Grandmaster George Koltanowski dies at age 96

by Sam Sloan

   George Koltanowski, the greatest showman and promoter that chess has ever known, is dead at age 96. He died of congestive heart failure in San Francisco on February 5, 2000.

   Koltanowski set the world's blindfold record on September 20, 1937 in Edinburgh by playing 34 chess games simultaneously while blindfolded. This made headline news around the world. His record still stands in the "Guinness Book of Records."

   Later, both Najdorf and Flesch claimed to have broken that record, but their efforts were not properly monitored the way that Koltanowski's was.

George Koltanowski
   Born in Antwerp, Belgium on September 17, 1903, George Koltanowski got his first big break in chess at age 21, when he visited an international tournament in Merano, planning to play in one of the reserve sections.

   The organizers were apparently confused or mixed up about his identity and asked him to play in the grandmaster section, to replace an invited player who had not shown up.

   Koltanowski gladly accepted. He finished near the bottom but drew Grandmaster Tarrasch and gained valuable experience.

   He thereafter played in at least 25 international tournaments. However, Koltanowski became better known for touring and giving simultaneous exhibitions and blindfold displays.

   Based upon his results during the period 1932-1937, Professor Elo gave Koltanowski a rating of 2450 in "The Rating of Chess Players." Koltanowski was awarded the International Master Title in 1950 when the title was first officially established and was awarded an Honorary Grandmaster title in 1988. However, Koltanowski's record as a tournament player was not especially distinguished. He showed up for the 1946 US Open in Pittsburgh, but was eliminated in the preliminary section and did not qualify for the finals. This was to be his last tournament.

   In those years, the US Open was played in round robin preliminary and final sections. However, the next year, Koltanowski returned, not as a player but as the director. He introduced the Swiss System. He directed the 1947 US Open in Corpus Christi, Texas, using the Swiss System for the first time ever in a US Open chess event.

   After that, he transversed the country, holding Swiss System tournaments everywhere. Before long, the Swiss System was adopted as the standard for all chess tournaments in America.

   Koltanowski thereafter toured the United States tirelessly for years, running chess tournaments and giving simultaneous exhibitions everywhere. After his failure in the 1946 US Open in Pittsburgh, he never played tournament chess again, except that he did play two games as a member of the US Olympic Team in 1952 in Helsinki, getting a draw with Soviet Grandmaster Kotov, one of the strongest players in the world, and a draw with Hungarian International Master Tibor Florian, in a game which Koltanowski appeared to be winning.

   Koltanowski will not be remembered as a player but as an exhibitor, writer, promoter and showman. Possessed with an incredibly powerful memory, Koltanowski would give exhibitions, playing several games blindfold simultaneously. Strangely, what wowed the spectators the most was not that he would win all the games, even though blindfolded, but that after the games were over, he would recite the complete moves of the games without looking at the board, something which any competent master can do.

   Many of Koltanowski's relatives died in the Holocaust. Koltanowski survived because he happened to be on a chess tour of South America and was in Guatemala when the war broke out. In 1940, the United States Consul in Cuba saw Koltanowski giving a chess exhibition in Havana and decided to grant him a US visa.

   Koltanowski met his wife Leah on a blind date in New York in 1944. They settled in San Francisco in 1947. Koltanowski became the chess columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, which carried his chess column every day for the next 52 years until his death. Koltanowski wrote the only daily newspaper chess column in the world. He published an estimated 19,000 columns.

   In the 1960s, he played a newspaper game against grandmaster Paul Keres. Following a system similar to that adopted in the Kasparov vs. Rest of the World Match, readers would vote on moves and send them into the Chronicle. Koltanowski would select the move actually played, and would award points and prizes to his readers for their selections. However, after about only 25 moves, Keres abruptly stopped the game and declared Keres the winner by adjudication. Koltanowski disagreed and showed analysis which seemed to give him at least an even game. I suspect that Keres of Estonia was ordered by his Soviet handlers to stop playing.

   Koltanowski had his own organization, the Chess Friends of Northern California, which resisted the USCF rating system and dominated Northern California Chess through the mid-1960s. Koltanowski later decided "if you cant beat 'em, join 'em." He won election as President of the United States Chess Federation in 1974. He also directed every US Open from 1947 until the late 1970s.

   Koltanowski wrote many books. His best known work is "Adventures of a Chess Master" published by David McKay in 1955. In it, he recounts primarily his tours giving blindfold simultaneous exhibitions.

