Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nathan Divinsky 1925-2012

The posters at chesstalk started a long thread on Nathan Divinsky - here is the link, but it may scroll off at some point. Divinsky apparently left Winnipeg in 1966, so only a few old-timers may have met him. Update - another short thread has started.

Dan Scoones wrote a tribute in the BC Chess Federation Bulletin 242, which I will reproduce here:

NATHAN JOSEPH HARRY DIVINSKY (29 October 1925 - 17 June 2012)

It is with sadness that we note the passing of Dr. Nathan Divinsky, a larger-than-life figure with
many contributions to the Canadian chess scene; he was eighty-six.
Born in Winnipeg to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents from Poland and Ukraine. Educated at St.
John's High School, Divinsky earned degrees from the University of Manitoba and University of
Chicago, graduating with a Ph.D. from the latter at age twenty-four in 1950. After a year at Ripon
College, Wisconsin he returned to the University of Manitoba as an Assistant Professor of
Mathematics. In 1959 he moved to Vancouver to take up a similiar post at the University of British
Columbia, retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1991. Divinsky was active in local politics in Vancouver,
serving as a member of the school board and as an alderman. During the years 1972-1983 he was
married to future Prime Minister Kim Campbell. Divinsky was part owner of the Granville Island
restaurant Bridges and wrote a guide to good food in the Vancouver area ("an intellectual
gastronomic piece of gossipy good fellowship"). Possessor of a resonant baritone voice, Divinsky
was also an amateur pianist of note and was particularly fond of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
Apart from chess Divinsky’s other ‘hobby’ was bridge, at which he also excelled. He became a life
master in 1972 and was the Canadian Bridge League's contract bridge champion in 1987.

Divinsky's chess accomplishments were also wide ranging and mutli-faceted. He was taught the
game at age six by his father; after initial setbacks at school he improved his play by reading
Tarrasch's The Game of Chess. In 1940-42 he helped organize the St. John's High School Chess
Club and was its champion; subsequently Divinsky played on several University of Chicago teams
and founded a club at Ripon College. Provincially he came second in the Manitoba Championship
in 1945 and won the event in 1946 and 1952. In three appearances in the Canadian Championship
his best showings were joint third at Saskatoon 1945 (behind Yanofsky and Yerhoff) and clear fifth
at Vancouver 1951. Divinsky served as second reserve on two Canadian olympiad teams; at
Amsterdam 1954 he only played one game (a draw), but in Havana in 1966 he scored plus one in
eight games. His only other international event appears to be Bognor Regis 1966, the Churchill
Memorial tournament, where he finished tied for seventh in the seventy-four player field behind
Karaklaic and Matanovic, but ahead of Golombek and Wade. Divinsky's other over-the-board play
was restricted to local team matches and simultaneous displays, both giving and on the receiving
end (Reshevsky, Bisguier, Kasparov). He was active as a player as late as 2004, when he
participated with Doug Freeman in a fundraising pairs event for the 2005 Macskasy Memorial (see
Bulletin #42). Divinsky was also part of the UBC team which defeated a team from the University of
Moscow 1.5-0.5 in a correspondence match 1964-68.

In the realm of chess administration Divinsky served two terms as president of the CFC (1953,
1993) and was FIDE representative 1987-1992 and 2004-2007; he also represented Canada in
official capacities many times, most recently as captain of the women's team at the Calvia
Olympiad in 2004. Divinsky achieved considerable popularity as a media figure in 1986 when he
commented on the London leg of the Kasparov-Karpov world championship for BBC television.
Divinsky's other major area of involvement in chess was in writing. He began contributing game
annotations and other reports to Canadian Chess Chat in the 1950s, and subsequently served as
its editor from 1959 until the early 1970s. Divinsky wrote two relatively short-lived chess columns,
both called Chess Charivari, one for the Winnipeg Tribune 1953-1964 and the second almost
exactly ten years later for the Vancouver Province, 1963-64 (see Bulletin #173). Divinsky also
authored four books on chess: Around the Chess World in 80 Years in two volumes (1961 and
1965), Warriors of the Mind (with Raymond Keene, 1989), The Batsford Encyclopedia of Chess
(1990), and Life Maps of the Great Chess Masters (1994). During the last decade of his life
Divinsky's main research interest was the nineteenth-century German player, author, historian and
diplomat von der Lasa; it was said that a book was forthcoming in collaboration with Peter
Stockhausen, but presumably this project will now remain incomplete.

