, Jan. 1937, p. 28.

In the last post we talked about why Moshe Czerniak seemed so vain to some people. But it was just this that made him so charming to others. Czerniak, to his dying day, was an amateur at heart.

Professional chess players, out of necessity, adopt a severely objective view of their own games. They also conserve their strength by not playing too much with (actual or relative) patzers, except perhaps for pay during simultaneous displays. They usually attempt to keep a draw at hand first--especially as black--and often offer draws when there's still a lot to be done on the board, simply because they judge the position as objectively equal. They play positionally, trying to accumulate small advantages without taking unncessary risks. They play "for the crosstable", giving away draws when it preserves their place in the tournament.

Czerniak would have none of that. He always was sure his attack is brilliant and that he's winning. He would play with anyone at any time. He would always look for a win: his goal was the opponent's king, not "plus over equal" as white and equality as black. He would see a draw offer almost as an insult: not to himself so much, but to chess in general. ('If you are playing for draws--' he told his students, as Moshe Cna'an and Israel Shrentzel told me, '--why do you bother playing chess at all? Don't you like to play chess?') He played tactically, preferring the open, risky games, in search for the beautiful sacrifice and mating attack. He would always try to win, no matter what his place is in the tournament--even when a draw would assure him first place.

In short, Czerniak was an amateur at heart, a man who loved the game for its own sake, especially its exciting attacks and sacrifices, just like a ten-year-old who learned the moves last month. Czerniak kept this innocent love of the game all his life. Unlike the ten-year-old, he knew (of course) how to play for a draw or maximize small positional advantages. But he usually simply refused to do so, preferring the beautiful attack.

Czerniak was that rare type who gained knowledge of chess without losing his innocent love of it.

I am the Greatest!

Source: Ha'Sachmat, Sept. 1936, pp. 6-7. Click to enlarge.

Moshe Czerniak, Israel's "Mr. Chess", caused strong--and opposing--reactions among Israeli players. The majority (esp. the many students of the game he had) saw him not only as a chess legend, but also as a very nice person. Yet, a minority couldn't stand him and considered him a vain, arrogant man.


It was not inaccessibility: he had not a drop of haughtiness in him and was willing to play chess with anyone, anytime. It was not having a cold or aloof personality: he was a natural extrovert, an extremely friendly and charming man who made friends easily (unlike Yosef Porat, whom everybody respected as a perfect gentlemen and had not an enemy in the world, but few were close to.) It was not under-appreciation of his opponents: his writings are full of praise for them, even--perhaps especially--in games played against himself. It was not an attempt to portray himself as unbeatable: he published, as an editor, games he lost, including a loss to Sonja Graf (64 Mishbatzot [64 Squares], No. 5-6 (June-July) 1956, p. 99). For a professional player of Czerniak's generation, admitting in print he lost to a woman--even if she was the strongest, or second strongest (after Vera Menchik) female player in the world--was quite a brave act. What's more, he had no reason to think his readers in Israel would encounter the rather obscure game (Czerniak-Graf, Mar de Plata, 1942) unless he "confessed" it.

The problem was his annotations. Czerniak was quite objective about other people's games. But, as Moshe Cna'an (one of his students) told me, when he annotated his own games, all objectivity went out the window. His own games are full of excalmation marks and long annotations--both for himself and his opponent--while other games, including those by world champions, are given far less attention. Every game of his is a clash of chess titans, in which he defeats his powerful opponent with even more powerful brilliance.

I am exagerrating, but not by much, as checking his numerous published games shows. In the above photograph we see a wholly typical example. In game #3 (Abram Blass - Meir Rauch, 1-0), the winner gets two '!' & one '!!' (marked with a red dot) while the loser only gets one '?'. There are five text annotations. But in game #4 (Moshe Czerniak - Abram Blass, 1-0) the winner gets four '!' and one '!!' (marked with a green dot) and the loser another '!' (no '?'). There are 18 text annotations--one of the reasons the game takes up nearly three times as much space despite only being a few moves longer (40 vs. 31).

Other players--Howard Staunton, Alexander Alekhine, and Jose-Raul Capablanca, to name a few--were also accused (rightly or wrongly) by some of puffing themselves up with self-praise, and, in Stauton's case in particular, of praising their opponents only to make themselves look good. (See Edward Winter's amazing "chess notes", now online at , and search for "anti-Stuanton"). Without claiming these accusations are necessarily true (I tend to agree with Winter's claim that describing the masters of the past as "crazy", "incredibly arrogant", "narcissistic", etc. is simply libel), there is no doubt that Capablanca, Alekhine, and Stuanton did think of themselves as the best players in the world. They were just that in their day, of course, so their views were certainly not "narcissistic" or "delusions of grandeur"; but nevertheless believing this about themselves was bound to be seen by some as bragging.

But Czerniak's case is that his self-praise was not like that at all. As noted above, apart from being personally a very nice man, he never considered himself unbeatable or superior to his opponents (let alone the best player in the world). He simply suffered from the common amateur malady of always thinking he's winning and that his moves are the best on the board. (As Cna'an, Shrenzel, and Yochanan Afek--to name a few of his "boys"--told me.) A natural extrovert, he saw no reason to hide his beliefs in print. Is it his fault, after all, that he plays well?!

Mystery Tournament

An Israel-made chess clock, ca. 1950. Photo Credit: Avital Pilpel, from an e-bay advertisement.

From Yosef Porat, Oman ha'Sachmat ["Yosef Porat, the Chess Master"] by Eliyahu Fasher and Yosef Porat, p. 29:

'A year later [in 1936-A.P.] the first championship of Palestine took place... it is true that, as the editor of La'Merchav's Chess column noted in 1956, he tried to get details about the tournament that took place in "Sheleg ha'Levanon" coffee house in 1929. But despite the fact that some of the contestants were still alive, neither the crosstable nor a single game score were found. Moves weren't written down and no chess clocks were used (they used hand watches)'.

Presumably, 'pressing the clock' meant pulling out the crown of one's watch and pushing in the opponent's. Not convenient in a time scramble! As no moves were recorded, the games were probably played with a "sudden death" time control (game in so many minutes), as there was no way to determine when the time control was reached.

My research found no record of this tournament anywhere except for Fasher's book (and La'Merchav original article). This is because, unfortunately, it took place in a vacuum: after the folding of the (short-lived) Emanuel Lasker chess club magazine in the mid-1920s, and before any chess columns began to appear in the early 1930s.

Can any reader enlighten us about it?