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.