Interview with Nathan Divinsky

Also, the Globe & Mail had a long obit, which I will also reproduce here in case it disappears at some point.

Monday July 2, 2012

Math professor spent his life seeking truth

'The two roles that were most important to him were father and teacher,' said former prime minister Kim Campbell

Special to The Globe and Mail
Nathan Divinsky inhabited that plateau where high-level chess and mathematics intersect. So it should be little surprise that he could be arrogant, brash and over-the-top provocative. But those traits were also what made him so compelling.
Divinsky was a colourful character even by the standards of worlds that produce, almost as a prerequisite, colourful characters. A professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia for 32 years, he was a master at both bridge and chess, twice captaining Canadian teams at the Chess Olympiad. From the 1950s onward, he played key roles in chess organization in this country, serving as Canada's representative to FIDE (the World Chess Federation), from 1987 to 1994, and as president of the Chess Federation of Canada. In 2001, he was inducted into the Canadian Chess Hall of Fame.
He did much to raise the game's profile through prolific commentaries in the media. He founded and edited the magazine Canadian Chess Chat for 15 years and authored several well-received books on the game (as well as on math and fine dining), including 1989's Warriors of the Mind, co-written with British grandmaster Raymond Keene.
Among British chess cognoscenti, he became a household name in 1986, when the world championship rematch between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov took place in MoscowLondon (and Leningrad). Divinsky attended as a chess tourist but was snapped up to become the star commentator on the BBC's nightly coverage of the match. He pronounced the British "uptight," and gleefully recalled how his joking manner made the show's director nearly tear his hair out.
"Divinsky made such an impact ... that "I Love Divinsky" badges swiftly proliferated among the thousands of fans thronging the venue," noted his obituary in The Times, written by Keene.
For a time, Divinsky was a school trustee and a municipal councillor in Vancouver, experiences which served to reinforce and mesh his blunt views on politicians and the politics of chess. "All the bright successful people who become doctors, lawyers and financiers, they're never going to go into politics," he observed dryly in 2004. "That's why our politicians, in my opinion, are mostly third-class charlatans, and the people who end up in chess organizations are relatively weak players who have no great satisfaction from other forms of life. They're essentially incompetent."
On his blog, Canadian chess grandmaster Kevin Spraggett was equally direct. "I can't say I ever liked Nathan, though his charms often compensated for his defects. Many of his actions and political standing inside the chess world did more harm to Canada's reputation and influence than they did good, but I will always respect Nathan's courage for speaking his own mind, regardless of consequences or of who was listening."
Divinsky was 86 when he died in Vancouver on June 17. Those with sharp memories may recall that he was once married to Kim Campbell, Canada's 19th prime minister. The couple had met when Campbell was an undergraduate 22 years his junior at the University of British Columbia in the late 1960s. They married in 1972 and divorced in 1983.
"He did many things in his life but I think the two roles that were most important to him were father and teacher," Campbell told The Globe and Mail. "I think he was an extraordinary father. If there was something I learned from him - because I also taught in my early career - it was his approach to the integrity of teaching. Teaching was a deadly serious business for him. Part of his role was to express to students the joy of using your mind - that it's serious business but can also be a source of enormous personal happiness.
"Both of those roles he approached with absolute devotion and dependability and integrity."
Divinsky's passion for chess seemed bottomless, though was he not consumed by it. For him, chess was a mystical combination of beauty and struggle. Quoting a German master, he said the game, "like love and like music, has the power to make men happy."
And what about a little crazy? He rejected the chestnut that the best players are so brilliant they cross the line into a kind of madness. In fact, "chess players are more normal than the average rung of society," he told an interviewer. "The stronger the player, the more serious and sensible."
But there was a living to be made and chess didn't offer one. "When we were young, it was drummed into our head that nobody made a living from chess, and in those days nobody did," Divinsky told British Columbia Chess Scene a few years ago. World champions had died penniless and even second-tier grandmasters barely scraped by. "And I wasn't even in that category. So I was taught and accepted the idea that I had to do something for a living, apart from chess."
