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CEO of MyHeritage Gilad Japhet: Steinitz was related to Lasker

Mr Gilad Japhet, the organizer of the 2nd Gideon Japhet Memorial Chess Tournament in honor of his father, and also founder and CEO of MyHeritage.com – one of the most popular websites connecting people using genealogy, agreed on an exclusive interview for Chessdom.

It reveals much about the great festival in Jerusalem, including chess stars Boris Gelfand and Peter Svidler. Find out interesting facts about the life of Gideon Japhet and the relation between the first and second World Chess Champions Wilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker!

Gilad Japhet (left) with Peter Svidler during the 2nd Gideon Japhet Memorial Chess Tournament

Gilad Japhet (left) with Peter Svidler during the 2nd Gideon Japhet Memorial Chess Tournament

Chessdom: Dear Mr. Gilad Japhet, you organized the “Gideon Japhet Memorial Chess Tournament” in honor of your father Gideon Japhet for the second consecutive year. Are you happy with the turnout this year and do you feel that the tournament is growing?

Gilad Japhet: First I would like mention that this chess tournament is not organized by me alone. It is the fruit of my cooperation with the Jeruchess club of Jerusalem led by Alon Cohen-Revivo.

I am providing ideas, funding and organizational capabilities and Jeruchess are responsible for all the professional chess aspects.  Many other people are helping out. In this tournament I am trying to bring approaches from the Israeli hi-tech industry into the chess world.

Yes, I am very happy with the turnout this year, and the tournament is indeed growing well, and we are learning a great deal in the process. Last year my father Gideon passed away in March and we decided to have a chess tournament in his memory just two months later, and made it happen in less than 3 months.

The idea was not just to have an open chess tournament with several categories, but to initiate a new tradition of an annual chess festival which will be host to many chess activities, a celebration for chess fans. I insisted on doing this in Jerusalem because my father was born in Jerusalem and lived there all his life.

In the first year the chess festival included a simultaneous exhibition with grandmaster Alexander Khuzman and it also hosted the finals of Israel’s chess problem solving championship.

As an anecdote, I’ll mention that grandmaster Khuzman played a simultaneous exhibition about a decade ago in Jerusalem not long after beating world champion Kasparov in 2003, and my father Gideon was invited as one of the oldest players in Jerusalem (76). To everyone’s surprise my father scored a draw against Khuzman (everyone else lost) and this was my father’s best achievement in chess ever of which he was very proud. So I approached grandmaster Khuzman and asked him if he would honor my father by playing a simultaneous in a tournament in his memory to which Khuzman, who remembered my father, immediately agreed.

Other innovations we added were beauty prizes for each round of the tournament, flowers that were decorating the playing hall throughout the tournament, and generous refreshments served free throughout all days of the tournament. When it comes to the memory of my father, I wanted everything to be perfect.

102 players participated in the first event and feedback was remarkably positive. Hence we decided on the spot to continue this in 2014. This year we had much more time for preparations and our goal was to double the tournament in all respects, to not go back on anything we had in the first year, simply add more. Our goal was to double the number of players, extend the main tournament from 5 to 9 rounds, and double the prize fund too.

Due to the war in Israel these days we’ve had some cancellations and some players were unable to attend, so we didn’t fully meet the doubling of the tournament to 200 players, but we came extremely close at 192, and we consider this a great achievement given the unfortunate circumstances. I didn’t for a moment consider cancelling the tournament, as I think chess and sports should stand above conflict. In chess the battles take place only on the board and opponents respect  each other, this is a great inspiration for real life.

The highlight of the tournament this year was the Gelfand-Svidler duel which was added to elevate the event nationally and internationally. But we also added an Amateurs category to the open tournaments to attract unrated players, true to my father’s philosophy that chess is an excellent educational tool.

To create champions one has to first create a wide foundation by making chess a popular activity, so a tournament should also attract first-timers and young chess players not only veteran players who are already deep into the game.

This year we added a website in 3 languages (English, Hebrew and Russian), live video broadcasts, interviews and game commentaries, thousands of photos taken daily and uploaded to Facebook same day, we provided a game analysis room for the players and took care of even small aspects like ensuring that every player had his name and rating printed next to the board, not just for the leading players but even for complete beginners – to give everyone a sense of pride. All this on top of all the features and activities we had in the chess festival in its first year, to make this year’s event even better than the first.

Once again feedback has been remarkable and this is very rewarding for the efforts and funds I invested, fueling my desire to continue this tradition.

Chessdom: The highlight of the event – the Rapid Duel between two top chess players: Boris Gelfand and Peter Svidler definitely increased international recognition of the “Gideon Japhet Memorial”. Do you plan to invite the players next year as well?

Gilad Japhet: Yes. We now feel that we have the capability to invite super GMs and give them the best possible conditions, and so we see this as something we should repeat in the future as well.

