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Mechanics Institute: The Oldest Standing Chess Club in the United States 

George Koltanowski
George Koltanowski's blind fold exhibition. Credits- Mechanics Institute Chess Library
FEATURED WRITER
Modified 30 Apr 2020, 14:04 IST
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The Mechanics Institute located in San Francisco, California, USA is the oldest standing chess club in the United States and one of the top clubs in the world, established in 1854. It has a rich history that takes the chess lover back in time to learn from and understand how the game has progressed in all these years. In order to find out more about the origins of the club and the history behind it, we speak to the current director of the chess program there, Abel Talamantez. So, moving on to the Q/A now.

1. Can you talk about the history of the Mechanics’ Institute and what has made it last for these many years?

The Mechanics' Institute (MI) is a cultural center that was founded in 1854 as a way of expanding access to educational opportunities for the artisans, craftsmen, and inventors of San Francisco. The Chess Room, housed on the 4th floor of the MI historic building at 57 Post Street in downtown San Francisco, is the oldest continuously-operating chess room in the country.

While the chess club is known around the world, many people do not realize that MI also houses one of the oldest libraries on the West Coast, which has the largest chess collection west of the Mississippi. MI hosts literary and arts programming, including author events, writing classes, films, and book and other groups. The chess room regularly organizes USCF and FIDE-rated events and is open, albeit except for the recent shelter-in-place closures, seven days a week. Anyone can visit the chess room and play a casual game and socialize when a tournament is not in progress. As the MI library and programs serve as a retreat for writers and authors and others seeking cultural activities, the chess club is a refuge for those who love chess. 

The entrance to the historic Mechanics Institute! Credits- Hoodline
The entrance to the historic Mechanics Institute! Credits- Hoodline

2. How has the institute evolved over the years?

While the MI chess club reflects it long and storied history, it also has continued to evolve. MI retains its legacy as a chess room and simultaneously has been striving to engage younger, more diverse chess players. In the last few years, MI has made a concerted effort to grow its scholastic chess program, which offers enrichment programming in local schools, as well as create new tournaments and events that engage all levels of players. Moreover, MI recently have begun to broadcast many of chess events and use interactive online game websites to continue to host virtual tournaments, which was particularly key to keeping the chess community engaged during the recent public health crisis and subsequent shelter-in-place orders. Not only did this enable chess to continue its programming, but it has also helped lead MI in creating new ways to engage members with MI literary and cultural activities. While it can be a challenge to preserve history while creating momentum to propel the club into new ways of operating, MI has proven that it can adapt without losing its historic presence. One thing that remains is the importance and value of all of those who have come before us at the club, and MI honors them through historic photos that line the chess room and hallways, the honorary naming of events, and the stories MI records and continues to tell new members and chess players.

3. Many events have been hosted by the Mechanics Institute at no-cost for players to come and learn the game including those for girls in chess. Can you talk a bit about these?

MI takes great pride in being able to offer chess instruction to those who want it. MI has onsite, free classes for kids, as well as classes for adults, including a women's class. In addition, the MI scholastic chess program offers free classes in local schools, helping students develop their academic and social emotional skills, in addition to cultivating a love of chess. While MI also hosts fee-based classes, providing free instruction is instrumental to the MI founding philosophy and current mission of engaging the community and eliminating barriers for those who otherwise might not be able to engage in learning opportunities. 

4. Mechanics’ also has quite a large online presence with its twitch streaming channel and online tournaments. What made this possible?

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One of the goals at MI has been to raise the visibility of the club and create more opportunities on virtual platforms. This is particularly important since many people are interested in learning about and experiencing the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club, even if they are not local or unable to travel to downtown San Francisco. One of the MI tournament regulars was someone with a passion for chess. He began helping MI develop a strong technology capacity by using DGT boards as MI started to broadcast games. These electronic chessboards have sensors on the pieces so the games can be electronically transmitted, enabling MI to broadcast the games as they are being played. MI’s broadcasting of chess events has been a significant development in expanding awareness and engagement with the MI club and has enabled players to connect with other chess clubs in the country and world that are hosting similar virtual games for one-of-a-kind matches. This has been a key element in keeping the chess community engaged in these trying times. While MI previously held club matches with other clubs around the nation, it has expanded this during the current shelter-in-place. MI appreciates being able to be a part of the effort to keep the chess community together through the expansion of these activities in recent weeks.

5. A long history of players have made it to the club. Can you speak about the rich association that the club has had with the elite chess masters? Recently, World #2 Fabiano Caruana played an event at the club. What has the club learned from these experiences?

The MI chess room has been visited by 10 former world champions, and there is a very famous picture in the club of Jose Raul Capablanca playing at MI. Moreover, Bobby Fischer gave a simultaneous exhibition at MI in 1964. The MI’s rich chess history has made it a destination for both experienced and new players. Last year MI had world-ranked #2 Fabiano Caruana play a rapid event. Last year MI also hosted World-ranked #5 GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov for a simultaneous exhibition with 25 MI players along with GM Rauf Mamedov. MI also had GM Susan Polgar, who was the first female Grandmaster and former women's world champion. It seems folks want to explore and feel a part of the history that MI has, and many people express that they feel there is something special visiting or playing at MI, a place where people and events are remembered.

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Fabiano Caruana and Sam Shankland playing at the Mechanics Institute. Credits- US Chess
Fabiano Caruana and Sam Shankland playing at the Mechanics Institute. Credits- US Chess

6. What are the future goals of the Chess club?

The short-term goals of the MI chess club are the ongoing community engagement, through online tournaments, special events, and classes. MI anticipates returning to over-the-board games in the second part of the year, but hopes that the virtual events can continue as well since they have helped create a new level of engagement in the chess community. This transition back to traditional over-the-board games and tournaments will not only take time and patience, but also careful planning to ensure that MI implements strong safety protocols to protect the health of MI members and chess players. The long-term goals of the chess club are more complex and integrated into the strategic initiatives of MI as an institute. While the current climate leaves these goals a bit more uncertain, MI plans to explore ways that the chess room can expand the scholastic program, explore ways to host more local and national events, and support players as they develop and grow, while retaining the sense of the MI history and role as a world-renowned chess room.

7. How has the club helped shape the youth programs? 

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Mechanics' Institute Chess Club has been offering free chess in public schools. The program started approximately five years ago. MI provided free and fee-based enrichment classes at approximately 34 schools this past academic year. Furthermore, MI has grown in capacity to offer seasonal camps at the club and outside locations. Scholastic tournaments offer junior players the opportunity to develop their chess skills, and serve as a natural continuation of the scholastic classes. MI has been offering two scholastic tournaments each month, in which youth players compete for trophies and medals. While MI had to close its doors temporarily to its historic chess room as mandated by the public health crisis, chess classes and coaching continued online. As the schools transitioned to online learning, MI began offering virtual chess classes via zoom. These classes enable students to participate interactively, as MI utilized a chess-specific platform along with a virtual meeting hosted site. Moreover, junior players can participate in online scholastic tournaments, hosted on a safe, kid-friendly chess site, multiple times per week. MI anticipates continuing these online offerings as seasonal camps until it is deemed safe to return to in-person coaching. Again, MI anticipates that these online offerings may also continue beyond the shelter-in-place orders, enabling students who otherwise could not access these classes to participate.

Women
Women's World Champion Hou Yifan at MI. Credits- Google Images
Published 30 Apr 2020, 14:04 IST
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