George Koltanowski
by Bill Wall

George Koltanowski
On September 17, 1903, George (Georges) "Kolty" Gustaf Koltanowski was born into a Polish Jewish family. He was born at No. 2 Loos Street, Antwerp, Belgium.

Kolty's first love was stamp collection. Over the years, he collected thousands of stamps.

In 1914, he and his family evacuated to Holland, then to London during World War I.

In 1915, Kolty got a splinter in his leg, which led to blood poisoning. Doctors discussed amputating both of his legs. He was confined to bed for two years and had 14 operations, but it saved his legs.

In 1918, at the age of 14, upon return from England after World War I, he took up the game seriously and joined the Antwerp Chess Club.

In 1919, Kolty learned chess by watching is father and older brother play. He was soon beating his whole family, including his father and two brothers (Jack and Harry).

In 1920, he went with a chessplayer friend to Ghent University where he witnessed the Serbian player Branco Tchabritch play two chess games blindfolded. From that, it inspired Kolty to try and play blindfold chess. (source: In the Dark, Koltanowski, 1995, p. 27)

On March 13, 1921, Kolty played his first game of blindfold chess.

On April 13, 1921, Kolty gave his first simultaneous blindfold exhibition in Ghent, playing both of his brothers, and winning both games. A week later, he was playing 3 opponents blindfold at one of the Antwerp chess clubs. Unfortunately, he lost all 3 games and swore he would never play another blindfold game again.

Months later, after some practice, he was able to play 6 opponents at once blindfolded.

In July-August, 1922, Kolty in the Major Open (not the Master Tourney) in London, but took 11th out of 12 places. He won 3, lost 7, and drew 1.

In September, 1922, Kolty took 2nd place, behind Edgar Colle (1897-1932), in the 2nd Belgian championship, held in Antwerp.

In 1923, he played 16 simultaneous blindfold games, establishing a new Belgian record.

In May, 1923, he won the 3rd Belgian championship, held in Gent.

In October, 1923, he won a master tournament in Brussels.

1924, he was conscripted in the Belgian army. He served time in Namur, Holland. His military captain, who was also the president of the local chess club, encouraged him to take time off for chess. He got a furlough to play in the internatioanal tournament in Merano, Italy.

In February, 1924, Kolty, Belgian champion, visited and played in his international tournament in Meran (Merano), Italy. He was planning to play in one of the reserve sections. However, the organizers asked him to play in the master section, to replace an invited player who had not shown up. Kolty took 11th place with 3 wins, 6 losses, and 4 draws. His only major win was against Edgar Colle and he drew with Siegbert Tarrasch. He lost to the top 4 players. Ernest Gruenfeld took 1st place, followed by Spielmann and Rubinstein.

In June, 1924, he played Board 1 in a match Belgium vs. Holland. He lost on Board 1 against Max Euwe.

In July, 1924, he played board 2 for Belgium in the unofficial Paris Chess Olympiad. He tied for 4th-7th for best individual score.

In 1924, Kolty played 20 opponents blindfolded simultaneously at Namur, Belgium, while still in the Army.

In 1924, Kolty's platoon was transferred near Duisberg, Germany as part of the Belgian Hospital Service.

In 1925, he played a match against Colle in Antwerp, but lost the match (4 losses, 3 draws).

In October, 1925, he played Board 2 in a match Belgium vs. Holland. He won his game against Adolf Olland.

In September, 1926, he played in a master tournament in Spa, Belgium. He took 9th place. The event was won by Friedrich Saemisch (1896-1975).

In November, 1926, he played Board 1 in a match Belgium vs, Holland. He lost to Max Euwe.

In 1926-1927, he won the Major Tourney section (not the Premier Tourney) at the 7th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In July, 1927, he played Board 1 for Belgium in the first official Chess Olympiad, held in London. He scored 56.7%.

In September, 1927, he won the 7th Belgian chess championship, held in Gand.

In 1927, he won a master tournament in Antwerp.

In 1927-1928, he tied for 1st in the Major Open — Section A at the 8th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In July, 1928, he tied for first in the Major Open section of the 21st British Chess Federation championship, held in Tenby.

In August, 1928, he played Board 2 for Belgium in the 2nd Chess Olympiad, held at The Hague. He scored 59.4%.

