Sunday, April 13

R.I.P. Neil Falconer 1923-2014

Walking into the chess room.
The Mechanics' Institute lost a giant earlier this month.  Aside from a successful legal career, Neil Falconer will be remembered as a competitive chess player and a generous chess philanthropist.  Over 75 years, he served in nearly every capacity at the historic San Francisco chess club, from one of the top amateurs to becoming a member of the Board of Trustees.  He remained a strong class A player even well into his 80s.

I saw Mr. Falconer off and on over the years, both at weekend tournaments and Tuesday lectures.  Strangely, we never crossed swords, although he battled fiercely against several of my star students.  Foremost an attorney, Mr. Falconer capably represented (pro-bono) the state organization CalChess against a rogue scholastic organizer in 2004-05.  He seemed to navigate legal complexities as methodically as Vladimir Kramnik would convert a positional advantage.
The following paragraphs first appeared in this obituary at Chess Life Online.

Watching a tournament game.
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.

Chess tournament flag.
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.

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!

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