Tag Archives: Samuel Reshevsky

Shady Side

Norman Tweed Whitaker, the “hero” of this biography is a Dickensian figure: he was both, full of genius and a devil at the same time. Coming from an educated upper middle class family – his father was a high school principle in Philadelphia – Whitaker (1890-1975) became a patent attorney that held also a degree in German literature; his great talent as a chess player made him a dangerous opponent for any player and earned him the US Master title and in 1965 the title of an International Master (that was before the “title inflation” when this title meant still a lot).

Among the masters he defeated in serious games were the legendary players Frank Marshall, David Janowski and Samuel Reshevsky, for decades America’s strongest player (all of them were contenders for the World Championship title); in simuls he even won against Emanuel Lasker and the young Capablanca. The book contains more than 500 games played by Whitaker, some of them annotated. Whitaker was a dangerous tactician with a good endgame knowledge, but the patience for positional play was something he obviously lacked – a mirror of his personality maybe.

Also as a chess promoter Whitaker did more than probably anybody else in the United States for decades to make the game popular: he gave countless exhibition and simultaneous games, organized tournaments, raised funds, worked as a trainer and founded chess clubs, traveled a big deal in the U.S. and abroad to promote the game, co-authored a chess endgame book  – and quarreled a lot with the U.S. Chess Association and people who prevented him to earn the recognition he thought he deserved. He saw himself frequently as a victim of some conspiracy of vicious people that used the threat to expose very personal information about him in order to discredit him and to sidestep him whenever it was possible for them.

This all may be not particularly interesting outside the very specialized circle of chess players or those interested in chess history. But there is an element in this biography that makes it interesting for a wider audience. Whitaker, the cultivated, well-educated patent attorney from a good family and with the chess interest and talent was also a ruthless con man with a long criminal record.

Whitaker was convicted for crimes such as interstate car theft, insurance fraud, extortion and blackmailing (he claimed to know the whereabouts of the kidnapped and murdered Lindbergh baby and was arrested when he tried to extort money for allegedly returning the baby), selling morphine and other drugs via mail, and finally also child molesting. (This list is not complete.)

Grandmaster Arnold Denker who knew him well said about Whitaker:

“His advanced education, high intelligence, command of foreign languages, expensive wardrobe, plentiful ready cash, skill at chess, and confident personal manner all aided in fooling many unsuspecting victims.”

A criminal “career” that spanned over several decades and that earned him various convictions and many years in the jails of Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Therefore it is not surprising that in this well researched and written biography by chess historian John S. Hilbert not only chess masters, but also the Lindbergh family, J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone (with whom he made friends while serving time in Alcatraz) play a certain role.

What turns a talented, intelligent and rather successful man with a good profession into a criminal? And how did this part of his personality coexist with that of a serious, energetic chess promoter with good contacts in many places? The rather unsettling and surprising answer is: we don’t know. There is no warning sign, no early childhood trauma, no history of being depraved of love and affection by his family that turned Norman T. Whitaker into the ruthless criminal he was. It seems that after the first arrest in 1921 and the following conviction – which was so shocking to his father that he died of a heart attack when he learned about the car theft – Whitaker’s life was like on an inclined plane from which there was no turning back.

An interesting book not only for chess players – thanks to the author’s clever choice of documents and his ability to present us his subject as a person with such contradictory characteristics that they hardly seem to fit into one human being, we get to know a fascinating, weird personality.

„What is it in us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?” (Georg Büchner: Danton’s Death) – that enigma remains still unresolved.

John S. Hilbert: Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master, Caissa Editions, Yorklyn 2000 (ed. Dale Brandreth)

Arnold Denker: Stormin’ Norman, in: ibid, The Bobby Fischer I Knew And Other Stories, p. 262-274, Hypermodern Press 1995

Norman T. Whitaker / Glenn E. Hartleb: 365 Ausgewählte Endspiele: Eines Für Jeden Tag Im Jahr, Selbstverlag, Heidelberg 1960

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

History of the Great Game of Chess

As an avid reader and also chess player, I think it is fairly obvious that I am also a reader (and collector) of chess literature. Although a lot of the chess books I am reading are way too technical to review them here, I will make an exception today. The book I am reviewing is dealing with a certain aspect of the history of chess that might be interesting for a wider audience.

Nansen Arie, the author of История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), is a dilettante – and I mean this expression not in an offensive sense. Arie has so far no record as a chess historian, nor is he a strong player. The author is a cardiologist and a lover of the game of chess since his childhood. Another history of chess I hear a few readers sigh…but this book is different and the subtitle explains us why: the contribution of the Jews to chess (приносът на шахматисти евреи) is the author’s topic.

