The Dean's Gambit

By Will Chapin

Aug., 28, 1983, San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle,
pg. 28 in the People Section

On May 3, 1983, Neil Levy anxiously recorded his daughter Ariel's chess game with George Koltanowski. In the sunlit library of Oxford Primary School in Berkeley, Levy hovered near the board and noted the moves on an official score sheet: pawn to queen four, pawn to queen four in reply, knight to king bishop three, etc.

George Koltanowski had the white pieces, Ariel the black. It was mate in seven. Ariel took her defeat with an aplomb rarely visited upon losing chess players. She bounced off to talk with her friends. "Why not?" sad Neil Levy, a few minutes later. "Why not record it? How often is she going to get to play with Koltanowski?"

George Koltanowski is 79 years old - a treasured antique in the eyes of people who know him. He is an international master, writes a daily syndicated chess column, is past president of the United States Chess Federation and is widely known as "the dean of American chess."

Koltanowski is still recognized as the greatest "simultaneous blindfold" player in the history of the game. For the uninitiated, "simultaneous blindfold" means that you play a number of opponents at the same time without ever seeing the actual chess boards, receiving and giving the moves by voice. It is a surrealistic concept of which the Russians disapprove because they think it can drive people crazy. It probably can and it probably has, but Koltanowski remains eminently sane.

In tournaments in years past, Koltanowski has met, and on one occasion defeated, the top players of the century. In 1963 he played to a draw with Alexander Alekhine, whom most chess historians consider the best. But now he plays mostly with school kids in order to perpetuate the game that has been his life. He plays without pay. And on May 3, 1983, he played 52 children, including Ariel Levy.

Koltanowski was invited to the Oxford Primary School by Elizabeth Shaughnessy, a former women's champion of Ireland who teaches chess to children in Berkeley. His opponents, all between the ages of seven and twelve, were selected from the pupils in Shaughnessy's classes. At least a third of them were black, a few Asian. They wore T-shirts, jeans, running shoes. One of the shirts said: "Be tempted: Learn another language." A Berkeley T-shirt, for sure.

Koltanowski, in a very ordinary gray suit and a blue shirt that had been washed many times, is short and heavyset, with a generous belly and jowls that move around when he talks, adding weight to his words. His eyes are soft and brown. His hair has an old man's neatness: sparse, whit, parted on the left.

At 2:45 p.m. Elizabeth Shaughnessy rang a little bell for attention and introduced Koltanowski, who gave a brief speech:

"When I started, as a youngster, I was much older than most of you are. I learned a bit late, at the age of fourteen, and that's awfully late. I lost at least 100 games before I won my first game. You've got to be tenacious... and therefore, if any of you lose to me, don't feel bad. Because you're going to lose!"
Everyone laughed, and Koltanowski went on:
"By playing chess, you're going to find that it has almost the same value as knowing another language. I'm Belgian, by birth. Now, if I were to speak Flemish, you wouldn't understand me. But if I go to any part of the world, I am more than welcome because I can play chess all over the world, and we all play under the same rules and regulations. You're still young. But before you know it you'll have some of the best friend in the world. What chance in any other game, would you have of meeting doctors, lawyers, civil servants, what have you. Chess is a free and easy introduction to some of the finest people in the world.

"I'd like to say, before I start, that I wish you all good luck. But I wish myself much more good luck. So now we know where stand. I'm out to beat you and you're out to beat me and let's have a fair fight."

Eight chess boards, their plastic pieces in place, were set up on two long parallel tables and the first eight children took their seats. Koltanowski, all business now, sidled the length of one table, turned ponderously and sidled the length of the other. At each board he paused for an instant and made his first move: pawn to king four, pawn to queen four, pawn to king four. Up and down the lines. He was old, he was pitted against little kids, but he gave off an almost tangible power.

"I don't play the person," Koltanowski has said. "I play the board. The position on the board is all that counts." It didn't matter whether he was playing Alexander Alekhine or Ariel Levy - he is always out to win.

The games went fast. Slaughter of the innocents. As soon as a child was checkmated (they never resign at that age), another victim sat down. Koltanowski would brace himself on the edge of the table, elbows locked to support his bulk, glance at the board for two seconds and move a piece. Most chess tournaments are conducted in a supervised, oppressive silence interrupted only by an occasional "Shh!" This tournament was conducted in cheerful bedlam. Parents clicked cameras, exchanged Polaroid shots, laughed, held babies in their arms. Children who had been defeated teased children who were waiting to sit down, poking them, playing tag, shouting insults. Koltanowski kept on, methodically. The room grew warm.

