Gary Good, also known as der Geezer Gambiteer to his friends on the premier discussion group for cc players TCCMB, presents us with his tribute to two of the greats of American chess. Thanks, Gary.
Gary Good can be reached at: email@example.com
Walter G. Muir & George Koltanowski
By Gary Good
It is indeed a rare and sad occasion when the American chess community loses two of its great ambassadors of the royal game within a span of less than 6 weeks. Walter G. Muir died December 29, 1999 in Salem, VA, and George Koltanowski died February 5, 2000 in San Francisco, CA. Both of these men have been justly known as "Dean" of their respective chess communities ; Koltanowski, Dean of the more "visible" OTB community, and Muir, Dean of the more "silent" correspondence community. Their respective lengthy lives and chess careers were incredibly simultaneous ie., Koltanowski (1903-2000) and Muir (1905-1999).
It has been my great misfortune over my own 40 year chess career to have never met either of these grand American men of chess, personally or by correspondence. It would seem therefore more appropriate for someone with more personal knowledge to speak their praises. However I wish to speak as outside admirer, someone who has felt the very large influences these men have had upon my chess life.
Much has been written about George Koltanowski, the true "jack-of-all-trades" in American chess. His promotion of the game in all circles, especially with youth is already legend. My most vivid memory of "Kolty" is from my "salad days" of chess in the early 1960s, when he did a TV series entitled "Koltanowski on Chess" for KQED on PBS in San Francisco. I can remember faithfully watching each 1/2 hour segment at some ungodly late hour on my local PBS affiliate in Pennsylvania---WITF, at that time in Hershey, PA (now in Harrisburg). I can recall watching on my 12'' TV set with "rabbit ears", making the reception so poor that I could hardly make out the positions on the demonstration boards! The program was always relegated to the final time slot of the programming day, followed immediately by the Star-Spangled Banner and sign-off. Such were the fortunes of chess in the "pre-Fischer era".
Peter Kurzdorfer in his March Chess Life article on Kolty says; "George was in his element when he had a microphone in his hands". Indeed, he had a very engaging personality, obviously loved people of all ages, and clearly loved imparting his fondness for the game to others. His stories and anectdotes were always memorable, and his devotion to teaching youth attests to his unselfishness and concern for the future of the game. His multiple chacteristics and service will be very difficult to replace. Surely this man will be missed by American chess.
I wish however to turn major attention to our American CC Dean, Walter G. Muir. As I mentioned earlier, I was never paired with Walter in a CC tournament, which may be somewhat surprising as we both were in the same CC organizations, beginning for me in 1960 in the Golden Knights Tournaments with Jack Straley Battell and the old Chess Review magazine. Allow me to try to tell you "Kolty-style" about my first chance meeting with the name Walter G. Muir.
It was on a 1959 winter evening in the "bowels" of the stacks of Franklin & Marshall College Library in Lancaster, PA, where I was a sophomore trying to convince myself to study for an 8AM Advanced Calculus exam the following day. I happened to be seated alone in the old periodical section on this occasion, and upon lifting my head from the scratch pad where I had been making futile attempts to integrate some blasted double integral, immediately in front of me lay a pile of old Chess Review magazines.
Now my chess interest had recently been reawakened, when I decided to join the F&M Chess Club. I'd been playing the game since I was 5 years old, but never seriously. I thought I was pretty good when I'd beat up on my younger brother, or occasionally draw against my dad. But these guys were good and chopped me up regularly. I grabbed the top copy of Chess Review from the pile, and the magazine was so tattered that the front cover fell to the floor. It read; "Chess Review--the picture chess magazine"--January 1955. On the cover was a large photograph of a white bulldog seated at a chessboard with a corncob pipe and glasses playing the black pieces!? At the bottom of the cover, price "50 cents---Subscription Rate One Year, $4.75.
I thought, geez, I've got to practice on these infernal integrals, but as I put the cover back I noticed page 1& 2 were missing, and staring me in in the face on page 3 was a young Sammy Reshevsky at the Rosenwald Tournament. I flipped a couple of pages to a young Dr. Max Euwe and the article "Endgame of the Month". A couple more pages to "Chernev's Chess Corner" and then a photo of an aged Dr. S. Tartakover writing "From My Chess Memoirs". Later "Spotlight on Openings" by Walter Korn and "Readers' Games" by I.A. Horowitz (the magazine editor). I turned the magazine completely around, but the back cover was also missing. However on the last page 32 were a pair of "Postal Games" annotated by John W. Collins (coincidentally another great American ambassador of chess!).
I had only vaguely heard of postal chess, and not being good enough in my club to make the "cut" of the top 5 players in order to make the competing team, this idea immediately caught my attention. Later I took the delapidated magazine to the front desk and asked the librarian if I could borrow this issue. She said to my surprise, "Keep it, we throw these old periodicals out occasionally, and this one looks like it's past due!" Late that night I looked again at this article, got out my board and set, and reviewed my first "postal" chess game---W. Muir vs M. Smoron from the Finals of the 1952 Golden Knights Tournament. It's a charming miniature, worth playing over. I'll present it here without comment in its original English descriptive notation;
W.G. Muir---M. Smoron 1.P-K4 P-QB4 2. N-KB3 N-KB3 3. P-K5 N-Q4 4. P-B4 N-B2 5. P-Q4 PxP 6. NxP P-Q4 7.N-QB3 P-K3 8. B-K2 PxP 9. Q-R4+ B-Q2 10. QxBP N-B3 11. N-B3 R-B1 12. 0-0 N-K2 13. B-N5 N/B2-Q4 14. N-K4! Resigns.
