The Chess Player

A few weeks ago my dad sent me a mysterious text message…

It made me curious. We are so close to our family, that we don’t always take the time to ask about what our parents’ worlds were like before us. And we assume we know what they were like when we were children, because we were there. But there’s so much we don’t know. We aren’t always together nor do we have access to all of anyone. I wanted to learn more not just about this one, strange story, but about his whole strange childhood, and how it led to his whole interesting career. There’s too much for one post. So here’s the chess part.

Dad: My father, your grandfather went to Boys High school in Brooklyn but never graduated. But despite the fact that he didn’t have a high school degree much less a college degree, he was really smart. That’s where all the actual IQ power in our family comes from. My mom had a lot of good practical common sense, and she was smart, but not brilliant. My father was brilliant. Think of a person who doesn’t finish high school and yet is an aficionado of classical music and plays chess. Those were his hobbies.

He was very wealthy by the time he was in his 30s. He owned a string of garment factories. But he went bankrupt in the Great Depression. That’s how I learned that if you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it. After that, my parents didn’t have a credit card until 1962.  They went from living in Harlem, in a beautiful brownstone with servants, to living with his mother-in-law in a tiny apartment in the Bronx. It was a long way down.

He re-invented himself. He scraped some money together and started buying stationary stores. The first one I remember was in Princeton. I was born in ’48, in Brooklyn, and shortly thereafter they bought a store in Princeton, New Jersey. I spent my babyhood on the campus of Princeton University. And later they sold that store and they opened a new store in Mount Vernon, NY. After he sold the store in Mount Vernon, he took some time off and the family moved to Florida where we lived on Collins Avenue. Then, after a year, we came back north, to a place in Monroe, New York, a bungalow colony where there was a little mud-hole I remember playing in. It was owned by a fellow named Mr. Guttman. I remember he used to mow the grass and I loved the smell of the lawn mower and the freshly cut grass. It was an old rotating lawn mower, it wasn’t a power mower, I don’t think. Then, we moved from Monroe. He bought a store in Farmingdale and moved to Farmingdale say 1953, ’52, ’53. Somewhere in there. Then from that point on I had a normal childhood for a few years. I went to kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade. They had a store on Main Street, in Farmingdale. I actually had friends, I played in the little league, I was in the Cub Scouts. 

My best friend was a kid named Eddy. He was the only black kid in the school. I still remember a conversation with his mother, who was trying to get him into the cub scouts, and was asking me how to go about it, because they wouldn’t let black kids into the cub scouts. Think of how awful that is. I still remember having this conversation with her. It was heart wrenching.

I never knew much about my dad’s chess playing until we moved to California.

My father came home one day. It was December of ’56 and said, “What would you think if we moved to California?” And I said, “Let me think about it.” And he said, “Think quick, because we’re moving next week.” So he had just bought a ’56 Oldsmobile. We had had a 1952 … I think it was a ’52, maybe it was a ’48 DeSoto. We had had a DeSoto. He traded that in and bought a Super 88 Oldsmobile with fins. It was a big car. And we packed up a lot of our stuff, and the rest of the furniture and stuff went into storage, and off we drove to California. We drove the southern route through Texas and through Mississippi and through the Appalachian mountains where the roads were so curvy, we all were throwing up. We went through Tennessee and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas. Finally, we got to California.

The California schools were awful. Terrible. They gave me a social promotion, so even though I was only half done with the third grade when we got there in January of ’57, they put me in the fourth grade.  The first day of school there was a quiz, and the highest score won a grapefruit. The quiz was on the history of the Coachella Valley. I won the grapefruit. Which, doesn’t say much for the other students, since I had never heard of the Coachella Valley until that day. I knew how to guess.

They had to buy math books for me because everybody else was so far behind in math there. It may have been just those schools that I attended in Palms, which was not an upper class neighborhood.

We knew nobody in California, but my dad had this little piece of paper, with the name of a second cousin, and the name of a friend of a friend.