In 1928-1929, he took 4th place in the Premier section of the 9th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In February, 1929, he took 2nd place in the Belgian championship, held in Gent.

In April, 1929, Kolty was part of a foreign team (that also included Capablanca, Menchik, Rubinstein, and Maroczy) that played against a British team at Ramsgate. (source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 11, 1929)

In June, 1929, he took 8th-9th place in an international tournament in Paris, won by Dr. Savielly Tartakower.

Up until the worldwide economic depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kolty divided his time between chess events and the family business of diamond-cutting. He soon gave up his career as a diamond cutter to play chess full time.

In 1929-1930, he tied for 1st in the Premier Reserves section of the 10th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In March, 1930, he won a master tournament, held in Brussels.

In September, 1930, he won the 10th Belgian chess championship.

In 1930-1931, he tied for 3rd-4th in the Premier Reserves section of the 11th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In 1931, he drew British master William Winter in a match in London, winning 1, drawing 1, and losing 1.

On May 10, 1931, he played 30 boards blindfolded simultaneously in Antwerp. The event was organized by the Flemish Chess Club. He won 20 and drew 10. The exhibition was against a group of players drawn from the chess clubs of Antwerp.

In 1931-1932, he took 2nd in the Premier Reserves section of the 12th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In 1932, Kolty became the top Belgian chess player when Edgar Colle died.

In February, 1932, he took 7th at the International tournament in London, won by Alexander Alelkhine.

In March, 1932, he won a master tournament in Antwerp, ahead of Salo Flohr.

In April, 1932, he tied for 1st in the Major "A" section of Easter Congress in Cambridge, England.

In April, 1932, Kolty played 160 players simultaneously in Antwerp, winning 135, losing 7, and drawing 18, a world record at the time. (source: Piqua Daily Call, April 20, 1932)

In August, 1932, he took 1st in the Major Open of the 25th British Chess Federation championship, held in London. Vera Menchik took 2nd place. (source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 29, 1932)

In 1932, Kolty played 20 boards simultaneously blindfolded in Hampstead, England, a British blindfold record.

In 1932-1933, he took 4th in the Premier Reserves section of the 13th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In 1933-1934, he tied for 1st in the Premier Reserves section of the 14th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In March, 1934, Kolty and Alexander Alekhine teamed up in Antwerp to give a tandem blindfold exhibition.

In June, 1934, he took 3rd-4th (shared with Tartakower) at a tournament in Sitges Beach, Spain. The event was won by Andor Lilienthal. (source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 12, 1934)

In June, 1934, he tied for 1st with Andor Lilienthal and Savielly Tartakower at an international tournament in Barcelona, Spain.

In 1934-1935, he tied for 1st in the Premier Reserves section o f the 15th Hastings Christmas tourney.

In 1935, Kolty became a chess trainer at the Madrid Athletic Club in Spain.

In June, 1935, he tied for 1st with Salo Flohr at Barcelona.

In 1936, he won the Belgian chess championship.

From January to March, 1937, Kolty toured England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. In two months he played nearly 500 chess games, both blindfold (237 games) and sighted displays in over 50 different exhibitions. He set a new British blindfold record by playing 21 simultaneous blindfold games in the historic Roman Pump Room at Bath, winning 14 and drawing 7. (source: Winnipeg Tribune, April 24, 1937).

On September 20, 1937, Kolty set the world's blindfold record in Edinburgh, by playing 34 chess games simultaneously while blindfolded (breaking Alekhine's record of 32 simultaneous blindfold games). He won 24 and drew 10 games in thirteen and a half hours. When the exhibition was over, he would recite the complete moves of the games without looking at the board. The exhibition was organized by the Stockbridge Chess Club in Edinburgh.

In October-November, 1937, Kolty toured Switzerland. He gave 26 exhibitions (10-board blindfold exhibitions) in 26 days in 26 different towns and cities. He scored 94% in 260 games.

In 1938, Kolty left Belgium to tour the world and play chess. He played in the Margate Premier Reserves and was the only one undefeated.

