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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{ 4 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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