At the behest of several alumni, our classmate, Art Atkinson, relates the evolution of his chess legacy at Deerfield and subsequent years in college in which he “sparred” with a fellow student who went on to win the United States Amateur Chess Championship. Art was undefeated in competition among other schools “in the area” during his last three years at Deerfield. As president of the Chess Club the initial five person team grew to 90 members. This is engaging reading about a student’s persistence and passion for the game of chess. In 1955 the Chess Club was unheralded by the faculty and so Art and his team members determinedly banded together and were undefeated in interscholastic competition during his senior year. At his dad’s insistence Art did not pursue competitive chess while at Harvard but he kept his passion for the game. Art went on to achieve an MD degree and become President of the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics. He has written two books and over 100 publications, and continues his fondness for sailing on Lake Michigan.
“In 1946, my sister was a freshman at what was then “The Girls Latin School of Chicago”. It was the spirited “bobby sox” era and her peers moved rapidly from one interest to another. At one point they were attracted to the game of chess. Being only 8 years old, I was easily persuaded to be my sister’s sparring partner. I actually was developing some proficiency at the game when my sister’s peer group moved on to another interest du jour. Since my sister was no longer interested in chess, I inveigled my father into letting me teach him. He had been an expert checkers player when he was young. So he rapidly learned the game and began his usual thorough approach to it, buying one chess book after another until our library contained some 50 books on openings, chess problems, the end game, etc. As he learned something from these books that he could adopt, he would beat me in our next game. However, I would learn from what he was doing, so that prompted more reading. We played almost continuously while my mother drove the car on our vacation trips. He also took me to our neighbors and to his luncheon club to play with other older players. As a result of the focus, the heroes of my youth were not Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio but were the chess masters Al Horowitz and Sam Reshevsky.
In 1951, I left home for Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Deerfield had a chess club with a 5-person team that played a schedule against other schools in the area. I joined the club and found myself playing the #3 board. This stimulated me to become more serious in my approach to the game and I studied my father’s chess books. When the top two players on the team graduated in 1952, I found myself both the captain of the chess team and the president of the chess club. I set about to increase the chess club membership by offering students who did not know the game, a series of lectures. Ultimately, 90 of the 450 Deerfield students joined our club. We had a one-hour period between Saturday’s required dinner and the compulsory movie later that night. So we got permission to use the geology laboratory for our lectures using a peg board with a set of pieces that I could move around. In the fall, I gave introductory lectures to teach our new members how to play the game. At the same time the more advanced players would play each other to determine what position they would play on the team. As the winter competitive season approached, the weekly lectures became more technical and even the team members attended. My own regimen was to study chess for 8 hours a day during the Christmas holiday, reviewing openings and working through chess problems. This constant exposure made it easy to play the game blindfold against players that I was teaching.
Deerfield offered students absolutely no social life, so sports were the emphasized extracurricular activity. Deerfield’s headmaster never acknowledged the excellence of contemporary athletic teams. No matter their success, there was always the 1918 or some other team that outshone them. Of course, faculty who were talented coaches worked hard to make sure that current teams had respectable records and 5th year students were often brought in to fill weak areas. For example, a baseball pitcher was brought in during my senior year who later went on to play for the Chicago White Sox. Chess was entirely different. We had no faculty coach, and when we challenged the faculty to play us, we beat them. Of course, a junior faculty member would drive us to our “away matches” but he would quickly deposit us and then run off to the nearest women’s college.
We were running a program that had no precedent and nobody could compare us to a 1918 chess team. As a result we developed a fierce spirit of independence and seriousness of purpose throughout our team. Our lack of school support was in marked contrast to what we encountered at other schools. For example, when we went to play at the Kent school, we were ushered into the headmaster’s house to play our match, a not so subtle indicator that their team had the highest endorsement of the school. Also, when we went to play the Cranwell school’s chess team we found that they had strategically positioned a Jesuit priest behind each of their players. This pressure was most keenly felt by Robert Boyle who came to me after an hour of play and asked for permission to resign. I told him that nobody on the Deerfield team ever resigned, so he went back to his game and won. Despite being made to feel like underdogs, we won both these matches and in my senior year were undefeated in interscholastic competition. For myself, I was undefeated at the number one board during my last 3 years at Deerfield.
Things were going well enough during my senior year that I invited I. A. Horowitz (1) to come from New York to Deerfield to play 25 of our club members in a simultaneous exhibition. This caused a great deal of excitement among our club members and the school at large. The week before the exhibition, I gave a lecture to the club on the likely opening that Horowitz would use. He would of course be playing the white pieces. The exhibition began well for me and by the mid-game I had gained a 2-pawn advantage and was feeling fairly comfortable with how things were going. However, my colleagues were being picked off one by one, so eventually Mr. Horowitz pulled up a chair and the two of us were now playing one-on-one. I had not prepared for the psychological impact of this which was further intensified by the crowd of my school mates that surrounded us. So I made an assessment of the situation and decided that although I should theoretically win the game, that approach carried considerable risks with it. On the other hand I felt that I could more easily force the trade of the most dangerous pieces on the board and come up with a draw. To my way of thinking, there was not all that much difference between drawing Horowitz and beating him. But I would be just another cipher if I lost.
