The Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club, Alexander Mogle, and George Koltanowski, Champion of Blindfold Chess
When the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada proposed a program celebrating the history of Jews and chess in March 2020, I recognized my Uncle Alec Mogle in a photograph of the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club, 1937. Alexander Mogle married my aunt Eleanor Robinson in 1961. We adored him– he was full of life and warmth.
Dr. Paul Mogle, Alec’s son who lives in Israel, confirmed that this was indeed his father. “Not only was that Alec,” he replied, “but Mogle’s Delicatessen on Main Street offered the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club a homey atmosphere in the back. That is a picture of my father who was very active in the Jewish Chess Club. When he owned a delicatessen until 1943 the chess club was in the back. A large room with many chess tables.”
A Jewish Post article of 1943 entitled, “Mrs. I. Korn Takes Over Delicatessen at 952 Main,” reports, “it will give the same satisfaction for which Mogle’s was noted.” The article continues, “They will continue to do the same special catering to the members of the chess club who meet in the rear of the store.” Across from this story, the proud headline “Jewish Boys at War” recorded the names of Jewish servicemen at the British Commonwealth Air Training Program in Brandon and overseas in the RAF, and an appreciation by another (non-Jewish) serviceman stating that the Canadian Jewish Congress in Montreal is the most hospitable of all of the servicemen’s centre. Today, a modern building – the Carpathia Credit Union- replaces the building where Mogle’s Deli once stood. [i]
During the 1930s, the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club at Mogle’s Delicatessen invited important chess masters, among them Alexander Alekhine, to perform demonstrations and give talks. In 1938, they invited George Koltanowski, the self-named “world champion of blindfold chess” — a showman and wit. Koltanowski’s visit to Canada began on September 3, when he and his first wife, Céline arrived in Québec from Antwerp on the SS Duchess Atholl. Koltanowski’s North American chess tour began on September 16, 1938 in Quebec City. The tour led to his eventual escape from World War II in 1939 while en route to the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires as captain of the Belgian team. Belgium’s escalating military tensions with Germany forced the team’s cancellation from the games. Koltanowski was left a stateless, wandering chess wizard. In 1940, while playing in Havana, the US consul in Cuba witnessed his astounding prowess at blindfold chess and offered him a visa. The Holocaust would claim many of members of his family in Antwerp– a loss so profound that he could not speak about it.[ii]
Alec Mogle played chess with Koltanowski when the chess master visited Winnipeg on October 1 and 2, 1938. Two effervescent spirits encountered each other in that match in Winnipeg. Alec Mogle was born in Russia and embodied a similar old-world warmth and confidence as Koltanowski. They both spoke Russian and could converse and joke in other languages. The following day, Koltanowski gave a talk at the Jewish Chess Club. Koltanowski’s Adventures of a Chess Master [iii] excerpts a column from the Winnipeg Tribune: 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.”(Koltanowski apparently changed his attitude when he married Leah Greenberg in 1947 in New York. Leah assisted in his chess ventures and joked about his forgetfulness.) Koltanowski said his worst worry was “remembering previous games while he is playing multiple sets of games.” Leah remarked that he didn’t remember to bring home the groceries.
Paul Mogle recounts: “Just wanted to let you know that I met him (Koltanowski) when I was a boy. He came to our house for dinner and autographed a book he had written initially to my father and then years later to me with the hope that he would meet me sometime over a chess board. I was not encouraged by my father to play chess as he said it was a waste of time though he was a champion player having won the city championship three times in a row and was given the cup permanently.” It now resides with his oldest grandson Alex.
SEE PART 2 OF THIS ARTICLE IN OUR NEXT EDITION
[i] The Jewish Post, Vol XIX No. 28 July 15 1943 pp 4 5