Nathan Joseph Harry (Tuzie) Divinsky was born in 1925 in the North End of Winnipeg to Yiddish-speaking Russian-Jewish émigrés. His father, David, a grocer, had left revolutionary Russia in 1919 and married Rose Polonsky. Nathan, their only child, was three or four when he watched his father and uncle play chess. "I could create, instantly," he would recall. "I didn't have to learn a lot of details and facts and formulas. I could start moving pieces and geometric beauties began to multiply on the board. I loved beating people, especially older people, and when you're five, most people are older."
He befriended future Canadian grandmaster Daniel Yanofsky and sharpened his skills at the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club. Divinsky tied for third and fourth places in the Canadian Closed Chess Championship in 1945, and won the Manitoba Championship in 1946 and 1952.
He earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Manitoba in 1946, followed by a master's degree a year later. His doctorate was from the University of Chicago and his math specialty was linear algebra. He was a regular on the Discovery Channel's segments on chess and mathematics, and was the subject of a 30-minute program, The Divine Divinsky.
Divinsky was the rare person to excel at both chess and bridge. He was designated a bridge life master in 1972. In chess, he was not officially rated by FIDE but was considered master level in Canada and received the honorary title of international master from the Commonwealth Chess Association.
Keene described his style of play as "open and classical and based on virtue. The punishing of his opponent's errors reflected his entire lifestyle. He was the epitome of ethics in all walks of life."
Divinsky came to know and analyze games with some of the greatest names in modern chess: Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Kasparov, Boris Spassky, who became a good friend, and Bobby Fischer, whom Divinsky had met at the Olympiad in Havana in 1966. "He recognized Fischer's brilliance," his daughter Pamela said, "but considered him badly behaved." Her father was "heartbroken" when IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer defeated Kasparov in 1997, the first time a machine had beaten a human. "I think he felt it destroyed the beauty of the game."
Often, he would indulge his passion of comparing the greatest players, the way fight fans mentally pit boxers from one generation against another. Was Alexander Alekhine stronger than Jose Capablanca? Could Paul Morphy have beaten Wilhelm Steinitz? Can you imagine Kasparov versus Fischer in their primes?
After retiring from competitive play in 1966, he dove into chess administration. He served on the Vancouver School Board from 1974 to 1980 and was its chair for two years. "In education," he said of his time on the board, "democracy is irrelevant." In the early 1980s, he spent less than two years on Vancouver's city council, where he was "ornery and difficult and controversial," his daughter said.
But he was instrumental, she added, in redeveloping Granville Island and in the first wave of condo construction in Vancouver. He had a personal stake on the island after becoming part owner of Bridges, a successful restaurant there, and he went on to edit The Good Food Guide to Vancouver.
Ever the mathematician, Divinsky noted that his first wife, Bebi, was born on March 12 and that Campbell on March 10, and half-joked that he was looking for a woman who was born on March 11 to complete the sequence. On discovering that Marilyn Goldstone, his daughter's friend's mother, was born March 11, he called her for a date and the pair lived together for 27 years until Divinsky's death.
An accomplished pianist who hosted annual Gilbert and Sullivan operettas performed with friends and family, Divinsky was also devoted to theatre, opera, movies, ballet, crossword puzzles, mysteries and Victorian literature. He had a walk-on part in the 1992 chess thriller film Knight Moves.
Mixed with the achievements and bluster were occasional bursts of humility: What he did in mathematics was insignificant, he would tell his family. Bridge and chess were just games. His business successes were mere luck.
Eulogized Pamela: "Dad wrote in his diary, 'All my time was [spent] seeking truth - no compromises.' He knew only authenticity. That was his charm."
Divinsky leaves his third wife, Marilyn Goldstone, daughters Judy Kornfeld and Pamela Divinsky, and two grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by his daughter Mimi in 2007.

And more, from the Ken Whyld Society:


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to correct some errors in the Globe obit. Dr. Divinsky died June 17 not June 12 as stated (a correction ran in today's Globe) while the 1986 rematch between Kasparov and Karpov took place in Leningrad and London, not Moscow. Also, I understand that Dr. Divinsky was not the founder of Chess Chat.

-Ron Csillag