After turning back a couple of pages from this game I found the Postal Chess section of the magazine edited by Jack Straley Battell, where the Golden Knights Tournaments were advertised, and the rest "is history". I competed in nearly every Golden Knights from that point until ICCF US became viable under the capable leadership of Max Zavanelli and the early organization efforts of W.G. Muir, whereupon I switched mainly to their competition.
Of course Muir's name kept popping up frequently in CC news and results, but somehow we were never paired. Then finally the news of his passing reached me via TCCMB, and recently in the February 2/2000 issue of Chess Mail, his obituary by Tim Harding and that wonderfully stunning photo of Walter on the inside back cover of the magazine was published. As I mentioned in my TCCMB post for those who do not have the photo, Muir is seated at the chessboard, nattilly attired in what appears to be a white dinner jacket and black bow tie. The following moves have already been completed on the board; 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6, the 2 Knights Defense. With a definite look of firm conviction on his face, Muir is shown playing 4.Ng5!? ( For those critics of diacritical marks, I'm borrowing Steve Ham's definition here, ie. "A move far too complex to assess with any confidence!").
This to my mind is even more stunning than that great photo! I really was not too familiar with Muir's opening preferences, except the well-publicized fact of his love for the Evans Gambit with white. I originally thought that perhaps the photo had been staged as an ingenius trick, in the assumption that by playing one of the most controversial moves in opening thoery of the 20th century, he was in some way baiting us to consider this question anew into the 21st century.
But No, I was quickly informed that not only did Muir play this move on more than 20 occasions, but he indeed won with it! And furthermore , I was told he discovered a move (12.Qe2) in the "Fritz-Ulvestad Variation" of the 2 Knights Defense, which he thought refuted the whole line for black! Now this was getting harder to believe each step of the way! Not being extremely familiar with this variation, I did know however that it was the "pet" line of former World CC Champ Hans Berliner. So, I decided to plunk-down the $15.00 for the revised manuscript of Hans Berliner's "From the Deathbed of 4.Ng5 in the Two Knights Defense".
Sure enough, in an addendum on page 26, Berliner spends a whole section analyzing what he calls the "Muir variation" which was first brought to his attention by W. G. Muir in June 1997. Berliner ends by claiming "at least a draw" for black. Walter had at least 2 more years in which to make a counterclaim, and I'd be very curious to know from readers how this line stands today. Muir's improvement was discovered in 1997, and Berliner's reply was published in 1998. Did Muir play 12.Qe2 in any of his CC games since Berliner's analysis was published, indeed did anyone play 8.Qe2 recently? (Being "technologically challenged", not having a data base to my name, I'm unable to answer this question myself). An interesting debate between two of the giants of the American CC community! For those unfamiliar with the line, the moves are; 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 b5 6.Bf1 Nd4 (sometimes black's 5th & 6th moves are transposed creating different possibilities, but this is Berliner's move order) 7.c3 Nxd5 8.Ne4 Qh4 9.Ng3 Bg4 10.f3 e4 11. cxd4 Bd6 12.Qe2--Muir's new move, etc.
This whole scenerio still boggles my chess thinking. By which I mean, it's difficult for me to comprehend how a player who loves and plays the Evans Gambit, and is "romantically" happy to part with the b pawn for that beautiful center, development lead, and open attacking lines, and more importantly WINS WITH IT, can then do an immediate chess "ABOUT-FACE" when his opponent denies him this chance !! He then is transformed into the "chess technician of victory" and plays the role of materialist with 4.Ng5!?, and again more importantly, WINS WITH IT ALSO! Truly incredible to my mind. In fact I now propose my own new definition of "The CC Power-Player", which has been so eloquently debated on TCCMB over the past months--- ANY PLAYER WHO CAN WIN EQUALLY PLAYING WITH A WHITE OPENING SYSTEM, THE EVANS GAMBIT AND 4.Ng5 vs THE TWO KNIGHTS DEFENSE!!
This would seem to be enough to confound the masses, including "yours truly", but no, there's more to this amazing tale. Recently I was paired with Kristo Miettinen in a NAPZ-M66 Master Class section in which Kristo himself played 4.Ng5!? against my 2 Ns Defense. I decided to play the "Wilkes-Barre Madness" with 4.....Bc5!?, and we played a real 45 move "barn-burner"--but that's a story in itself! In a post mortem of our game, Kristo informed me that W.G. Muir had played BLACK against him in the 1994 Hawver Cup, and in reply to 4.Ng5 had played 4....d5 5.exd4 b5!?, apparently inviting white to play into the Fritz-Ulvestad Complex!! Kristo however varied by playing 6.dxc6 and later won in 37 moves.
The big question here becomes--Did Muir find an improvement for black in this line, sufficient enough to inspire him to later find the 12.Qe2 improvement in the 6.Bf1 line which Berliner analyzed in 1998? Fascinating questions in the evolution of the theory of this ancient opening. One might also legitimately ask, did Muir ever play 3.....Bc5, and deliberately try to "walk into" a white player aggressive enough to challenge with his own beloved 4.b4!?, and then play the BLACK side of the Evans Gambit? I greatly regret that I no longer can ask Walter himself to answer, but perhaps Kristo or others can help shed light on this saga.
Both Walter G. Muir and George Koltanowski have left us great chess legacies. I can testify to the fact that my chess life would have been greatly diminished had either one never appeared on the scene. Imparting a great love for our game to others is one of the greatest gifts we can give. Truly both of these men embodied this ideal.
Gary Good---Ja, alias, der Geezer Gambiteer
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