Harold Dondis by Boylston Chess Club
Photo by Boylston Chess Club
Thursday, December 31, 2015

My great-uncle beat Bobby Fischer at chess
by drew himmelstein
When I was 11, I learned how to play chess. My uncle Harold promptly sent me three books about chess strategy in the mail. I cracked one open, but my burgeoning interest in the game faded before I made it through the first chapter, “Opening Moves.”
My topic is Harold, not chess — but I could hardly write about one without the other. Harold Dondis was my great-uncle, a brilliant man who died on Dec. 10 at age 93. Born and raised in the small coastal town of Rockland, Maine, he was my grandfather’s younger brother. Their father owned the local movie theater, which is still around and which has an old black-and-white photo hanging in its basement that shows the town’s kids assembled outside the theater, including my grandfather and Harold, instantly identifiable by their round spectacles.

Harold went to Bowdoin for college, then on to Harvard to study law. He joined the Boston law firm Rich May in 1945 and practiced law there for

70 years until the time of his death. He argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

He loved law, but his life’s passion was chess.

I realize now that I never asked Harold when he started playing, or when he fell in love with the game. It certainly wasn’t an activity that interested his brother. But chess, with its mix of hard analysis and creative improvisation, appealed to Harold. He played throughout his life and wrote the chess column for the Boston Globe for 50 years. He founded the U.S. Chess Trust, the charitable arm of the U.S. Chess Federation. In a 1964 game, he even beat Bobby Fischer. Harold was a modest man, and he called his win against the prodigy later recognized as the world’s greatest chess player a “fluke.” Fischer, he said, was trying out a new strategy and made a mistake. But in a tribute to Harold after he died, the Boylston Chess Club, where he had played since the 1960s, set up his regular chessboard with the pieces arranged in their final position when Fischer resigned that game.

How to describe Harold? “Eccentric” would be a good starting point. If you hold any stereotypes about chess players, don’t dismiss them. Harold sported a disheveled look; it was sometimes hard to believe he worked for a distinguished law firm, even when he dined at the Four Seasons. His clothes were loose-fitting, his shirts often stained and untucked. He wore Birkenstocks in most weather because his feet got hot. If his feet were hot, his hands and head must have been cold, because recent photos of him playing chess show him wearing hats and, usually, gloves.

He spoke softly, but if you listened, he had a great sense of humor and didn’t hesitate to tell over-the-top stories about his misadventures. Once, a story went, he traveled to a chess tournament but forgot to bring shoes, getting on the plane in his slippers. When he arrived at his destination, he made his way to a nearby mall, where he shuffled around in search of footwear. He may or may not have been wearing a robe from his hotel room to provide an extra layer of warmth. Security guards stopped him; it seemed there was a mental hospital nearby and they worried he had escaped.

Harold died at the chessboard, collapsing during a Thursday evening game at the Boylston Chess Club. That makes him the rare, enviable individual who died doing what he truly loved. In a 2004 interview with Chess Horizons, a publication of the Massachusetts Chess Association, Harold summed up his views about chess this way: “I’m not an impressive player, but I love the game. I’m 81. I still play it. I love it. I even had a heart attack during one game. It doesn’t bother me. I love it so much.”

The evening after Harold died, my husband and I played chess in his memory. Maybe if I’d read through Harold’s chess books, my opening moves would have been more intimidating. But having even a small view into what Harold loved about chess, I will always find beauty in playing the game.

Source: http://www.jweekly.com

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