John Donaldson – The Chief Mechanic

by admin on November 26, 2007

When U.S. Chess League Commissioner Greg Shahade came up with the idea for a national chess league, the first person he called was his sister. The second was John Donaldson.

Donaldson, an International Master who now resides in the San Francisco area, was an old friend of the Shahade family. He used to go bicycling with Greg Shahade’s father, Michael, and he had known both Greg and Jen Shahade when they were still kids. But there was another reason that Greg made the right call. Donaldson is exactly the kind of person you need to get a fledgling league off the ground — a person who has the right contacts and who is completely reliable. When he promises you that he will organize a team, you can count on it.

That’s why, win or lose, the San Francisco Mechanics will always have one distinction no other team can take from them: they were the first team to join the U.S. Chess League, and Donaldson was the first coach.

* * *

To make a career in chess in this country, you have to be lucky and you have to be good. John Donaldson has been both. He grew up in Washington, somewhat in the shadow of Yasser Seirawan. That had one advantage: Donaldson learned his limitations at an early age. “After losing my twentieth game in a row to Seirawan, I realized that I was never going to be the world champion,” Donaldson says.

Nevertheless, he has had a career that virtually anybody else could envy. After starting with a rating of 1243 in 1972, he reached master level in five years and achieved the International Master title by 1983. He has two grandmaster norms to his credit, and hasn’t given up on getting a third.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not very common for 50-year-old chess players to earn the GM title. Jesse Kraai, my compatriot at ChessLecture, earned the title this year, and at age 34 he is considered a late bloomer. So when Donaldson achieves his goal, it will be quite a story. I’d compare him to the 35-year-old baseball player who made it into the big leagues a few years ago as the oldest rookie in three decades. His story got turned into a book and a movie. Do you think we can get Dennis Quaid to play the movie version of John Donaldson?

If anyone can make grandmaster at his age, it’s Donaldson. He has finished writing two books, and is clearing his schedule for a push towards grandmaster. “I’m buying my freedom!” he says.

Even without a GM title, Donaldson has made a steady living off of chess for two decades. I met him for the first time when he moved to North Carolina in 1987 to teach chess in the Charlotte schools. That was just a one-year gig, but it was followed by ten years working for Inside Chess magazine, followed by his current job as chess director at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco.

The Mechanics is a unique place. It’s primarily a private library, which survives on memberships. It has housed a chess club since 1854, which makes it the oldest chess club west of the Mississippi. You can see pictures in the halls of the former world champions who have visited the club — including Boris Spassky, who came just two years ago. The  building practically oozes tradition.

But in the bigger picture, you have to wonder about the long-term viability of the Mechanics Institute, and likewise the club that depends on it. Donaldson says that the library has lost a thousand members in the past few years. “People check out fewer books than they used to,” he says. The chess club too, even though it is a historic treasure, looks just a bit too historic. The chess tables date from the 1920s. Some of the newspaper clippings on the walls are old and yellowing. The whole place could really profit from a make-over. But where would the money ever come from?

Donaldson feels that the cultural malaise that is hurting the library is affecting chess, too. “Americans have a lot of things competing for their interest. The pace of life is faster, and people work harder than they did 15 or 20 years ago. The result is that the quality of life has diminished.” Some people think that the solution is to pump more money and more glitz into chess, but Donaldson doesn’t agree. “Maybe it’s better to concentrate on doing what we do well,” he says.

* * *

Which brings us back to the U.S. Chess League, one of the things that is unquestionably being done well in American chess at the moment. The Mechanics were once again in the thick of the playoff picture this year, as they have been for all three seasons. But this season was more of a struggle for them.

According to Donaldson, the Mechanics really jelled in the middle of their first season. “When Vinay [Bhat] joined us, everything changed,” Donaldson says. The team went into the playoffs that year on a roll, but suffered a painful 2.5-1.5 loss to the Miami Sharks. That was the last time they would lose for a year and a half!

