Playing chess at the Gural JCC is challenging and fun

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The world chess championship ended on Nov. 28, but the education of 10 young boys continues under the tutelage of Anatoly Tonkonogy, a senior master in the centuries old game that remains the ultimate thinking person’s challenge.

Tonkonogy, 59, formerly a civil engineer, a licensed Wall Street broker and teacher, has been teaching chess to youthful players for the past seven years as part of the programs offered under the Russian Division of the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC.

In one of the newly fashioned rooms in Temple Israel in Lawrence on the JCC’s Harrison-Kerr Family Campus, Tonkonogy has the boys ranging from second- to fifth-graders learning the pieces – king, queen, bishop, rook, knight and pawn – and how to manipulate them across the 64-box game board to ultimately gain checkmate (victory) over an opponent. Openings, combinations, end games are all part of the boys’ education, but there is also an element of fun.

“The most important thing,” Tonkonogy said on a recent Wednesday night as the players played games, answered their teacher’s questions or figured out the correct strategy on test-like papers. “First of all, while we’re learning the pieces from the beginning, every piece has a different tournament (competitions between the boys), so this way they’re not only having fun competing, but they’re learning the pieces.”

While Tonkonogy said he came late to chess, nearly 15 before beginning to play, the game appealed to him. “Chess is a kind of sickness, you get infected and I spread out this infection to them,” he said happily pointing to the boys.

To keep the fun going and get the boys’ competitive juices flowing, points from the internal tournaments are tallied and trophies are awarded. Tonkonogy said if the boys are interested he directs them to outside tournaments that are age- and skill-appropriate.

He discussed the championship between Norwegian Magnus Carlsen (the eventual winner, now a four-time world champion) and American Fabiano Caruana, who must juke past the inevitable Bobby Fischer comparisons, and explained the results of the tournament as the boys listened intently. Fischer is the last American to be crowned a word chess champion.

Playing their own game a few minutes later, Michael Abelev, 9, a second-grader; Nathaniel Shamalov, 8, a third-grader, both Woodmere residents; and Marat Ustinovich, 9, a fourth-grader from Far Rockaway, shared what they have learned.

“If you have another strategy game like Scrabble, where you make a word then another word, you look for stuff you can make, like checkmate,” Abelev said, noting that the boys also play other “brain games” that challenge their thinking prowess. He has been part of the chess group for two years.

“It gets your brain working, gets you ready, it teaches you all the strategies you can use,” said Shamalov, who joined the group in September.

“I learned it’s good to defend and attack a piece,” said Ustinovich, also a member for two years. “It helps me think about the future … because we are thinking what moves the other person will do next.”

David Abelev, Ethan Abelev, Sean Ferdman, Andrew Levin, Ben Levin, Adam Novoslateskiy and Ben Zelikoff are also part of the group.

Invented in the sixth century AD, chess has gone viral in contemporary times. “They are playing chess videos and Adam was playing over the internet today with someone in the Ukraine,” Tonkonogy said. “It shows the greatest connection and that you don’t have to sit across from your opponent to play.”