Carlos Castaneda And The Penthouse Suite

Carlos Castaneda And The Penthouse Suite

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[Editor's note: Here are more selected chess stories from IM Silman.]


1988 and I just landed in Mazatlan, Mexico. Though the main course was the world 30-minute championships (packed with the best players in the world), we had arranged a side event that had various actors, singers and songwriters ready to do battle against other Hollywood types. I was the director.

Most of us flew together, and when we looked for our transportation to the resort we were shocked to find a tank and several military trucks filled with armed soldiers! Apparently they feared that we would be abducted.

The event proved memorable. Some highlights:

Day Two: My celebrity crew wanted to go to Senor Frog's, which was the hot club in town. I mentioned this to the organizers and, after a few minutes, several police cars pulled up, loaded us in their vehicles, and rushed us to the club. There was a two-block line, but the police walked by it, took us in, and then looked for a table. Everything was packed. No tables were available. Once again our trusty police escort took over. Going to the largest table, they ordered everyone there to leave at once. In a blink, the table problem was taken care of!

I was sitting next to an attractive young woman and, when the music began playing and people started dancing, I got up, took her hand, and said, “Let’s dance!” She put her mouth to my ear and whispered, “My husband owns this club and most of this town. If he sees you dancing with me he’ll have you killed.”

So much for dancing!

Day Four: After the first few days I ran into a surprising problem. One of my celebrities had been stealing chess clocks. He denied it but when I entered his room there they were. Once again I went to the organizers, gave them back the clocks, and explained that one of my celebrities was insane.

Day Five: Two of my male celebrities (I started thinking of these guys as gremlins) got drunk, found where the room of an extremely famous grandmaster was, and (with me in tow trying to stop them) pushed the door in only to find that the grandmaster wasn’t dressed. I apologized, dragged them out, and then I...Yes, you guessed it! I went to the organizers and apologized for my people’s behavior.

After that things cooled down (the winner of the celebrity event leapt into a fountain to celebrate his victory). Nevertheless, though it ended well, I made a point to never do another celebrity event!



Provo, Utah, 1973. I was 18 years old. This is where I met Dennis Waterman (the guy that beat Walter Browne in my first Cracked Grandmasters article) and became friends with Browne (we shared a room together in a couple tournaments). I still remember Dennis’ first words to me when I noticed him playing blitz:

ME: “Can I play the winner?”

DENNIS: “I only play people that are good!”

An ominous start, but we hung out together after that and, after I was discharged from the Army (I was in for one month and 22 days -- I highly recommended that everyone join the armed forces for one month and 22 days…not a day more, though!) I immediately moved to San Francisco and slept on Waterman’s floor (John Grefe soon appeared and he slept next to me). Now you know how the notorious Waterman/Grefe/Silman gang was born.

Returning to Provo, Waterman was paired with a gentleman named Isaacson and Dennis and I were chatting on the stage before the game began. A local player had told us to shut up (though no games were in progress) and suddenly he went berserk and threw a solid (heavy) glass ashtray at our heads!

Somehow it flew between us (a direct blow could have been fatal) and smashed against the wall with a thud. Welcome to Provo indeed! 

Then Dennis, a bit shaken up, sat down and the following game was played.

Waterman wrote: “In the final position Black is losing his queen. The symmetrical pawn formation is accentuated by the cross in the middle of the board. Not only is the king being crucified, we also have the Holy Trinity atop the cross.”

Okay Dennis, if you say so.


A billion years ago, I was training Pam Ford for the big invitational event (in Utah) and thought she had real chances to win. As her coach, I was allowed to walk around the boards during play. At one point I took a deep look at Pam’s game. She looked up, proudly moved her bishop so it attacked her opponent’s queen, and smiled happily. My face convulsed (for about two seconds) since she had hung her bishop in mid-air! Sure enough, her opponent snapped it off, Pam resigned, and that, I thought, was that.

I don’t have the game, but the blunder went something like this:

When I returned for the next round I was told that I was no longer allowed to watch the games. Why? Because when I made that convulsed look, most of the women thought I was making that face at their game. Insulted, they insisted I be banned.

I think I’m the only person to ever be banned from such an event.



Grandmaster Arthur Dake (1910–2000) was a remarkable man. A merchant seaman who traveled to various Asian nations (Japan, China, etc.) at the young age of 16, Dake played first chess tournament at age 20 (the New York State Championship). He came in third, which was quite an amazing result. He followed this up by winning the Marshall Chess Club championship (1931), and then he did even better by tying for first in Antwerp 1931 with Akiba Rubinstein and Frederick Yates. Incredibly, by 1931 (age 21) he was viewed as one of America’s finest players!

