Friday, February 26, 2021

Those viewers who have enjoyed “The Queen’s Gambit” or reviewed it for others’ pleasure have been captivated with the protagonist’s story, but perhaps more so with the mystique of the chess board that enraptures casual observers and devotees of the game. Evan Rabin would confirm that although the Netflix miniseries is not the primary driver for the growth of his chess business during the pandemic, it has piqued interest in a game that for Evan is his passion and his profession. The attention that the show has garnered prompted Dylan McClain of the New York Times (December 10, 2020) to give Mr. Rabin a nod, and perhaps a slight boost, but that is hardly the full story.

As CEO of Premier Chess, a company he started in 2017, he contracts with 48 independent trainers and a few operations people to manage the website and perform other tech functions. He’s also a 2012 graduate of Brandeis University (where he double majored in business and international global studies and was involved with a Chabad learning program), and it was there that we met, during Brandeis Reunion ’17, at a Shabbat lunch, just before Evan started his company.

I was woefully chess-challenged, and so glibly, I mentioned Boris Gulko, internationally rated chess grandmaster, ex-of the former USSR, ex-of Fair Lawn, and now living in Israel. Of course, Evan knew him! Chess has no borders. The rendezvous I proposed with Mr. Gulko, who hadn’t yet left for Israel, never happened, but thereafter, when Evan and I later met at other Brandeis events, voila, his chess dream had clearly become a reality.

That dream began at age seven. By 12, Evan was teaching and playing in tournaments, and eventually became a chess master. The rest is a story of skill, vision and a desire to pass on both to his students. As a competitive endeavor, chess has few barriers to entry. A basic chess set is inexpensive. As a business, Premier Chess is an unconventional venture. Evan has fused teaching an intellectually rigorous game with opportunities for spiritual growth, both his own and those of his mentors, client base and customers. He often interweaves chess sessions with divrei Torah and sees both as complementary.

What is the connection between chess and spirituality? Evan recounted the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s comparison of a Jew and a chess pawn. Both must keep moving forward. Every chess piece, like every Jew, has his or her role, and perseveres in that role. In one’s spiritual life, like in one’s chess game, the goal is to grow, to leave one’s comfort zone and think critically, much like the way one learns Torah.

It is not unusual for Evan to combine chess workshops with Torah learning, including speaking at Shabbat events organized together with Rabbi Levi Welton of Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, Evan’s Torah mentor. In one recent dvar Torah, Evan described when the Jews left Mitzrayim with “rechush gadol,” great wealth, forging ahead to new challenges. Like those leaving Mitzrayim, we must not allow anything to stop us from moving forward.

The mental acumen involved with chess, Evan maintains, gives the player an opportunity to constantly improve his or her thought processes. Not only that, but all the skills accrued in playing chess are transferable. Chess not only strengthens the right side of the brain, but also increases memory retention, which is useful at all ages, but particularly crucial with senior citizens.

There is no wrong age to learn chess, and so even a three-year-old can benefit from it. Evan has worked across generations. Some students are Holocaust survivors, ranging from their 90s to 100-plus. Some of these elderly players have become chess masters and are better than those in their 40s. Like any good master, Evan realizes that the more one knows about chess, the more one realizes how little he knows, even though chess beginners might think they know everything.

Is there a reason, I wondered, why so many former Soviet, often Russian, and largely Jewish players have won chess championships? Boris Spassky and Garry Kasparov are not Jewish, but many top players, including Boris Gulko and Leonid Yudasin (who both made aliyah), have been. I asked Evan if there is something about the way chess players were trained in the U.S.S.R. that predisposes them to excel. According to Evan, “Many players from the former Soviet Union have become strong chess players because chess has been a big part of their culture. Most students there learned chess from an early age, just like math, science or any other subject.” It is also possible that the “collectivist” Soviet cultural heritage, which stressed science as a vehicle to beat the West, favored chess as one way to gain a competitive edge.

Talent is only one factor in making chess a viable income. It is difficult enough to build a successful business under the best of circumstances. How, then, does one create a business plan, and expand that during a pandemic, by teaching what has been primarily viewed as a face-to-face sport? Clearly, Premier Chess’ plan has morphed considerably during COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the company ran many more school programs, which obviously cannot happen now. Post-COVID-19, if it is at all possible to project, Evan envisions more transnational ventures, possibly with Israel, where he previously won a tournament.

In the meantime, in addition to curricular and extracurricular virtual programs at some yeshivot, including one at Yeshiva of Flatbush, Evan has, through chess, aimed to increase community and an intergenerational playing field. Premier Chess has been an integral part of fundraisers for JNF and Young Professionals. He has also worked with the Manhattan Jewish Experience.

Chess also knows no ethnic or religious bounds. Although much of Premier Chess’ customer base is Jewish, it has run chess programs for a Muslim school in Binghamton and a Catholic youth organization. And then there is the humanitarian program that Premier Chess has organized in Tanzania for this coming July, in conjunction with Make a Difference Now. The latter raises funds to cover education and related expenses for African students in primary and secondary schools and colleges. Evan plans to bring to Tanzania a contingent of high school students and adults who will teach chess and engage in a “cultural immersion leadership program.” Participants must fundraise for the African students before they can be included in the trip.

Although Evan is convinced that nothing will ever replace the excitement and prescience of a face-to-face chess match, for now, he feels, streaming does the job. It also provides a venue for him to teach and monitor matches on twitch.tv/premierchess and to host podcasts featuring top chess players. And, not surprisingly, he also sees chess an art form in part, or more specifically, a mix of art and science.

Regardless of how subjectively one perceives the game, Evan Rabin is convinced that chess can offer something to everyone. During this challenging and otherwise isolating time, chess can foster a positive energy that engages individuals and communities and advances the overarching goal of always moving ahead to face the next challenge head on.

Rachel S. Kovacs teaches communication at CUNY and is a PR professional and a theater critic for offoffonline.com. She can be reached at [email protected]