John Donaldson is indisputably one of the most noteworthy individuals in chess in America today. An International Master of the sport, Donaldson has authored numerous works of chess literature, played in the US Chess Championship, and captained the US National Chess Team to much success in international competition; currently, he is the Director of the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club. We had the chance to talk with Mr. Donaldson about his personal journey with chess, his experiences leading the US National Team, his thoughts regarding the benefits of chess, and much more:
Could you tell me a little about how you began playing chess and how you’ve seen chess grown from when you started playing to today?
I started playing in the fall of 1972 in a chess club in Tacoma, Washington, and I was inspired by the World Championship match going on between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. I’d have to say that chess was extremely popular in 1972 primarily because of Fischer and that there were maybe just a fewer members then than now. The main difference is that the demographics are different—when I was playing there were more adults and fewer junior players; today, I’d have to say the opposite is true. And of course—as time has progressed, we are seeing many more people from a wide variety of backgrounds playing chess!
Keeping in mind that technology was not as advanced decades ago, I also wanted to note a few key differences from when I began playing to the present. Foremost, up until about 1990, while I never smoked, smoking used to be allowed in tournaments—at times, you couldn’t see across the room! Furthermore, there used to be adjournments [suspending play of a chess game, often until the next day]; now, while people could reference chess manuals for assistance, one positive aspect of this was that it taught people how to play endgames. That being said, largely because of the advent of increasingly advanced computers, I feel that opening play is more advanced today whereas endgame play was more advanced back then, once again because of the adjournments. I know a Grandmaster who would analyze adjournments for many hours and this way became very proficient in endgame play. Now, with regard to the computers, I would say that they’ve had a good and bad impact. I feel that computers have been a positive addition for most amateur players; they can now follow tournaments online, store games, and conduct chess lessons through the internet. One slightly negative aspect of the computers is that some of the top players these days have extremely deep opening preparation—it’s as if their games are a test of who has the better memory! Keeping that in mind, I think that for players with ratings from 2300 to 2500, it is more important for them to understand what they’re playing as opposed to solely relying on opening preparation.
The San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1854, is home to the nation’s oldest chess club. Would you be able to tell me about the range of players that play here and how you got involved with this historic chess club?
People of all levels come to play chess here! Even at these tournaments that are held every Tuesday night, we have players ranging all the way from ratings of about 600 to 2400! Moreover, there are many well known chess players who have played here at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club including GM Sam Shankland and GM Daniel Naroditsky. I became involved back in 1998 when two of my colleagues who were associated with the club asked me if I was interested in being a part of it.
You have been the Captain of the US National Team in numerous Chess Olympiads. What has the experience been like leading a group of elite players, including people such as Alexander Onischuk, Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Wesley So, and Varuzhan Akobian? What do you have to say about how the quality of the players on the US National Team has changed through the many years of your captainship?
First and foremost, I served as the Captain of the US National Team in six Chess Olympiads between 1986 and 1997. That said, it should be noted that the Captain is selected by a vote of the players, and because the players have a big responsibility, it is only natural that they should pick the person that serves them the best. After 1997, I wasn’t the captain until 2006, when Gata Kamsky and Hikaru Nakamura (the top 2 players in the USA) had asked me if I was available to help out. Since then I’ve been the Captain of the team a few more times and—truly— it has always been an honor. As time has progressed, I’ve always seen that there is good internal harmony on the team, that the players have pulled together, and that the US National Team has consistently become increasingly competitive amongst the other teams.
Furthermore, I would definitely have to say that the composition of the team has changed. If you look at the teams playing in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I would say they were more balanced. Players on these teams included people such as Larry Christiansen, Nick de Firmian, Greg Kaidanov, Alex Shabalov, and Yasser Seirawan, someone who was twice the candidate for the World Championship. These days, I’d say that though the teams aren’t quite so balanced, with Hikaru and Gata, the team packs a strong 1-2 punch.
Can you tell me about all the writing you do?
I’ve written over 30 books on every facet of the game—openings, middlegames, endgames, history, etc. Some of my books with IM Nikolay Minev are probably the most well-known. Writing really emphasizes why chess is interesting to me—because for me, chess encompasses coaching, the Olympiad, writing, directing tournaments, playing competitively—a little bit of everything!
What do you have to say about the benefits of chess in education? Any stories you’d like to share?
One story that comes to mind is that of GM Milan Matulovic. As a child, he was a slow learner who could barely read or write; however, when he started playing chess at 12 years old, he became completely enamored with the game, and soon after, his academic abilities picked up quite rapidly. Now, while I’m not saying chess is a universal panacea, I do believe it is a very useful tool. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence noting how chess helps with concentration and how it can help let off steam in a peaceful fashion. Moreover, I have seen many really bright parents who feel that having their kids play chess is a good thing, and having these thoughtful people who feel chess is important validates my intuition that chess can be a beneficial tool for kids.
We’d like to thank John Donaldson for taking the time to speak with us, and we appreciate his support and recognition of what we’re doing to promote chess. We truly respect Mr. Donaldson’s substantial contributions to the game of chess at large and the many ways he’s inspired numerous players around the world to invest in chess. We will certainly be following IM Donaldson’s journey with chess and we hope that he will be successful in his future endeavors!