BEERSHEBA, Israel -- Beersheba is a city of humble origins. Once known as a biblical oasis, it became in its later incarnation a desert backwater.
But one man's vision has helped turn it into the city with the most chess grandmasters per capita in the world.
"For every 20,000 inhabitants we have a grandmaster," said Beersheba chess club founder Eliyahu Levant, referring to the eight members of his club who have achieved chess's highest ranking.
Actually it's a ratio of one grandmaster per 22,875 residents in this city of 183,000. That's still impressive compared with traditional chess centers in Russia, like Moscow with one grandmaster out of every 170,000 people, or St. Petersburg with one per 215,000, according to Russian Chess Federation figures.
There are only 1,000 or so grandmasters worldwide, said Almog Burstein, the Israeli representative to the World Chess Federation.
Beersheba has become a leading team in European club competition, said Vitali Golod, 33, one of the club's grandmasters. Golod said the club's reputation attracts top players to the city. "Beersheba has a culture of chess," he said.
But it was not always so.
By all accounts it is Levant, 76, who is responsible for chess taking root in these arid surroundings.
A former Soviet chess official and coach of the Leningrad Spartak chess club, Levant was one of about 140,000 Soviet Jews allowed to immigrate to Israel in the early 1970s during a brief thaw in Kremlin policy, which otherwise barred Jews from leaving.
Arriving in Israel in 1973, Levant surprised Israel's chess community by turning down a position at the Tel Aviv chess club and announcing he was going to Beersheba.
"They didn't understand who I was, a new immigrant with not a word of Hebrew, turning down a job and going off to Beersheba," Levant said.
What the chess officials did not know was that back in the USSR, Levant was captivated by the vision of Israel's founding father, David Ben Gurion, to turn sleepy Beersheba into the capital of the Negev desert.
"I thought, in chess this is a place where I can start from zero," Levant said.
Levant traveled around the city schools, playing simultaneous games against dozens at a time. In his first year he played against more than 2,000 students, he said, inviting those with potential to join the fledgling club.
In its early years, the chess club shared a small room with the local symphony orchestra, the ballet school, and theater.
Now, in recognition of the club's achievements, the city is renovating the current clubhouse, adding a second story.
"This is where we will have our competitions," Levant said, pointing up past the walls crammed with showcases housing the dozens of trophies the club has won. The few open spaces on the walls are filled with black and white pictures of former Israeli chess champions.
Under Levant's tutelage, Beersheba has grown into the dominant force in Israeli chess, winning the national club championships 17 times since 1974. In doing so, Levant has also helped boost Israeli chess to a ranking of sixth in the world -- behind Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, France, and the United States -- with four players in the top 100, according to the World Chess Federation.
One of them, Boris Avrukh, 26, ranked 92d, is a member of the Beersheba club.
Levant says the success of his club comes from nurturing young talent. The focus on the children is evident.
Inside the club, the silence of deep concentration is frequently punctuated by the cries of the youngsters shouting "Is this it?" as they solve puzzles posed by their teacher, who exhorts the children to think three moves ahead while asking them to take their feet off the tables.
"Parents send their children because they understand chess is a way to develop the thought process," said Ilana David, 43, who coaches the youngsters, some as young as 4 years old.
But the children stay because they're having fun.
"I like the challenge, all the action," said Yonatan Hazan, 10.
While some of the grandmasters are native Israelis, not all the talent is homegrown.
Beersheba and Israeli chess received a huge boost with the fall of the Soviet Union, when more than 1 million people immigrated to Israel in the 1990s from the traditional chess powerhouse.
Many of the immigrants who played chess back home were drawn to Beersheba by the reputation of Levant, which spread through the chess world. "Beersheba is a well-known name," said Michael Klenburg, 27, who came to Israel in 1994 from Lviv, Ukraine, and settled in Beersheba, where he plays competitively and teaches.
Klenburg says the club's success is all owed to Levant. "He was the right man at the right time," he said.
But for Levant, his greatest achievement is not the trophies or internationally ranked players, but his contribution to the youth of the city.
"All my students, every single one, went on to university," he said proudly.