An Exclusive Interview with Harold Dondis by Jim Eade

An Exclusive Interview with Harold Dondis by Jim Eade

C.T. When and where were you born?

H. D. Rockand, Maine Oct.1, 1922.  I was educated in the Rockland Public Schools, Bowdoin, and Harvard Law School.

C. T. How did you learn to play chess, and how old were you?

H. D. I first learned chess in boy’s summer camp in Maine at the age of ten. My camp counselor taught it to me. I lived in Rockland Maine and found one book in the library on chess, by Howard Staunton.

C. T. Where did you play?

H. D. In high school, I finally found an opponent. We played after school at a table at the back of the library set up for us. In college I played some but decided it would take up too much of my time. So I avoided the game at Bowdoin and Harvard Law School. There was very little chess in those days. We had a chess League, consisting of the local and college clubs, and a major tournament every couple of months or so, sometimes having trouble getting ten players. The chess was mostly at chess clubs. Then Bobby Fischer came along, and everything changed.

C. T. When did you suspect that a life long interest in the game was in the works?

H.D. I took it up again as the result of an unusual turn of circumstance. I had a date, who asked me if I would like to attend a modern poetry group in a lower class section of Dorchester. I agreed to go, expecting to encounter a group of amateurs. I prided myself on my knowledge of poetry. The group was organized by one Syd Corman (actually a poet of note according to Tim Redman). When I talked, the group quickly put me in my place, and I became very interested in modern poetry. A member of the group was Jim Burgess, who was writing the Boston Globe chess column with Harry Lyman. Later on, after I was married (not to my date in Dorchester) my wife brought me home a small chess set from Mexico. Now established in a legal career, I decided to take up chess.

I met Harry Lyman at the Boylston Chess Club and played in my first tournament game at the age of 30. I have never been much of a player. My best record was sharing the Class A first prize at the U.S. Open. Coming back to Burgess, we used to meet weekly for lunch. He was an accomplished novelist, a child of the depression, but failed to get his work published because he would not agree to changes. Burgess suddenly passed away in 1964.

At that time I was President of the Massachusetts Chess Association, so since there was no one to write the column, I took it on, after some debate with a law partner, who was counsel for the Boston Daily Record. Later, John Curdo joined me as co-columnist. I stuck with chess, because I love the game and because I have found it is an unusual key to the problem solving process.

C.T. What do you mean when you say that you consider chess to be “an unusual key to the problem solving process?”

H.D. Answering this question is like writing Rousseau’s confessions. Chess was for many years the fruit fly of artificial intelligence. When I started to play seriously at the age of 30, I started to wonder how problems were solved. I began accumulating notes on what I thought was a science of procedure. I then came across G.Polya’s work “How to Solve It” which introduced the word heuristic. This became a buzzword for artificial intelligence or effective methods of problem solving. I felt that this was what I was working on. I continued taking notes, amassed a large bibliography on the psychology of problem solving, and over a 16 year period wrote a book called the “Problem of Problem Solving.” , explaining the process in detail .

Without credentials I could never get it published and there was really no market for the book. DeGroot turned it down cold in no uncertain terms. Though I disagreed with De Groot, I gave up the idea of publication and turned to practical application of my work; I framed a very simple personal routine off problem solving, which I have observed for over twenty years. I like that routine very much, apply it in law and all personal matters but doubt that I can get anyone interested in it. l have nearly finished a second book explaining the routine and the theoretical basis of it. I may or may not self publish it with possibly an Appendix on Chess study. I might add that I never became a great chess player. Some victories, but chess remains an enormous puzzle for me. It involves great energy, computational ability, knowledge and steady care. I find it esthetically pleasing, instructive, and by the way very helpful in keeping active in one’s old age.

C.T. How and why did you found the Trust?

H. D. At that time the U.S. Open was held in Boston, and Ed Edmundson asked me about a charitable organization. I formed the Chess Trust for him. He was the sole trustee and ran into trouble with the IRS because of money laundering to the Lone Pine Chess tourney. Ed asked me to come on the Board and I did, but the IRS pulled the Trust’s exemption. I applied to get it back and succeeded, but Edmundson resigned from the Trust, leaving me with it. The USCF, at the insistence of Eli Wallach of the U.S. Chess Foundation who was worried about the danger to other chess charities, voted to terminate the Trust. I, along with other trustees, refused to do so and managed to keep it alive through the years.

C.T. Who was Eli Wallach, and what position did he have in the chess world? What danger did he think the Trust posed? Who were the early Trustees? Were there other rocky times for the Trust?

I remember only by hearsay that Eli Wallach was the CEO of the American Chess Foundation which I believe still exists and runs Chess-In Schools.- I was many years later told that Wallach was worried that the loss of the Chess Trust exemption might spread to other chess charities. I rejected the idea of liquidation of the Trust, as I felt that the USCF members had to have their own charitable organization. I knew nobody on the USCF board, but turned them down on their vote to liquidate, claiming tax liability problems of the Trustees. Mark you, we had a corpus of only $50,000.

