The memory of great chessplayers

San Francisco’s famous chess club is part of the Mechanics’ Institute, a cultural center “founded in 1854 to serve the educational and social needs of mechanics—artisans, craftsmen and inventors.” It claims to be the oldest continuously operating chess club in the US.

As you might guess, the venerable chess room is a bit of time capsule (sort of like our friend’s cabin in Maine). Ancient chesstables, tons of framed historic photos preserving the memory of simultaneous exhibitions by world champion Mikhael Tal, ancient Informant manuals, and more. Still tacked to one bulletin board is a flyer for lessons with GM Walter Browne, who passed away recently.

Speaking of memory, I already relayed Maurice Ashley’s comments about Magnus Carlsen. At the Mechanics’ Institute I got a more personal demonstration of how ridiculous the recall of strong players can be.

The club’s director for 17 years is IM John Donaldson, also longstanding coach/organizer for the US olympiad team.

I walk into the club to enter a tournament. Here is the conversation, pretty much verbatim:

Me: Hi John. I’m Derek Slater. We actually played back in 1988 or so, in Charlotte NC.

Him: Oh—what’s your last name again?

Me: Slater.

Him: Right. I want to say, did we play twice?

Me: No, just once.

Him: And was it a Queen’s Indian with—

Me: No—

Him [breaking into a grin]: Then it was the Sicilian Dragon where you didn’t play Nb3 and I played Qb6!

Which is exactly correct.

I remember it because was my first game against an IM, so it was a big deal to me. (Plus, he eradicated me in 18 moves. That leaves a mark.)

For an IM to almost instantly recall the key details of a win against a random, anonymous 2000-rated player, 27 years after the fact… That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

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4 thoughts on “The memory of great chessplayers

  1. I have met Donaldson several times at tournaments and he’s quite an interesting fellow. He told me that before the visited Alaska he analyzed weather data and calculated the probability of the best weather (very end of April through May, contrary to what most people assume).

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