(1986, with additions)
The public will always love George Koltanowski, believing him to be one of Them who has stayed one of Us. The ‘International Wizard of Blindfold Chess’ has delighted by his regular displays, knight tours and indiscretions about the masters. Avuncular and impish, he has apparently understood that the world will forgive an Accessible Character almost anything.
There is indeed much for which forgiveness is required, but is Koltanowski aware of the damage his having a good time has caused? To speak only of his writings, he leaves behind a trail of howlers that even John Graham might envy. Anyone suspecting this to be an exaggeration should read the piece on Klaus Junge on page 89 of the February 1976 Chess Life & Review, together with its wholesale demolition by Paul Schmidt on pages 212-213 of the April 1976 issue. This concluded, ‘About the only correct reference to Klaus Junge in Mr Koltanowski’s article is to his chess genius ...’ Among Sunny Kolti’s errors was a claim that Junge was ‘stabbed to death in a chess club fight in 1942!’ He actually died in combat in April 1945, at the very end of the Second World War.
‘Everywhere, it seems, adventure and anecdote awaited me’, he writes on page 37 of Adventures of a Chess Master, neglecting to add that some of the anecdotes lurked in contradictory forms. An example is the ‘First Flohr’ yarn reported by him in a CHESS article (see C.N. 887, on page 121 of Chess Explorations) as having been told to him by Lilienthal. But on page 45 of his book With the Chess Masters (Falcon Publishers, 1972) he relates that Flohr himself was the speaker. The Koltanowski touch is equally at home with trivia and tragedy.
A (relatively brief) selection of examples of general carelessness in With the Chess Masters: Page 9: ‘Mizowitch’ at London, 1922?? Page 10: ‘Giuco ... Pianisimo’. Pages 15-16: The best part of two pages are devoted to a story of how L. Steiner cheated against Colle at ‘the Budapest International, 1928’. Neither player was there. Page 48: ‘Twice Tarrasch mounted a campaign to take the world title from Lasker – and twice Lasker beat him badly.’ When was the second time? Page 49: ‘My first encounter with Dr Tarrasch was in 1924 at the International Chess Tournament in Merano, Italy. I was in my early teens.’ Yet he was born in 1903. Page 54: He appears to believe Scotland is in England. Pages 67-68: Another cheating anecdote, according to which Dyckhoff pretended only to have drawn against John at Hanover, 1902, so that his close rival Bernstein would not go for a win against Kagan. Yet Dyckhoff and John did only draw. Page 80 and page 81: ‘R.F. Mitchell’. Presumably R.P. Michell. Page 90: ‘James Cross’. Rupert Cross would be correct. Page 92: for (Emanuel) Sapiro read Sapira. Page 100: ‘Marotzy’ (twice). Page 101: ‘Bekker’ (twice). Page 101: Flohr did not play at Carlsbad, 1929. Page 101: ‘ ... ahead of Reifir, Spielman, Astalosh and the younger Widmar’. Read: a) Rejfíř, b) Spielmann, c) Asztalos, d) Vidmar. Page 101: Alekhine and Euwe did not play at Moscow, 1935 (it is even said that there Menchik ‘beat Euwe twice!’). Page 141: Rejfíř has a wrong year of birth. And so on ...
Koltanowski on Vera Menchik, from page 101 of With the Chess Masters
Chess Enterprises have just re-issued Adventures of a Chess Master, under the title In the Dark, a fair description of Koltanowski’s historical scholarship. (The earlier book [page 10] gave the wrong year of birth for Blackburne, and Koltanowski has learned nothing since 1955 to make him change it.) Apart from very minor textual alterations and two new chapters, In the Dark is little more than an algebraic version of Adventures ..., and even the 1955 Foreword with its opening words ‘I first began to plan this book twenty-five years ago’ has, misleadingly, been left untouched.
Finally in this catalogue of censure, one may mention Koltanowski’s insistence (notably in chapter eleven of In the Dark) on publishing unprintworthy games, his reference (page 189) to Morphy’s famous opera game against the ‘Duke of Brunswick and the Count de Mongrédien’ and his deliverance of such divine prose as (page 179): ‘By playing sharp I felt that I would get a great number of games over with before any tired feeling would overtake me.’
Note: This article was written in 1986 (C.N. 1234) and appeared on pages 159-160 of Chess Explorations. In 1999 an attempt to defend Koltanowski (regarding a single matter – Lasker v Tarrasch) was made by Eric Schiller, on the basis of a memorable piece of mendacity. And typical as well as memorable. What Schiller lacks in intelligence he makes up for in guile.