Since the beginning of modern tournament chess in 1851 and until today, a big percentage of the leading players – including the world champions Steinitz, Lasker, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Fischer (who developed mysteriously into an extreme anti-semite), Khalifman, Kasparov but also leading masters like Zukertort, Tarrasch, Charousek, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Nimzovich, Tartakower, Reti, Flohr, Fine, Reshevsky, Szabo, Lilienthal, Najdorf, Boleslavski, Averbach, Geller, Taimanov, Stein, Korchnoi, Speelman, Gelfand, Judit Polgar, Radjabov and many others were or are Jews or of Jewish origin.

Dr. Arie starts his work with an introduction that gives a short overview and that also mentions anti-semitism in chess: the influential chess writer Franz Gutmayer published a number of popular pamphlets in the early 20th century that denounced the playing style of Jewish players as decadent and “sick” – contrary to the “healthy” (Aryan) attacking style of Gutmayer’s disciples. And the world champion Alexander Alekhine published during WWII a series of articles called “„Jüdisches und arisches Schach” (Jewish and Aryan chess) in which he was attacking players like Lasker (whom he publicly admired on many occasions before) in a way that is not worthy of a chess genius. (After the war Alekhine disputed the authorship of these articles.)

In the first chapter, the author gives an overview regarding the main chess events before the establishment of a regular world championship, highlighting the successes of Jewish players and providing very brief biographical notes on them. The second part covers the World Championship matches, the third the Chess Olympiads. Part four covers chess in the USSR, part five the big international tournaments, part six the matches USSR vs. “Rest of the World”, part seven (somehow inconsistently) the “traditional” chess tournaments (like Hastings). A short chapter on Bulgaria would have been interesting and reasonable (the author is Bulgarian and writes primarily for a Bulgarian audience).

Dr. Arie has written a work with the love and industriousness of the amateur. Who wants to learn about the remarkable success of Jewish chess players has in this work all necessary information.

However, I have to admit that this work left me disappointed for various reasons.

The book contains no games at all. A book that wants to explore the successes of Jewish chess players should at least give some remarkable examples of their play and do some effort to explain, why there was such an explosion of Jewish players from 1850 until today, and what the social, historical or psychological reasons behind this development were. Dr. Arie is making no serious attempt to explain this rise of the Jewish element in chess.

A second big disappointment is the lack of a literature list. The author doesn’t mention any sources although it is obvious that he is heavily indebted to the literature on the history of chess. There is no mentioning of Moritz Steinschneider’s classical study “Schach bei den Juden” (1873), no mentioning of Emanuel Lasker’s writings on philosophy or the Jewish question, no mentioning of the Makkabi chess clubs in many countries. Edward Winter’s article “Chess and Jews” on chesshistory.org is also not mentioned, dito Felix Berkovich’s and Nathan Divinsky’s “Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps“, or Meir and Harold Ribalow’s “The Great Jewish Chess Champions“. There is even no mentioning of the sources of the photos in the book. I don’t know if this is the author’s or the publisher’s fault, but it is a lack of diligence and respect for the intellectual efforts of others when these sources are generally repressed and omitted.

This work is written in Bulgarian, but it makes an effort to re-translate many names or expressions into the latin script. Unfortunately the person who did this (very probably not the author) seems to have been not at all familiar with the history of chess. This results in very frequent and rather annoying mistakes like “The Rating of Chess Player” instead of “The Rating of Chessplayers” (title of Prof. Elo’s famous book), “Café de la Regens” instead of “Café de la Regence” , “Ignatz fon Kolish” instead of “Ignaz von Kolisch”, “Vilhelm Cohn” instead of “Wilhelm Cohn”, “Iohann Loewenthal” instead of “Johann Löwenthal”, “Rudolf Spielman” instead of “Rudolf Spielmann”, and so on and on. There is hardly any page in the book without such unnecessary mistakes.

Although I am very sympathetic towards the work of any dilettante (being one myself), I wish this book on an interesting topic would have been written and edited in a better and more diligent way.


Нансен Арие (Nansen Arie): История на великата шахматна игра (History of the Great Game of Chess), Сиела (Siela), Sofia 2014


Moritz Steinschneider: Schach bei den Juden, Julius Springer, Berlin 1873

Franz Gutmayer: Der Weg zur Meisterschaft, Veit, Leipzig 1913

Emanuel Lasker: Kampf, Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin 2001 (reprint; originally published in 1906)

Emanuel Lasker: Jude – wohin?, in: Aufbau, New York 01. January 1939

Emanuel Lasker: The Community of the Future, M.J. Bernin, New York 1940

Alexander Aljechin: Jüdisches und arisches Schach, in: Pariser Zeitung, 18.-23. March 1941

Arpad Elo: The Rating of Chessplayers, Arco, New York 1978

Harold U. Ribalow / Meir Z. Ribalow: The Great Jewish Chess Champions, Hippocrene Books, New York 1987

Felix Berkovich / Nathan Divinsky: Jewish Chess masters on Stamps, McFarland & Co., Jefferson 2000

Edmund Bruns: Das Schachspiel als Phänomen der Kulturgeschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, LIT, Münster 2003

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.