Mike Splane, Farewell and Legacy

by admin on August 12, 2021

Last night I received a very unexpected e-mail from Ken Case, one of the regulars at Mike Splane’s chess parties. Ken said that Mike has passed away.

Mike has been in poor health for at least the last two or three years. The source of some but not all of his problems was diabetes. Mike even sent out an e-mail about six months ago in which he told us, point-blank, that the doctors said he was dying. He had both kidney failure and heart disease, and the treatments for one would be counterproductive for the other. The doctor said he had at most two years to live. I’m very sorry that instead of two years he got only half a year.

However, I do want to say something about his half year. He did not waste time bemoaning his fate. He said that he took about one day to get over it, but after that his attitude was all about making the most of the time he had left. In particular, he was very keen to leave a legacy by writing a chess book. It has evolved considerably over the last few months. Originally it was going to be just his collected games, but as he started writing it became more and more clear that there are lots of chess concepts that he wanted to pass on, and the games were just a medium for doing so.

Mike was an extremely original chess thinker and had a gift for coming up with names for concepts that the chess world has somehow ignored — for example, “traitor pawns” and “losing a pawn but gaining a piece.” He pointed out that there’s a tendency to overlook threats made by a forced move; psychologically, if you force your opponent to make a move you think that it must be harmless. He was full of little practical insights like this.

Of course, the most important insight, which I have mentioned over and over in this blog, is the Mike Splane Question: “How am I going to win this game?” The thing that amazed me the most is that he asks this question even in positions where he is not winning. A chess engine might say that the position is even or that he stands worse. Doesn’t matter. Mike asks how he is going to win the game and then tries to make that happen. It’s a ridiculously optimistic approach, but it works. I think that the reason is that it orients you toward the long term. You have to think beyond the current position and the next few moves, and you have to set up concrete intermediate goals. I think that this is one reason that Mike was so good at winning or at least escaping from not very good positions. People would sometimes say to him that he was lucky, but when it happens over and over again, it’s not luck.

When I first started mentioning the Mike Splane Question in my blog, I thought he might resent it, but he fully embraced it and he would refer to the Mike Splane Question at his chess parties. He even used this as a working title for his book, although in its most recent draft he changed the title to Chess Wizardry. That’s a good idea, I think, because the book has much more to offer than just the Mike Splane Question.

At present it is somewhat unclear what is going to become of his book. I think that it has all the raw material it needs, but perhaps needs a little more organization. I’m hoping that the people who attended his chess parties will find a way to work together towards getting it published. But it’s still way, way too early to say exactly how this is going to happen.

The last time I saw Mike was less than two weeks ago, August 1, at his last chess party. I think that about eight or nine people came. He asked us each to pick a chapter and critique it. I picked the chapter on “cashing in” and Paul Cornelius picked the chapter on endgames, and Marshall Polaris showed us an illustrative game for the concept of critical zone. Mike listened to our comments without ever getting defensive, and already I can see that the latest draft of his book, on his website, includes some improvements based on our comments. So he was literally working on it right up until the end.

Finally, I should say that the book is of course not Mike’s only legacy. He also was an extremely popular instructor at San Jose State University who was repeatedly nominated for best-teacher awards. He pioneered the “flipped classroom” model long before it was a thing. His chess parties also were a legacy; they were a valuable social circle for the 1800-and-up players in San Jose. I think they could be a model for chess gatherings anywhere. In my experience, when chess players get together socially, they tend to play blitz. Mike had the idea that it’s possible to have a chess gathering that is both informal and serious. We have fun, we laugh, but we also try to learn something. Finally, I’ll mention that he was a five-time champion of the Kolty Chess Club, in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2016. That’s two more times than anyone else. More than any other player (aside from the club’s namesake George Koltanowski), he was “Mr. Kolty.”

Mike was also the most frequent commenter on this blog. It’s still hard for me to believe that he is not going to post a comment on this entry, or the next one for that matter. At his last chess party he reminded me about the game that I will show for Year 44 of my own retrospective, a game I played in 2015. I made one move in that game that he thought was a bad move, and yet I thought it was one of my most important moves of the game. When we talked about it again on August 1, I understood his point much better (without necessarily agreeing). I’m greatly looking forward to showing you that game in my next post, and explaining the key position from Mike’s point of view. Consider it his last contribution to this blog.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner August 12, 2021 at 12:45 pm

My condolences. I mostly remember Mike Splane from the chess-friendly cafe on California Avenue in Palo Alto, back when I lived there from 1997 to 2002. We probably played a handful of blitz games, but he preferred the role of kibitzer.

Mike and I crossed swords just once in a tournament. The wizard outplayed me with the black pieces. Up a pawn, he prematurely acquiesced to a repetition.

Aigner vs Splane, Thanksgiving 2008
1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 c5 4. dxc5 Qa5 5. Nge2 Nf6 6. Bd2 Qxc5 7. Nf4 d6 8.
Bb5+ Bd7 9. Be3 Qc8 10. Bxd7+ Nbxd7 11. Nd3 Qc6 12. f3 Nb6 13. O-O O-O 14. Kh1
Nc4 15. Bd4 e5 16. Nb4 Qd7 17. Bg1 Nxb2 18. Qe2 Na4 19. Ncd5 Nxd5 20. Nxd5 Rfc8
21. c4 Nc5 22. Rad1 Ne6 23. g3 Rc6 24. Nb4 Rcc8 25. Nd5 Rc6 26. Nb4 Rcc8 27.
Nd5 1/2-1/2

Rest In Peace.


