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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Olaf Ulvestad

    The Northwest Chess website contains news from Washington and Oregon and is an interesting site worth browsing. While looking it over I came across the name of one of the more obscure masters (these days, anyway) in US history…Olaf Ulvestad.
     Ulvestad was born in the state of Washington (either in Tacoma or Seattle, depending on the source) the 27th of October 1912. His ancestors originated from Norway. His entry to the chess scene was at the legendary match, the Soviet Union - USA in Moscow in 1946, where he won one of his two games against David Bronstein.
     Ulvestad was champion of the State of Washington in 1934, 1952 and 1956. In the sixties, he went to live in Andorra (a small country between Spain and France), and played first board in the 1970 chess Olympiad in Siegen. He is also famous for the Ulvestad variation of the Two knights defense: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 b5. John Donaldson has published a small (36 page) booklet on Ulvestad, An American Original.
     Ulvestad learned to play at age 17 and remained a rather obscure player because Washington was so far from the center of chess in the U.S. Despite that, in the decades of the '20s and '30s there were a number of strong players in Washington and Oregon. Ulvestad’s first known result appears to be a third place finish in the 1932 state championship.
     While still in high school he began practicing blindfold play and when asked if he was able to play by memory or did he keep a mental image in his head, he said, "I try to keep a clear mental picture of the boards in my mind. Of course the board where I'm playing at the moment is the clearest in my mind, but subconsciously keep the image of all ten boards. I guess it's a kind of idea, photographic mind." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October, 1934).
     Jack Nourse (Washington Chess Letter, October, 1951) gave a glimpse of the young Ulvestad: "In his early years Ulvestad was a sensitive and thoughtful young man with a great sense of humor was also endowed with a rare attribute among chess masters-the endearing trait of modesty.” He kept those traits all through his life.
     Ulvestad spent nearly three years in Alaska (from late 1935 to late 1938) in search of work but eventually returned home. After excellent results in tournaments on the West Coast, he decided to try for national recognition and moved to New York City.
     In his first major tournament against some of the best American players at Ventnor City, 1939, he produced a sensational defeat of Anthony Santasiere. In 1939 the U.S. Open Championship Preliminaries Ulvestad finished 2nd behind Reshevsky with 4.5 points out of six and so qualified for the finals. In the finals he scored +3 -7 =3 and tied with Weaver Adams for 9th place out of 12 players. He defeated Adams in their individual game
     In 1941 Ulvestad became better known on the chess scene with the publication of the newsletter along with Kenneth Harkness, Chess Charts, a little opening pamphlet of 16 pages containing opening analysis. In the Spring of 1941 he enlisted in the military and that was the end of the bulletins. For whatever reason, Ulvestad did not like to discuss his time in the military. What is known is that he was assigned to a battalion of tanks in North Africa, going on to Italy, France and Germany with the Allied advance until his return to U.S. the summer of 1945.
     After WW2 Ulvestad, along with R.P. Allen, published what John Donaldson called the rarest book ever: Neo Chess. Donaldson claims the only copy of which he is aware is in the Seattle Public Library.
     He returned to competitive chess in 1946 at the U.S. Open with spectacular results; he easily qualified for the finals, scoring +6 -1 =1, which was good enough for first place ahead of Herman Steiner, Abraham Kupchik and Gerald Katz. But, he only finished 5th (out of 10) in the finals, scoring +2 -3 =4
     In September,1946 in the match against the USSR, Ulvestad, playing on last board (10th) and managed +1 -1 =0 against David Bronstein. Ulvestad’s best result came in the 1948 US Championship where he finished tied for 3rd and 4th with George Kramer behind Herman Steiner and Isaac Kashdan.
     The 1950's began with the first of his three marriages and his participation in a little known radio match against Yugoslavia in which he lost both games against Milan Vidmar Jr. Then in the early 1950’s he participated in tournaments in Florence and Milan. Back in the US he continued to score successes in open tournaments.
     Along with other players, in 1957 he founded the Seattle Chess Center. There were no annual fees; visitors paid 25 cents an hour to play. The center was not very successful and after about two years it failed and after the divorce from his wife, Ulvestad left town.
     The March 1960 issue of the Washington Chess Letter contained Ulvestad’s farewell letter in which he stated he was going to visit Europe for two years with the first stop being to see Dr. Euwe in Amsterdam. His intended two year visit to Europe ended up lasting 26 years with most of his time being spent in Spain. 
     Ulvestad had a baritone voice that he hoped would enable him to sing professionally, but as in chess, it was not at the highest professional level. He died in 2000.

EDIT- Thanks to reader Alejandro here are two excellent links (in Spanish) on Ulvestad in Spain: HERE and HERE


  1. More information of Ulvestad in Spain 1960-1976 ( in Spanish ) at:

  2. Gracias por el excelente enlace!

  3. Y a ti también gracias por interesarte por Ulvestad y ponerlo en tu blog. ( voy a imaginar que me entiendes en castellano ).
    Ulvestad me ocupó mucho tiempo, y búsquedas de información increibles, y contactando con personas que le conocieron.
    El libro de Donaldson está bien, yo le ayudé hace 15 años, pero a inicios de este año encontré muchísima más información que no le di en su dia, y por esto escribí un análisis mas detallado.
    Esto es lo que puedo decirte.
    Un abrazo.