Interview with the Oldest Chess Club Operating in the United States

Interview with Staff of the Oldest Operating Chess Club in the United States

I, Zach Thompson, was visiting San Francisco, decided to visit the oldest operating chess club in the United States. Below is the interview from my visit in December 2022.

Interviewing Paul Whitehead and Alex Robins from the Mechanics Institute.

Paul Whitehead, Mechanics' Institute Chess Room Coordinator

Zach Thompson: “Hello, welcome. Would you two like to introduce yourselves?”

Paul Whitehead: “I’m Paul Whitehead, the Chess Room Coordinator”

Alex Robins: “And I’m Alex Robins, the Chess Program Manager”

ZT: “Can you please tell us a little bit about the Mechanics Institute Chess club?’

PW: “Go ahead, Alex!”

AR: “Sure, the Mechanics Institute Chess club, we are the oldest chess club in the United States that’s currently operational, we have been here since 1854, the Mechanics Institute started as a space for out of work gold rush prospectors to learn and develop technical skills and always started with a chess club. Many world champions have visited.”

PW: “Capablanca, Tal, Petrosian, Smyslov, Fischer, Alekhine, Lasker, Spassky gave exhibition matches/simuls, it’s a very long list.”

ZT: “Carlsen?”

PW: “Not yet. 😉”

AR: “ Recently there was the Meltwater finals, and we were visited by Anish Giri, Wesley So, and Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa.”

Area Hall Inside the Mechanic's Institute Chess Room for tournament and club play.

ZT: “What kind of activities does this chess club offer?”

PW: “We run tournaments, we hold classes, we have scholastic outreach in the community, we are in 12 schools in San Francisco, we employ scholastic coaches, we offer Chess Café (which can be found on our website), an interactive online chess Zoom show on Mondays, which your chess club members are welcome to join!”

AR: “We also offer a free beginner’s class on Wednesdays, and a free women’s chess class on Zoom Sunday mornings, no membership required. “

PW: “We have a lot of chess related activities, including tournaments. “

AR: “Chess tournaments like the Tuesday night marathon, which has been running scheduled since 1972.”

ZT: “You are the longest continuously operating chess club in the United States, what do you think contributes to the Mechanic’s Institute longevity?”

Inside Mechanic's Chess Club in San Francisco. Oldest Chess Club in the United States.

PW: “We’re part of the Mechanics Institute, it’s built into the bylaws if there’s a Mechanics Institute, there’s a chess club. I think that’s a huge part.”

AR: “Built in 1907, right after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906? The Mechanics Institute building was finished in 1909, this gives us a permanence to the spaces here. The Mechanics Institute covers us.”

ZT: “The Mechanics Chess club doesn’t have to pay rent?”

PW: “No. Similar to the Marshall Chess Club, we own the building. The Manhattan Chess Club, on the other hand, rented their space, and that could have been a factor why they closed. Here’s a photo of the first ever chess game broadcasted. Mechanics chess club wire telegraphed against a chess club in LA. 1913. This was before a highway existed between San Francisco and LA.”

Mechanic's Institute Chess Club in San Francisco is one of the first chess clubs to play the first broadcasted chess tournament in 1926. Here shown is a telegraphed tournament against Los Angeles in May 30, 1926.

ZT: “Are there any historic famous games or chess players that frequent the chess club?

PW: “The players that came up through the club are GM Sam Shankland and GM Daniel Naroditsky both played here as kids. As far as World Champions, we had GM Fabiano Cuarana a few years ago, GM Hans Neimann played here as kid for 2 years and went from 1200 USCF to 2200 USCF, he became a chess master here at this club. William Addison also came out of this club. William Addison was a club director, before Hans Niemann William Addison was the strong player here born out of San Francisco. Spassky also visited the Mechanics Institute and had a heart attack giving a simul here.”

Former world champion Vassily Smyslov visits the Mechanics' Institute Chess Club March 20, 1976. Symslov (standing at left) played against 30 Institute members in a chess simul with a result of 18 victories, 3 losses, and 9 draws.

ZT: “Too much pressure!”

ZT: “Any last questions or comments you’d like to say?”

PW: “I’d like to visit Pittsburgh one day, never been there!”

ZT: You’re more than welcome to!

AR: “ Yeah, just like any of your club members are welcome to visit us in San Francisco and stop by our club to check out the history we have here or play in one of our tournaments!”

To find out more about the Mechanics' Institute Chess Club in San Francisco, CA, please visit their website.

Mechanics' Institute Chess Club Website:

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