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Life after chess

Former New York public-school student Alex Lenderman, one of the world’s top chess players, mastered the game and embraced the Christian faith in the process

Life after chess

Chess grandmaster Aleksandr Lenderman (Eugene Lee/Genesis)

The world has about 50,000 neurosurgeons, according to a recent count in the Journal of Neurosurgery, but there are only 1,500 chess grandmasters worldwide. 

Jerald Times, director of chess at a New York charter school network, uses the stats to show that being a chess grandmaster might not be as lucrative as brain surgery, but it is harder to achieve.

The chess teacher’s network hasn’t produced a grandmaster yet, but New York schools have long generated a talent pool for champions and grandmasters. Aleksandr Lenderman, 29, is one of the chess grandmasters who attended a New York City public school.

Lenderman is slight and boyish and loves baseball. He also has one of the rare analytical brains that allowed him to become one of the top chess players in the world. He learned the game at age 10 from his German grandfather. Most whizzes now start much younger. His family isn’t wealthy, and in high school he couldn’t afford the elite private coaches that players of his caliber typically hire, but Lenderman still joined the chess elite. 

His current FIDE rating (the World Chess standard for measuring players) is 2654, ranking him 10th in the United States and 97th in the world.

In high school in Brooklyn, Lenderman helped lead his public-school team to multiple national chess championships. Author Michael Weinreb captured that story in his book Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team.

 ‘My goal is to try to realize my maximum potential, my God-given talent, which is chess.’  —Aleksandr Lenderman

Lenderman, who became a Christian several years ago, shrugs off that early fame now, and barely blinks when I mention reading the book about him. Instead, he’s focused on whether he can make it back to the U.S. championships.

New York schools have produced many U.S. chess champions. The program Chess in the Schools began bringing chess to public schools in low-income neighborhoods here in 1986. This past school year, the program was in 48 New York City public schools and taught chess to 6,000 children. 

Success Academy, a newer network of 48 charter schools in the city, now requires chess instruction for students in kindergarten through second grade. (After second grade, students can elect to take chess classes and can specialize in chess when they’re in high school.) The network’s chess program has about 10,000 students a year.

The philosophy behind requiring chess: It develops analytical thinking skills, concentration, and self-control. Times, the head of Success’ chess program, says learning chess has similar effects on the brain as learning a language. A study of New York students in 1993 showed that chess improved reading scores, while previous studies showed math improvements. Chess students might be a self-selected group, so those studies aren’t conclusive, but chess clearly improves basic skills like concentration and creativity.

Lenderman

Eugene Lee/Genesis (Lenderman)

Chess offered those benefits to Lenderman. Famous chess coach Bruce Pandolfini talked about Lenderman and his high-school teammates to Weinreb for his book about the players. Pandolfini pondered their professional future: “Their lives have already been made much better. They’re already better problem-solvers. They’re already tougher mentally. They’re already more creative. They have more things to draw on to get them through the difficulties in life. The benefit will last for the rest of their lives.”

Chess also led Lenderman, whose family is Jewish, into a community that eventually led him to the Christian faith. But that took time as he navigated the all-consuming elite chess world. As a teenager, Lenderman was on the cover of Chess Life magazine for being one of the few young Americans to win the gold medal at the World Youth Chess Championship. 

Lenderman racked up championships, but he says he also treated the people around him badly, and he didn’t know God. Weinreb’s book chronicles some of Lenderman’s petulant teenage behavior: shouting at his father after a tough loss and accusing his opponent of cheating.

“I was always not an easy person to deal with,” he says now. That changed over time as he became a Christian, with mentoring from another chess grandmaster: “I needed to grow spiritually as well and learn how to deal with struggles.”

George Kacheishvili, a laid-back grandmaster who also calls New York home, got to know Lenderman at a pivotal moment in his young career after high school. Lenderman felt he was in a slump, like a .300 hitter in baseball dropping to .250, he said. Other coaches weren’t helping. Kacheishvili and Lenderman played against each other in a tournament, and soon Kacheishvili was coaching Lenderman.

“The way he looked at the game of chess is something I’ve never seen before,” said Lenderman. But there was something else: “Something about him was different, just the way he talked to me and everything about him … it felt like he really cared about me.” 

Kacheishvili told Lenderman he should be able to make grandmaster “very easily,” which Lenderman had a hard time believing. But because Kacheishvili believed it, Lenderman began to believe it. At 21, he became a grandmaster. 