In the second year of the U.S. Chess League, the Mechanics swept through undefeated, and won the playoffs with a stirring overtime victory over New York. There were plenty of heroes. Bhat, of course, was one of them, and so was Sam Shankland, who performed well on fourth board. “The recipe for victory is an underrated fourth board,” Donaldson says. Josh Friedel, who came through against Pascal Charbonneau in the final playoff game, was like the closer (in baseball) who comes in and gets the final outs to win the World Series. Amazingly, the Mechanics won the title even without their star player. “Everyone remembers how close that match was, but they forget that Vinay was not even playing!” says Donaldson.

This season, as defending champions, the Mechanics played a tougher schedule, including brutal matches against Boston and New York in the Eastern Division. Both David Pruess and Josh Friedel struggled in the early season, and for a while the only bright spot was Vinay Bhat, who continued his undefeated ways until the last week of the year. Bhat’s astounding victory over Hikaru Nakamura, which gave the team a come-from-behind draw in its match with the New York Knights, must rank on the short list of highlights for the entire league this year.

Going into the playoffs, the Mechanics seemed to be in good form. But there they ran into their old nemesis, the Miami Sharks, who had just barely sneaked into the playoffs with a late-season surge of their own. Needing only a 2-2 tie to advance to the division finals, the Mechanics fell short, by a 1.5-2.5 score.

Donaldson doesn’t make any excuses for the defeat. “I was surprised but not shocked,” he says. “Their record was 5-5, but they had only had a chance to use the lineup they played against us — their strongest lineup — a couple of times.” In addition, Donaldson thinks that the colors favored Miami. “Miami is much better with White on boards 1 and 3,” Donaldson says.

In fact, a number of factors worked against the Mechanics in this match. First, Miami managed to win one game completely through home preparation. In the board three matchup between Marcel Martinez (Miami) and Dmitry Zilberstein (San Francisco), the Sharks had prepared a beautiful winning combination against Zilberstein’s pet opening. The combination started on move 22, and Martinez was still playing moves from his home analysis at move 28! An analogy from baseball would be hitting against a pitcher who is unintentionally giving away his pitches.

In retrospect, Donaldson thinks he could have made a better coaching decision. He could have put himself in the lineup, instead of Zilberstein, or he could have advised Zilberstein to play the Alekhine’s Defense (which he used earlier in his career) instead of the theoretically somewhat more suspect … Bc5 variation in the Ruy Lopez. “As Vinay pointed out, the variation that Dmitry played is very good, but there are four or five places where he’s vulnerable, because he has to depend on tactical solutions,” Donaldson said. In the end, Zilberstein was hurt by his limited and risky opening repertoire. But it was difficult to anticipate this — up until this match, Zilberstein had been one of the team’s more effective players.

Second, two of the Mechanics’ players, Pruess and Friedel, were out of the country. Donaldson didn’t advertise this in advance, but he had known for weeks that Pruess and Friedel would have to miss part of the playoffs in order to play in two tournaments in Europe, where they both hoped to achieve grandmaster norms. In fact, Pruess did earn his second GM norm in France. Donaldson was happy to make this sacrifice — earning a grandmaster norm is still more important than winning a match in the U.S. Chess League. (Perhaps U.S. Chess League fans will be sad to hear this news, but it’s just a fact of life.) But it did hurt the team, not because they had to field a weaker lineup (they still had no trouble putting together a 2392-rated team) but because Friedel and Pruess were unavailable to help the other players prepare for the match.

The third and final misfortune that tipped the balance was completely unforeseeable — Vinay Bhat, the Mechanics’ mainstay all year, unexpectedly stumbled against Blas Lugo. “What it came down to was that they were very lucky on board 2,” Donaldson says. “Vinay had a winning position, but he just didn’t win it.”

