FIDE International Master Danny Kopec, born February 28, 1954, was a computer science professor at Brooklyn College, chess teacher and author of eight books. He passed away at his home in Merrick, New York, on June 12, the result of pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife, Sylvia; his son, David; his stepson, Oliver; and his sister Patinka Kopec-Selman. His late mother, Magdalena Kopec, died in 2009. She was an accomplished artist who created oil paintings and inspirational water colors, frequently displayed at Danny’s popular chess camps. Kopec’s father was a pharmacist who grew up in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, later escaped to Israel and moved his family to Kew Gardens, NY, when Danny was a toddler.
Danny enjoyed going to tennis matches and baseball games with his father, but he learned chess from his cousin, Joe Donath, an expert level player from Florida. He became Greater NY High School Champion at age 14, and earned his first national master rating at 17. Kopec graduated from Dartmouth College in 1975, where he was a teammate of 1975 US Open co-champion Alan Trefler, and moved to Scotland to pursue his Ph.D. in Machine Intelligence at University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He was two time Scottish Champion, winning in 1980 & 1981. In 1982, Kopec and Dr. Ivan Bratko designed the Bratko-Kopec test to assist in evaluating human and machine chess ability based on the presence or absence of certain knowledge. This test, with some modifications, was a reliable standard for more than two decades in computer chess circles, and is still of value in assessing overall playing strength and identifying specific tactical, positional and pawn structure knowledge deficiencies of human chess players.
After receiving his doctorate in 1983, Kopec lectured at McGill University in Montreal for two years as a visiting professor. While there, he finished tied for second in the Canadian Invitational Championship in 1984 and was invited to compete in the 26th Chess Olympiad at Thessaloniki representing Canada. He declined because, as an American citizen, he did not want to take a spot from a deserving Canadian player. He was awarded the International Master title in 1985.
As a chess player, Kopec was a throwback to the old school of chess etiquette. He always dressed well, usually wearing a sport jacket at the board. “Danny was particular about player behavior,” said his long time friend and business partner, Hal Terrie. “On the last day of each chess camp, he would sit the players down and explain that they should sit quietly at the board with both feet on the floor and treat their opponents and the game of chess with respect.” He was also particular about lighting, the result of suffering detached retinas in both eyes while living in Maine in the late 1980s. His biggest complaint was the timing of rounds for large Swiss tournaments, especially when they overscheduled the normal dinner hours.
After a stint on the faculty of the University of Maine, and the passing of his father in 1990, Danny moved to Ottawa in 1992 to lecture for a year at Carleton University. Following a few other stops along the way, always in academia, he returned to New York and was awarded tenure at Brooklyn College in 2004. His best finish in the US Open chess championship was a second place tie at Fort Lauderdale in 2004, with 7 points out of 9. He finished tied for first in his last rated tournament, finishing undefeated in the 7-round Queens Chess Club Championship this past November. In addition to his writing and production of nine feature length instructional videos, Danny spent his spare time playing tennis and rooting for his beloved New York Yankees.
Danny loved to tell stories, especially about chess and artificial intelligence, so much so that it is not surprising that some of the stories became confounded as they were passed along. His dissertation entitled: Human and Machine Representations of Knowledge, was completed under the guidance of Dr. Donald Michie, a well respected British researcher in artificial intelligence. During World War II, Michie famously worked for the Government Code School at Bletchley Park as a cryptographer, contributing to the effort to solve “Tunny,” a German teleprinter cipher.
No doubt the stories concerning his mentor were confused with his own world travels. There was an unfounded rumor circulating in the 1990s that Danny had worked for the CIA when he was in Europe and Canada. When questioned about it, he just laughed, but kept the mystery alive by quickly changing the subject. “Maybe he is not allowed to discuss it,” some of his students whispered. After his passing, Sylvia was asked about it. “Not as far as I know,” she said. “If so, we should have been expecting a government pension by now!”
Despite his hard charging, get-it-done, approach to his multiple chess projects, Danny possessed a warm and engaging personality and quick wit. He was always nearly willing to analyze games with opponents and students unless, of course, it overlapped with dinner. His energy seemed limitless at times. In 2001, he was invited by Dr. Tim Redman to give a presentation on the Bratko-Kopec test at the First Koltanowski Conference on Chess in Education in Dallas. Danny flew from New York to Atlanta, rented a car, then drove all night – nearly 800 miles – and gave his presentation without sleep. He stayed around to answer question, sat in on some of the other presentations and analyzed a few chess positions with one of his students. Then, after a short nap, he made the same trip in reverse to get home.
His illness drained his energy and stamina during the last months of his life, but Danny maintained his goal oriented approach until the end. “During the past year he would take periodic 30 minute rest breaks,” according to his son, David, “but no more than that. He felt that if he stayed down any longer, he might not get up.” Danny filled every minute right up to the end. He gave his last exam to his students at Brooklyn College and his last chess lesson one week before he died. “He demonstrated to his Brooklyn students what “work ethic” meant. It was a life lesson for them,” David said.
He also completed his final book project earlier this year, a compilation of annotated games of GM Walter Browne, who passed away last June. He had promised his long time friend that he would publish the games and he was determined to keep his promise, no matter how weak he felt. Kopec met Browne at the 1976 Canadian Open in Toronto. “I met Walter in the middle rounds of the tournament,” Danny said in a 2011interview. “I played my system and Browne kept exchanging pieces down until we ended up in a slightly favorable (to him) knight ending. Browne displayed very fine technique and after that we went out to dinner and we’ve been good friends ever since.”
Danny was a long-time proponent of a method of playing the white pieces against the Sicilian Defense known as “The Kopec System” that began with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bd3. The system never became main stream but neither has it been refuted. It is still seen occasionally at the highest levels, most recently in a game between Grandmaster’s Vadim Zvjagisev (FIDE 2641) and Andrey Stukopin (FIDE 2546), won by the player with the White pieces at the 67th Russia Higher League Championship in 2014.
A memorial service for Danny Kopec will be held on Tuesday, June 28th from 7 to 9 PM at The Marshall Chess Club, 23 West 10th Street in Manhattan, where Danny played frequently in his youth. The room holds 50 people, so space will is limited.
Kopec’s Adult Chess Camp, scheduled for July 11-15 in Bennington, VT, will go on as planned out of respect for Danny’s wishes. The Camp will feature Grandmaster Lubomir Ftacnik as the chief instructor. Sylvia and David Kopec will be present to exchange greetings with the attendees. Further information can be found at www.kopecchess.com.
Following are a few of Danny’s favorite games, starting with one of his many victories over Grandmasters.
A version of this article will appear in an upcoming issue of Chess Life Magazine.