The Board later appointed a young Boston lawyer named Phil Coolidge to report back to them. He reported favorably for the Trust and I applied to the IRS to get the exemption back. This application was granted. At one point a lady named Nearing made a substantial legacy in her will for the USCF, but provided that the gift must be tax free. Accordingly the Trust could accept it, and that proved the worth of the Trust. But most members were contributing to the American Chess Foundation especially, because of the great integrity and standing of Fan Adams who founded Chess-In Schools with Bruce Pandolfini, a wonderful program. Unfortunately Fan Adams passed away and the new donors decided that all funds would be used in the New York program, so all these donations by members over the years were lost. So was Cramer’s gift intended, but not expressed, for journalist awards.

However, the Trust hung on and gradually grew. I refer you to the sketchy minutes to determine the early trustees. Al Boczar was a Trustee with Ed Emondson when I went on, I think in 1977, but both resigned. I am not sure of the other early trustees. Phil Coolidge was a trustee by 1980. The 1982 Minutes show the trustees to be Coolidge, George Cunningham and myself. George was a rock of Gilbraltar, a Professor at the U. of Maine (and incidntally had been principal of Rockport high school next to Rockland, Maine). George served until his death in 1983. Coolidge left the Board in 1985. In that year C. Norman Peacor had come on the Board. Alfred Hansen went on but soon left in 1986. Lee Hyder (an atomic scientist) was a Trustee by 1987, and served until just before his death. Steve Doyle came on in 1989. Gradually other Trustees came on thereafter and made substantial contributions. I will not try to name them all. I would also say that the Executive Directors, Gerry Dullea, Martin Morrison and their successors saw the value of the Trust. We were able to get things done through Barbara De Maro, who had, I believe in the beginning, a part time job with the USCF. I found her very reliable, and worked with her for a good ten years without ever meeting her. She never failed to carry out our wishes. The Trust did grow. We gambled by purchasing the Hall of Fame, moved it to Washington, from whence it moved to Florida. A big advance was getting approval of the CFC. We also received a number of legacies, which fell out of the sky. At various low points, a number of Trustees urged me to merge the Trust with the American Chess Foundation. I considered that seriously but always decided that it would result in loss of membership representation.

C. T. How has the Trust made an impact over the years?

H. D. I think that the Trust has emerged as the charitable source of the USCF, and we channel quite a bit of money for these purposes. The members know that no Trustee profits from the Trust. We have a corpus of about $500,000, not large, but it is possible that this money could have been lost, if it had been contributed to the USCF. The existing Trustees cut off from the USCF for fear of USCF bankruptcy, but, not speaking for other Trustees, I feel the main purpose of the Trust is to carry out USCF charitable activities. I feel, however, that the corpus is still too small. I often scratch my head as to how to improve it. Presently nearly all of the donations are used for current charitable purposes and overhead. I hope that the new Web site will help. I feel that we need to add millionaires, who have a passion for chess to the Trust Board, and we should have a program of soliciting them, either for additions to the Board or to replace present members, including myself. Some trustees contribute no money at all. However, I have been hesitant to alienate members of the Board. One good thing about the Board is that it is managed honestly and there is little or no rancor among Trustees, though often there is disagreement.

C.T. What has been your greatest frustration regarding the Trust? If there was one thing you could change, now or in the past, what would that be?

H. D. One problem was the firing of Barbara De Maro by the USCF in order to cut costs. It actually put us virtually out of business for a year, but we subsequently hired her and she takes care of the myriad details. They are very time consuming. We also spent a lot of money on the Hall of Fame. I do not regret this as it is a fine institution, but we cannot put up any more money. Consider that we are small compared to the America’s Foundation for Chess, which is the Seattle group, and Chess in Schools. We have not enough funds to sponsor school programs. As I have said we need to locate large philanthropists to come on our Board and sorely need to solicit them. We will grow some from legacies, but what makes the other Seattle and New York charities effective are the major donors. Another thing that worries me greatly is the financial condition of the USCF. We rely on the members for charitable contributions. The lack of harmony in USCF politics has been disastrous, and the present law suit must be crippling.  Possibly the USCF was overcome because of the presence of the Internet. I have thought a lot about how the USCF might be saved, but I have not come up with any answers. One possibility is that it might become a 501 (c)(3) organization, though the IRS rejected its application in the 70’s. If it were, it would be competitive with the Trust, and I have opposed such a situation. Also, the USCF might have trouble getting donors. . I have thought that we might identify various charitable programs that the USCF pays for and try a special money raising program for these projects, thus helping the USCF cash problems. Perhaps such a program is completely impracticable.

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