Inside Story: A Pleasant Diversion (Player Profile: Neil McKelvie)

Editor's note: This story first appeared in the December 2023 issue of Chess Life Magazine. Consider becoming a US Chess member for more content like this — access to digital editions of both Chess Life and Chess Life Kids is a member benefit, and you can receive print editions of both magazines for a small add-on fee.


That’s how Neil McKelvie sums up his 80-plus years of playing chess. 

Born in England in 1930, McKelvie learned the game from his father when he was four years old. In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he escaped “The Blitz” by moving with his mother from London to New Jersey. He learned more about the game from a teacher at his private school there. After the war, McKelvie returned to England to continue his studies at Cambridge, earning his B.A. and M.A. It was during those years that McKelvie had the rare honor of taking first board for Cambridge in its annual match against Oxford.



McKelvie returned to the United States in 1954 to earn his doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University. He did post-doctoral work in analytical chemistry at Yale, got married, settled in New York City, and became a member of the Manhattan Chess Club.


Image Caption
The competitors at the British Universities Individual Championships, 1951. McKelvie is sixth from the left, second row.


In those early years in New York, McKelvie had occasion to play John Collins, a regular at the rival Marshall Club, who was making a rare appearance in an event at the Manhattan club. Collins, as always, was there with his sister Ethel, and the two were known to all, since Collins had worked with the likes of the Byrne brothers, William Lombardy, and, of course, Bobby Fischer.



McKelvie found that he greatly enjoyed playing at the Manhattan. The club was full of businessmen who took the game seriously, but who also had professional lives. For them, chess was nothing more than a pleasant distraction. McKelvie played there throughout the 1960s, drawing the attention of Chess Review readers with his win over GM Pal Benko.  


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McKelvie, 1967 in Chess Life magazine


By the 1970s, McKelvie was in his 40s and still doing quite well at his “fun distraction.” In 1971, two prominent blitz tournaments took place: one was at the Manhattan to celebrate Fischer’s run to the world championship, and the other was at the Marshall. In the Manhattan event, Fischer annihilated the best players in New York, scoring 21½/22 (only Walter Shipman drew him), and Andy Soltis edged out Robert Byrne for second place.  

The Marshall event lacked Fischer but included Samuel Reshevsky. The tournament began with two groups: McKelvie won one and Robert Byrne won the other. In the final round-robin, both men, along with Reshevsky, Arthur Bisguier, and Donald Byrne, were among the remaining participants. After losing to Bisguier and both Byrne brothers in the first three rounds, McKelvie thought his luck had run out. In the fourth, he met Reshevsky.



Ultimately Bisguier, a friend of McKelvie’s and the 1954 U. S. Champion, won the event.        


45th AVRO
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Celebrating the 45th anniversary of the AVRO at the Manhattan Chess Club, L to R: Alburt, Bisguier, Reshevsky, Botvinnik, McKelvie, Grayson (seated), and Pandolfini.


The 1970s proved to be a great decade for the Manhattan club and McKelvie, who won the club championship twice, in 1975 and 1979 (with Jorge Massana). 

He also had the occasion to witness an unusual event. Here we quote McKelvie:

“He [Bobby Fischer] had been in California doing whatever for some time, and suddenly walked into the Manhattan Chess Club. It was nearly empty, and I was about to go home, but we sat down together in a side room. I said that he could have been successful in many other occupations. He sprang to his feet with his back to me and gave a speech to an invisible audience about how he could have been great at so many things! I realized that he was quite deranged, but eventually he sat down and saw me. 

I said that he certainly had superb intellect, but now in his early 30s it was a bit late to put in years of training, which for many started in childhood, like him in chess. I suggested computer programming, and I was sure Apple Computer for one would be interested in him.

I suggested a computer for rapid chess that would have a 10 second pause before a loss on time. I then left to go home. Years later, Fischer patented such a clock!” 

As the Fischer boom died out, McKelvie continued to play at the Manhattan, though not with as much success as before. Still, the game provided much fun, and was a pleasant diversion for many years.

In the 1990s, McKelvie’s first wife became sick, and he would eventually leave the club to spend more time with her before her passing. Today he lives comfortably in Mt. Vernon, New York. While he has largely retired from chess, he still looks at various puzzles and stories. 


Image Caption
GM Lev Alburt lectures at the Manhattan Chess Club year unknown. McKelvie is standing, second from left. (courtesy Special Collections department, Cleveland Public Library, and Edward Winter)


He also continues with his other great passion — the piano. McKelvie is an accomplished amateur pianist, having taken lessons with a number of leading teachers in his nearly 70 years of playing, and he has earned multiple special prizes in competitions.

McKelvie enjoys entertaining others with his wit and stories, and would welcome visits from any chess players who find themselves in his neck of the woods. Contact Joshua Anderson at if you would like to connect with McKelvie.

For more, check out McKelvie’s self-penned “My Best Move” in our March 2020 issue.



How to describe Neil McKelvie’s playing style? Let’s quote two experts:

“Chemist McKelvie is naturally a master of analysis and accordingly prefers carefully concocted hot variations.” (IM Hans Kmoch, Chess Review, August 1967)

“McKelvie’s chess style is best described as optimistcally enterprising. His sharp, aggressive play leaves little room for compromise.” (GM William Lombardy, Chess Life & Review, December 1975)

After reviewing nearly 80 of McKelvie’s games, spanning almost 40 years of play, my only disagreement with these two masters is that they might have understated the case.

While capable of subtle positional struggle, McKelvie clearly relished the to-and-fro of tactical battle. Here are some of his most interesting games that were published in Chess Life. Additional games are available here.