On Sep 16, 1938, Kolty played his first chess exhibition in Canada, at Quebec. Two days later, in Montreal, he gave his first blindfold exhibition. He played 15 boards, winning 11 and drawing 4. It was sponsored by the Montreal Bell Telephone Chess Club. During his tour in Canada, he was interviewed and asked if his wife played chess. He said he never plays chess with his wife. "She is a very poor player. It is better for the peace of the family." Kolty said his worst worry was remembering previous games while he is playing multiple sets of games. He has to try and deliberately forget them, so that they will not confuse his play at the moment. (source: Winnipeg Tribune, Oct 1, 1938)

On Nov 2, 1938, Kolty visited New York City for the first time. He was a guest at the Marshall Chess Club and gave a 10-board blindfold simultaneous exhibition (winning 7, drawing 2, losing 1), observed by former world chess champion, Dr. Emanuel Lasker. (source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 3, 1938)

On March 1, 1939, Kolty gave his first blindfold exhibition in Cuba.

In 1939, the Hollywood Chess Group sponsored the California State Championship. The event was won by Philip Woliston, age 19. 2nd-3rd place went to Herman Steiner and Harry Borochow (1898-1993). George Koltanowski took 4th place.

During World War II, many of Kolty's relatives, including his mother and brother, 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 September, 1939.

Koltanowski appeared in the Jan 15, 1940 issue of LIFE magazine playing 10 simultaneous blindfold games in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

In 1940, Kolty took 2nd at a master tournament in Havana, won by Isaac Kashdan.

In 1940, the United States Consul in Cuba saw Koltanowski giving a chess exhibition in Havana and decided to grant him a U.S. visa.

In 1940, Kolty was admitted to the United States on the quota before the invasion and moved to Milwaukee. (source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 26, 1940)

In the summer of 1940, Kolty was a chess instructor at the Milwaukee playgrounds in Wisconson.

In 1943, Kolty was barred from playing postal chess or give chess lessons to students overseas or in South America. Wartime mail regulations prevented mailing abroad any abbreviations, nicknames, and codes.

In 1944, Kolty met his second wife, Leah, in New York on a blind date. She never learned how to play chess. She once said, "George is the grandmaster. If he taught me the game, I'd be just another chess player."

In 1946, he played in the preliminary section of the U.S. Open, but was eliminated and did not qualify for the finals.

In 1947, he directed the U.S. Open in Corpus Christi, Texas (won by Isaac Kashdan), using the Swiss System for pairings (the Swiss System was first used for the preliminary round of the 1946 US Open because of the large number of entries). He was greatly responsible for popularizing the Swiss System for tournaments in the US.

In 1947, Kolty settled in San Francisco.

From 1947 to 1949, Kolty edited the California Chess News and News of the Pacific Coast. It was later renamed Chess Digest.

In 1948, Koltanowski became the chess columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, which carried his chess column every day for the next 52 years without interruption until his death in 2000, publishing an estimated 19,000 columns. His chess column soon appeared as a syndicated feature in other papers.

On Dec 4, 1949, Kolty played 271 games simultaneously at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. He won 251, drew 17, and lost 3.

In 1950, he was awarded the International Master (IM) title, when the title was first officially established by FIDE.

On Dec 2, 1951, Kolty played 50 boards blindfold (one at a time, 10 seconds a move) in Stockton, California. He won 43, drew 5, and lost 2.

In March, 1952 Bogart was in San Francisco and played a game with George Koltanowski. Koltanowski played blindfolded and defeated Bogart in 41 moves.

Koltanowski—Bogart, San Francisco 1952
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Bd3 Nf6 5.Ne2 Bg4 6.O-O Bd6 7.f3 Be6 8.Bf4 O-O 9.Nd2 Nc6 10.c3 Ne7 11.Bxd6 Qxd6 12.f4 c5 13.Nf3 Nf5 14.Qd2 Ne4 15.Qc1 Rac8 16.dxc5 Qxc5+ 17.Ned4 Nxd4 18.Nxd4 Rc7 19.f5 Bd7 20.Bxe4 dxe4 21.Qf4 Re8 22.Rae1 Re5 23.Rxe4 Rxe4 24.Qxe4 Bc6 25.Qe3 Re7 26.Qg3 Re8 27.f6 g6 28.Qh4 h5 29.Re1 Rxe1+ 30.Qxe1 Qd6 31.Nxc6 Qxc6 32.Qe7 Qc8 33.h3 Qc6 34.b4 Qxc3 35.Qe8+ Kh7 36.Qxf7+ Kh6 37.Qe7 Qc1+ 38.Kf2 Qf4+ 39.Ke2 Qc4+ 40.Kf3 Kg5 41.f7+ 1-0

In 1952, he played two games as Board 1 reserve for the USA team at the 10th Chess Olympiad, held in Helsinki. He drew with Soviet Grandmaster Alexander Kotov, one of the strongest players in the world, and a draw with Hungarian International Master Tibor Florian.

