CALIFORNIA CHESS JOURNAL (Vol. 1 No. 13) October 1987


By Guthrie McClain

(Editor, The California Chess Reporter, 1951 - 1976)


   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.

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