The epic moment of the draw was captured in the above photo by Robert Boyle. Afterwards, Mr. Horowitz and I proceeded to the headmaster’s house where his wife greeted us and asked me how my game turned out. When I said that we had drawn, she laughed and turned to Mr. Horowitz who confirmed my answer. After these formalities, Mr. Horowitz and I settled down for a very interesting conversation. He told me that he and Sam Reshevsky had wanted to win the world chess championship from the Russians. They realized that they were too old to accomplish this themselves, so they were looking for young chess players that they could train. He suggested that I come to Columbia for college. Then he and Mr. Reshevsky could take me to the Marshall Chess Club for training. One promising young player that he wanted me to play was a 13 year old named Bobby Fisher.
Much to my surprise, Mr. Horowitz placed a picture of his Deerfield exhibition on the cover of the April 1955 issue of the national chess magazine, Chess Review, of which he was editor. Our game was published as the cover story. My father subscribed to Chess Review and when he saw this, he told me in no uncertain terms that if I expected him to pay for my college tuition, I would have to give up competitive chess. I agreed to this but still could not resist wandering over to where members of the Harvard Chess team were playing each other. I was particularly interested in an African-American who was ranked #3 on the team. I had never before had an African-American classmate and decided to get to know him by playing a game with him. As it turned out, I did beat him but took pains to explain that I was not intending to deprive him of his place on the team. However, because we lived in adjacent dormitories in the Harvard Yard, I offered to be his sparring partner. So it happened that Kenneth Clayton and I spent some happy hours playing each other and discussing some finer points of chess theory.
Kenneth left Harvard during his sophomore year, probably because of the time that he devoted to chess. So I lost track of him until I read in our alumni 25 year book that he Kenneth left Harvard during his sophomore year, probably because of the time that he devoted to chess. So I lost track of him until I read in our alumni 25 year book that he had become the first African-American to win the United States Amateur Chess Championship (2).
It was not until the internet era that I was finally able to locate Kenneth and to call him to congratulate him on this achievement. I was not sure that he would even remember me but without hesitation he answered, “Yes, you’re the guy who tied Horowitz and used to play the French Defense and Queen’s Gambit openings”. We subsequently got together for lunch in Maryland and I learned that he had spent the Vietnam War at our embassy in Saigon and had only recently retired from the Department of Homeland Security. I was amused when my wife told me that during lunch Kenneth’s wife confided in her that “Kenneth was rather competitive.” The mentor chain continues, and while in Saigon, Kenneth befriended Paul Truong, the son of a prominent Vietnamese official, and taught him to play chess. Paul subsequently emerged in the United States and shortly thereafter also won the United States Amateur Chess Championship. Paul subsequently married Susan Polgar (3), one of three talented chess playing sisters, who was the first woman grandmaster, and Women’s World’s Chess Champion from 1996-1999. Paul and Susan now run a foundation that promotes the teaching of chess. They have a son who had a Bar Mitzvah last year and Kenneth was proud to be an honored guest at the ceremony.
1. I. A. Horowitz was an International Chess Master and the leading U.S. player during the 1930’s and 1940’s. He was the chest columnist for the New York Times, Editor of Chess Review, and author of numerous books on chess. Before becoming a chess professional, Horowitz was a securities trader on Wall Street.
2. Kenneth Clayton not only won the U.S. Amateur Chess Championship in 1963, but in 1967 was awarded the rank of Chess Master. He was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam war and it was there that he taught Paul Truong, son of a Vietnamese official, how to play chess. Kenneth has been active in promoting chess among young African Americans in the D.C. Area. He recently retired from the Department of Homeland Security.
3. Susan Polgar was one of 3 daughters home schooled in Hungary by a father who was determined to prove that geniuses were made, not born. The sisters spent 4 to 5 hours a day studying chess with the result that Susan became Women’s World Champion and was the first woman to become a Grand Master. Her next younger sister, Sofia, became an International Master, and youngest sister, Judit, also became a Grand Master. In 1997, Susan founded the Polgar Chess Center in order to give chess training to children. In 2006, she retired from competitive chess and married Paul Truong, who has become the business manager for her foundation.
Caption for the photo: Art and Mary Jo Atkinson in a photo taken at the Torrey Pines State Park in La Jolla, CA
Arthur J. Atkinson