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George Koltanowski 1903-2000

George Koltanowski 17th September 1903 - 5th February 2000

George Koltanowski 1903-2000 Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle
George Koltanowski 1903-2000.
Photo © San Francisco Chronicle
My thanks for their permission.

George Koltanowski famous for his chess exhibitions (especially blindfold chess and the knight's tour) and chess journalism has died at the age of 96 in San Francisco USA.

Georges Koltanowski was born September 17th 1903 in Antwerp (he later shortened his first name to George). Rather confusingly the booklet "50 Shortcuts to Chess Victory" by him says he was born in Eastern Europe but he himself corrected this mistake, although it seems likely his parents were. In Chessnicdotes he says that "I was born at No. 42 Loos Straat in Antwerp, Belgium." Then he writes that he learned Flemish and French at school, so apparently these languages were not spoken at home. However in later years he frequently emphasized that he considered himself first and foremost to be an American.

He learned chess at the age of 14 and was the top Belgian player after the death of Edgar Colle in 1932. His international career that started at the age of 21 when he played in the Meran 1924 tournament. There he played and drew against Siegbert Tarrasch. It finished nearly 30 years later with an Olympiad appearance for the USA in 1952 and a match against Grob the following year. In truth he played little internationally after moving to the States and his main active period was in the 1930s. His style is hard to categorise and against strong opponents it seems he usually played queen pawn openings with white such as the Colle in the hope of hanging on. He did get an excellent position against Alekhine at Hastings 1936-7 with the opening and was a pawn up when the draw was agreed. He beat Akiba Rubinstein in a Scheveningen event in Antwerp 1931 which was organised to compensate the Belgian players who couldn't travel to the Olympiad of that year. His best results were wins in Antwerp 1932, and Barcelona 1934 and 1935. He competed in strong events such as Ramsgate 1929, London 1932, Hastings 1935-6 and Hastings 1936-7 and Ostend 1937. He was Belgian Chess Champion 1923, 1927, 1930 and 1936. He was awarded the title of IM in 1950 on the basis of his pre-war results. In 1988 he was given an honorary GM title by FIDE. He was awarded the title of International Arbiter in 1960.

He held various records for simultaneous blindfold play at which he was highly skilled. In Edinburgh 1937 he played 34 boards scoring +24 =10 in 13.5 hours. This record is still recognised by many as the official record because strict monitoring of the effort was made which was not the case in other efforts such as that by Najdorf a few years later.

Here are two games from the record breaking simul.

Koltanowski,G - Burnett,A [C55]
Edinburgh Blindfold Simul, 1937

1 e4 Nc6 2 Nf3 e5 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 0-0 Bc5 5 d4 exd4 6 e5 d5 7 exf6 dxc4 8 Re1+ Be6 9 Ng5 Qd5 10 Nc3 Qf5 11 Nce4 Bf8 12 Nxf7 Kxf7 13 Ng5+ Kg6 14 Nxe6 gxf6 15 g4 Qa5 16 Bd2 Qb6 17 Qf3 Be7 18 Qf5+ Kf7 19 Qh5+ Kg8 20 Qh6 Bf8 21 Qxf6 Ne7 22 Bh6 Bxh6 23 Qxh6 1-0

Koltanowski G - Gemmell H [B36]
Edinburgh blind simul, 1937

1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 c5 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 d4 cxd4 5 Nxd4 g6 6 e4 d6 7 Be2 Bg7 8 Be3 Nd7 9 0-0 0-0 10 Qd2 Nxd4 11 Bxd4 Ne5 12 Rad1 b6 13 f4 Nc6 14 Be3 Qc7 15 Rc1 e6 16 Nb5 Qd7 17 Rfd1 Rd8 18 Nxd6 Qe7 19 c5 e5 20 f5 gxf5 21 exf5 bxc5 22 Bxc5 Qd7 23 Bc4 Rf8 24 Qg5 Qd8 25 Nxf7 1-0

and another from the same year.

Koltanowski G - Walpole H [D05]
Keswick, Cumberland, simul blind, 1937

1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 e6 3 e3 d5 4 Bd3 Nbd7 5 Nbd2 Bd6 6 e4 dxe4 7 Nxe4 Nxe4 8 Bxe4 Nf6 9 Bd3 0-0 10 0-0 h6 11 Qe2 Bd7 12 Ne5 c5 13 dxc5 Bxc5 14 Rd1 Qe7 15 Bf4 Rad8 16 Qf3 Bc8 17 c3 g5 18 Bg3 Kg7 19 h4 Rh8 20 Bc2 b6 21 Nc6 Bb7 22 b4 Qe8 23 Qxf6+ Kxf6 24 Be5# 1-0

In San Francisco, December 1960, he played 56 blindfold games sequentially at 10 seconds a move in 9 hours scoring +50 =6. He also gave huge simultaneous displays with sight of the board, playing 271 games in 1949 and 110 in 1955.

