CALIFORNIA CHESS JOURNAL (Vol. 1 No. 13) October 1987
OUT OF THE PAST
IN CALIFORNIA CHESS
By Guthrie McClain
(Editor, The California Chess Reporter, 1951 - 1976)
THIS IS THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF HISTORICAL ARTICLES ABOUT CHESS IN
CALIFORNIA DURING THE PERIOD 1924-1951.
The "Good Old Days" were not quite as good for
Chess as were the games and sports of Bridge, Golf, Tennis, Polo - not to
mention Baseball, Football and Basketball. While Chess was existing as an
exotic game unknown to the general public, other games were enjoying a
"Golden Age" of great popularity and public approval.
The country was agog about the exploits of Bobby Jones,
Walter Hagen and the other golfers; about Big Bill Tilden, Jean Borotra and
Helen Wills on the tennis courts; while Ely Culbertson made the front pages
of the nation's newspapers during the December, 1931, with "The Battle
of the Century" between Culbertson and Sidney S. Lenz. While the nation
was going on a binge about their sports heroes and heroines, Chess more or
less languished in the closet.
There was no interest in the newspapers, except that the
San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times carried chess columns on
Sundays. These columns were wonderful for a boy who was starved for any
bits or scraps of information concerning chess... I found out later that the
conductor of the Chronicle column, Ernest J. Clarke, worked for the paper
and did not charge for the column. Stasch Mlotkowski and, later, Harry
Borochow followed by Herman Steiner wrote the Times column - to the best of
my recollection, they were compensated...
There was no USCF, no State organization, and only a few
places to play chess. The best place to play was the Chess Room of The
Mechanics' Institute at 57 Post Street in San Francisco. This chess club
was (and still is) the northern California Mecca of chess players. Open all
day seven days a week, the Mechanics' Institute was home to such giants as
A.J. Fink, Dr. Walter Lovegrove, Charles Woskoff, Prof. G.E.K. Branch, Prof.
A.W. Ryder, Bernardo Smith (Director), A.B. Stamer (subsequently Director),
Carl Bergmann, Henry Gross, Wm. P. Barlow, D.N. Vedensky, H.J. Ralston, the
doctors Henry and Abelson Epsteen and many, many others. Over the years the
Mechanics' has invited the great masters of the game to give exhibitions:
Capablanca, Maroczy, Pillsbury, Fine, Fischer, Euwe, Alekhine, Petrosian,
Spassky, Szabo and Gligoric, to name a few.
My first contact with a grandmaster occurred in 1929 when
World Champion Alexander Alekhine came to San Francisco on the last leg of a
world tour. The "giants" named above turned out in force against
the world's champion; they gave Alekhine a terrible beating. In New York a
week later a reporter asked Alekhine were in the world did he find the
strongest opposition: "In San Francisco," Alekhine replied,
"at a place called the Mechanics' Institute."
I approached the great man over one of the boards at a
moment when Alekhine was waiting. I thrust a copy of my only book on chess,
Frank Marshall's Chess Masterpieces, opened to Alekhine's great game vs.
Yates: "Will you please sign Dr. Alekhine?" He looked at the
binding: "I only sign my own books," he said curtly. My hopes
dashed, I slunk away. I hung around all night, however (I was nineteen and
my parents had given me permission) and some time in the early morning I
walked down to the Ferry Building and caught the first ferry of the day to
Oakland. During the last hours of the simultaneous exhibition I observed how
many of the games seemed to fall apart for the players. Alexander Alekhine
was showing us just why he was the world's greatest player. Through one
beautiful move after another, he was turning "lost games" into
draws and "draws" into wins.
A.J. Fink was the club's problem composer. My earliest
recollections recall the large demonstration board which had a Fink
composition just about everyday; the adjacent blackboard carried the message
in Fink's handwriting: "Mate in 2. Please check." In those days,
cooks were the bane of a problem composer's life. Fink enlisted the entire
club to help find multiple solutions.
Fink was California State Champion in 1922, 1928, 1929 and
co-champion (with Herman Steiner of Los Angeles) in 1945.