GM Andrew (Andy) Soltis Interview by Jim Eade (Chess Trust)
“I don’t know when I was hooked, or why for that matter. Maybe it was for the reason Botvinnik gave: Some people like to think and chess is the best way to satisfy the urge.” – GM Andy Soltis
Jim Eade: You were born in Hazelton, PA. in 1947. How did you learn to play chess?
GM Andrew (Andy) Soltis: I learned the moves from a book. I’ve forgotten the name but I had taken it out of the children’s section of the public library in the Astoria, Queens section of New York, where my family was living. I didn’t know anyone who played, much less anyone who could teach me, so for about four years chess remained one of many games I knew how to play but didn’t take seriously.
JE: How old were you, and who were your biggest influences?
AS: I must have been about 10 when I learned. Today that would put me about four years behind the curve for aspiring players. I never had a chess lesson, a teacher, coach or trainer. I remember when I read a Paul Keres column in Chess Life, in 1972, in which he said the way to become a strong player is to work with a strong instructor. He added that this must have been the way young masters of the day got strong. He named Karpov, Tukmakov, Huebner and several others _ including Soltis. I just smiled.
JE: When you first started, where could you play?
AS: I finally got to play around 1961 when there was a meeting, at the same Astoria library, of amateurs who wanted to start a chess club. They eventually rented quarters at a local church but the club only lasted a year or so. I also discovered that chess moves could be recorded and they appeared regularly in the New York Times, thanks to Hermann (cq) Helms. But I didn’t know what to make of, say, the opening moves of the Botvinnik-Tal world championship rematch. After all, why would anyone play 1 c4 to start a game? And what would possess his opponent to reply 1…g6 ?
JE: What was the organized chess scene like back when you first got involved?
AS: There wasn’t much of anything that could be called “organized.” The biggest events, by far, were the annual U.S. Championship, usually held around Christmastime at a midtown hotel, and the final Met League match, which was almost always a showdown between the Marshall and Manhattan clubs. I was a wallboard boy for a few games of one U.S. Championship and played regularly in the Met League, starting in the B division. My first big thrill was announcing a mate in eight moves, beginning with a rook sacrifice, against Bill Fredericks on first board in a Jamaica Chess Club-Marshall B team match. A few weeks later when Fischer spoke at the Marshall club, Carrie Marshall introduced me to Bobby and mentioned that game. “Eight moves?” he said. How could I give up chess after that?
JE: Where there multiple chess clubs or hang-outs?
AS: There were a lot more clubs, at least in New York, than there are now. Almost all of them are gone because they couldn’t solve the number one problem facing chess clubs. Not membership, real estate.
This was still the era when a “serious chess player” meant someone who (a) belonged to a chess club, (b) played postal chess or (c) owned more than one chess book. Tournament chess was just taking off. That’s why the USCF, which had little to offer the (a), (b) and (c) people, had so much trouble expanding its base in the 1940s and 1950s. It was able to flourish in the 1960s when a “serious chess player” began to mean someone who had a rating.
I eventually outgrew the Astoria Chess Club and joined the Marshall, after I played there in a simul given by Larry Evans. I’m one of the few people left who can say they were recruited by Carrie, because Frank’s widow made sure I had a membership application as I left the Marshall’s townhouse at 23 West 10th Street.
I also played in Dr. Milton Hanauer’s interscholastic tournaments. They were held on a string of Saturdays at the infamous “Flea House,” a West 42nd Street firetrap built above what was once a real flea circus. During my high school years I would spend Saturday morning at the Hanauer league then take a subway downtown with friends like Marc Yoffice and Morgan Ellin to the Marshall. Occasionally we’d stop at the Four Continents bookstore on Fifth Avenue, north of the Marshall, because they were the authorized distributor of Soviet literature _ that is, the only place where you could buy a copy of Shakhmatny Bulletin and read what Leond Shamkovich or Alexey Suetin had to say this month about the Najdorf. We might also drop by 80 East 11th Street because that housed both Albrecht Buschke’s chess bookstore and the offices of the USCF.
JE: When did you begin to suspect a life long love for the game was in the works, and what was it that attracted you to chess?
AS: I don’t know when I was hooked, or why for that matter. Maybe it was for the reason Botvinnik gave: Some people like to think and chess is the best way to satisfy the urge. I also liked the way you could discover new ideas, particularly in the openings, even though the game had been played for hundreds of years.
JE: What were the highlights of your chess playing career?
AS: Hmm. Highlights? The ones that come to mind: Beating Walter Browne, as Black in an Exchange French, in the last round of the 1964 New York City Junior Championship, the first tournament I won; Winning gold medals (Can I claim to be a world champion?!) at the 1970 World Student Olympiad, where I had the best individual score; Earning my first IM norm in the last round of my first individual international, Reggio Emilia 1970-1 by beating a GM with the …h5 variation of the Sicilian Dragon (Don’t call it the “Soltis Variation”! ; Winning games from Svetozar Gligoric and Bent Larsen over the years, and making GM at a New York international in 1980. Strange as it seems, I was the first to become a GM based solely on US tournaments.