Maybe even grow from the 1:1 duel we had this year, to a mini-tournament of 3 super GMs playing each other, etc. The concept of inviting 2 or 3 of the world’s elite players and having them play each other in rapid chess in front of a live appreciating audience and broadcasted live to the Internet has proven to create a healthy interest and buzz and we would be happy to repeat it.

We’ll be happy to have Gelfand and Svidler again if their schedules allow it, and we will consider inviting additional top players as well.

Chessdom: The video interviews with the match participants at the press conferences were quite entertaining and it seems like the players were more relaxed than at the usual post-mortems at top-level tournaments. How did you manage to make Boris and Peter feel at ease after obviously stressful games? (VIDEO INTERVIEW 1, 2, 3 and 4VIDEO INTERVIEW 5 and 6VIDEO INTERVIEW 7 and 8)

Gilad Japhet: This is thanks to the pleasant personalities of Gelfand and Svidler. These are not only great minds at the chess board but also great people beyond the chess board.

I met Gelfand prior to this tournament at his initiative, he had heard about me from his trainer, grandmaster Khuzman and asked for us to meet. My chemistry with Gelfand was immediate. Gelfand is amazingly humble and is such a good man. We found that we share the same vision of advancing chess in Israel.

Having a rapid chess duel in the Gideon Japhet Memorial was Gelfand’s idea which I embraced. We brainstormed who would be a good candidate to invite to play against Gelfand, and Svidler was his recommendation, which I also accepted.  Svidler was invited and agreed and the details were worked out.

Thank you for describing the interviews as entertaining and refreshing. I think this is  because I decided to conduct these interviews myself, and I am inexperienced in this – I’ve never conducted any chess interviews in my life or any other interview for that matter. So I didn’t follow any rules or protocols , which is why they came out different.

I also applied some typical Israeli “Chutzpah” – figuring that as I am the host of this tournament, they will really do their best to answer my questions – so why not ask them some non-conventional questions that many people are curious about but no one else would dare ask such revered players?

The end result is a series of 8 interviews which not only include a detailed analysis of their games but also expose an interesting window into the personal worlds of these great players, something lovers of chess may appreciate.

Chessdom: A lot of side events, such as a public lecture by Gelfand and Svidler and a simultaneous exhibition delivered by GM Alexander Huzman, were provided during the chess festival in Jerusalem. Do you think it inspired young chess players? Did you get any feedback from the participants?

Gilad Japhet: Almost all 192 players who participated in the tournament in all its categories, plus grandmasters Gelfand and Svidler, wrote and signed a dedication in a special album that was given to me as a surprise at the closing ceremony.

This is a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life and the feedback there was amazing. Reading all the inscriptions, It would be going too far to say we have changed peoples’ lives, but we have certainly touched them and inspired them, and provided a very meaningful experience for many.

A large number of the players were young children  – and it is clear that the tournament has been an inspiring event for many of them. Hopefully we also raised the bar in Israel as to what a chess tournament should be like.

We have already summarized the tournament and created a long list of improvements we wish to make in the future based on lessons learned, and new features that we are thinking of adding in subsequent years of this tournament.

Chessdom: Did “Gideon Japhet Memorial” have a media and/or social impact in Israel beyond the chess circles?

Gilad Japhet: In the first year of the tournament we invited the Jerusalem Mayor, Nir Barkat, and were happy when he sent us a video greeting for the opening and also visited in person during the tournament.

This year we invited him again, and even invited the Israeli prime minister and 2 other members of parliament whom we know are interested in chess. Unfortunately the tournament took place at a time of war and none of these invitees visited the tournament.

Nevertheless this year we received some nice media coverage in Israel and even nicer coverage in international chess websites such as chessdom.com.

We have created some new connections which we hope will allow us to expand media exposure even more in the years ahead. Part of our vision is to make chess more mainstream so media coverage is vital in making this happen.

Next year we will be looking to have more players coming from other countries. The tournament has caused some amateur players to come closer to appreciate chess as a more serious pastime and for some it has caused a return to chess after many years of departure.

Since I believe that chess is positive for the mind and soul, activities that promote chess are beneficial and so this festival has fully served its purpose in my mind.

Chessdom: Could you tell us about your father and his devotion to chess?

Gilad Japhet: My father Gideon Japhet was a lifelong chess player and a great lover of chess. He was not a grandmaster or master. He was pretty good, but there were stronger players. He simply loved the game and played it for several hours a day, most of his life and very heavily in the last 25 years.

He learned chess from his own father at a relatively young age. There are pictures of him as a child, learning from chess books. His father believed greatly in the combination of body and brain development and therefore taught him chess, and quickly the apprentice outdid his master.

Gideon Japhet - a lover of chess and sports

Gideon Japhet – a lover of chess and sports

Chess was very substantial in his life and the way he looked at people. He considered the game as developing the intellect and patience. My father would divide the world into two: those who played chess and those who did not. Every person who came to our house, he was immediately interested in whether or not he played chess. For example, friends and potential boyfriends of my older sisters were measured according to whether they played chess and were treated by my father accordingly!