We looked up both of those families. We ended up becoming friendly. I can’t remember their names. One family lived in San Fernando Valley. My father wanted to play chess with somebody. And they had two children, one was slightly younger than me, and one was slightly older. He was playing chess with the older of the two children. I got a little jealous since I had no friends, so I asked my father to teach me how to play chess, and he did. Within a couple of months I was better than he was. He was decent. I was good. 

Michelle: He had to be better than a decent chess player, because the famous story in our family is about who he played chess with in Princeton.

Dad: Well, he played with Albert Einstein. That’s what I was told. My niece Joyce tells me that’s inaccurate, but that’s what I was told.

Michelle: We grew up with that as kind of a childhood legend.

Dad:Yeah. But we don’t know how good a chess player Einstein was. Just because he was a brilliant man doesn’t mean he’s a good chess player. There’s no correlation. Right? I can tell you first hand that my father was decent but not great. Because within three months I was beating him.

So, in California I took up chess. He used that as a vehicle to teach me how to deal with adults. We got an apartment in Greenbush Avenue and I went to Rancho Park Elementary School which was right near this other family, and I learned how to play chess. We would go to the beach, and at Muscle Beach they used to have chess tables on the beach. They do again now. I perfected my game on the beach, and as a member of the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club, where my father and I were both members.

It’s 1958, I’m 10 years old. Getting an adult to play with a 10 year old is not easy. He said, “You have to walk up to somebody and say “sir, would you like to play a game?” He told me a lot of adults won’t play with a child because they’ll either think you’re an idiot and don’t really know how to play very well, or they don’t want to lose to a child. Either way, they won’t want to play with you. But if you’re polite, some people will play.

I got to be known on the beach as a good chess player. There were some really superb chess players that used to come to the beach and play on weekends especially. And they took an interest in me. They would play with me and teach me. My father also enrolled me in chess tournaments at the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club; there, people would have to play with me. I remember that on one occasion Imrie Konig, who was an international master, which is one step below the top ranking, was playing. Grand master is the highest it gets. Bobby Fisher, Boris Spasky, all the world champions are grand masters. This fellow Konig played  a simultaneous exhibition at the chess club. I still remember it, he was walking around, playing lots of games at once. He comes to my table. I had set a trap for him. He looks at me; he figures I’m 10 or 11 years old. He’ll grab an advantage, right? And when he did, I trapped his bishop and I went ahead. Now, it started to get late, near 8:00 or so. My father comes over and says, “We’ve got to leave in about 15 minutes because you’ve got school tomorrow.” So we play another 15 minutes, then, when he comes over again, my father says, “I’m sorry Mr. Konig, my son has to leave.” And he says, “Oh that’s too bad. He’s well ahead of me.” And then, he turned to me and said, “In that case, would you accept a draw?” And I said, “Yes sir.” And he said, “Okay, it’s draw.” He was an elegant gentleman.

He only gave up three draws that night; he beat everybody else. My name was in the Los Angeles Times in a summary of his exhibition. They listed the people that he had a draw with. That was nice. I also had the privilege of representing the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club in the California Junior Chess Championship of 1959 at the age of 11. That tournament went all the way up to 18. Or maybe it was 16. Either way, I was the youngest there. It was in Lancaster, California. It was a multi-day tournament, and people slept in a … I think it was a high school gym and they had a barracks set up with cots and everything. My parents drove me out and left me there.

Michelle: They just left you there with all the big kids?

Dad: I enjoyed it, it was great. I had a lot of fun. Yeah, for a couple of days, then they came and picked me up. I played against the California high school champion. And I got a draw with him. I have a trophy that I can take a picture of for you. I don’t know if you’ve seen it; It says California Junior Chess Championship, CJCC, 1959. And it’s in the form of a large knight made out of porcelain.

Michelle: Did you win a lot of these tournaments? Did you get to be a grand master or anything like that?

Dad: No, no. I was rated. There’s ratings. I had a rating that was just below expert, which is below master, which is below grand master.

(Class A is the level below Expert).

One of the players at the Santa Monica Bay Club was a med student at UCLA named Gordon Palmer. He was a fabulous chess player. Both rapid transit, meaning seven minute games, and regular. In rapid transit it’s about whoever’s ahead, it doesn’t matter if you run out of time- you lose. So you’ve got to move those pieces really quickly because you only have a seven minute allotment of time. We would play a lot of games that way. He took an interest in me. 

