Boris Gulko is a chess grandmaster who once beat famed former world champion Garry Kasparov and is still ranked 26th in the U.S. But that's not why a local rabbi invited him to Omaha.
It's his personal story — a gifted chess player persecuted for his Jewish faith in the former Soviet Union before eventually being allowed to emigrate to America — that moved Rabbi Jonathan Gross of Beth Israel Synagogue to bring Gulko to town.
The grandmaster is an inspiration for Jewish people and a strong reminder of the connection between chess and Jews, said Gross, whose synagogue is sponsoring the trip.
During his visit this weekend, Gulko will give a chess lecture and compete against Nebraska players, and the local chess community is buzzing. But helping renew interest the game locally is only part of the reason for his visit, Gross said.
Gulko's faith and passion for the game help illustrate the parallels between chess and Judaism, Gross said.
“He is a living piece of Jewish history,” Gross said.
Gulko, 66, grew up in the former Soviet Union and drew attention for speaking against communism and not abandoning his Jewish identity in the face of persecution, Gross said. He survived several hunger strikes before he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1986.
Gulko sees strong connections between his faith and the game he loves. For instance, he said, there are similarities between playing chess and studying the Talmud, a written set of Jewish law and philosophy meant to accompany the Torah.
Writings in the Talmud proceed in logical steps and require analytical skills to understand, much like the game of chess.
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha's Temple Israel goes even further, saying there are parallels between the plight of Jews over history and the strategies in chess.
Jews over the centuries faced persecution and expulsion, requiring them to always be thinking and looking ahead for ways to survive, he said. Chess players must do the same.
“If you look at our history, we were trained to figure out our steps ahead,” Azriel said. “Every square on the chess board is a square that reveals another way of survival.”
Gross said that for many Jews, chess is an important part of the Sabbath, a day of rest and worship observed on Saturdays. Chess is considered an appropriate activity on the Sabbath, and discussions in Jewish law on the matter date back to the 1400s, he said.
Ben Fabrikant, the current Nebraska state chess champion, is Jewish and has helped organize chess games for children on Saturdays at Beth Israel. He started learning the game from his father at age 4.
Fabrikant, 31, was born in the former Soviet Union, and so he feels a special connection to Gulko and got a chance to meet him Friday.
Fabrikant, who lives in Omaha, considers Gulko one of the best to ever play the game and will get a chance to test his skills against him.
He and the other Nebraska players will face a challenge.
Gulko, who now lives in New Jersey, remains a top player. He is ranked 26th nationally based on the U.S. Chess Federation rating system.
Omaha's Jack Spence Chess Club, which formed this spring and plays every Tuesday at Beth Israel, is helping coordinate the chess play.
John Hartmann, an organizer of the club, said Omaha has produced good players over the years and has a strong chess history. A world champion played top Nebraska players in Omaha in 1924, he said, and major tournaments were held here in 1949 and 1959.
“We are trying to reestablish the enthusiasm for chess in the city and the state,'' he said.