In 1952, Kolty hosted a chess program on radio station KPFA of Berkeley, California, commencing each Friday night at 9pm. He played a game against the station's listeners, and then analyzed the game in future broadcasts.

In 1953, he played his last match and tournament game with Henri Grob in Zurich, Switzerland. Kolty won 2 and drew 3 games.

In 1955, he wrote Adventures of a Chess Master, published by David McKay Co.

In 1956, he directed the US Open in Oklahoma. Bobby Fischer, the 13-year-old whiz, after playing his fourth master opponent in a row asked me: "When do I get a fish as an opponent?" So Koltanowski promptly gave him Fischeimer of Chicago.

In 1960, he was awarded the International Arbiter title.

On December 4, 1960, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California, Koltanowski played 56 consecutive games blindfolded, with only ten seconds per move. He won fifty and drew six games. The event was sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle. Koltanowski still holds the record in the Guinness Book of Records.

In the 1960s, Koltanowski was the host of "Koltanowski on Chess," a series of half-hour television broadcasts about chess produced by KQED that aired on public television across the country, the first such program of its kind.

In 1974, he was elected President of the United States Chess Federation (USCF) and served until 1978.

In February, 1979, Kolty set a world record for playing and beating four opponents simultaneously blindfold at the age of 75.

In the early 1980s, the Dayton Chess Club and the Ohio Chess Association (I was President of both organizations) sponsored George Koltanowski to give his famous Knight's Tour exhibitions throughout Ohio. Because of our sponsorship, Kolty provided the Dayton Chess Club a Chess Challenger and Boris chess computer.

In 1983, George Koltanowski, living in San Francisco, called my house at 7 am (4 am Pacific Time). My wife, Lois, answered and the voice on the other side said, "this is George Koltanowski calling for Bill Wall." My wife, not believing it was Kolty and that it was a prank repondeded, "If you are George Koltanowski, I am Raquel Welch." When I heard that, I said, "Raquel, give me the phone." It was George and he was calling about a chess article I had written for the Dayton Chess Club Review and the Ohio Chess Bulletin, and wanted permission to use it in one of his articles.

In 1986, he was inducted into the U.S. Chess Federation Hall of Fame.

In 1988, he was awarded the honorary Grandmaster title in 1988.

In 1989, as president of the Palo Alto Chess Club in Palo Alto, California, I was able to get Kolty to come down from San Francisco to the club to do his famous knight's tour and lecture about chess. I visited him many times at his apartment in San Francisco.

On Feb 5, 2000, Kolty died of congestive heart failure at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 96. When he died, The New York Times reported that "Mr. Koltanowski is survived by his wife, Leah, who never learned to play chess and often joked that her husband could not remember to bring bread home from the grocery." That story was relayed to me when I visited his apartment in San Francisco in 1989 and interviewed him and his wife.

When Kolty died, he had written more than 19,000 chess columns for The San Francisco Chronicle. Up to that time, it was the longest-running daily chess column in history.

Koltanowski spoke eight languages (French, Flemish, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and Italian). He played chess, gave exhibitions, and did the Knight's Tour in prisons, in schools, on playgrounds, by mail, on ocean liners, by telegram, over the phone and against princes and potentates.

Koltanowski wrote 18 books on chess.

Adventures of a Chess Master 1955
Blindsimultaan 1931
Checkmate! 1998
Checkmate Strategies 1999
Chessnicdotes 1978
Chessnicdotes II 1981
Colle System (1972, 1980, 1984, 1990)
George Koltanowski: Blindfold Chess Genius 1990
George Koltanowski's Chess Problems
Hoe Meester G. Koltanowski Het Wereldkampioenschap Blindsimultaan Veroverde 1931
In the Dark 1985
Koltanowski's Chess Annual 1955
My Castles in Spain
Practical Play of the Max Lange Attack 1973
Torneo International De Hastings 1935-1936 1936
TV Chess 1968
Vegas Fun Chess 1972
With the Masters 1972

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