Chess Benefactor Jacqueline Piatigorsky Dies at 100
By Randy Hough
July 19, 2012
U.S. chess lost one of its major figures of the 20th century Tuesday with the passing of Jacqueline Piatigorsky at age 100. Her accomplishments as an organizer, benefactor, and player were legion.
A member of the Rothschild banking family, Jacqueline was born in Paris on November 6, 1911 and married the fabled cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in 1937. They fled to the U.S. in the wake of the Nazi invasion, eventually settling in Los Angeles in 1949.
Mrs. Piatigorsky’s accomplishments as a player included a bronze medal in the first Women’s Olympiad in 1957, scoring 7Ѕ of 11 on second board. She played in several U.S. Women’s Championships, finishing a half-point out of first in 1965.
After the sudden death of her teacher, IM Herman Steiner, in 1955, she stepped up as the organizer of what became known as the Steiner Club. Its offshoots included the Student Club, which from the mid-60s to the mid-80s mentored young players and prepared them to enter the world of tournament chess (at the start of this period, junior tournaments were rare).
Mrs. Piatigorsky’s name is forever linked to the Piatigorsky Cup GM tournaments held in Los Angeles in 1963 and 1966. Participants included world champions Petrosian, Spassky, and Fischer. She oversaw all the details of these events, including the relay of moves to the analysis room, and personally designed the Cup. She even placed the demonstration boards on the stage herself once when none of the helpers were present and none of the masters would deign to help. These two tournaments, universally considered to be the strongest in the U.S. since New York 1924, did much to enhance the stature of chess in the U.S. and generated still-popular tournament books.
Other invaluable organizational efforts included the 1961 match between America’s two strongest players, Bobby Fischer and Sammy Reshevsky (unfortunately aborted in a scheduling dispute) and the 1968 Interzonal playoff that advanced Reshevsky to the Candidates matches.
Mrs. Piatigorsky sponsored the U.S. Junior Invitational for several years in the late 60s and early 70s. Future GMs like Walter Browne, Larry Christiansen, Jim Tarjan, and Ken Rogoff honed their talents in these events.
Her philanthropic efforts also included chess programs for underprivileged and disabled students in Los Angeles schools, and paying expenses to national competitions for local teams.
Gregor died in 1976. Retiring as a player in the late 70s, Mrs. Piatigorsky increasingly focused on tennis (winning several national championships) and sculpting; some of her work can be viewed at http://www.armchair.com/aware/aging1a.html, along with her rewarding ruminations on aging, Growing as We Age. She also published an autobiography, Jump in the Waves: A Memoir.
Despite Mrs. Piatigorsky’s regal bearing and wealth, she was friendly, and especially beloved by the young Student Club players. Her contributions to chess in the United States have had a lasting ripple effect. Our thoughts are with her children, Jephta and Joram.
My thanks to Art Drucker and John Donaldson for their help in compiling Mrs. Piatigorsky’s list of accomplishments.