He also began losing better, instead of giving up in frustration. During one tournament, when he was already doing badly, he says, he decided to play a meaningless game “as if it’s going to be a million-dollar game.” For the next year he played well, and gained 100 rating points—a big leap forward.

One day Kacheishvili was complaining about some ailment, and Lenderman suggested reiki—a form of New Age healing. Kacheishvili dismissed reiki with a laugh, and said God would take care of him. Lenderman was surprised that Kacheishvili believed in God. 

“My grandpa always told me people who believe in God are people who are not educated,” said Lenderman. “To me Giorgi [the non-Americanized spelling of Kacheishvili’s first name] seemed like a very normal, reasonable person, not someone who just is completely oblivious to everything. And so I asked Giorgi, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And he says, ‘Yes, of course. Only … silly people don’t believe in God.’”

Lenderman began memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, and after he explored Jesus and concepts like sin, he asked to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. He uses an email address with “33” in it to identify with the traditional year for Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

Lenderman’s atheist grandfather in Germany, the one who taught him chess, has tried to convince Lenderman he’s wrong about his new faith ever since his conversion. Lenderman’s other set of grandparents are Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrants to New York. He’s hesitant to go into much detail, but his conversion was hard for his family to swallow initially, though they’re more accepting now.

Eugene Lee/Genesis

(Eugene Lee/Genesis)

On a typical day in Brooklyn, where he lives with his parents and near his grandparents, Lenderman coaches some individual chess students (making at least $150 an hour) and then studies chess for hours. He also trains in karate, because he thinks exercise is essential for professional chess players, given that they often have to play grueling games that can go for 10 hours. He uses two old laptops to study chess—one is a backup computer if the other one fails. 

This fall, as he contemplates a life beyond chess, Lenderman plans to leave the Russian-Jewish neighborhood where he has lived his whole life. He will move to St. Louis and attend college at Webster University, studying data analytics. He wants the degree in order to have career options that may come with stable health insurance and enable him to work less as a coach to make ends meet.

He’s going from New York, the old center of the U.S. chess world, to St. Louis, an emerging center. Wesley So, one of the top American players (and also a Christian), went to Webster, and other top players like Fabiano Caruana, No. 2 in the world, are based there. 

Lenderman hopes to improve his chess under the tutelage of world champions like Susan Polgár: “My goal is to try to realize my maximum potential, my God-given talent, which is chess.”

He also wants to grow socially. His two main grandmaster friends in New York, seven-time U.S. women’s champion Irina Krush and Kacheishvili, are very busy. Maybe he’ll make some more friends or meet a girl.

“I want to stay a virgin before I marry, but at the same time, I feel like maybe the fact that I’m almost 30 and I’ve never even dated, that’s also a little too extreme,” Lenderman said. “I just want to get out there in terms of social life. That doesn’t mean I should be staying out till 1:00, drinking. … I don’t like party life. But at the same time … I need to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and prepare myself for life.”

Elite chess sometimes temporarily delays a dating life, a dynamic that top players like Magnus Carlsen and Caruana have publicly discussed. 

But Jerald Times, the chess director in New York, has worked to show that chess is for everyone, the jocks and the geeks. He has taught in low-income schools, at the elite Dalton School in Manhattan, and in South Africa—and there’s one question he always hears from students: “Is chess for nerds?”

For Times, a key to answering that question is to focus on getting students into official tournaments, which makes chess more of a sport in students’ minds. It’s also where students gain the actual skills touted in so many studies: the burn of competition, the desire to improvise, and the yearning to gain status as a player. 

“Abstract reasoning, calculation, delayed gratification—those skills are gained inside of the tournament hall,” Times said. 

And that’s where Alex Lenderman feels most at home, even as he goes back to school.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Fri, 08/16/2019 03:37 pm

    I appreciate the plug for schools that teach chess. It should be universalized to improve thinking.

  • S Lewis
    Posted: Thu, 08/22/2019 10:43 pm

    I truly enjoyed this article! I must say, though, that you don't need to be a rocket scientist or a checkers champion to see that the statistic Jerald Times used to compare the number of neurosurgeons to chess masters is irrelevant and is not a reliable indicator of which is more difficult to achieve. There are so many factors to consider: what is the global demand for neurosurgeons compared to the global demand for chessmasters; how are neurosurgeons' livelihoods funded as compared to chessmasters; how many people in the world have brains needing surgery compared to how many people in the world have access to a chessboard. You get the picture. If you compare the number of didgeridoo masters in the world to the number of ace helicopter pilots you won't be commenting on which is more difficult to achieve. You'll just be citing interesting factoids.