Once, throwing up his hands, he said: "No, you can't do that, sir. You can's castle with your bishop! Now I've seen everything!"

One opponent, a kid with a modest Afro, swiveled around to face a friend behind him and said: "He blowin' me out!"

And once a blue-eyed girl with black hair in a ponytail retreated quietly to her waiting mother, after her game, and said quietly: "He's hard."

At 4:30 p.m. the 52nd child, Leon Saperstein, went down to defeat. The people who had remained to watch all 52 matches applauded. George Koltanowski looked tired. Elizabeth Shaughnessy thanked him profusely and he left.

On the way back to his apartment on Gough Street in San Francisco, riding in a friend's car, Koltanowski said that his legs hurt, his back hurt.

I firt encountered George Koltanowski when I went to work for the San Francisco Chronicle in 192. For years I had been a chess player of marginal talent, what is know as "a wood pusher." Koltanowski was the first "international" chess player I had ever seen. I used to watch him at the office peer into his mail slot, then walk past the copy desk, where I was stationed, to the darker recesses of the building, where he would disappear and presumably prepare his next chess column. He reminded me of a basset hound - slow and deliberate, gentle, a little melancholy.

Koltanowski, as his name implies, has Polish roots, but he was born in Antwerp, where his father was a diamond cutter. Koltanowski also trained as a diamond cutter, and he would have pursued that craft had not the Great Depression - and chess - intervened. He arrived at the Chronicle by a circuitous route, eking out a living as a chess professional in Belgium, Spain, Guatemala, Canada and on the East Coast of the United States. On the way, he married Leah Greenberg of Springfield, Massachusetts. She is still with him, a source of strength and support. His column started in 1947.

Several of us on the copy desk played chess. When the first edition of the newspaper came off the press, two of us would get out a board and "play through" Koltanowski's game of the day, checking it for typographical errors. When we found one, which was often, we would phone Koltanowski and he would gratefully give us the correction. Chess is a tough enough game as it is, without typos.

On Sunday afternoon in the early fifties (it must have been a slow day for news), Koltanowski agreed to play a "simultaneous blindfold" against eight reporters and editors. He sat in a straight back chair, ten feet from the boards, facing away from us, solid as a rock. We kept track of the games in reporters' notebooks. Koltanowski appeared to be staring into space. I did better than I had expected, but when Koltanowski made his 23rd move, I said, rather too loudly:

"George! You can't do that! It's an illegal move. You're jumping over one of your own pieces."

"All right," he said impassively. "Let's start at the beginning again."

Very rapidly, he called out every single move he had made and every move I had made, in sequence, until he discovered the mistake. My mistake, of course. I had given him a move, and recorded it, but made another, quite different move on the board. The mistake rectified, the board no longer in shameful disarray, I soon found myself in a hopeless position and resigned. At that moment, I became aware that I was in the presence of a mind that was transcendentally different. Not necessarily better. Just different.

All of us lost. Before Koltanowski left the building I asked him how he did it, how on earth did he remember all those games. He gave a noncommittal shrug.

I quit the Chronicle in 1969, but I have seen George Koltanowski several times since then, and I have phoned him for advice on chess Recently I went to his apartment and over coffee he talked about his life in a random way. Koltanowski likes to talk, once he gets started. Perhaps he likes to talk because chess itself is such a silent game. Here, in part, is what he said:

"I spend about two hours a day on chess now. It used to be ten. When we get our mail, my wife takes care of that. Lucky for me. She does not know how to play chess but she knows how to answer chess people. Chess players are peculiar, you know that as well as I... ."

"But to get back to my day. In the morning I will type my article. I may get an idea during the night and I will type that. A story, an anecdote. What I prefer is a game from a tournament and I try to get a little story to go with it. Sometimes I have to make up the story myself, but that doesn't matter. It gives the column a little spice."

"Then, after the article, I play games by mail. With my pupils, I play about 200 games a year by mail. Most of the time it takes me one minute - no, not even a minute - to say to myself, 'That's the move,' and I send it off. The percentage is about 95 percent wins and maybe one or two losses and a few draws. Because I do not play to beat anybody. I play to teach them a particular opening, and so after they make six or seven moves the say, OK, we don't know what to play in this position. Should we play this or that? So we play two games instead of one from this position, and we may end up playing ten or twelve game from the same opening. A game lasts four months, maybe six months."