Cortiano August 13, 2021 at 11:21 am

They sat that God is a super GM. Let him/her and Mike duke it out up there! My condolences, Dana.


Larry Smith August 13, 2021 at 1:39 pm

Sorry to hear that, and sorry for your and his family’s loss.

I have begun to incorporate his “how am I going to win this game?” concept into my own lessons. I rather doubt that any of my chess insights will live after me.

Good luck with publishing the book; it would be a fitting legacy. It might also be nice for someone to write up a little something for Chess Life, if you think that would be appropriate.


Stephan September 14, 2021 at 2:39 pm

I came across Mike’s chess website in 2019. I kept on thinking of emailing him to discuss chess but I kept putting it off.

I really wish I had, just to thank him for the good info he has on his site.


Becky Lehotzky August 3, 2022 at 11:26 am

My husband, Attila Lehotzky, use to play chess with Mike in Flint, Michigan, in the 1970s. He would love to have a copy of Mike’s book. Local book store, USCF Sales, and rare books don’t show any books published by him. Could you please tell me how I could obtain a copy of this and any other books/articles Mike published. Greatly appreciated. Becky


admin August 25, 2022 at 3:12 pm

Becky, Sorry I didn’t notice your comment until just now! Mike’s book is available as a PDF for free at http://bus91l.altervista.org/Chess_Wizardry/chess_wizardry.pdf.


Joe Matuzak November 19, 2022 at 9:19 pm

Becky, please send me an email. I also used to play with Attila (as well as other friends such as Don Vandivier, Larry Harrison, Dave Sark, etc.) in Flint. Attila, Dave, Don and I went to a tournament together in Cleveland, which was my first ever USCF event, and it took me a long time to forgive he and Don for badgering me to hurry up and finish one of my games so we could all go and eat. I was playing IM Calvin Blocker, and ended up blowing a draw, thus finishing tied for second in the tourament.

(For what it’s worth, please remind Attila that we used to joke about his escaping from behind the Iron Curtain — which he did — and we poked at him, saying that they allowed him to escape because he just wasn’t that good a player! All said, of course, with deep affection.)


Becky Lehotzky August 4, 2022 at 8:22 pm

My husband, Attila Lehotzky, played chess with Mike in the 1970’s in Flint, Michigan. He would very much like to have a copy of Mike’s book or any other publications he may have had. The USCF, bookstores, and rare/out of print bookstores, have no record of his book. Could you help me? Thank you, Becky


Joe Matuzak November 19, 2022 at 9:09 pm

I am distressed to hear about Mike’s death, though I pretty much figured it had happened due to the lack of communication from him, knowing how ill he was. The last email conversations we had were regarding his book draft.

Mike and I were housemates in Flint during out college days, frequent chess combatants and collaborators, and when I used to come out to the San Jose area he would always drag me over to play speed chess with some of the better players in the area “to see if he could still justify hanging out with me.” My chess talks with him continued long after I gave up competitive chess decades ago, and in one of our last conversations he talked about his hopes of going to the US Championships in St. Louis this year.

There are so many things about Mike that few people know (he was a pretty radical political activist in his early years) but his enthusiasm for chess and his care for his friends never wavered. I recall getting dragged off a bus by friends of my father before I boarded a bus to Longview, TX, to join Mike and his girlfriend there, and have often thought about how different my life would have been had I gone. Mike literally moved to California because, as he told me, the quality of chess competition was higher.

Before he became an instructor, he often worked as a night clerk in hotels for months on end, something he started in Flint, saving up his money so he could take extended periods of time to play in tournaments and improve his chess.

I always admired his unwavering and single-minded love for the game of chess, and, as he was overall one of the most intelligent people I ever knew, understood it as his way of believing there could ultimately be order and sense in life. Rest in minor pieces, my friend.


Becky Lehotzky November 22, 2022 at 12:12 pm

Attila would love to hear from you. We are in Flushing, MI. Where do you live now?


Becky Lehotzky November 20, 2022 at 2:32 pm

Hi Joe, Attila was very happy to hear from you and the funny memories you brought up. He is wondering where you live now. Chess took a back seat to raising 4 children, but now that he is retired (2 years) he is getting into it again, mostly online. We are in Flushing, Michigan.


Joe Matuzak November 23, 2022 at 11:50 am

Hi Becky — I certainly know Flushing fairly well, as my mother lived there for many years. I now live in South Lyon, but I do come up to the Flint area on a reasonably regular basis, to see friends and assist another with medical issues. Several of the people Attila knew and played with (Larry Flinn, Don Vandivier, etc.) are still around that area. There was a club that was meeting in Grand Blanc for a while, but I don’t know what’s become of it post-Covid. Weirdly, Attila’s name came up at a party I was at in Novi a month ago, where I was talking to the husband of one of the people in my wife’s book club. Turns out he used to be part of the Michigan Chess Association, and was an editor of their magazine. He knew Don, and recognized Attila’s name. It’s always a small world. I would love to figure out a way to reconnect, as things like Mike Splane’s death help make it all too clear that time waits for none of us. I can be emailed directly at joe@matuzak.com.


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