History of the MI Chess Room


On these pages we would like to present a series of articles written by MI Chess Director IM John Donaldson, who is a world-renowned expert in the field of chess history. This is his first essay with more to come.

Before the Fire 1854-1906

Part One-The Early Years  of the Mechanics’ Institute  Chess Room

The Mechanics' Institute building houses the oldest chess club in the United States. It was organized in 1854 when San Francisco was a frontier community. The first meeting of the Mechanics' Institute was held on December 11, 1854 and  The Institute was incorporated on April 24, 1855 and this is considered its founding date.

The early years of the Chess Room are not well documented but chess was played during the Gold Rush. The great Pierre Saint- Amant, one of the top players in the world in the 1840s, was  French Consul in San Francisco from 1851-52. It appears he left the Bay Area before the founding of the Mechanics’, so the honors for the first world class player to visit San Francisco go to Johann Zukertort who spent nearly a month in the City in July of 1884.

There are conflicting accounts of Zukertort’s sojourn in San Francisco. The British Chess Magazine of 1884 (p.351) wrote the following about the world championship contender’s tour of the United States:

”From the Mormons’ City he went to San Francisco, where he gave during July three blindfold exhibitions. On the first occasion he had seven opponents, defeating six and losing to one.  The second time twelve declared war against him, but nine of them were vanquished, two only, Messrs. Redding and Welsh, being victorious, and the other game ending in a drawn battle. The third séance with eleven opponents was a complete triumph for the unseeing player, who defeated them all. His last contest at Frisco of which we have any account was a match of five games with Mr. Redding, , Mr. Zukertort backing himself at the odds of five to one every game, on the condition that his adversary took the first move in each game and played the Evans Gambit. The defending player proved successful in every partie, and thus won his bet.”

A slightly different version of the visit to San Francisco is given in the October 1884 issue of  The Chess Monthly, an English magazine edited by Zukertort and Leopold Hoffer:

“Zukertort arrived on the second of July in San Francisco, the centre and terminus of the western world. After a rest of a few days and a loyal observance of the fourth of July, the daily Chess contest began. Chess play is greatly cultivated in San Francisco and although the Golden City does not possess a Chess club, its amateurs have ample accommodation in a large hall of the Mechanics’ Institute, also in a room at the Mercantile Library and at the Bohemian Club. Zukertort played at the Mechanics’ Institute a great number of single games, even and at odds; the simultaneous contests were also held at the place, but the blindfold séance took place on the 8th at the Irving Hall, when the single player encountered twelve opponents, and after eight hours play won nine games, lost two and drew one. San Francisco, although up to now hardly known in Chess history, may boast of  a very large number of fair players. The strongest of them is Mr. J. Redding, a young lawyer, who contested a little match on even terms, the condition being, Mr. Redding to have the first move and play five times the Evans Gambit, Zukertort to bet 25 to 5. The latter won five games, but especially in the first and second, it was a hard tussle. Next to Mr. Redding we must mention Mr. Heineman, who played a number of games with Staunton, Dr. Marshall, whose standard of play varies more than of any player we met, Mr. Jefferson, late champion of Tennessee, Mr. Selim Franklin, well known at the late Westminster Chess Club and at Simpson’s Divan, and Mr. Critcher, a rising young player of great promise."

The two accounts leave one a little unclear as to exactly how many regular and blindfold simuls Zukertort actually gave in San Francisco during from July 2 to 25. The Chess Monthly  has a footnote dealing with this issue: “ Notwithstanding the different reports in American and English Chess columns and periodicals, Mr. Zukertort feels certain that he gave only one blindfold performance in San Francisco.”

The following game has been preserved from Zukertort’s 1884 visit. Two years later he lost a bitterly contested match for the World Championship with Wilhelm Steinitz and in 1888 he passed away at the age of  45.

Vienna Opening

Played at the Chess Room of the Mechanics’ Institute, on July 21st, 1884

White: J.H. Zukertort   Black: Selim Franklin

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4 Nc6 4.fxe5 Nxe5 5.d4 Ng6 6.e5 Ng8 7.Nf3 d6 8.Bd3 dxe5 9.dxe5 Bc5 10.Bg5 Be7 11.Be3 Bg4 12.O-O Nxe5 13.Nxe5! Bxd1 14.Raxd1Bd6 15.Nxf7 Qe7 16.Bb5+ c6 17.Nxd6+ Qxd6 18.Rxd6 cxb5 19.Nxb5 Rc8 20.Bg5, and White won