There was another even better player named Ray Martin who used to come down there. He was the California chess champion. And he wanted to become my coach. He wanted me to become a professional chess player. My father vetoed that. These guys, you know, they would play with each other but occasionally they’d play with me and I’d watch them and I’d learn from watching, and I bought chess books. I still have those books. I would play through these games to get better.

(Aside) It’s Michelle, I’m talking to her. I’m being interviewed for her blog.

Michelle: Hi Mom.

Dad: When we came east, for my sister’s wedding, in 1959, we spent a week in New York. My father took me to the Manhattan Chess Club and to the Marshall Chess Club. At the Manhattan Chess Club, we came in the afternoon about 2:30 and the secretary of the club was just coming in. We were guests and my father said, “We’re from California; we’re members of the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club,” which was the third best club in the country after the Manhattan which I think was the first, and the Marshall which was second. And he said to my father, “Sure, you’re welcome to come in. Would you like to play?” And my father said, “Well, if you’d like a better match, play with my son.” So he said okay.

We were playing, and more people started coming in.  After about 45 minutes, I was way ahead. This was November, so it got dark pretty early, but people were standing around watching as I beat him. One person came over to my father. His name was Abe Turner. He said he was producing a Broadway play and they needed somebody to play Bobby Fisher and he wanted me to play that role. And my father vetoed that. Said he had no interest, he’s going to become a normal child, he’s not going to be a chess player or an actor.

Abe Turner was a very well known chess master. He worked for Al Horowitz, the founder of Chess Magazine and the New York Times’ long time chess columnist. Abe was one of the few players who had a winning record against Bobby Fisher. He was found murdered in the basement of the building where the Chess offices were. Another clerk admitted to the killing, saying that “the secret service made me do it.” It was one of those horrible unfortunate things.

Michelle: Your dad didn’t want you to become a pro chess player? 

Dad:No, no. He had no interest in that for me. He wanted me to graduate high school and go to Princeton. He was disappointed when I didn’t get accepted at Princeton. Because he saved up the money to send me there. Instead, when I was 21 they used some of that money to buy me a car, which was nice. 1968, Mercury Cougar.

Michelle: Ultimately not going to Princeton didn’t hurt you … you were pretty successful despite not going to there. 

Dad: Well, my father worked very hard. He used to get up at 5:30 every morning to go to the store in Yorktown- that’s where we ended up when we came back from California. I played in the local Yorktown chess club tournament. I have a trophy from that. My father did too. It wasn’t like big city, the players were not as good. But my father had a number of friends we played chess with there.

By the way, he had a newspaper boy that used to come in Saturday and Sunday. You know how the Times used to have 15 sections to it? Imagine back then, when there was the Times, the News, the Herald Tribune, the Journal American, the Post. They came in in different sections, and they had to be collated by hand. We had a paper boy, but they weren’t always so reliable. The phone would ring at the house at 5:00 AM on Saturday, and it would be my dad. “Get down here, the paper boy didn’t come in.” I was the stand-in paper boy.

Fair is fair. I got paid. That’s a tough job. You had a hand truck. You’d take the bundles that were outside, stacked all over the place. You’d have to take them into the back room and organize the stacks, because there were different newspapers. And I’d have to start with 25 copies of each newspaper to sell. Then you’d go do the Times. Woe is me if I messed up. Some of these sections were thin. So you’d stack them up with the section and you’d have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and they’d go all into the News section of the Times. But sometimes I’d put two magazines in one by accident, and I wouldn’t know that until the end when I’d have one too few. It was a brutal job, and sometimes I wouldn’t get done until 11:00.

The stores were a very very very hard business, seven days a week. He believed that if he closed the store he’d lose all his customers to the competition. He was always open; he rarely took a vacation. Sometimes my father would take a vacation for a week and my mother would take a separate week, so they could keep the store open. It was a difficult life.