"I started chess very late, when I was fourteen. But earlier than that I knew I had a memory. When I was seven years old I collected chocolate pictures. You know - you'd buy a piece of chocolate and get a picture of a nation, its stamps, its capital, how many inhabitants in this or that city, what was the main business of the country. Hundreds of things. You could ask me and I knew all the answers. Memory helped me pick up everything I heard. And I was extremely good at school. Astronomy I liked, that sort of thing. Mathematics I wasn't interested in."

"When the war broke out, when the Germans invaded Belgium, my whole family left Antwerp. We walked, and we pushed a cart with our best belongings in it. Rested and walked. We ate what was growing in the fields. We ate radishes. When we got to Holland, of course, we were well received, and later we were sent to London."

"When the armistice was signed we went back home to Belgium, went back to what was left of it, and by then my brothers were playing chess. I had six brothers and a sister and I used to watch them. I asked if I could play and of course they wiped the floor with me. But it didn't take long. In ten days I started beating them. I picked up things. My mind was very alert at that time."

"The first game I can really remember? Remember in detail? That was the first game I played against my father. And I lost. I lost on purpose, and he knew I lost on purpose and he would never play me again. But he was my biggest supporter. My mother wanted me to be a diamond cutter but my father wanted me to play chess. It's hard to explain why I let him beat me. It was something... something I couldn't bring myself to do... to beat him. I had the white pieces, and I played the Giuoco Pianissimo. Very old-fashioned opening, and I used it all the time then. Anyway, one week my father took me to a place in Antwerp where only the diamond merchants came. After lunch they played cards or checkers or chess or what have you, and my father took me down there to play chess. I was just a kid."

"Each time I played, I played a man with a beard. And I would win. After about five weeks I was the sensation of the diamond business. Then I played the man with biggest beard. And the first game, he beat me. It was very simple. He had hidden a rook behind his beard and I didn't see it until it was too late."

"That happens to be a true story. But that was the only time he won because after that I insisted he keep his beard off the board."

"Later on, I began to play in the chess club in Antwerp and ater, I would say, a year, I started beating everybody. I was champion of the club. By that time I had pulled a number of youngsters into the club, and we formed a clique where we played amongst ourselves. That was murder! I mean, there was no forgiveness, no friendliness. It was the toughest ordeal, and that's how I really learned how to play chess. It was on a daily basis."

"Once at the club they organized a blindfold tournament, and they smashed me. After four or five moves I didn't know what it was all about. They taunted me. They'd say, 'Here comes the blindfold champion,' and so I had to do something about that. That's when I went out and cut a board into four sections, and I learned that if I know the A-1 square, the D-4 is connected to it. B-2, C-3, D-4. And if I knew D-1, then A-4 is connected to it. C-2, B3 and A-4. Then I knew the whole board and I went back to the club and in two weeks I smashed them all up. I played all seven of them and I smashed them."

"It's really very simple. I don't have a picture of the board in my mind. I feel the board, and I hear it. I have a gramophone in the back of my head and everything I hear is marked down. It's simple. I can recall everything that is marked down there."

"In 1937 in Edinburgh, as you probably know, I set the world's record in blindfold. [Koltanowski played 34 games in threat event, winning 24, drawing 10 and losing none. It took him thirteen-and-a-half hours.] Now, when you play 34 people in one city you don't play 34 masters. A master in the first place would not sit down and play. But in this exhibition in Edinburgh I played the champion of Scotland. In that era, they took the best players."

"The most difficult thing in blindfold is dividing up the games so you know that board number 32 is a Queen's Gambit with the Exchange Variation, and board number 15 is a Ruy Lopez, and board number 10 is a Sicilian and so on. Otherwise, you get all mixed up."

"You ask me what is the strongest part of my game? The ending. I played a game against Paul Keres in Ostend in 1937... That ending. He may have won it twenty times, I'm not saying that. But the defense I put up was unique. Even Keres recommended it. But, as a whole, I feel I know very little about openings. I play anything. I do not specialize in openings. But you give me the chance to attack, I am very dangerous. I take chances. Naturally, now I don't play in international tournaments."

"Diversions? What kind of diversions? Well, I travel. I used to travel all the time, but that had to do with chess. I like to eat. I read a lot of murder stories and spy-detective stories. I don't mind if there's a killing on each page; the whole thing is, I don't have to remember it... ."

Early this year, I played chess against Koltanowski in an elegant home that overlooks downtown Tiburon. He played eight of us simultaneously, but not blindfold.

I felt nervous and flustered when the game began. I did not play well. It was mate in seven. As a chess player, that put me in the same league as Ariel Levy of Oxford Primary School in Berkeley. It is not George Koltanowski's league.

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