Cheers in Chicago for Gelfand
By Andi Rosen   
December 18, 2009
Tamara Golovey with a young Boris Gelfand
While none of the U.S. players survived long in the World Cup in Siberia, many chess fans in the Chicago area still had a player with a hometown connection they could root for to the end.  Newly crowned World Cup champion Israeli GM Boris Gelfand was the childhood student of beloved chess coach Tamara Golovey, who for the past 10 years has made her home in the Chicago area. Golovey runs the local Kings and Queens chess club, which offers year-round after-school chess programs and summer camps.

Prior to her arrival in the United States, Golovey, a three-time winner of the Belarus championship, was one of the top chess trainers for children in the former Soviet Union. Among her most talented students was a young Gelfand.  From ages 11 to 15, Gelfand studied four to five times a week at a chess program for promising students in Minsk--the Chess School of Olympic Reserve--that Golovey ran. 

“Boris was a very talented boy,” recalls Golovey.  As was custom in the Soviet Union, it was the coaches and not the parents who traveled to chess tournaments with their students.  And unlike in the United States, these tournaments were not simply weekend events but lasted from nine to 12 days with one round a day.

Golovey says that Gelfand had a habit of not looking at his board during his games.  A father of another player approached Boris to ask him why he wasn’t concentrating while he was playing.  “But I am,” Boris protested.  “I don’t need to look at the chessboard.  I can see it all in my head.”  Golovey added that Boris was exceptional at blindfold games.  “He excelled at them.  He didn’t need a board in order to imagine a position.”

In the introduction to Gelfand’s book, “My Most Memorable Games,” Dirk Poldauf writes that Golovey “was an outstanding teacher and a very strong player.”  He quotes Gelfand’s father, Abram, as saying, “She was like a second mother to him and loved him very much.  We never needed to worry about Boris when he went to tournaments with Tamara.”

Boris Gelfand and Tamara Golovey

Today, Golovey is a second mother and grandmother to many Chicago area chess players.  Since settling in the Chicago area, Golovey and her husband Leonid Bondar, former head of the very prestigious chess program at the Minsk Academy of Sport, have taught, nurtured and inspired dozens if not hundreds of local budding chess players, many of whom have attained high national rankings for their ages.  This summer marked a milestone:  one of her students, Eric Rosen also my son, who began studying with her at the age of 8, became the first U.S. player she has coached to attain the rank of National Master.

Almost five years ago, Golovey’s students got a big treat when Gelfand, who was in town to visit her, gave a simul for them.  One of Golovey and Bondar’s students, Sam Schmakel, who was only in third grade at the time, managed a draw.  “It was a memorable experience,” recalls Schmakel.

At the age of 12, Gelfand also began studying with renowned chess trainer Albert Kapengut, who also happens to be Golovey’s brother-in-law and now lives in New Jersey.  Students who attend Golovey’s Kings and Queens August summer camp also get the benefit of Kapengut’s lessons--he comes every year as a visiting instructor. 

Gelfand is not the only one of Golovey’s former students to attain the rank of grandmaster.  GM Yury Shulman, a Belarus native who now also resides in the Chicago area, is another of Golovey’s star former students.  “With her love and infectious enthusiasm, she taught us how to love and enjoy chess.  We always looked forward to her lessons.  Not only were we going to meet our good friends, but we were studying with a caring coach,” recalls Shulman. “Her main strength was instilling in us a desire to study and to please her.  She instilled confidence in all of us.”

Bondar, Golovey and Gelfand in Chicago 2005
Golovey’s students may go on to study with other instructors, but they never forget her.  She says Gelfand is like a member of her family and keeps in frequent touch, and always calls her and Bondar on their birthdays.  Her summer camps here also have the feeling of an extended family and span all ages, because new young players are always finding her while the older players keep coming back.

And Golovey delights in following their chess careers as they progress, though she says she feels more stress than even a parent feels.  "Parents don't usually understand what's happening on the chessboard, but I know when the position looks bad," Golovey said.  “It was so nerve-wracking for me to watch Boris’s blitz games on the internet,” she added, especially the second game, which Gelfand lost.  Her husband Bondar was able to sit and watch the computer, "but I had to keep going to another room."

Andi Rosen is the director of the Illinois Chess Association Warren Junior Scholar Program.