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Craig Van Tilbury was a master of two minds, for chess and music

TAMPA — Craig Van Tilbury was a man of two minds, one for chess and one for music. The guitarist and chess teacher went further in both fields than most devotees go in either.

A professional guitar player, over a 30-year career he backed up numerous well-known musicians and groups, including Steve Winwood, Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, the Coasters, the Shirelles and Gary U.S. Bonds. He also had regular gigs at Skipper's Smokehouse for WMNF radio benefits.

Off the stage, he tried to instill in children a love for chess, a game that captivated him. He was an internationally rated master chess player who competed in 16 countries. He taught chess at Tampa Bay area private schools and also gave lessons to homeschooled children.

Mr. Van Tilbury died Friday of a heart attack, his family said. He was 53.

"Craig was a consummate professional," said Skipper's owner Tom White. "He was that connective tissue between the band and the audience. If there were any problems on stage, he knew how to fix anything, and he knew how to play anything — the '50s, the '60s. Punk, blues, rock."

He was just as devoted to chess.

He filled three bookcases with chess books, such as a 334-page volume devoted solely to the king's Indian defense, a common chess opening.

"One of the real big connections between chess and music is accuracy and attention to detail," said David Goodman, an international chess master and colleague of Mr. Van Tilbury's. "You've got to be technically very accurate. You've got to make the exact right moves all the time in chess, not almost. And in music, of course, you've got to hit the right note, or everybody sees."

A screaming orange blazer hangs on a chair beside one of the bookcases, representing Mr. Van Tilbury's onstage persona. "He would wear these horrendous clothes," said Anne Waddey, his romantic partner and lead singer of the Freight Train Annie Band. "Shorts with white socks. Not well put-together, but splashy."

Sometimes he played in a double-breasted purple suit.

They met eight years ago at the Green Iguana. Waddey, a former professional dancer, understood him even as she recoiled from his attire or his indifference to decorum. He was known to eat pizza on the set, and once clipped his toenails from the edge of the stage.

"Some people are either left-brain or right-brain," said Waddey. "He was both."

"He was unusual in that he was the only person who made half his living in chess and half his living playing lead guitar in rock bands," Goodman said. "There is a crossover, sort of an abstract kind of truth. You're trying to win but it's also creative."

A Washington, D.C., native, Mr. Van Tilbury grew up playing chess with his sister. He liked rockers like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and learned their licks.

When his buddies went to college, Mr. Van Tilbury pursued his dream of establishing residency in the U.S. Virgin Islands and playing chess. For years, he lived in St. Croix and was the Virgin Islands' top player.

The United States Chess Federation ranked him a FIDE master, which is below grandmaster and international master but above senior master. He played in 10 Chess Olympiads, winning a gold medal in 1984 in Greece for the highest individual score.

In the 1980s, he formed the band Greenflash in St. Croix and met Steve Winwood, a Clapton contemporary. In the late 1980s, he toured with Joey Dee and the Starliters, who were still going strong nearly 30 years after their hit, Peppermint Twist.

A resident of Tampa since 1992, Mr. Van Tilbury was admired by the musicians who heard him play and knew his pedigree.

"He was extremely refined, he was a professional guitar player. He had a great feel and intuition to his lead guitar playing, in particular," said Shawn Kyle of the Beauvilles, an alternative rock group.

Mr. Van Tilbury's heart had given him trouble recently, resulting in an operation to insert stents. He echoed a Billy Joel song, telling friends, "I had a heart a-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-tack."

He died at home, in his bed.

Musicians and young chess students spilled outside of Florida Mortuary on Monday, where Mr. Van Tilbury lay in his purple suit.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Craig Leo

Van Tilbury

Born: July 30, 1957.

Died: Aug. 13, 2010.

Survivors: Partner Anne Waddey; daughter Annabelle; mother Constance Van Tilbury; sister Julie Orr and her husband Richard; brother Eric Van Tilbury; and four nieces.

Craig Van Tilbury was a master of two minds, for chess and music 08/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 9:40pm]
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