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Neil Falconer 1923-2014 Print E-mail
April 11, 2014
Falconer350.jpgThe Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco has suffered a terrible loss with the death of Neil Falconer who passed away on April 5th shortly after celebrating his 91st birthday. Neil was active in the Chess Room right up until near the end of his life, attending a memorial for John Grefe on February 8th.

The Mechanics' Institute Chess Club has had nine Chess Directors and three Grandmasters-in-Residence in its 160-year existence, but there is no doubt that the person with the longest and most important connection with the Chess Club has been Neil Falconer. His involvement with the club spans nine decades from his first visit in 1938 as a Berkeley High School student to the end of his life.

A native Californian, Neil first joined the Institute in 1945 after finishing his service in the U.S. Army and soon after established himself as one of the strongest chess players in California, finishing third in the state championship in 1946. When former World Champion Max Euwe visited the Mechanics' in 1949 Neil was one of those who held him to a draw. That same year, Neil graduated from the Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley, passed the bar and started working at the firm where he would later rise to named partner - Steinhart and Falconer. New responsibilities did not slow down Neil's rise as a chess player, and in 1951 he won the California Open title at Santa Cruz.

These results confirmed Neil's strength as a player but what really first earned him the respect and admiration of the Chess Room regulars was his help in enshrining in the Mechanics' Bylaws the stipulation that the Institute would forever have a place for those who play chess. While the royal game had been an integral part of the M.I. since its very beginning, and the current Chess Room dates back to the opening of the building in 1910, it was only in 1947 that its role was officially recognized. 

This action was prompted by an attempt by the better dressed members of the Institute to chase out what they perceived to be riff-raff - namely the regular users of the Chess Room. The "Hart Schaffner & Marx Revolt," as dubbed by the San Francisco Chronicle after the proprietors of fancy men's wear, was put down by a group of chess players led by Charles Bagby and the young Neil Falconer. Had it not been for their efforts to rouse the 300 or so Chess Room members to action, much of the 4th Floor would now be rented out as office space.

Neil remained one of the top players at the Mechanics' for many years. He was a regular on the Northern California team in its annual matches with the Southland in the early 1950s and wrote frequently for the California Chess Reporter, the regional publication that had many friends of the Mechanics' on its staff, including the publisher Guthrie McClain and future Mechanics' Trustee Bob Burger. The 1950s would be the last time Neil was active as a player, though he would continue to play off and on in the future with highlights including victories over former World Champion Tigran Petrosian in a simul at the Mechanics' in 1978 and Grandmaster Arthur Dake in 1992. The latter led to him winning the U.S. Senior champion title.

Joining the Board of Trustees in 1973, Neil immediately became a member of the Chess Committee and also served as Board President, first in 1988 and again from 1993 to 1995. Among the highlights of his nearly four decades of service is his role as the chief fundraiser for the Pan Pacific chess tournaments in 1987, 1991 and 1995. Anyone who has ever had to raise money knows just how difficult it can be, but Neil performed his role with distinction and was so successful that the events were able to attract players the caliber of former World Champion Mikhail Tal, the great Viktor Korchnoi, and Womens World champions Zsuzsa Polgar and Xie Jun.

Neil did not confine his role to top-level chess. Ahead of his time, he teamed up with the New York based American Chess Foundation in the 1980s and 1990s to bring chess instructors into under-privileged inner-city schools in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond. Neil not only volunteered his time as an administrator for the program but was also one of its financial supporters. 

In 1999 Neil established the Falconer Award at the Institute which awards a cash prize to the highest-rated junior player under 18 in Northern California.  Grandmasters Vinay Bhat, Sam Shankland and Daniel Naroditsky are among those who have won the Falconer Award, which has awarded more than $35,000 to support excellence in chess. 

Neil's legendary precision and thoroughness can be seen in the definition of Northern California in the eligibility standards for the award:

"Northern California shall be deemed the area in California lying North of a line drawn from a point 10 miles South of the City of San Luis Obispo running roughly Easterly to a point 10 miles South of the City of Visalia and thence roughly Easterly to a point 10 miles South of the City of Bishop and thence in an East-West direction to theNevada State line."

One of Neil's defining characteristics besides his generosity of spirit and dry sense of humor has been a lifelong interest in learning. He was a regular attendee of former Grandmaster-in-Residence Alex Yermolinsky's weekly endgame lectures and has always had a keen interest in solving chess puzzles and problems. The past decade he has played with pleasure in more than one 5-minute chess tournaments at the Institute, matching wits with players almost 80 years his junior!

The Mechanics' Institute has been fortunate to have such a good and devoted friend as Neil Falconer. Back in 2002 Neil selected the following four games as his most memorable with his brilliancy prize winning effort over Blazo Sredanovic in the 1964 Stamer Memorial a close fifth.

Neil Falconer - John Tippin
Ruy Lopez C71
Oakland (Castle Chess Club) 1940
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.c4 f5?!