An additional item on page 302 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves:
An excerpt from page 19 of “En Passant” Chess Games and Studies by George Koltanowski (Edinburgh, 1937):
‘When Philidor, the Frenchman, in 1816 played six games blindfold the Press went mad, thinking it an eighth wonder …’
It certainly would have been. Philidor had died in 1795.
‘Now that the drawing for the Candidates’ Matches has been held, it is a natural thing for everyone to make predictions as to who will end up in the challengers’ [sic] seat next year playing against Boris Spassky of the USSR for the world title.’
So wrote George Koltanowski on page 4 of Chess Digest Magazine, January 1971, although an alternative view is that making public predictions is unnatural, pointless and vulgar. In any case, Koltanowski’s chess judgement resulted in the following declaration on Fischer v Taimanov:
‘I believe it will be a very close match, with Fischer winning it 5½-4½.’
Fischer won 6-0.
In an article on page 195 of the September 1971 Chess Digest Magazine William Winter was given the Koltanowski treatment:
‘Winter was a heavy drinker and one of the best chess stories I know is the one of the committee that was formed in 1927 just before the International tournament was to take place in London. They raised one hundred pounds (about 350 dollars then) to support William Winter, so that he could win the event with great ease. In the first round William Winter came into the playing hall, breathing harshly and he beat the great Richard Reti. The next day, Winter weaved into the playing room, sat down at his board and beat the perplexed Aron Nimzowitch. The third day Winter staggered to his seat and beat my co-patriot, Edgar[d] Colle. It looked like it was going to be a big triumph for British Chess. But the expectations were short-lived. Winter had spent all the raised funds on booze in the first three days, and the so-called Winter Committee couldn’t raise another penny from its supporters. The first prize was only one hundred pounds! William Winter arrived sober for each round after the third and lost every game.’
Let us, firstly, compare the above with the complete record of the tournament given in M.A. Lachaga’s comprehensive book on the event, published in 1968. William Winter’s round-by-round performance was as follows:
1: lost to Fairhurst
2: beat Buerger
3: beat Thomas
4: drew with Marshall
5: lost to Bogoljubow
6: drew with Yates
7: lost to Tartakower
8: beat Nimzowitsch
9: drew with Colle
10: lost to Réti
11: beat Vidmar.
This placed him among the prize-winners, i.e. equal sixth with Réti. He did not defeat Réti or Colle; nor did he play in the first three rounds any of the masters named by Koltanowski. About the alleged ‘Committee’, we know nothing, but it may be wondered who would put together £100, or any other sum, so that W.W. could win ‘with great ease’ a tournament which included Bogoljubow, Marshall, Nimzowitsch, Réti, Tartakower and Vidmar. Moreover, £100 (the amount which, Koltanowski alleges, was spent on alcohol consumption within three days) was then roughly $500, not $350. In today’s money it would come to over $5,000. Finally, the first prize in the tournament was not £100 but £50 (BCM, August 1927, page 335).
Thus every verifiable ‘fact’ in Koltanowski’s yarn is false. Why? Was he guilty, once more, of ‘mere’ sloppiness and doltishness (page 341 of the September 1922 BCM was certainly inspired when it spelt his name ‘Klotanowski’) or was there also a darker side to his compulsive fabrications? William Winter was indeed known to drink heavily, but what sort of human being would, in ‘one of the best chess stories I know’, publicly ridicule a deceased master for alcoholism without making the remotest effort to be truthful?
On page 92 of the Hobbies for Everybody chess section mentioned in the preceding item H.R. Bigelow wrote:
‘I learned the moves from a Swiss governess in Lucerne, Switzerland, at the age of ten. For several years afterward I did not even look at a chessboard. Then I met a lad slightly my senior, in a boarding school at Mondragone, Frascati, a few miles outside of Rome.
We played together occasionally in the year I spent there. His superior skill awakened on my part a natural desire to surpass him. (He later became one of Italy’s strongest players and a member of their team in the international team tourneys. His name is Count Antonio Sacconi.)’
Mention of Sacconi, who became champion of Italy in 1935, reminds us of the following extract from an article, if it merits that term, by George Koltanowski entitled ‘Koltanowski, as usual!’ on page 412 of CHESS, 14 July 1936:
Koltanowski gave no substantiation for his attack on Sacconi, any more than he backed up his assault on the mysterious ‘Blum (once champion of France)’.