JE: What was your most memorable game?
AS: I always thought “My 60 Memorable Games” was a weak title because of “memorable.” (Were those the games he remembered most? Clearly not because he didn’t include the “Game of the Century.” Were they the only 60 games he remembered?) Only three words needed to be on the cover of Bobby’s book and they were “My,” “Bobby” and Fischer.”
As for my most memorable game, it was probably my second game with Browne, from a Marshall Championship preliminaries around 1965. I won with a relatively new idea, 4 Bxc6 dxc6 5. 0-0!? in the Ruy Lopez. What made this stand out was what happened after the game. Walter, in his usual time pressure, made a natural response to a late middlegame check, …Ka8, and allowed a cute finish. As soon as he resigned he wanted to know what I had on …Kc8. I didn’t have an answer, and that seemed to damage the game irreparably.
After Al Horowitz published the game in his NYT column, Marc Yoffie’s brother, Joel, found that …Kc8 is refuted by one of the rarest kinds of queen sacrifice. Joel, who was no more than a 1500 player at the time, pointed it out to Marc, who showed it to me. When Horowitz came to the Marshall one Tuesday night for the weekly bridge games, I showed him the queen sack. He ran the game in Chess Review, with Hans Kmoch’s analysis, praising my brilliant (but unplayed) Qg4+!! sacrifrice. The game ended up being reprinted all over the world.
JE: You are one of the most prolific writers in chess. If you had to choose one of your chess books as your favorite, which would it be?
AS: My favorite book is “Soviet Chess.” I had decided around 1993 that I should be taking more risks in my writing. I wanted to write books on subjects that had never been tackled before or in formats that were original. (I wrote an endgame book in the form of a Socratic dialogue between a grandmaster and a young amateur.)
Soviet chess was such a vast, ridiculously so, subject that it seemed right for me. I spent the first year just researching and translating (my high school Russian came in handy). Just correcting the page proofs and adding a “notes on sources” took me about 40 hours. That’s about four times what it took me to do entire pamphlets on openings when I was working for Ken Smith and Chess Digest.
JE: Which is your favorite by another author?
AS: You never enjoy chess as much as when you were just starting out and everything about the game is new and magical. That’s why my favorite books were those I read when I was a three-digit player. Probably, Reinfeld’s “Hypermodern Chess,” a collection of Nimzovich games, was number one. In retrospect, it’s not a very good book. But it made a big impression on me at the time.
JE: Your “Chess to Enjoy” column in Chess Life is long running and endlessly entertaining. How do you come up with new ideas month after month?
AS: At any given moment, I’ll have 20 to 30 ideas, each on its own file, in my computer. Most of them come from reading. When I get done with a book project, I go through all my printouts and reread them. Or I’ll flip through the pages of the more than 400 books (and countless magazines) I store in my overstuffed apartment, at the sufferance of Marcy, my wife. Or I’ll get an idea from a non-chess book. I came across one called “Brain Candy,” read a footnote about something called the ‘Einstellung Effect,” and realized I had a column there. A few months before that I read David Shenk’s “The Genius in All of Us” and realized that I’d never done a column on the myth of chess talent.
Those two columns were the rare ones in which I get inspired, do the research and start writing. Most of the time my ideas for columns remain dormant in the computer. They wait until I stumble across some fact, position or anecdote that helps illustrate it. The first third of a column I did on blindfold chess in 2011 was actually written in 2009. Some of my columns remained in limbo for more than five years.
I have only a few rules. Number one, never repeat yourself. Number two, have enough in each column so that there’s something to please everyone. Some readers may like a story, others may enjoy a game, others will like an insight, and so on.
JE: You are also the long time chess columnist for the New York Post. The newspaper business has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. How have you managed to survive all the cost cutting measures?
AS: I started as a copyboy at the Post in 1967, the days of “hot type” and typewriters and carbon paper, and became a reporter two years later. One of the editors suggested doing a column in October 1972, right after the Fischer-Spassky match, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Actually, a chess column is a solid, cost-effective feature. Unless you can play over an entire game in your head, a reader who buys a copy will take it home with him, to play the game over on a board. That’s an ideal situation for a newspaper: Getting the paper into a home because it means more people will read it.
JE: How does it feel to be elected into the Hall of Fame?
AS: I’m thrilled to be in the Hall of Fame. When I think of the chess recognition I’ve gotten away from a chessboard, only a few things stand out. One example: I remember going to see the musical “Chess” on Broadway and seeing an imitation copy of one of my books, 10 feet tall, in the background, when they did “The Merchandisers’ Song.” Being in the Hall is a lot better.