(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.
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 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’.
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:
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.
To the Chess Notes main page.
To the Archives for other feature articles.
Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.