C.N. 4191 reproduced from CHESS a brief but sharp attack by George Koltanowski on a player named Blum, who he said was ‘once champion of France’. We have found no record of anyone of that name winning the French championship.
Koltanowski wrote more extensively about ‘Dr Karl Blum of Paris (?)’ on pages 106-108 of With the Chess Masters (San Francisco, 1972), again accusing him of financial impropriety, and adding that Blum was imprisoned in Spain. ‘But after the Madrid tournament of 1936, Dr Blum disappeared from the face of the earth! Or seemed to. Some said he was in the ...’ etc., etc.
Koltanowski’s book (page 106) was demonstrably accurate on one matter: a player named Blum did win the championship of Paris in 1932. He came ahead of Rossolimo and Halberstadt (L’Echiquier, 28 January 1933, page 1944).
Dominique Thimognier (St Cyr sur Loire, France) points out that whereas George Koltanowski referred to ‘Karl Blum’, a report on the 1932 Paris championship on page 230 of the October 1932 La Stratégie had ‘O. Blum’.
With regard to the player named Blum whom G. Koltanowski attacked for financial impropriety, Dominique Thimognier (St Cyr sur Loire, France) notes on page 422 of the October 1933 BCM a reference, in connection with the French championship, to ‘Dr Oscar Blum (who has been spending some time in London since the Folkestone Congress)’. Our correspondent also mentions that page 6 of the December 1932 issue of the Bulletin de La Fédération Française des Echecs (which had the results of that year’s Paris championship) stated that Blum was Lithuanian. In Folkestone he participated not in the Olympiad but in the ‘General Congress’, finishing second, half a point behind Znosko-Borovsky.
C.N. 4191 quoted two snippets from an ‘article’ by Koltanowski on page 412 of the 14 July 1936 issue of CHESS. Below in all its splendour is the whole thing:
From page 73 of Koltanowski’s Chess Annual 1955 (San Francisco, 1955):
‘Backward pawn – An unsupported pawn which cannot be moved immediately into the protection of another pawn.’
‘Center – Generally refers to the king’s and queen’s files and to a lesser degree to the bishops’ files.’
‘En passant – (Fr., in passing) The capture of a pawn which has moved from its second to its fourth rank by an opposing pawn which stands on its own sixth rank.’
‘Hanging pawns – Two or more connected pawns unsupported by others.’
If these definitions are taken literally, as definitions are supposed to be, an intriguing assessment may be made of this imaginary position:
Black to move.
White, to follow Koltanowski, has backward pawns on a7 and h6, quite apart from his hanging pawns on c3, d4 and e5. His knight is in the centre. Black advances his own backward pawn (1...g5), and White captures it en passant with his h6-pawn.
In the context of our Chess Records article we seek more information about George Koltanowski’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper’s obituary on 7 February 2000, by Steve Rubenstein, reported that Koltanowski ‘wrote more than 19,000 chess columns for the San Francisco Chronicle’ and that ‘his column, which appeared in the Chronicle every day without interruption for 52 years, was the longest-running daily chess column in history’.
What were the exact dates of Koltanowski’s first and last columns in the Chronicle?
John Donaldson (Berkeley, CA, USA) reports that George Koltanowski’s first chess column in the San Francisco Chronicle was published on page 7L of the 9 May 1948 issue. The top part is reproduced here:
Koltanowski continued the column until his death in February 2000, i.e. for a total of almost 51 years and nine months.
From John Donaldson:
‘George Koltanowski died on 5 February 2000, but a daily column bearing his name continued up to 27 February. On 28 February Shelby Lyman started and has appeared continuously to the present.’
Calle Erlandsson (Lund, Sweden) draws attention to the subscription rates on page 2 of the first issue of George Koltanowski’s magazine The Chess World, 1 October 1932:
Given that the magazine ceased publication less than a year later, with a double number (10-11) dated July-August 1933, our correspondent wonders how many people subscribed for five years, ten years or permanently, and what happened to their money.
For our part, we should also like to know the outcome of Koltanowski’s ‘latest scheme’, as published on page 116 of the May 1942 CHESS:
The book referred to (‘In the dark’) was eventually published 13 years later as Adventures of a Chess Master, at $4. The 1986 algebraic edition took the title In the Dark.
