Rank & File

(Volume VIII, #4 : July-August 1985)


by John Hillery

One of the persons responsible for the huge success of the Memorial Day Classic was George Koltanowski, one of the finest showmen and popularizers of chess in America. The presence of "Kolty" on what may be his last tour was a remarkable drawing card for the tournament. Even for those who have seen the show before, it remains as fresh and interesting as ever.

The exhibition began with the magic of Hiram Strait, an accomplished lecturer and magician, and a chess player as well. While Hiram held the audience entranced with series of clever illusions, the crowd continued to grow, far beyond what had been expected. By the time Kolty joined Hiram on stage, the spacious room was packed with nearly 200 eager spectators.

The guest of honor was introduced as "the Dean of American Chess," a title bestowed by the USCF some five years ago. It did not do him justice. A fine player, hold of blindfold records, Kolty worked hard for chess during the dry years of the 40's and 50's. His annual tours to cities and towns of every size, to give a show, direct a tournament, or just to show how great chess was, inspired two generations of chess players. He is, in addition, a gentle, warm and witty person who is a genuine pleasure to meet.

The show itself consists of Kolty showing odd and amusing problems, regaling the crowd with anecdotes, and answering questions from the audience. With his quick wit and acquaintance with 60 years of chess masters, he is never at a loss.

(Sample question from the audience: "How can I become a chess master?"

"Well," replied Kolty, "I see Mr. Labate has lots of good books around the room, and you can study books by great players like Lasker or Alekhine, or you can take lessons from a master, or play in a lot of tournaments ... but in the end you either got or you don't.")

The real showpiece, though, is the blindfold Knight's tour. The idea of a Knight's tour is that the Knight hops to every square on the board in 63 consecutive moves, starting anywhere, and touching each square only once. As if this weren't enough, each square is marked with a name, phone number or whatever, which Kolty looks at once. Then he turns from the board and begins to hop, announcing in a confident tone the contents of each square. Afterwards, he recites them again, by file, rank and long diagonal.

Kolty could have gone on for another hour or two, but the fourth round was approaching, and the crowd reluctantly dispersed, unhappy only at the shortness of the show. Retirement or not, perhaps we can persuade Kolty to come back next year ...

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