Thirteen-year-old Zachary Targoff was feeling cornered. His options were running out. Across the table, 90-year-old Herman Bomze sat impassively, waiting.
“I made a bad move there,” Zachary said.
A minute passed in tense silence. Then Zachary accepted his demise. “I’m going to go ahead and resign,” he said.
Thus ended the latest of the improbable contests between two opponents whose clashing biographies virtually encapsulate the trajectory of American Jewry over the past century.
Zachary, a soft-spoken eighth-grader at Manhattan’s prestigious Trinity School, is a poised product of 21st-century American Jewish affluence, security and stability. His busy schedule includes orchestra and athletics, and two hours a day of tennis practice most days of the week. He has lived in Manhattan his entire life.
Bomze, a smiling, white-haired former engineer with a German accent, can only shake his head in wonder at the contrast.
His was a youth that began in poverty and advanced from there into displacement, confrontations with anti-Semitism, a flight from Europe just ahead of the Holocaust and a struggle to begin life anew in America as a refugee whose father perished in the Shoah.
Even the duo’s religious background is a study in contrasts. Zachary is an irregular synagogue attendee who became a bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Bomze grew up in a traditionally observant Jewish home and now frequents the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue.
Yet when it comes to chess, the two are well matched.
“When he’s playing chess with Zachary, I think he feels his strength, his brains, his intelligence,” said Bomze’s daughter, Bracha-Nechama Bomze. “I think he forgets that he’s elderly and frail.”
Zachary, for his part, says he feels a sense of calm when playing Bomze, “because there’s no judgment; he’s not comparing me to anyone else. You can’t really get nervous around him.”
The two found each other with the help of DOROT, an agency that services the needs of seniors and specializes in creating productive intergenerational partnerships between young people and the elderly. For the most part, young people “don’t have much experience interacting with older people that aren’t their own relatives,” noted Judith Turner, DOROT’s director of volunteer services. “In our society in which older people should be most revered, they’re often forgotten.”
DOROT paired the two more than a year ago, not long before Zachary’s 2013 bar mitzvah. The 12-year-old chess whiz was looking to play a senior as a bar mitzvah service project, and Bomze was fruitlessly searching for a chess player of his own level.
When Zachary walked into the elderly man’s Midtown Manhattan apartment, Bomze finally met his match. “It’s very rare in his whole life to have anyone beat him,” Bracha-Nechama Bomze said of her father. “Zachary can beat him. And even though [my father] is embarrassed, he loves it.”
Bomze played his first chess game a lifetime ago in Vienna, on a hand-carved wooden chessboard that belonged to his father. “My father taught me to play chess when I was 6 years old. By the time I was 8, he couldn’t beat me anymore, so there wasn’t much more I could learn from him,” Bomze said. “But playing Zach is a completely different story. From Zach I learn a lot.”
In their first game, Zachary employed the “Sicilian opening,” one of the few aggressive openings that can be used by the black side.
Bomze was immediately intrigued by the strategy, which involves a full assault on the pieces closest to the white player’s queen. “I remember being fascinated,” he said. “There are so many possibilities with that opening.”