In fact, Bhat’s loss was a triumph of good sportsmanship. As shown in my previous post, in league competition Bhat plays his moves on a regular board and with a regular clock, then enters them into the computer. (At least until the time pressure gets too intense, then he switches to all-computer mode.) Against Lugo, Bhat played 23. Bd5 and then realized it was a bad move. However, according to Donaldson, because he had already made the move on his board “he felt honor bound to make that move on the computer.”

Bhat’s error allowed Lugo to trade queens, reaching a position where his king’s position in the center of the board was now an advantage instead of a liability. Even so, Bhat probably should have drawn the endgame. With hindsight we know that a draw would have clinched the match for San Francisco, but at the time that didn’t appear to be the case. San Francisco’s fourth board, Gregory Young, was in trouble, and Bhat thought that he had to win. By the time the tide shifted in Young’s favor on the other board, Bhat’s position was in ruins, and San Francisco’s season was over.

“Bhat felt terrible about that game, not just because of the result but because he played below his normal level,” says Donaldson. “It just shows that he’s only human. It’s not so easy to work 10 hours at a regular job, and then drive 40 miles to a chess match.”

* * *

As disappointing as the Miami match was, Donaldson thinks that the championship matchup of Boston versus Dallas is good for the league. They are the two teams that performed best all year and deserved most to be in the championship. As for predicting how the match will go, he gives Boston a “2¼ – 1¾” edge, with slight advantages to Boston on boards 1 and 4 and a slight advantage to Dallas on board 3. If the match is a 2-2 tie, he thinks Boston has the edge in the speed-chess playoff. “Their second board is extremely strong at blitz, and Christiansen is pretty good at blitz too, for an older guy.” However, in speed chess anything can happen — “unless you’re playing Nakamura, in which case everyone flees in terror,” Donaldson quips. (Good thing the New York Knights didn’t make the final this year!)

Looking ahead to next year, Donaldson thinks it will be very difficult for the Blitz to repeat. Part of their formula for success this year was Chris Williams. Next year Williams’ rating will likely be 0ver 2300, and it will be hard for Boston to field the same lineup that worked for them this season.

This is a common problem for any team that wants to repeat in the USCL. The best rating distribution is something like 2600-2500-2400-2100, with an up-and-coming (and underrated) youngster in the 2100 slot. But almost by definition, you can’t use the same junior in that position two years in a row. That was the situation for San Francisco this year. Shankland, who had helped them win the league championship, now had a rating over 2200. He was too high-rated for board four, but not yet strong enough for board three. As a result, he played in only two matches (and, by the way, went 2-0).

The good news, for San Francisco fans, is that the Mechanics might be back to the ideal lineup next year. Donaldson is looking forward to adding 10-year-old Nicholas Nip, who currently sports a rating of 2100.

“I’d really like to see Sam [Shankland] and Greg [Young] improve so much that we could have a lineup with no player taller than 4 feet 6 inches,” Donaldson jokes. (That would be Shankland, Young, Naroditsky, and Nip.) “Maybe we could get a special rating dispensation for people who are vertically challenged.”

Even though the 2400 average-rating cap forces the coaches to perform mathematical gymnastics, Donaldson likes the system, because it encourages teams to include improving youngsters. On the Mechanics, at least, Donaldson and the other team members actively help the “little guys” prepare, and the free attention has to be a big benefit to their chess development.

Next year, Donaldson promises, “We’ll take the league twice as seriously. I’ll have the little guys running hills, and I’ll put myself on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Also, I’ll be playing much more next year myself.” So here’s a warning to all U.S. Chess League teams next year: Watch out for those vertically-challenged, hill-climbing San Francisco Mechanics!

Addendum (posted four hours after original post):

In response to the Boylston Chess Club’s comment below, I’d like to clarify one thing. Here is the reply that I have posted on their blog:

 The wording “triumph of good sportsmanship” was mine. Donaldson did not describe it in those terms, and so my phrase could be seen as an embellishment. I apologize if it offended anyone. The “honor bound” comment was from John, but I can’t see it as reflecting poorly on Vinay. Surely we should all feel honor bound to obey the rules.

