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Small Israeli City Becomes Chess Power

In the rarefied world of international chess competition all eyes are on a small Israeli city in the middle of the Negev Desert this week, where players from eight national teams are competing in the World Team Chess Championships.

The atmosphere is hushed in the Beersheva convention center where players from countries are varied as China, Cuba, Armenia, Israel, and United States are matching wits across chess boards in the World Team Championships.

Like just about everything else in Beersheva, the hall of the convention center is dusty. The city sits in the middle of the Negev Desert, and despite extensive land reclamation efforts around the city, it is still very much a provincial desert town, described by one tourist guide as unattractive, with little to see or do, and unlikely to impress visitors.

But, Beersheva, with a population of just under 200,000 people, has a distinction that sets it apart from every other city. With eight chess grand masters calling Beersheva home, the city has more international grand masters per capita than any other city in the world.

Beersheva is a chess powerhouse because of the efforts of one man, Eliahu Levant, who immigrated to the desert city from the former Soviet Union in 1972. Mr. Levant, a chess enthusiast from his earliest days, was a coach at the famed Leningrad Spartak Chess Club.

He says he chose Beersheva over other cities in Israel because he was inspired by the idea of moving to a frontier city where the possibilities of playing and teaching chess were limitless.

Mr. Levant says he knew there was not much chess being played in Beersheva, so that when he got an invitation to come to the city he chose it because he wanted to come to a developing city where he could do as he pleased, mainly play and teach chess.

With thousands of emigrants from the Soviet Union, many with good chess skills, Eliahu Levant went to work. In 1973, he established the Beersheva Chess Club, which is now housed in the Eliahu Levant Chess Center next to the town's large public library. More than 30 years later, Beersheva players regularly win at chess tournaments around the world.

Eliahu Levant says he has to buy a new trophy cabinet every year for players who have prospered under his system of training.

Eliahu Levant says he first trained 100 players and then 1,000. He says there is a potential grand master in about every 1,000 players he and his many coaches train, but he says a grand master is made and not born. To become one, he says, requires not only extraordinary talent but extremely hard work.

Eliahu Levant says his dream to create a chess utopia in the desert almost did not happen. He says when he left the Soviet Union he brought 30 training chess boards to the airport with him, which Soviet officials said he could not take with him. But after a lengthy delay, a senior customs official intervened and allowed Mr. Levant and his family to leave with the boards. The official, it turned out, had been a former pupil of Eliahu Levant.