Chess is more than a game for SPICE team member

Vitaly Neimer (left) faces off with an opponent during a chess match. Neimer trains under Susan Polgar as a member of the SPICE chess team. PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL TRUONG

Vitaly Neimer recently tied his teammate and grandmaster Andre Diamant of Brazil at the U.S. Chess “G/15” Championship in Vancouver, Wash.

If Neimer, an Israeli international master and member of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE), continues to have success like this, he could accomplish his goal of earning the title of grandmaster.

Neimer, 24, started to learn chess in a Russian school for chess at the age of 5. Chess was very popular in Russia at the time and Neimer said his chess teachers noticed he was a talented player.

When Neimer was 6, his family immigrated to Petah Tikva, Israel. He continued to study chess and grew fonder of it.

“When kids start to play chess, they enjoy it just for fun,” Neimer said. “They meet a lot of new friends. They meet different players.”

At the age of 10, Neimer began to play for the Petah Tikva Chess Club. That year, he won the Israel Junior Chess Championship. At the tournament, he met Anatoly Bykhovsky, a current member of SPICE. Neimer traveled to Austria to compete in the European Chess Championship.

“I think even then I realized how great chess is,” Neimer said. “It opens up a lot of doors. You meet new people. You see new places.”

Neimer started his mandatory Israeli army service at the age of 17. In Israel, Neimer said teenage girls serve a mandatory two years while teenage boys serve a mandatory three years. He served in Israel’s defense army in the city of Sderot and was given the option of selecting a vocation.

Naturally, Neimer chose chess.

The Israeli army classified him as an excellent sportsman. Because of his choice of chess as a vocation, Neimer had time to practice chess and compete in tournaments. He eventually rose to the level of federal chess master.

Neimer taught chess to children and adults. While he worked to improve his chess skills, Neimer spoke to children in schools about the Israeli army because they would someday serve in it.

Neimer participated in one battle during his service. Neimer said Sderot often came under attack because of its relation to Gaza.

“(Sderot) is very close to Gaza. It’s like Webster Groves

and St. Louis,” Neimer said. “They were launching about 10 missiles every day, so we went on an operation to clear the area. My unit was responsible to go to kindergartens and schools to show some support to the civilians.”

When Neimer went to a kindergarten to speak to children, a missile was launched and an alarm sounded.

“You have 5 seconds to run and take cover. Each school has a bomb shelter,” Neimer said. “My job when I heard the alarm was to get the kids into the basement. This is the reality … It makes you much more mature.”

Neimer completed his service at the age of 21. He continued to teach chess for a year, earning $100 per month — only enough for Neimer’s basic needs.

Then, Bykhovsky informed Neimer about an opportunity with SPICE. With his family’s blessing, Neimer contacted Susan Polgar, SPICE’s founder. Neimer was already an international master of chess. After passing an English test and interviewing with Polgar, Neimer joined SPICE. Neimer is now a sophomore finance and accounting major at Webster University.

Neimer said leaving his family and friends and adjusting to life in America was difficult for him.

“I always say I went from high school to first grade,” Neimer said.

Polgar and Neimer’s new teammates helped him adapt to his new life. Because a majority of the SPICE players are international students, Neimer said Polgar not only coached him in chess, but also helped him in everyday life.

“For every problem I had, she was my contact,” Neimer said. “It’s more than student-coach. It’s more like family.”

Polgar said she agrees that the chess team is like a family.

“They know they can count on me whether they need a ride to the doctor or to teach them how to cook something,” Polgar said. “I’m not only a coach, but I’m also like a big sister.”

Polgar described Neimer as a logical, systematic player.

“Vitaly likes to build a solid base rather than going for the unknown,” Polgar said.

The chess team will leave for the World Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey, on Aug. 25.

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