Dad: We moved back east, around 1961, to Queens. My father took that year off. Then, he bought the store in Yorktown, New York. They were anti-Semitic up there and they said had too many kids in the top tracks, even though in Flushing my mother had gotten me into the gifted track. And I’ve already done the seventh grade, and I’m in the eighth grade there. I was doing stuff that I did back in the California schools.

I cut class, I nodded off, I was bored stiff, I didn’t want to do anything. My grades were bad. That continued into the first semester of high school. That’s when my father had to talk with me. He told me, “you’re not as smart as your sister. She didn’t have to work. You obviously do. And I’ve seen what you can do in shop. If you have to work with your hands, you’ll end up in jail. So you better straighten yourself out, because you’re headed nowhere good.” I was really pissed off at that for about four or five hours, until I reflected , and I said the old man’s right. I better get my ass in gear here.

Michelle: Do you think maybe that there was a little bit of hyperbole there? Because your sister is very brilliant, but I think that maybe you guys are more in sync than-

Dad: No, he was right. What he was telling me was if I don’t study I’m not going to get anywhere. And Marilyn can learn anything. She can teach herself to play an instrument, she can spend 15 minutes learning how to teach herself to draw. You know, she’s got a really high IQ, and she’s a member of Mensa. I may be smart enough, but there’s a difference between raw candle power and what it takes to absorb information and analyze information. I could do well, but not without some elbow grease. That’s what my father was saying… in kind of a nasty way.

Once I realized that he was right, I got it together. In 10th grade a fortuity happened. I was taking Latin and so were a lot of the kids in the gifted track. Because of the way the scheduling worked out, because of Latin, I ended up in English and history and science with them. That along with my father’s lecture and meeting my friend Ed- I pulled it together. Ed’s father was a TV executive, they lived out in the wealthy section of Yorktown on Hunter Brook Road. They had a four acre lake on their property. It was a beautiful house. Very modern, with a sunken living room. The kids lived in the guest house on the property.

I essentially gave chess up when I was 14, 15. The thing that really attracted me was playing with people who are really experts and masters. Those people didn’t exist in Yorktown. There was some players as good as I was, but there was nobody that was better. There was nowhere to go. And, I had other interests like baseball. I won Yorktown championship, as did my father. There was nothing really left to do, so I stopped playing. I don’t play regularly. I did have one of the games of my tournament published in the New York Times, with an article on there are good chess players in places other than New York City. Al Horowitz, the editor, said I got my attack right, which was speculative. He said, in essence, that I tried a very speculative attack that worked, and that if my opponent had been better, it wouldn’t have. Or, alternatively, if he my opponent did figure it out, that it wouldn’t have cost me that much and I still could have won. If he went for it, I would definitely win. And he did, he went for it and I beat him.

I ended up graduating high school the number one boy in the grade. I was fourth or fifth in the class in terms of grades, but the highest male average. Given my first year grades, which got better the second semester after I got the lecture, but I did very well in high school. I was a member of the National Honors Society. I applied to Princeton, U of P, and Wesleyan. I was a lock for Wesleyan until the interview, which I blew completely. And I like to think I was getting sick, because I drove to visit and I got pneumonia while I was there. There was a Yorktown football star who I knew, who was a freshman there. He was designated to be my guide while I was up there.

He took me around and we went into the swimming pool in the gym and it was magnificent. When we came out I got chilled. By the time I got home I had a 102 fever.

I blew the interview, because I had had an article about my chess playing in Yorktown. I was on the cover of the local paper when I won the tournament there. I talked about Max the dog and they had a picture of me on the front page. He asked about chess and I told him I was actually a better rapid player than I was a slow player. I was talking about chess clocks. And he asked me to explain it to him. I’ve replayed this a thousand times. All I had to do was say, “Hey, you get seven minutes allotted. You make a move, you hit the clock, it stops. The other side, his clock runs and when he finishes he hits the button and your clock starts and his stops. At the end there’s an alarm. And if the alarm rings, you lose regardless of the position.”

But I tried to explain there’s no alarm on a chess clock, it raises a flag. I couldn’t begin to explain it to you, because I couldn’t explain it to him. But if I just said there’s an alarm that goes off, that would have sufficed and I probably would have gotten in. But I couldn’t explain the flag.

