May 11, 2017–Belmont’s Chess Legacy: A win in 19 moves

May 11, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do the Dan Scharfman Run, the municipal flag pole in Waverley Square, and the Reischauer Memorial House all have in common?  They each seek to preserve part of the human heritage that has found its home in Belmont over our community’s storied history. Scharfman was known informally as the “Mayor of Belmont” for his multiple civic leadership roles.  The Waverley Square flag has a small plaque commemorating the service of James (“Jimmy“) Castanino, long-time director of Belmont’s Highway Department.  The Reischauer House preserves the memory and work of Belmont resident Edwin Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan and noted East Asia scholar.

These three memorial efforts came to mind last week as Town Meeting voted to make substantial improvements to various Belmont open space and recreation areas.  New facilities are being planned and installed. New spaces are being created.  Whether at the Grove Street Park or around Clay Pit Pond, it would not only be “nice,” but it would seem also to be appropriate for town officials to take this opportunity to give a tangible, public, nod of acknowledgement to Belmont’s chess heritage.  More specifically, ongoing and future plans might reasonably easily incorporate a public “outdoor chess table” with a small plaque dedicated to Belmont resident Harold Dondis.

Dondis, of course, made local history back in March 1964 when he required just 19 moves to defeat future world chess champion Bobby Fischer in a tournament at the Wachusett Chess Club (Fitchburg).  Granted, Fischer, who was only 20 years old at the time, was participating in what is called by chess devotees a “simul exhibition match” (playing against multiple opponents at the same time). He was playing against 56 separate people at once, one of whom was Belmont’s Dondis.  If anyone could do that, however, it would be Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game.

The legacy of Dondis, however, extends well beyond his defeat of the future world chess champion.  Dondis was author of the Boston Globe’s chess column for nearly 50 years.  When the Globe once decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to cancel his column, the paper received so many protests that not only was the column reinstated, but the newspaper increased its publication from once to twice a week.

If Dondis were alive today, he would likely say that a public place devoted to allowing people to play chess need not be large enough to accommodate any type of crowd.  While Dondis was quoted in 2004 as saying that interest in chess was “exploding,” he nonetheless still did not view it as a spectator sport.  It’s a personal game, he believed, an intensely personal game focused on problem-solving.

A lot of conversation occurred on Town Meeting floor last week about “preservation.” The new sign by-law was offered to help preserve the character of the town. The Demolition Delay By-law was offered as a way to preserve architecturally and historically significant homes. The Pay as You Throw resolution was offered to preserve the environment.  Our human heritage merits preservation as well.

People tend to remember that Belmont once was the heart of orchards and greenhouse gardens. But, in addition to that historical role, for many years, in its own way, Belmont, in the person of Harold Dondis, was also the heart and soul of the Massachusetts chess world.  A public outdoor chess table and small plaque acknowledging his role in one of the Town’s ongoing projects would be appropriate. Dondis has been gone since December 2015.  Without some small action to memorialize his work, the memory of his contributions may soon be gone as well. That would be a shame.

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