Koltanowski's speciality was to conduct a blindfold knight's tour (hard enough in itself) by calling out telephone numbers or cities placed on the 64 squares of the board by the audience. He would study these for a few moments before embarking on his blindfold exhibition. He expanded this later to 192 squares by putting three boards together and jumping to the next board on the completion of each board. He attributed this skill to his study of memory games whilst he was very ill for a couple of years as a child and confined to bed for much of this time.

At the outbreak of war he found himself in Guatemala staying in Central America until towards the end of the war when he moved to the States. Afterwards he turned to touring, teaching and writing books and articles. He was a very active tournament director and was one of the three original inductees into the US Chess Hall of Fame. The USCF also gave him the title of "The Dean of American Chess." The previous "Dean of American Chess" was Hermann Helms who himself lived into his 90s. He was President of the USCF 1975-78.

He was still active into his 90s and a reader of TWIC into the year 2000 (he certainly followed the Hastings Premier this year). I received a lovely booklet from him celebrating 50 years editing the daily chess column in the San Francisco Chronicle in May 1997. In the end after 52 uninterupted years he had written over 19,000 columns for the paper. There is a lengthy obituary in the issue of Monday, February 7, 2000. Their website is: His column was syndicated to other newspapers also.

Tom Dorsch reports that Koltanowski died of complications resulting from congestive heart failure. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Leah Koltanowksi who is 93. The met on a blind date in 1944 in New York. They moved to the Bay Area in 1947.

Books in English include Colle System, Chess Chats, With the Chess Masters, Blindfold Chess Genius, Practical Chess, My Castles in Spain, Chessnicdotes-I and II, TV Chess, En Passant, In the Dark, Chess Annual, Adventures of a Chess Master, Practical Play of the Max Lange Attack, San Antonio (1972 international tournament) and Checkmate. He also wrote books in Flemish, French and Spanish. In addition he made radio broadcasts and films on the game. His books showed an enthusiasm for the game, however sometimes historical accuracy was not allowed to get in the way of a good tale. His priority was always to enthuse others about the game with his exhibitions, stories and books.

Finally a tribute to him in the form of an acrostic in honour of him by one of his friends:


Gems played o'er Caissa's board
E'er remembered, ne're ignored;
O'erlooked by a few who still await
Regal lines with chessic bait.
Great displays of brilliant mind
Earn one's game a lesson kind.
Sans voir skill you'll seldom find.

Kingly play and Knightly tour
Of entertainment, one was sure;
Listening to those stories spun
The games lost and the games won.
And his interest in the day's young
Ne're forgetful that skills sprung
O'er the board of thrill and strife
Would apply as well to daily life.
So our memories will fore'er remain
Kolty's magical displays of brain
In a style we may ne'er see again.


International Career Record
[those events I could find]

1924 Meran  			11th place 5 points 
[1st Grunfeld 10.5. Speelman, Rubinstein, Colle and Tarrasch played.]
1924 Paris  			4-7th place 8 points
1925 Antwerp Match Colle 	+0 -4 =3
1926 Spa			9th 4.5 points
[Samisch and George Thomas 1st=]
1927 London Team Tournament 	8.5 points
1928 Hague Team Tournament 	9.5 points
1928/9 Hastings 		4th 5.5 points
[1st= Colle, Marshall, Takacs 6 points. Ahead of all the Brits.]
1929 Ramsgate 			4-5th 4.5 points
[1st Capablanca 5.5; 2nd= Rubinstein, Menchik 5; Level with Maroczy]
1930 Antwerp 			5-6th 1.5 points
1932 Antwerp 			1st 4.5 points 
[Above Flohr]
1932 London 			7th 5 points
[Alekhine 9; Flohr 8. Behind Kashdan, Sultan Khan, Maroczy and
1934 Sitges 			3-4th 9.5 points
[1st Lilienthal 10.5. 2nd Rey. Level with Tartakower above Spielmann
and Prins.]
1934 Barcelona 			1st-3rd 6 points
[Shared with Lilienthal and Tartakower]
1935 Barcelona 			1st-2nd 8 points
[Level with Flohr above Grob and Thomas]
1935 Mollet 			1st-2nd 8 points
1935 Rosas 			2nd 7.5 points
[Behind Flohr above Grob.]
1935/6 Hastings 		4th 5.5 points
[1st Fine 7.5 2nd Flohr 6.5 3rd Tartakower 6 above all the British
1936/7 Hastings 		8th 3 points
[1st Alekhine  Behind Fine, Eliskases, Feigin, Vidmar,
Tylor and Winter. Above Menchik, Thomas.]
1937 Birmingham 		4th 6.5 points
[Behind Eliskases, Prins, Winter.]
1937 Ostend 			6th 4.5 points
[Behind Fine, Grob, Keres, Landau, List ahead of Tartakower.]
1937 Zurich Match Grob 		+1 -1 =2
1940 Havana       2nd 6.5 [1st Kashdan 7.5/9, 3rd
Planas 6 (and seven other Cubans)]
1940 Santiago de Cuba 1st 9.5/10, [2nd Diez 7; 9 Cubans played]
1952 Olympiad Helsinki [He played at least two games for the US
including a draws against Kotov and Florian.] 
1953 Zurich Match Grob   +2 =3