C.N. 2378 (see pages 347-348 of A Chess Omnibus) discussed a pair of victories by Koltanowski over ‘Dunkelblum’, and below we quote the first two paragraphs of that item:
‘Dunkelblum’ is often given as the name of the player who lost two of the most frequently published games featuring the late George Koltanowski, i.e. the 13 Qd8+ brilliancy (‘Antwerp, 1923’) and this more sophisticated encounter (‘Antwerp, 1929’): 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 O-O Nf6 5 d4 exd4 6 e5 d5 7 exf6 dxc4 8 Re1+ Be6 9 Ng5 Qd5 10 Nc3 Qf5 11 Nce4 Bb4 12 c3 dxc3 13 bxc3 Ba5 14 g4 Qg6 15 Nxe6 fxe6 16 f7+ Kxf7 17 Ng5+ Kg8 18 Rxe6 Qd3 19 Qe1 Rf8 20 Re8 Qd7 21 Rxf8+ Kxf8 22 Ba3+ Ne7
23 Rd1 Qxg4+ 24 Kf1 Qxg5 25 Rd5 Qh4 26 Rh5 Qf6 27 Rf5 Resigns.
On page 27 of his book Adventures of a Chessmaster Koltanowski gave the former game as played against A. Dunkelblum in ‘an eight-game blindfold exhibition at Antwerp in 1923’. However, on page 35 of Checkmate Strategies (co-authored by Koltanowski and M. Finkelstein) the heading was ‘Antwerp, 1931’. As regards the second game, both books agreed on ‘Antwerp, 1929’, but the former (page 38) gave Black’s name as ‘P. Dunkelblum’ (Koltanowski also referred to ‘my boyhood chum, Dunkelblum’) whereas the latter volume had ‘Dunkelbaum’. Where Arthur Dunkelblum (see page 82 of Histoire des maîtres belges by M. Wasnair and M. Jadoul) may fit in with all this is more than we would dare guess.
Now Christian Sánchez (Rosario, Argentina) writes:
‘The second Koltanowski-Dunkelblum game was given on page 444 of the November 1928 issue of El Ajedrez Americano with a transposition of moves and a different ending:
1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 O-O Nf6 5 d4 exd4 6 e5 d5 7 exf6 dxc4 8 Re1+ Be6 9 Ng5 Qd5 10 Nc3 Qf5 11 g4 [Instead of 11 Nce4 Bb4 12 c3 dxc3 13 bxc3 Ba5 14 g4 Qg6] 11...Qg6 12 Nce4 Bb4 13 c3 dxc3 14 bxc3 Ba5 15 Nxe6 fxe6 16 f7+ Kxf7 17 Ng5+ Kg8 18 Rxe6 Qd3 19 Qe1 Rf8 20 Re8 Qd7 21 Rxf8+ Kxf8 22 Ba3+ Ne7 23 Rd1 Qxg4+ 24 Kf1 Qxg5 25 Rd5 Bxc3 [Rather than 25...Qh4 26 Rh5 Qf6 27 Rf5] 26 Qe6 Resigns.
No occasion was indicated, but the score was presented, by Koltanowski himself, as being among “short, pretty games in small tournaments held lately in Europe”.’
The FamilySearch.org website mentioned in C.N. 7139 has a reference to Georges Gustave Koltanowski. The ‘Gustave’ was news to us.
Koltanowski’s book Torneo internacional de Hastings 1935-1936 (Barcelona, 1936).
The Koltanowski touch is reflected in, for instance, the book’s references to Buenger, Friffith, Gensberg, Golombeck, Gross, Michel, Pire, Rubistein, Tartalkower, Vitmar, Womorsly, Wonorsly and even, on page 32, Koltanowki.
From page 73 of Chessnicdotes II by G. Koltanowski (Coraopolis, 1981):
‘During the International tournament in Paris, 1927, Dr Alexander Alekhine had all of the contestants up to his hotel suite. He had just returned from Argentina, having beaten Jose Raoul Capablanca for the world title in Buenos Aires. After a special rapid transit round robin tournament, coffee, tea, whiskey, cake and “klatch”, I managed to corner our host and asked him: “Is there anyone in the world today that could take the world title away from you?” Alekhine twiddled his blond hair and smilingly replied, “Non! I am the greatest!”’
Wanted: information about ‘the International tournament in Paris, 1927’.
C.N. 3196 (see A Chess Database) mentioned the moves 1 e4 e5 2 Qh5 Nc6 3 Qxf7+, and there are many versions of the related story involving Emanuel Lasker. One ‘is-said-to’ example comes from page 90 of A History of Chess by Jerzy Giżycki (London, 1972):
‘Lasker is said to have won a game of “Alcoholic Chess” by sacrificing his queen in ridiculous fashion at the very outset of the game. The queen contained about a quarter litre of cognac; quaffing this seriously incapacitated his opponent in the ensuing complications – B.H. Wood.’