One other comment John made, which I would like to emphasize very strongly, is that the whole league has shown excellent sportsmanship for three years. In that respect, Vinay’s conduct is just one of many examples.

Editorial changes (12/19/07): At John Donaldson’s request, I have made two minor corrections. In his quote about Miami, I have changed “Miami is only good” to “Miami is much better.” And in the last quote about training for the next season, I have changed “Josh [Friedel]” to “myself.” This last change perhaps requires some comment. In our phone interview I’m sure John said “myself,” but I misheard it as the rather similar-sounding “Friedel.” I wasn’t sure why Josh in particular needed to go on a 2000-calorie diet, but I didn’t press John for details. In retrospect, either I need to invest in Q-Tips for my ears, or I need to ask followup questions!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Hayes November 26, 2007 at 5:43 pm

There was nothing in your post, Dana, implying that Bhat even considered cheating. This “Bolyston Chess Club” (whoever they are) have overreacted and to dedicate an entire blog post to it, as they did, seems like complete overkill.


Sam Shankland November 27, 2007 at 4:13 am

2008 mechanics will win 🙂 avg height around 4 ft 2


Carina J. November 27, 2007 at 6:26 am

I just read in Chess For Zebras (Jonathan Rowson) a passage about chess improvement for adults: he thinks the reason why it’s rare has to do with adult’s tendancy to prioritize gathering more knowledge instead of just working to implement what they already have, and even unlearn some of it. I like to think that it really is the case, that the learning block people get when they grow older is really just brought about by ineffective learning methods, and not some kind of fate that we can’t escape, which growing older certainly is, but who says that the mistakes we do at 35 HAVE to be with us still when we’re 45, and so on? Jowson also talks about how one of pitfalls of learning chess through studying tips and strategy, is that you only end up with better hindsight, while your foresight remains undeveloped, and so the real decisionmaking during a game won’t improve, because hindsight won’t help make a difference in the present, only foresight will! I’m meeting a 2200 player in my game tonight, and I’ll keep that point in mind. To hell with what I might learn afterwards in the analysis room from the decisions I make (I’ve often thought during games: well, this will be interesting to look at afterwards, better pick this line to see if I’m really right, and if I’m not, well then I’ll learn about that afterwards) – predicting my problems right now must be more effective, right? 😀 That way you’re not forced to have them a few moves from now.

I think that another thing that makes learning problematic for adults, is that we identify with our mistakes, maybe we even love them (as we love ourselves). So throwing out the old habits would be like throwing out our notion of who we are, but since children aren’t worried about this concept of the ego (yet), they don’t have to worry about being fluid and in change, either.

Anyways, I’m 20 now so it makes me a bit worried to learn 😆 that people stop learning in the years I’m about to enter. Maybe if you make sure to check your progress and keep ignoring the loads of facts/knowledge that the world wants you to absorb, then skill-refinement can still become possible when older, maybe even all your life. 😀 Wouldn’t it be awesome if we’re still accustomed to change/self-improvement when we’re 90? Instead of just being fed up with who we apparently “are”.

About the final point of your post, I think it’s a really good idea to see the importance of diet/sport for your chess performance. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t do half the study I do if I didn’t train and eat right. Whenever there’s been a break in my sports life, what I eat has become crappy as well and it’s just an ongoing spiral that rots all the other hobbies of your life. 😀 So I’ve promised myself that no matter how chessic I get, the gym has more priority than book-study. I just set a new one repetition max for myself in the deadlift exercise yesterday: 90 kilos (200 pounds)! My max one year ago was 70kg, so that’s tremendous improvement. 😀 If only I could lift the weight of positional evaluation on the board just as well, then I might actually have a chance against the 22200 guy tonight. 😆


Carina J. November 27, 2007 at 6:27 am

Oops, 22200.. Well, I don’t hope he’s THAT good.