Indeed, his great love for chess may have even affected his choice of marrying my mother, Prof. Sara Japhet, who several years ago has won the prestigious Israel Prize for her achievements in biblical research. Though she did not play chess herself, her uncle (mother’s brother), was Dr. Menachem Oren. In 1951 Dr. Oren won Israel’s first chess championship and my father really admired him for it. And that was the uncle of the girl he was seeing, so it won my mother special  points in his eyes.

In his profession, my father was a lawyer. He studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris and when he returned to Israel he established an independent law office that flourished for more than 50 years, and focused on the niche clientele of the Arabs in East Jerusalem. He spoke fluent Arabic and became the first Jewish lawyer who represented this population. During the years he was a very famous attorney in Jerusalem.

When he was 60+ years old, and with his career more established, he increased the volume of playing chess and spent several hours each day with chess. He played everyone – relatives, friends, neighbors and professional chess players. He regularly visited Jerusalem chess clubs, where he met and became friends with Dr. Aryeh Leib Mohilever, one of the founders of chess in Israel.

My father pushed me to become a chess player too. I was sent to learn chess with an instructor and played in youth tournaments. But at some point I disappointed my father severely at about age 13 when I stopped playing. Although he thought I should become a champion and it should be the direction of my life, I thought otherwise and chose computers instead. I told him that chess is a game and computers are an occupation. He argued with me but I stopped playing for 30 years. I returned to the game to my father’s great joy in the last year of his life, when he was very sick, and I did this to make him happy. He encouraged all his grandchildren to learn chess. Any time they would come to his home to visit, the chessboard would be pulled out and he would coach them. No one would get away… All his grandchildren learned chess and some of them became quite accomplished. Even today there is another rising star in the family, the fruit of my father’s training, when one of his grandsons, Eyal Bialik, is very successful in chess tournaments.

The success of this chess festival in memory of my father is very important to me. I would like people to participate, play chess, enjoy, and remember my father. Too bad that only he was missing, because I have no doubt that he would have been delighted to participate in such an event.

Gideon Japhet playing chess with his grandchildren

Gideon Japhet playing chess with his grandchildren

Chessdom: You are the CEO of one of the most popular websites in the world – MyHeritage. We are very interested to know how you came up with the idea of connecting people using genealogy and whether you were surprised with the popularity that the website obtained over the years.

Gilad Japhet: Yes, I am the founder and CEO of MyHeritage, an online family history network, since I started it from my home in 2003.

Now more than 11 years since, MyHeritage has grown to 165 employees, and more than 70 million registered users, who have collectively built 27 million family trees with more than 1.5 billion profiles in them.

The website is available in 40 languages and is helping people discover their ancestry and share it with their family and friends all over the world. Genealogy has been a passionate hobby of mine, along with chess, since a very young age.

The idea to create a startup company around genealogy came to my mind after I was unable to find a sufficiently good online system for family trees that would handle my own family. There was no good online service then for family history that was multilingual, and no website offered face recognition for historical photos, which is something I wanted to have.

So I started programming my own as a hobby, and within a year I decided to make my hobby into my job and start a company around it. My vision was to connect the world into a single family tree and create technologies that could make automatic discoveries for the users and resolve mysteries from the past thanks to technology and big data.

Fast forward 11 years and plenty of very hard work, I have been blessed to assemble a fantastic team to fulfill this vision, and MyHeritage has been growing wonderfully and helping people enjoy the passion of family history, and bring their families closer together.

I am pleased that this is successful, but the popularity of genealogy is not surprising. This is something very core to the human experience, family connections have always been important in human society, and will probably forever remain so.

Chessdom: Do you know of any strong chess players (contemporary or from the past) that are related to each other? Perhaps MyHeritage could help in discovering if such links exist? :)

Gilad Japhet: Yes. In fact, all people are related to each other (via blood and marriage) and it’s only a matter of finding the connections. Perhaps if we knew all these connections we would treat each other a little better. For example, for this article I have a scoop for you.

I studied whether Wilhelm Steinitz, the world’s first chess champion, was related to Emanuel Lasker who was the second world chess champion and took over Steinitz. Both of them were Jewish so I figured they might actually be closely related, something that was never realized until now. The answer is affirmative! The two of them are related although I don’t think they realized it themselves back then!

Here is the precise connection between Lasker and Steinitz:

Lasker-Steinitz relation
This was discovered through Geni.com, a family history service owned and operated by MyHeritage.

It would be fun to continue this and trace whether Magnus Carlsen is related to Viswanathan Anand or Boris Gelfand. Anyone can join Geni.com and MyHeritage.com, add his own family tree and try to find whether those chess champions and all other people are related to him or her.

There are obviously many other good reasons for studying one’s family history, and associating oneself with celebrity chess players is only one motivation…

In general I do see a link that connects between my two passions of hi-tech and chess. They both require study, dedication, innovation and attention to detail, and success comes from careful strategic planning followed by perfect execution.

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