To make it clear how strong this man was, he played in the sixth Chess Olympiad (his fellow team members were Frank Marshall, Reuben Fine, Al Horowitz, and Abraham Kupchik) and scored a mind-blowing 13 wins, zero losses, and five draws!

As good as those results where, I would guess his chess highlight would be his victory over the world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine:

When I was paired with him at the 1987 U.S. Open, I was facing a 77-year-old man. Though I was very happy to play a legend, I also understood that his glory days were decades behind him. In other words, I thought I would easily win. (Thanks to the database, I now see that he was still beating and drawing 2300 and 2400 players in the 70s and 80s. Impressive!).

Dake via the Oregon Encyclopedia.

A few minutes before the game started a couple of well-known chess politicians approached me. The conversation went like this:

Politician: “Jeremy, we would like you to draw your game against Dake.”

Me: “I’m glad you would like that, but it’s not going to happen. I’m sure Dake also wants to do battle.”

Politician: “Mr. Dake doesn’t know about this. It’s between us.”

Me: “It’s between you. I have no interest in this nonsense. Now let me play my game.” 

I walked away.

After the first 20 moves went by I took a little stroll while Dake was thinking. The two idiots approached me again.

Politician: “You’re trying to beat him! Don’t do that! Offer a draw.”

Me: “Yes, I am trying to beat him, but he’s also trying to beat me. In fact, he’s playing well. He doesn’t need your help.”

The two politicians watched the whole game closely. When the game became boring and a draw was agreed, Dake and I chatted a bit about the opening and middlegame, and that was that. He was a gentleman throughout. I have to admit that I’m delighted that I don’t have to listen to the self-serving gibberish of chess politicians anymore, which includes the unsavory people running FIDE.


Grandmaster George Koltanowski (1903–2000) is known to many chess fans as a strong player who did battle with Colle, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Grunfeld, Euwe, Spielmann, Yates, Tartakower, Maroczy, Alekhine, Fine, Keres, Menchik, Vidmar, Flohr, Sultan Khan, Kashdan, Saemisch, and many more legendary names.

However, his real claim to fame was his incredible skill at blindfold chess. Vying for the top “blindfold guru” title against Reti and Alekhine, he surpassed them in 1937 by playing 34 games simultaneously without seeing any of the boards. 

His other record was playing 56 consecutive blindfold games with only 10 seconds a move! His score of 50 wins and six draws is simply amazing.

Koltanowski via Wikipedia. 

I met Koltanowski in 1975 when he called me and asked if I could come to his condo (we both lived in San Francisco). Of course I could! Once there his wife gave me some tea, we chatted a bit, and then he told me why I was invited. It turned out that a big invitational tournament in Mexico City was being held (much of it televised) and Koltanowski was asked to pick one American to represent the U.S. (the other participants were from South America and Cuba).

The USCF wanted him to pick a New Yorker, but (for reasons unknown) Koltanowski decided that I should get the invitation. This was a wonderful thing for a 20-year-old, and I instantly accepted. Months later I boarded a plane and made myself at home in Mexico City’s Olympic Village (for some reasons dozens of soldiers with rifles constantly patrolled the place). 

The next day I felt half dead. The Olympic Village doctor told me I had a 103 temperature.

A real pity! But, the show must go on so off I went to the gorgeous building that housed the event.

I started out well and halfway through (still with a high fever and still in a haze) I was in first place with a 4-1 score. Here’s my game from the first round.

Dictators and presidents and other powerful people were watching this event and insisted that I come to their tournaments (I apparently gave them the impression that I was good, which was clearly not the case!).

And here I made a fatal mistake. My fever vanished and I was 100 percent healthy! From that point on I played like a moron, drawing one game and losing three in the four games that followed. Suddenly all the powerful people viewed me as a leper (the rich and powerful don’t like failure!), and I decided that I was going to win the last game no matter what.

I was Black and the first 16 moves had been seen before in the games of Euwe, Unzicker, Olafsson, Spassky and others.

At this point my opponent offered a draw. I immediately said no. He gave me a look that said, “This guy is an idiot.” 

All the other games finished quickly, leaving us alone on the stage. And I played and played and played, much to my opponent’s consternation. Nevertheless, I had real chances to win but, of course, flubbed it.

Finally I accepted reality and offered a draw. He jumped up and berated me: “Yes, of course! Of course! Last rounds are made for draws! Don’t you know that? They are made for draws! Stupid gringo, stupid gringo!”

