The Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club, Alexander Mogle, and George Koltanowski, Champion of Blindfold Chess
By Celia Rabinovitch
Alec Mogle was reluctant to introduce his son to chess because he wanted to protect him from the absorbing seductions of the game. He echoes the words of the American chess prodigy, Paul Morphy (1837-1834), who wrote, “The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman. …The ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.” (1863.) George Bernard Shaw condemned chess as “a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time.” (1880).
Writing in the Tribune of October 2, 1938, Denny Brown describes Koltanowski’s Winnipeg event: “Chess Expert Amazes Local Stars by Skill,” opening with “A group of Winnipeg chess experts and layman watched in wonder Saturday afternoon while one man, with his back to the opposition, pitted his skill against 12 of the city’s best players in a six-table simultaneous Tournament.” The article notes he lectured at the Jewish Chess Club later that afternoon. The Manitoba Chess Association invited Winnipeg’s champion chess players to compete, including stars of the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club Dr. I. Shankman, who won against Koltanowski, and Alec Mogle (former champion of the province and the city) who played the master to a draw.
Historically, the young men of the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club mirrored the chess players of Koltanowski’s youth in Antwerp. In the early 20th century, Jews needed their own clubs to compete, as they were not accepted into other sports clubs. Jewish sporting clubs arose throughout Europe, including the Cercle Maccabi where young Koltanowski competed. Koltanowski described his crew as “a roving pack of Antwerp chess-wolves”, ready to match the best. In 1921, Koltanowski became the Champion of Antwerp. [i]
The Winnipeg Jewish chess players were eager to show their mettle. Most were immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe whose passage to Canada asserted a courageous rebuke to economic and cultural hardship. Their Winnipeg club reflected a powerful sense of self-acceptance and strength. Entering Mogle’s Delicatessen on Main Street, inhaling the familiar fragrances of corned beef, rye, pickles and other tasty provisions, the Winnipeg Jewish chess players were at home. They included notable players such as Abe Helmann, (Russia 1907-1952) a close friend of Alec Mogle who later became a star in the Vancouver chess scene, Alexander Mogle, (Russia 1907-1966); Abe Yanofsky (Poland 1925-2000); Dave Creemer (Russia 1902-1953); Frank Atnikov (1906-1991) Joe Dreman (1910-2000), and the mathematician Leo Moser (Austria 1921-1970).
A 1992 interview of chess player Joe Dreman (by Albert Boxer) in the Manitoba Chess Association Publication, illustrates the passion and determination of the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club: “I learned to play chess very late in life. I was eighteen years old, and I taught myself the game from an article I read in the ‘Book of Knowledge’ I was short of money at the time, so I made a chess board and men from cardboard. This was in 1928.
“I was inspired to do this”, Dreman said, “when I read a headline in the Winnipeg Free Press: Building Burns, Players Refuse to Leave.” The building in question was the People’s Book Store on Main St., then the home of the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club. “This is the game for me, I thought, and I joined the club that same year.”
In Israel, Alex Mogle had the book signed by Koltanowski to his grandfather and his father. He proudly displayed his grandfather’s Alexander Mogle’s championship cup with the years 1924, 1930, and 1933 emblazoned on it.
[i] Rabinovitch, Duchamp’s Pipe: A Chess Romance, p. 50-52.
Celia Rabinovitch is an artist, writer and professor. Her book, Duchamp’s Pipe: A Chess Romance – Marcel Duchamp & George Koltanowski is available at major outlets.