Page 283 of the August 1959 CHESS had an account reproduced from a chess programme on BBC radio:
How far back can the story be traced? We recall an editorial account of a lunch with G. Koltanowski, one of the least reliable of all chess chroniclers, on page 255 of the November 1938 Chess Review:
From page 52 of the Chess Digest Magazine, March 1972:
See C.N. 9384.
The above heading is from page 2 of the Chess Digest Magazine, March 1969. The article by Koltanowski included, on the next page, this item:
Passing over the foreseeably wretched prose, we note the following with regard to Koltanowski’s assertions about himself:
From page 54 of Chess Marches On! by Reuben Fine (New York, 1945):
Elsewhere (e.g. on page 73 of CHESS, December 1972) the observation has been quoted as a remark by George Koltanowski to Sir George Thomas.
An editorial note (by B.H. Wood) appeared at the end of an article by Koltanowski on pages 180-181 of the 14 January 1936 issue of CHESS:
On page 87 of With the Chess Masters (San Francisco, 1972) Koltanowski named E.S. Tinsley as his interlocutor and referred to his queen, and not the exchange:
The following page showed the game (Koltanowski v E.G. Sergeant, Hastings, 31 December 1928), which reached this position after Black’s 19th move:
No notes were supplied, but Koltanowski punctuated his next move, Qxc5, with ‘?!’. The game was also published, storyless, on pages 83-84 of his book Chessnicdotes 1 (Coraopolis, 1978) with notes from the Field (and one analytical addition by Koltanowski towards the end of the game).
On page 54 of the second volume of Chessnicdotes (Coraopolis, 1981) it was back to Sir George Thomas and the ‘exchange’ version from CHESS in 1936:
Bruce Monson (Colorado Springs, CO, USA) sends a bizarre article by George Koltanowski, concerning ‘a prewar living game’ between Capablanca and Nimzowitsch, from page 11 of the 25 September 1966 edition of the San Antonio Light:
From page 1 of the 4 December 1936 issue of Schach-Kurier:
See too C.N. 10217.
George Koltanowski could forge an anecdote from the dropping of a paperclip, but even rudimentary verification of his ‘factual statements’ is likely to highlight his unreliability.
On pages 2-3 of the March 1969 Chess Digest he had a chatty article about Tarrasch which we have already criticized for stating a) that he encountered the German master at Meran, 1924 ‘in my early teens’, and b) that Tarrasch ‘played two matches for the world title with Lasker’. (Regarding the latter point, see too A Sorry Case.)
Koltanowski repeated the above inaccuracies in his syndicated column (e.g. in the Minnesota Star, 29 March 1969, page 19, as well as the El Paso Times 29 March 1969, page 21 and 19 October 1969, page 17) and in his section on Tarrasch on pages 48-51 of With the Chess Masters (San Francisco, 1972).
A further example of Koltanowski’s approach concerns the game accompanying that article on Tarrasch: their draw at the 1927 International Team Tournament in London. Koltanowski wrote in 1969 that a friend in Antwerp had recently sent him a number of old booklets and that in one of them, on the King’s Indian Defence, ‘there was one game that I had searched for a long time.’ In the above newspapers and in With the Chess Masters the reference was to a game that ‘I had tried to find for a long time’. In reality, that Tarrasch v Koltanowski game is easily found, having been published on pages 792-793 of L’Echiquier, December 1927 – with annotations by Koltanowski.
In large letters, the title of the Chess Digest article was ‘Koltys Coments’.
Feature articles about bas de gamme chess writers can only scratch the surface, usually examining their books rather than, even more masochistically, their routine ‘journalism’. Most of Koltanowski’s output that we have seen comes from his anthologies; the thought of trawling through old newspapers for the run of his syndicated columns is unappealing.
Koltanowski’s books ought to contain the cream of the crop, but they have far too many untrue or unauthenticated yarns to be accommodated in an article [such as the present one on Koltanowski]. Here, we add a passage regarding Akiba Rubinstein from page 126 of With the Chess Masters (San Francisco, 1972):
The story was reproduced on page 3 of Akiba Rubinstein: The Later Years by J. Donaldson and N. Minev (Seattle, 1995) with, generously, silent corrections to Koltanowski’s spelling, grammar and punctuation. It was then demolished.
Further examples of the way Koltanowski treated facts are given in our feature article ‘Fun’. See also the references to him in the Factfinder.
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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.