San Francisco memorial service recalls a grandmaster of chess

For more than half a century, Koltanowski was the chess editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he published more than 19,000 consecutive columns starting in 1948 — the longest-running column in the paper's history. For 52 years, not a single day went by without his column, which also had appeared in other papers.

Koltanowski credits chess with saving his life. He was heading to Buenos Aires in 1940 for an international competition when his home country of Belgium was invaded by the Nazis. He found sanctuary first in Guatemala and later Cuba, where he caught the eye of a chess-playing American consul, who aided his immigration to the United States. Several family members died in the Holocaust.

Steve Rubenstein, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter and a friend of Koltanowski for 25 years, spoke at the memorial service. Rubenstein said he "marveled at how a kind, generous, warm and affectionate, cheerful, and always upbeat human being could be so overwhelmingly dominating and ruthless on the field of battle."

Rubenstein also compared Koltanowski to his beloved game.

"There's the 3-1/2-inch-tall kind of king we're all familiar with, and there's the real king. There's George. George was a king. A king stands tallest, so did George. A king moves in every direction, so did George. A king remains active within the fray as long as the clock is ticking, and so did George," he said.

"The king knew without looking, sensed his way without seeing, kept track of everything in his extraordinary mind, and in his extraordinary heart."

Koltanowski is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for his 1960 blindfold exhibition at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, where he played 56 consecutive blindfold games for more than 13 hours. He won 50 games. The other six were draws.

Unlike conventional chess, a blindfold chess player keeps track of each game in his mind without the benefit of seeing the chess pieces on a board, while the opponent plays the game in the normal way.

After setting the record, Koltanowski entertained the 500 fans who came to watch with his famous "Knight's Tour."

In the Knight's Tour, he would ask audience members to write their names down on a blank chess board. After viewing the board for a few seconds, he would memorize all 64 names and then recite each one of them along the path carved out by an imaginary knight hopping from square to square.

Koltanowski was born in 1903 in Antwerp. He started playing chess at 14, becoming Belgium's national champion at age 17.

He went on to become an international grandmaster, blindfold chess champion of the world, president of the U.S. Chess Federation and author of more than 30 books. He also hosted the PBS television series "Koltanowski on Chess" and founded the Kolty Chess for Youth Foundation, which promotes chess in schools.

Koltanowski is survived by his wife, Leah, and nieces and nephews.

Contributions in his memory can be sent to the Kolty Chess for Youth Foundation, P.O. Box 7453, Menlo Park, CA 94026.