After I returned home it took me a full week to get the words “stupid gringo” out of my head.

Though I only ended with an even score, I always felt that I was in Koltanowski’s debt for his kindness in giving me that rare opportunity.



 When Castaneda’s magnificent book, THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN, appeared in 1968 I read it and, as the years went by, I read all the other books in the series (if you enjoy the thought of alternative realities then you’ll love these books). So, what does a mystic like Mr. Castaneda have to do with chess? Not much, but his intervention helped a young man (around 19 years old) and, through that young man, me.

The year was 1976. The adventure started with a visit to the Mechanics Institute (the oldest chess club in the United States) where David (I don’t remember his name so I’ll use David) approached me, introduced himself, and said that he’d heard about my upcoming drive from San Francisco to Toronto where I’d play in the Canadian Open. He asked if he could go along, and though he didn’t have any money, he had a millionaire uncle that had a penthouse suite in Toronto and I would be welcome to stay there since the uncle would be in Europe for a couple months.

Warning bells went off! “No money?” “A millionaire uncle?” “I could stay in the millionaire’s luxurious pad if I drove him?”

I was waiting for him to offer me a great deal for a bridge.

My first inclination was to say no. Instead I asked him where he came from and he told me the following (much shortened) story:

“I just came from Oregon. I was trapped in an insane asylum and managed to escape. It was late at night and very dark, and after running as far and fast as I could, I found myself standing next to a highway. I tried to get a lift, but nobody stopped until one guy pulled over and said, ‘I’m heading for Portland. If that’s okay then hop in.’

“I jumped at the chance and was blown away when I realized that the driver was Carlos Castaneda! He told me he was going to lecture there and we hit it off pretty well.”

Castaneda via Wikipedia. 

I once again added up the impossibility of it all: No money, a millionaire uncle’s penthouse suite in exchange for a long ride, an asylum (he never told me why he was in there…I made a quick glance to make sure he wasn’t carrying a long knife), and finally salvation by Carlos Castaneda. He wanted me to be the next brick in his imaginary castle.

Then I realized that my life had been even more improbable, and if I was to be David’s next brick in his reality that why the hell not? I said yes and, a couple weeks later he appeared at the agreed upon spot and off we went (two other chess players also came along for the ride), my old jalopy wheezing every inch of the way.

It was an eventful drive, including a breakdown on the Detroit freeway during rush hour (if you’ve ever broken down in Detroit you’ll understand how horrifying it was). But the most interesting moment occurred when we were on top of the Rocky Mountains. I was completely burned out and my companions insisted I stop driving. I gave the keys to one of the guys, crawled into the backseat, and just as the new driver started the car I got a flash of impending doom! I leapt up and screamed, “Stop the car! If we drive down there we’ll die!”

They told me that I was delirious and I had to shut up, but I wasn’t going to be denied. I insisted that our lives were on the line and, finally, they agreed to open the hood and show me that all was well. But, all wasn’t well. The cap to the brake fluid was off and there wasn’t a drop of brake fluid left.

We wouldn’t have survived a drive down the extremely steep mountain road.

We finally reached Toronto and David led us to his uncle’s place. I expected him to rush off or admit that he made everything up, but instead we pulled up to a magnificent, very upper-crust multi-story apartment building. We followed David to the entrance, rang the bell, and the doorman came out and said (looking at David with fondness), “Ah, it’s absolutely wonderful to see you again, sir.”

Moments later we were all in the penthouse suite -- more than enough rooms for four people, pure luxury, views of the city. Everything David promised turned into reality.

You might be asking, “Where’s the chess?”

Well, on the day before the final round I went to check out my car, which was in the building’s garage. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that someone had stolen my car battery. At this point I was pretty much broke and intended to make my way to Chicago where I’d stay with Dennis Waterman (who was, during this period, a bigwig in the Chicago commodities market).

But I didn’t have enough money to buy a new battery (I barely had enough cash to pay for gas). One of the guys who drove with us and was staying in the penthouse suite was a well-known grandmaster. Seeing my predicament, he said, “I need a draw in the last round to win a good deal of money. You’re well known as an opening theoretician, so if you can give me some new analysis I’ll pay for the battery."

And so everything worked out. The grandmaster was successful, I had a brand-new car battery, David was safe and sound in pure luxury, and I managed (on fumes) to wend my way to Chicago. Carlos Castaneda died in 1998, but I often thank him (in my mind) for saving the mysterious David and turning a very long drive into something much, much more.

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