Thursday, August 18, 2022

Fair Lawn—Some games require participants to be physically fit, spending hours in the gym, lifting, stretching, etc. Then you have the game of chess. Accessible to everyone, young and old, tall and short, slim and chubby, the game is played everywhere, from cafes to parks. Anyone can play but not everyone can be a champion.

Boris Gulko of Fair Lawn is such a champion. In fact, Gulko, who immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union, is the only chess player ever to have held both the American and Soviet championship titles.

Gulko learned to play chess in the Soviet Union when he was 6 years old. He had an immediate love of the game. He told JLBC, “There was something mystical right from the start. It was as if a world of adventure had opened up before me.” Mr. Gulko showed promise and began studying chess seriously at age 12, when he enrolled in a children’s chess club.

Gulko says the skills one needs to be good at chess are the desire for adventure, patience, and psychology. You have to understand opponent’s wants and fears,” he explains. “If you like to argue, prove you are right, are mentally tough, and you are not afraid to lose,” then you have the traits of a good chess player. Gulko says playing chess is similar to the arguments of the sages discussed in the Gemorrah. To play chess on the highest level, you need to study the game extensively and prepare for tournaments intensively. “It’s a time consuming and demanding job,” says Gulko.

Gulko possessed the traits noted above. He was fortunate enough to reach the professional level and make a career out of a game he loved. However, something was amiss. He says of his younger years, “Life was challenging due to antisemitism.” Chess was extremely popular in the Soviet Union, so due to his prowess at the game, Gulko was able to escape the antisemitism to some degree.

Gulko’s outlook on life changed in August 1968. He got a clear recognition of the lack of dignity accorded people by the Soviet regime. The 21-year-old was playing in a chess tournament in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Gulko witnessed the crushing of the Czech Revolution by the Soviet Union. He lost respect for the country of his birth and clearly realized that they did not believe in the dignity of people. He says of the incident, “I was ashamed of my country and ready to join the Czechs. From then on, I could not accept living in a Communist country.”

Upon returning home, Gulko was not ready to act upon his convictions, and he continued playing chess. He became the Soviet chess champion in 1977. Shortly thereafter, he chose to make his stand and wanted to leave Soviet Russia.

Gulko and his wife Anna, a Grandmaster of chess as well, were refused permission. They became “refuseniks.” Over the course of seven years, he participated in a number of demonstrations and undertook three hunger strikes, where all he consumed was mineral water. The longest strike lasted 30 days. “This was the most meaningful time of my life—more important than chess.”

The fact that he was a well-known chess player protected him, although he often felt he was in danger. Once he was taken away in a police car. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘No one knows where l am or where I’m going.’” Gulko was eventually let go after questioning. American Jewry was partly responsible for his release. “Their support allowed me to take on the KGB and win,” he says.

Finally, in 1986, after four months of demonstrating and being arrested daily, Gulko and his family were able to immigrate to the United States. Gulko was 39 years old. “Many players tend to go downhill in their 40’s because they lose mental sharpness.” Yet here he was, the former Soviet Champion restarting his career upon his arrival in America. Mr. Gulko went on to become a two-time U.S. Chess Champion, winning the title in 1994 and 1999.

Gulko was starting from scratch religiously as well. While he had been given books during his period of being a refusenik, Gulko did not even know about Yom Kippur when he arrived in America. He appreciated being able to practice his religion freely. He sent his son went to Israel at the age of 12, and his son came back religious. The son influenced Gulko and his wife to become observant. Gulko moved around a lot when he came to the US, but settled in Bergen County when his wife found work nearby. The religious life and substantial Russian population were attractions as well.

Gulko has traveled a long road—from Soviet Chess Champion to Bergen County resident. He is a regular minyan attendee, writes a weekly column for a Russian Jewish Language newspaper, and enjoys learning. In addition, he is a chess teacher, writes about the sport and periodically plays in tournaments. However, his favorite past time these days is playing with his granddaughters. “My journey continues,” he says with great content.

By Larry Bernstein

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