A Jewish Take on the Queens Gambit
Have you recently binged the Queen’s Gambit? You do not need to know how to play the game of Chess to be intrigued by Netflix’s most recent binge. Misha Vilenchuk is the kind of former champion who paused the Queen’s Gambit to analyze the matches.
ChiTribe was excited to learn more from a Master himself, Misha Vilenchuk, who has been playing and mastering the game since the age of 3. In this post, learn all about Misha’s experience as a Chess champion and a Russian Jew. Learn more about Misha and how he is teaching chess and running the Mindful Masters Chess Academy.
Misha: The Russian Jew
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I was born in Moscow, then moved to Israel when I was two, and to Columbus, Ohio when I was five.
What did you do Jewish growing up
My parents came from the former Soviet Union, they didn’t know anything about Judaism. Their Judaism was, and is, supporting Israel. That’s about it, though we did occasionally try to light Chanukah candles.
What do you do Jewish now
Oh boy. I learn every morning, keep Shabbat and kosher, and am on the boards of KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad and the Russian Jewish Division of the JUF.
What’s your favorite Jewish event?
I like the small, more intimate events. The Shabbat where we drink wine and play board games, the J-Life and host a weekly bonfire learning in my backyard, that stuff.
What do you do for fun or to relax?
I like to just do whatever comes our way with my fiance, Yana, and my friends. I play a lot of online chess and I enjoy reading. I try my best to decompress between wedding planning, my full-time role at a senior living startup, and running the Mindful Masters Chess Academy.
Misha: The Chess Champion
How did you get involved with chess?
My parents lived in Moscow, the center of Soviet culture, and immigrated to Israel during large immigration from the former Soviet Union. As a kid, I participated in all our family’s traditional extracurriculars including. chess, ballroom dance, singing, and more. I started playing at 3 years and 10 months. Chess is what stuck.
Tell us about your Achievements in Chess
I placed 32nd under 18 in the world and was the national high school champion a few times. The tournament I’m proudest of is called Denker, a tournament for all 50 state champions. I won the Ohio championship to qualify and won the Denker Tournament of State Champions.
How is chess still a part of your life?
Chess is still a huge part of my life. I play for the Chicago Chess Blitzers, teach about 10 students, and run the Mindful Masters Chess Academy – mmchess.org.
Mindful Masters Chess Academy is a company I started during the pandemic when I could not take on any more students. I still wanted to help students find qualified chess tutors for both adults and children. Through this new endeavor, I am working to accomplish this goal.
Antisemitism in the Chess world?
I know a lot of former Soviet bloc players did experience antisemitism both socially and politically. I actually read a book on the KGB in chess, and how they put a world championship contender Korchnoi’s wife on house arrest so he could not beat the current, non-Jewish Soviet champion.
Misha: On the Queen’s Gambit
What was it like watching the Queen’s Gambit?
The show was great. For me, it felt like a Marvelous Mrs. Maisel crossover with chess and I loved it. The former world champion Garry Kasparov even consulted on it. While watching the show, my fiance kept asking questions about the game and what was going on so we paused throughout the series. By pausing the scenes, I could show her the positions and explain what was going on. They’re amazing little puzzles I recreate in my students’ lessons!
Why do you think women are not represented in chess?
I do not feel that the show Queen’s Gambit acknowledges all the barriers women face and faced in chess. I think for the same reason there are not a lot of women in STEM, including subtle stereotyping and sometimes even blatant discrimination, are the reasons women have to fight to be represented in chess. Bobby Fischer, arguably the best player ever and who Beth Harmon is based on, referred to women by saying “they are all fish.” Also, there was a study a few years ago that proved a “stereotype threat”. Simply put, women perform worse when playing men.
How do we combat discrimination against women in Chess?
Personally, by giving my female students more support and providing role models. At Mindful Masters, we made the decision to hire the former female Ukrainian champion. On a larger level, the US Chess Federation does a lot. There are a lot of positive female role models online like author Jen Shahade and Alex Botez.
If someone is interested in playing chess, what should they do?
I think of chess as a finite system that you can improve on in two ways: pattern recognition and learning strategy. The former is something you can learn on your own by solving puzzles or playing games. For games, I recommend chess.com for beginners. The latter must be learned, either through video lectures or a chess coach.
Get in Touch with Misha and the Mindful Master’s Chess Academy
Learn more about our team of amazing chess coaches on mmchess.org. Please reach out to me if you want more information.
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