A tribute to South Africa’s ‘Mr Chess’

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    By Jill Rabinowitz (daughter of Leonard Reitstein)


    August saw the passing of Leonard Reitstein, aged 91, much admired and respected member of the Cape Town Jewish community, particularly Temple Israel, and as South Africa’s ‘Mr Chess’. 

    Leonard’s father Julian was a founder member of the Progressive Judaism movement in Cape Town in the 1940s and brought in his son, where he rose to be President of Temple Israel. Leonard’s admiration and enthusiasm for the Reform movement and his high regard for Rabbi David Sherman, saw him fully committed, and even more so when he and his wife Ruth moved next door to the Temple in Wynberg! Besides presidential and general duties, his contribution included his role as editor of the annual magazine, and leader of many shiurim and lay services. 

    Leonard was a man of great intellect, blessed with a sharp mind, quick wit and erudition. His general knowledge was wide and often obscure, his interests ranging from music (he hosted classical soirées), maths (he calculated without a calculator), history, religion, literature, cricket and cryptic crosswords (he called himself a cruciverbalist). He delighted nothing more than to encourage his grandchildren to discuss with and question or challenge him on all topics.

    In the words of Rabbi Richard Newman, “He made me think, made me see things from a different perspective, made me realise that here was a man to whom I could turn, for advice and counsel. Here was a man whose knowledge was only superseded by his wisdom. There was a wealth of life, welling forth, a font of meaningful words backed up by well-tempered thought. Here was a saint-like mortal, stretching out his hands to those around him.”

    Leonard is regarded as the person who has made the greatest and longest impact on South African chess. Former SA champion David Friedgood describes him as “truly South Africa’s Mr Chess”, with a background as player and correspondence player, captain of the SA team to various internationals and Olympiads, and organiser of major chess events, as well as a stint as President of the SA Chess Federation. Leonard was a chess resource, buying and selling books and publications, and at one stage his home library was regarded as the largest in the southern hemisphere! He single-handedly compiled The South African Chess Player magazine, publishing it for over thirty years, and wrote several Test Your Chess books and other works. His magnum opus, A History of Chess in South Africa, was a labour of love for the game and sold internationally.

    Dr Lyndon Bouah, Director of Sport and Recreation, Western Cape Government, has been appointed as the custodian of Leonard’s ‘chess world’. He says, “As I have known Mr Reitstein for over twenty years I was honoured and privileged to be requested to be the custodian. The chess material consists of books, magazines and particularly hundreds of copies of The South African Chess Player, documents, minute books, photographs and memorabilia.” These are being collated and digitised for a future public display in Leonard’s honour.

    Leonard attended Sea Point Boys and Oudtshoorn School, and graduated as a bookkeeper accountant. Most of his working life was at Blumberg & Kleinman and for the Jewish Board of Deputies. He married Ruth Saevitzon of Wynberg in 1953; a long, happy and devoted partnership that lasted over sixty-five years. They lived in Newlands and Wynberg, and moved into Highlands House two years ago. Leonard is survived by his wife Ruth and his children Jillian, Anthony and Michelle. He has five grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, living as far afield as Cape Town, Ra’anana, Sydney, Perth and London!

    To download a PDF of the Chronicle for October, click here

    To read the editor’s column this month, titled ‘Why we need more difficult females’ click here

    To read the most read story online in September, click here

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