A Man of Vision -Dr. Martin Katahn, Founder of the Nashville Chess Center
You see things; and you say: “Why?”
But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”
— George Bernard Shaw
Dr. Martin Katahn is a slender, quick-witted man with bright, youthful eyes that belie his 72 years. Known as “Dick" among friends, Dr. Katahn retired in 1991 as Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He became nationally famous 15 years ago when his book, The Rotation Diet, was a New York Times #1 bestseller. In the 1980s, Dr. Katahn's weight loss plan was known as” the diet that ate Nashville” because it was locally popular to the point of being inescapable. Restaurants created special” Rotation Diet" entrees, and grocery stores promoted various foods as part of it. The smiling face of the "weight loss wizard” was seen on television commercials, restaurant menus, and roadside billboards, as well as every bookstore and magazine stand.
To date he has written 14 bestselling diet manuals. Despite the fact that his books have sold millions of copies, Dr. Katahn is extremely modest about his publications. When pressed to comment on their success, however, he says that his best-selling books have made him "a very wealthy man so that I can giveaway money to things that I think are worth funding." Since his retirement, he says he has become involved in "a number of things, like helping to promote chess for children in our public schools."
Although he learned the rules as a young man, Dr. Katahn's interest in chess blossomed only after his retirement, when he started reading chess books and bought a subscription to ChessLife magazine. At this point Katahn was unaware that there were any organized chess players in Nashville, or that there was a Tennessee Chess Association. During a business trip to New York to see his book publisher, Katahn started taking face-to-face chess lessons from Grandmaster (GM) Lev Alburt, and followed up with telephone lessons after returning to Nashville. He credits Alburt for awakening his appreciation of the game.
"Being as old as I was," Katahn recalls, "I was thinking about the problems I had learning the game, and I realized that it's a wonderful and fun way to teach kids how to think."
The more he learned about chess, the greater Dr. Katahn's enthusiasm for it grew. As a psychologist, he understood how chess is effective in teaching problem-solving skills. As an educator, he observed that playing chess increases academic performance. As a philanthropist, he began to look for ways to bring the benefits of chess to as many children as possible.
Coincidentally, at the same time Dr. Katahn’s interest in chess grew, Tennessee experienced tremendous growth in scholastic chess at all levels. Unprecedented numbers of children from all parts of the state were joining chess clubs and entering scholastic chess tournaments. The Tennessee Scholastic Championship tournament grew so large that the state association adopted regional qualifying events for both individuals and teams. Tennessee's surge in the number of scholastic chess players during this period reflected a similar trend nationwide.
Dr. Katahn and the Tennessee Chess Association might never have crossed paths except by chance. Looking for ways to attract new members, in 1993 TCA President Ed Porter obtained a list of all Chess Life subscribers in Tennessee. Noting that most of them were not TCA members, he decided to mail each of them a copy of the Tennessee Chess News. This turned out to be a very good idea. TCA picked up quite a few new members, including Dr. Katahn.
Katahn's subsequent contact with local and state chess players set in motion a chain reaction that led to the creation of the Nashville Chess Center. During his trips to New York, Katahn sometimes visited the historic Marshall Chess Club and was very impressed with it as a focal point for the New York chess community. If it can work in New York, he asked, why not in Nashville?
Dare to Dream
It takes a special sort of person to turn a dream into reality, but that is exactly what Dr. Katahn did. In the spring and summer of1995, a few chess enthusiasts led by Dr. Katahn envisioned a well furbished, centralized location where children and adults could learn and play chess. The amount of planning and energy required to bring this idea to fruition was enormous. The Nashville Chess Center is a nonprofit corporation, qualified as a Section 501 (c) (3) charitable organization, and is also a "supporting organization" of the Tennessee Chess Association. Volunteers from the Tennessee Chess Association were enlisted to serve on the NCC’s original Board of Directors. More workers were recruited to organize and publicize the unique concept. At great personal expense, Dr. Katahn purchased and refurbished a beautiful three-story building on Belmont Boulevard, in one of Nashville’s most historic neighborhoods, to serve as the chess center’s home. Dr. Katahn also personally took charge of contacting Ukrainian Grandmaster Semion Palatnik, one of Europe’s chess superstars and “Honoured Coach” of the powerful Ukrainian Olympiad team. Bringing GM Palatnik to Tennessee as “Grandmaster in Residence” at the Nashville Chess Center was the crowning touch in Dr. Katahn’s vision.
On September 8, 1995, the Nashville Chess Center opened to the public. Located at 2911 Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, the house was extensively remodeled to provide its members and visitors with optimum conditions in which to learn about and play chess. The Chess Center is furnished with wood playing tables and chairs and is well-lighted with both natural and artificial light. All necessary chess equipment is available at the Chess Center including an ample supply of chess sets, chess boards and chess clocks, large demonstration boards for lessons, a computer system connected to the internet where chess may be played with people all over the world, and a large library of chess books, videos, and computer databases suited for both beginners and advanced players. Free fliers and other information about upcoming chess-related events are also posted for anyone interested.
The Foundation for Tennessee Chess
The first six years of its existence were a period of growth and evolution for the Nashville Chess Center. When Grandmaster Palatnik moved to Memphis in 2000, the Nashville Chess Center expanded its focus. In 2001, the corporation legally changed its name to Foundation for Tennessee Chess. Simultaneously, the Tennessee Chess Association formally adopted the building at 2911 Belmont Boulevard in Nashville as its official residence and permanent home. The corporation retained the name “Nashville Chess Center” for its programs and building in the Nashville area, but expanded its plans to include the entire state.
Founder and Patron
By the summer of 2001, it was clear that Dr. Katahn’s vision for the Nashville Chess Center had come of age. With a large, active membership base, a core of dedicated teachers and workers, increasing school and community partnerships, and a full calendar of tournaments and activities, the Nashville Chess Center was an obvious success!
In July 2001, Dr. Katahn completed the final part of his original plan for the Nashville Chess Center by donating the building and property to the Foundation for Tennessee Chess. Until that time, Dr. Katahn had been paying for the building and allowed the Nashville Chess Center to occupy it rent-free. Before donating the building and property, Dr. Katahn paid off the remaining mortgage. The value of the building and property donated by Dr. Katahn to the Foundation for Tennessee Chess was estimated at the time at $490,000!
Ownership of the Nashville Chess Center building implies very significant responsibilities, however, and in accepting this gift the Foundation for Tennessee Chess obligated itself for expenses well over $20,000 per year to keep the building open. With this in mind, when donating the building Dr. Katahn took further steps to ensure the viability of the Chess Center by starting an Endowment Fund and making an initial donation valued at $200,000. Only the interest from this fund can be used; thus, it provides perpetual income to help offset the cost of maintaining the Chess Center.
When the value of this gift is added to the funding Dr. Katahn has provided to support various programs and activities at the Chess Center since it opened in1995, Dr. Katahn’s monetary gifts to Tennessee Chess total over $1million. No one in the history of Tennessee chess has made a greater impact or done more to help chess!
How You Can Help
You might get the impression from this article that thanks to Dr. Katahn’s generosity, the Foundation for Tennessee Chess does not need your support. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Maintaining the property is expensive, and interest received from the endowment fund cannot pay for everything. Financial support for all Chess Center programs (including the Chess for Children school chess classes) comes from tax-deductible charitable contributions.