Michelle: Also by the way, do you think that maybe in the ’60s there were quotas of how many Jewish kids they took at those schools?

Dad:Yeah. I’m painfully aware. I’ll tell you about my Princeton interview if I’ve never told you about it. I got an interview, and it was an alumni from Bedford, he was a doctor. And I drove to his house. I still remember, he was very courteous because he helped me off with my coat, and he helped me back on with it. But we talked for about a half an our, 40 minutes, it was a very pleasant conversation. He said, “Do you have any questions?” I said, “I have one question.” He said, “Shoot.” And I said, “What are my chances?” And he said, “Let me answer this way. My son is also a senior in high school, and I’m an active alumni.” He was president one year and everything and he’s a big contributor. He said, “My son was rejected today.” I said, “Thank you for your candor.” I knew he was telling me you have no chance.

I said, “Thank you, I appreciate that.” The problem was my safe schools were Wesleyan and I think Brandeis.I didn’t get in. My real safe school was Harpur College.

Harpur College is part of SUNY Binghamton. It was founded as a public college meant to compete with the private Ivy League Schools after WWII.

Unlike modern times where parents go on these college trips before there’s results, and where do you want to apply, in those days the guidance counselor went over a couple of schools. He told me Harpur College was the poor person’s Princeton. He said it’s a great school, you’ll love it. I applied to it. And you only applied to three or four schools in those days. I got a thick envelope from Harpur. So I went up there with my mother, we took the tour. It seemed like it was a nice place to go. That’s how I ended up in college there and it was great, it was wonderful. Fantastic.

Michelle: And without Harpur, no us.

Dad: Right, exactly. I met your mother when I was a junior serving on office duty. I was a residents hall advisor, which was a great job because you got free room and half your board paid for, plus I was on scholarship there so I paid no tuition. It was a great … it was a absolutely wonderful education. Wonderful education. I took … I started as a math major, and I realized that I couldn’t do it. I just wasn’t smart enough.

I got an A my first semester in calculus. The second semester advanced calculus, I struggled but I got a B+, and my first semester sophomore year, solid geometry. I still have the book somewhere on my bookshelf and it starts with an equation that goes on for four pages. With some tutoring I got a C. But I could tell that my roommate who had 800 on the SATs and who absorbed this information without going to class half the time, I realized that if you’re born with the math gene, it’s all easy. If you don’t have the math gene, there’s no amount of work that can fix it, nothing can substitute for that. So I changed majors, tried accounting, that was too easy and boring. I ended up in political science and that was interesting, and I took some good courses. And I took some symbolic logic courses and rhetoric courses and business law courses, and it was all great, and I learned so much in college about how to think and how to reason. Just great.

I applied it in law school and the rest is history. I graduated second in my class in law school. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the world’s greatest law school, I was able to finagle a job at a good firm.

Michelle: Well, wasn’t it a small firm when you started there?

Dad: Skadden was a small to medium sized firm at the time. There were about 62 lawyers. 100 was the break between large firms and the rest. There were only about 12 or 14 partners when I joined. It was a relatively small firm, and nobody had heard of it. Skadden who? But it was a very exciting place.

Chess is a game of strategy where you have to look down the board, and the more moves that you can see that are dictated, that are forced in other words, you have to be able to look down the board and say if I go here, what are his best moves? He can go there, and what do I do next? And what does he do if I do that? If you can see seven moves down the board, you’re probably a master. If you can see nine moves, you’re a grand master.

That’s really good training for thinking and for the law.

Michelle: Are you ever sad that you didn’t get to star in the Bobby Fisher Broadway show?

Dad: Nope. Never shed a tear that I didn’t become a professional chess player.

My dad went on to litigate some very well known corporate cases. If you remember Ross Perot and his chicken graphs, that was thanks to my dad, who represented Tyson Chicken in their take over of Holly Farms, which brought lots of jobs to Arkansas, allowing the governor there to brag about his job making skills. He also spent a good deal of time litigating against a New York Real Estate guy named Donald Trump. More on that at a later date.