   Perhaps Koltanowski's most remarkable accomplishment was that he made his living entirely from chess. He wrote books on the Colle System, which he sold by mail order. He taught a system which would enable even rank beginners to get out of the opening with a playable game. This saved his students the trouble of memorizing vast amounts of chess opening theory. However, he never played this opening himself against strong opponents.

   George Koltanowski is survived by his wife Leah, age 93.

[Event "Scheveningen"]
[Site "Antwerp BEL"]
[Date "1931.??.??"]
[White "Rubinstein, Akiba"]
[Black "Koltanowski, G "]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "E60"]
[Round "5"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. Nc3 d6 6. e4 e5 7. Nge2 c6 8. h3 h6 9. Be3 Nbd7 10. Qd2 Kh7 11. b3 Qe7 12. Rd1 Re8 13. O-O Nf8 14. Kh2 Bd7 15. f4 exf4 16. Nxf4 Rad8 17. Rde1 Bc8 18. Qf2 g5 19. Nd3 Ng6 20. Bc1 Qc7 21. Bb2 Re7 22. c5 dxc5 23. Nxc5 Ng4+ 24. hxg4 Bxd4 25. Nb5 Bxf2 26. Nxc7 Bxe1 27. Bf6 Rdd7 28. Nxd7 Rxd7 29. Ne8 Ba5 30. e5 Rd2 31. Nd6 Bxg4 32. Nxb7 Bc7 33. Kh1 Bxe5 34. Bxc6 Bh3 0-1

[Event "Olympiad"]
[Site "Helsinki"]
[Date "1952.??.??"]
[White "Koltanowski, G "]
[Black "Kotov, Alexander "]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "A49"]
[Round "?"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. O-O d6 6. c4 Nbd7 7. Nc3 e5 8. h3 c6 9. Be3 h6 10. Qc2 Qe7 11. Rad1 Ne8 12. c5 dxc5 13. d5 Nd6 14. dxc6 bxc6 15. Na4 Nf5 16. Bxc5 Nxc5 17. Nxc5 Rb8 18. e4 Nd6 19. Rd2 Rb4 20. Qc3 Rc4 21. Qd3 Rd8 22. Qe3 Nb5 23. Rxd8+ Qxd8 24. Nd3 Qd6 25. Rc1 Be6 26. b3 Rxc1+ 27. Nxc1 Qd1+ 28. Kh2 Qc2 29. Qd2 Qxe4 30. Qd8+ Bf8 31. Nd3 Qd5 32. Qxd5 cxd5 33. Nfxe5 Nc3 34. Nc6 Nxa2 35. Nxa7 Bf5 36. Bf1 Nb4 37. Nxb4 Bxb4 38. Nc6 Bd6 39. Bg2 Be6 40. Nd4 Bd7 41. Bxd5 Bc5 42. Nf3 Bxf2 43. Ne5 Bf5 1/2-1/2

[Event "World Chess Olympiad"]
[Site "Helsinki"]
[Date "1952.??.??"]
[White "Koltanowski, G "]
[Black "Florian, Tibor "]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "A49"]
[Round "?"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. O-O d6 6. c4 c5 7. d5 Na6 8. Nc3 Nc7 9. h3 a6 10. a4 Rb8 11. a5 b5 12. axb6 Rxb6 13. Qc2 e6 14. dxe6 Bxe6 15. Nd2 Qc8 16. Kh2 h5 17. e4 Re8 18. Nd5 Bxd5 19. cxd5 Rb4 20. Nc4 Nb5 21. Bd2 Nd4 22. Qd3 Rxc4 23. Qxc4 Nxe4 24. Be3 Qf5 25. Bxd4 Bxd4 26. Rae1 Re5 27. f4 Nd2 28. fxe5 Nxc4 29. Rxf5 gxf5 30. e6 Kf8 31. Ra1 fxe6 32. Rxa6 Ke7 33. b3 Nd2 34. Ra7+ Kf6 35. dxe6 Kxe6 36. Rb7 Be5 37. Bc6 h4 38. Kg2 Bxg3 39. Bf3 Ke5 40. b4 cxb4 41. Rxb4 d5 42. Rb5 Ne4 43. Bh5 Nc3 44. Rb8 Ke4 45. Rf8 Nb5 46. Bf3+ Ke5 47. Bxd5 Kxd5 48. Rxf5+ Kc4 1/2-1/2

Reprinted with permission

© Sam Sloan

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