The move ...f5 is popular after 5.c3, but here White has Nc3.
6.d4 fxe4 7.Nxe5 dxe5 8.Qh5+ g6
8...Ke7 9.Bxc6 Qxd4 10.Qe8+ Kd6 11.Be3 Qxc4 12.Nc3 Bg4 13.Rd1+ 1-0, Book-Andersson, Warsaw (ol) 1935.
9.Qxe5+ Kf7 10.Bxc6 bxc6 11.Qxh8 Nf6 12.Nc3 Qd7?

This game first appeared years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle where the late George Koltanowski asked "why not 12...Qd4 with good possibilities?" He looks to have been right as the logical sequence 13.Be3 Qxc4 14.Bg5 Bg7 15.Qd8 Bg4 16.Qxa8 (16.Qxc7+ Nd7 17.Qf4+ Bf5 18.Rd1 with equal chances is the right way to play) 16...Nd5 wins for Black!
13.Nxe4 Nxe4 14.Qxh7+ Bg7 15.Bh6 Qxd4 16.0-0 Qf6 17.Rae1 Ng5 18.Re7+ Kxe7


Or 18...Qxe7 19.Qxg7+ Ke8 20.Qg8+ Kd7 21.Rd1+
19.Bxg5 Qxg5 20.Qxg7+ Kd6 21.Rd1+ Kc5 22.Qd4+ Kb4 23.Qc3+ 1-0

Neil Falconer - F. Hildebrandt 
French Winawer C19
San Francisco (US Open) 1961
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.Nf3 Qa5 8.Bd2 Qa4 9.Bd3 Nbc6


More logical is 9...c4.
This gives White the use of the important d4 square. The tripled c-pawns are not so important. 
10...Qa5 11.0-0 Qxc5 12.Qe2 Ng6 13.h4! d4?! 

Here 13...h5 looks safer. For example:14.Bxg6 fxg6 15.Qd3 Ne7 16.Bg5 Nf5 17.Nd2 b6 (17...0-0 18.c4) 18.Ne4 with interesting play.
14.cxd4 Nxd4 15.Nxd4 Qxd4 16.Bb5+ Bd7 17.Bxd7+ Qxd7 18.Bb4!?


White fixes Black's King in the center at the cost of a pawn.
18...Nxh4 19.Rfd1 Qc6 20.f3 Nf5 21.g4 Qb6+ 22.Kh2 Nd4?


22...Ne7 was essential. Hildebrandt puts his head into the mouth of the lion and quickly pays the price.
23.Rxd4! Qxd4 24.Rd1 Qf4+ 25.Kg2 f6 

25...a6 26.Qd3
26.Qb5+ Kf7 27.Rd7+ Kg6 28.exf6 h5 29.Rxg7+ Kxf6 30.Bc3+ e5 31.Qd7 Qxf3+
 32.Kxf3 hxg4+ 33.Kxg4


Neil Falconer - Eugene Lien
Boden-Kieseritsky Gambit C42
Oakland 1983
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nxe4 4.Nc3


The Boden-Kieseritsky Gambit.
4...Nxc3 5.dxc3 f6 
Accepting the challenge. 5...Be7 6.Qd5 0-0, returning the pawn, is fine.
6.0-0 Qe7
6...d6 or 6...Nc6 is the normal way to stop the threatened Nxe5.
7.Nh4 is another way of treating the position.
7...Nc6 8.b4 Nd8 9.Nd4 d6 10.f4 Be6 
10...c6 looks more accurate.
11.Nxe6 Nxe6 12.Qg4
White's lead and development and Bishop pair offer excellent value for the pawn. 
12...Nd8 13.fxe5 dxe5 14.Be3 Qd7 15.Qh5+ g6 16.Qf3 Qg7 17.Rad1 c6 18.Qh3 Rb8
18...Qc7 might have held out longer, but Black's position is very difficult. 
It's a matter of taste between the text and19.Bg5! fxg5 (19...h6 20.Bxf6 Qxf6 21.Qd7 mate) 20.Rxe5+. 
Black had no way to guard e5 satisfactorily.
20.Bh6 Bc5+ 21.bxc5 Qc7 22.Bg5 Rf8 23.Rxe5+ fxe5 24.Rxd8+ Rxd8 25.Qe6+


This is one of two losses Petrosian suffered in the exhibition.

Tigran Petrosian - Neil Falconer
Nimzo-Indian E43
San Francisco (simul) 1978
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.e3 Bb7 6.Bd3 0-0 7.0-0 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Ne4 9.Ne1 f5 10.f3 Nf6 11.Nc2 d6 12.Qe2 Nbd7 13.e4 fxe4 14.fxe4 e5 15.Bg5 Qe8 16.Rae1 Qg6 17.Bh4 Nh5 18.d5


This is a terrible move for White to have to make, but alternatives are no better.
18...Nf4 19.Qd2 Nc5
Black has a dream Nimzo-Indian against one of the great positional players of all time.
20.Rxf4 exf4 21.Nd4 f3! 22.Bg3 fxg2 23.Nf5 Rae8 24.Bc2 Bc8 25.Bb1 Nxe4 26.Rxe4 Bxf5 FinalPetrosianFalconer.jpg

April - Chess Life Online 2014

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