The Chess Grandmaster and the Lubavitcher Rebbes

by Saul Jay Singer – The Jewish Press

Samuel Herman Reshevsky (1911-1992) won the U.S. Chess Championship seven times, and at one point he put together an incredible streak, between 1936 and 1942, of 75 games without a loss in U.S. Championship competition. He scored spectacular victories in international tournaments, defeating seven world champions including Bobby Fischer (Fischer’s only loss in tournament competition).

However, despite an impressive career and although he remained a serious contender for the World Chess Championship for nearly 30 years, he never won the ultimate chess prize.

On the side, he served as a chess columnist for many publications, including The New York Times, Chess Life magazine, The Herald Tribune . . . and The Jewish Press.

Born in Ozorkov, Poland, to Gerrer chassidic parents, Reshevsky was a descendant of the rabbinic genius Rav Yonatan Eibshitz and of the great kabbalist Rav Isaac Luria (the “Arizal”). When he was nine, his family immigrated to the United States where, as a renowned child prodigy, Reshevsky amazed Americans with victorious coast-to-coast tours and he emerged as a major international celebrity.

Known affectionately in Jewish circles as Shmulik der vunderkind(“Little Samuel, the Wonder Child”), he visited any number of contemporary luminaries, including President Harding at the White House and Charlie Chaplin at his Hollywood studio.

But a late-night exhibition in 1922 got him in trouble with New York City child welfare authorities who, upon discovering he wasn’t attending school, brought charges against his parents for improper guardianship. The Manhattan District court dismissed the case after evidence was presented that Samuel was receiving religious education in a rabbinical school. Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears, Roebuck, agreed to serve as Samuel’s benefactor if the boy agreed to complete his education, and the court designated him to provide periodic reports on Samuel’s progress.

Reshevsky essentially gave up chess for six years to complete his secondary education in Detroit, where his family settled. He went on to earn an accounting degree from the University of Chicago (1933) but after working as an accountant in New York City, he returned to tournament chess as his avocation.

Reshevsky famously refused to play chess on Shabbat or the Yom Tovim, and even the Russian government had to change its chess tournament schedule to accommodate his religious observance. He lived in Crown Heights; prayed in the central Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway; and developed a close relationship with Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

He once asked for a blessing from the Rebbe, who agreed on the condition that Reshevsky study Torah daily – which he did, setting aside time to learn each day with a study partner. Whenever he participated in tournaments outside New York, he would first call the Rebbe to obtain contact information for families with whom he could stay for Shabbat.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this article. What’s amazing part of this story is that the rebbe said a sicha for him explaining chess according to Kabbalah and Chassidus. Very interesting sicha.

  • Chabad for Hillary (formerly Chabad for Bernie)

    Sicha, thanks, but does anybody know where it appears in the other seforim i.e. likutei sichos etc.