The extraordinary story of chess grandmaster Lev Alburt has been told, in bits and pieces, in books and podcast interviews. Now, it has been packaged in a documentary on YouTube.
However, the story might be best suited for a Hollywood movie or Netflix mini-series.
Alburt won the national title in Ukraine three times before escaping from the Soviet Union on a trip to Germany for a chess tournament. He then traveled to New York with $70 in his pocket and started his chess career in the United States, where he won the U.S. Chess Championship three times.
In a conversation with the director of the documentary, I found out that the film was almost entirely made during the pandemic. This meant lots of Skype calls, which sometimes buzz and skip in the completed film.
The documentary includes interviews from writers and colleagues of Alburt’s. GM Ben Finegold, NM Bruce Pandolfini, GM Maxim Dlugy, Al Lawrence, and Pete Tamburro all contributed, along with others.
The most interesting segments are those with Lev Alburt himself.
The film touches on the lasting impact Alburt has had on American chess, not just through play, but how the game is learned. Growing up in the Soviet school, Alburt’s game did not have the gaps that many American grandmasters of the time suffered from. He used his understanding of the game, and how to teach it, in his Comprehensive Chess book series.
The series of books was based upon the Soviet plan for training a chess player, which Alburt’s friend and teacher, Roman Pelts, smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
This, according to the documentary, led to a shift in America’s approach to learning the game. Instead of learning only through play and what could be learned by others at the local chess club, Alburt and his co-authors offered a robust approach to learning chess.
Though the film touches on Alburt’s political involvement, it does not go into great depth. What is clear though, is that Alburt was ready to compete, not only at the chess board, but in American capitalism.
Alburt also had a distinguished career as a teacher in New York City. He contributed to the chess education of Josh Waitzkin, whose story is known best through the film Searching for Bobby Fischer.
Alburt also mentions another student who was the under-10 and under-12 world champion. While he believes the student could easily have become the real world champion, no qualifiers, the boy instead lost interest in chess in his early teens.
While the documentary apparently endured a shoestring budget, the story told within it is extraordinary.