Rob November 27, 2007 at 8:53 am

What with the poor showing of the SF Giants, SF 49ers, Stanford Football, and (ugh) Cal Football…it is nice to see that San Francisco has a contender to follow…


admin November 27, 2007 at 10:48 am

John Donaldson e-mailed me this morning with a couple of small clarifications. First, Nicholas Nip is currently 9 years old. I wrote “10 years old” because that will be his age next year when he plays for the Mechanics, but my wording in the post was not very clear.

Also, John mentioned that he always has mixed emotions because of his double role as player and captain. As a player he would love to play more, but as a captain he wants to field the best team. So far his approach has been to insert himself into the lineup only when necessary (due to scheduling conflicts).


admin November 27, 2007 at 11:06 am

Carina, good luck against the 2200 player! At least this time you won’t have as much psychological baggage holding you back.

One place where the flexibility of youth is a big asset is in the openings. This really struck me also when I talked with Erik Kislik (see October 18 post). He would change his opening repertoire on a moment’s notice, and had already done so once or twice in the last year. Play a new variation in the King’s Indian without studying it first? No problem! But when you get older, you get more invested in certain openings — you’ve studied them a lot, played them a lot, and the idea of giving them up for something else that you barely know is scary.

Time trouble, which Matt wrote about in one of his comments, is another area where it’s hard to break out of the patterns one has established. I know this from personal experience. By now I’ve played zillions of tournament games where I’ve gotten in time trouble, so I’m used to the feeling and I even feel a little bit comfortable with it. It’s part of who I am, as you said. Nevertheless, objectively it is a very bad thing for my chess. It may not hurt me every game, but it hurts me often enough to cost me perhaps 100 rating points, I believe. I would dearly love to break out of this rut, but again it’s scary. Deep down inside there is a part of me that wants to go on playing the way I always have, and using time trouble as an excuse instead of actually doing something about it.

So… As a young player, flexibility is definitely an advantage for you, so use it while you can!


Dribbling November 27, 2007 at 4:43 pm

Carina, we don’t stop learning when we grow old, we grow old when we stop learning.


Carina J. November 28, 2007 at 5:40 am

My game was postponed.. This is the third game that’s postponed and it’s starting to annoy me. I mean, I prepare in advance and then just 1 hour and 15 minutes before gamestart I get a call about sick opponents. Couldn’t they atleast have called the day before? Oh well!

About time trouble, I used to get in that myself because I liked to think a loooooooong time. I’m not really sure about the quality of my thoughts, though. I was just sleeping mentally half of the time, and doing calculations in the rest of the time.

The last couple of months I’ve been playing a bit different, and I’m not in time trouble so much because I’m not so “perfectionistic” about having calculated everything over and over, since I’ve realized that it’s not even productive to do so. In future games, I’ll cut back even more on calculation, in favour of planning/strategy and the kind of qualitative evaluation Jesse talks about in his latest lecture. One day I’m sure I won’t even calculate a third of what I used to, but hopefully the stuff I look at will be ten times as relevant.


Andy Hortillosa November 28, 2007 at 9:02 am

We talked about one effective way of avoiding knight forks in your other posting. Apparently, GM Avrukh of Israel is not reading your blog. He fell into the same trap against Kamsky in round 2 of the ongoing KO tournament. He forgot that his King (g4) sits on the same color as Kamsky’s Knight on c4 and Kamsky only had to force the White’s rook on b1 to move into the same color square by attacking it with Rd1. I do not know if your readers including Matt Hayes saw that the King on g4 and Rook on d1 will have been conected on e3 by a knight fork. Does anybody know if Kamsky’s opponent was in time trouble? The lesson: It pays to read Dana’s blog once in a while.


Carlos Almarza-Mato May 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Dear Sir,
I am trying to contact Mr. Donaldson by e-mail.
Would you be so kind of letting me know Mr Donaldson’s e-mail or inform him that I am trying to contact him?.I’m living in Spain and I suppose he will rember me.
Thank you very much indeed.


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