Arnold Denker, 90, Dean of American Chess and Former US Chess Champion, Dies in Fort Lauderdale – January 2, 2005
(New Windsor) Arnold Sheldon Denker, the “Dean of American Chess” and United States chess champion from 1944 to 1946, died on Jan. 2, 2005 at his home after a brief struggle with brain cancer. He was 90 years old.
Grandmaster (GM) Denker, whose playing career spanned nearly three quarters of a century from 1929 to 2002, was renowned not only for tournament successes but also for a tempestuous attacking style filled with risky sacrifices and slashing assaults on the opponent’s king. Al Horowitz, a former New York Times chess columnist, wrote of GM Denker’s play, “The attack is both his strength and his weakness. He can handle an attack with a fertility of ideas and a richness of imagination that are rare. Yet frequently he tries to attack where defense is necessary or where the position does not warrant aggressive tactics.” To which GM Denker responded with his famed feistiness, “I still like to attack. If this be treason, then make the most of it!”
He first attracted attention by winning the New York City individual interscholastic championship in 1929 at age 15; he considered those games some of his finest. In 1940 he won the first of six championships of the Manhattan Chess Club, which was then regarded as the strongest aggregation of chess players in the world. Denker set a world record by playing 100 opponents in 7.33 hours, beating Capablanca’s record by one hour. During WW II, Denker gave simultaneous exhibitions at military bases and even aboard aircraft carriers. He was also invited by the US government to help crack enemy codes because of his chess prowess.
In 1944 GM Denker won the U. S. Championship with the score of 15 – 1 , a result of 91%, that is surpassed in U.S. title history only by Bobby Fischer’s clean slate of 11-0 in the 1963-64 championship tournament. In 1946 GM Denker successfully defended his title in a 10-game match against International Master Herman Steiner, scoring 6-4.
Business commitments prevented GM Denker from participating often in international tournaments, and he never mounted a challenge for the world championship. However, his tie for 10th – 12th at Groningen 1946, the first great tournament following WW II, placed him in the elite two dozen of world chess. In tournament and exhibition play, he drew with at least five world champions, including Bobby Fischer.
Grandmaster Arnold Denker represented the United Sates in numerous international competitions. He was a mentor of the World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer. He served as President of the North American Zone of the World Chess Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE). Denker was on the Board of the American Chess Foundation, the United States Chess Federation and the US Chess Trust. In 1992, GM Denker was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. Denker received virtually every honorary award the chess world had to offer. He was designated a charter lifetime honorary member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Chess Association. In 1999, he was only one of two Americans whose names were entered into the World Chess Federation’s Gold Book at their 75th Anniversary celebrations in Paris, France. At a special awards banquet held in Boca Raton, Florida on June 11, 2004, Denker received America’s highest chess honor when he became only the third person to ever be proclaimed ” Dean of American Chess” of the United States Chess Federation.
After retiring to Florida, Denker gave unstintingly of his time to teach chess to young children. He helped create programs to bring chess into the school curriculum. The children who played chess were found to perform better in all academic areas. Teaching chess and passing the game to the next generation was his great passion. Grandmaster Denker took special pride in first starting (1984) and then sponsoring the national championship of high school state champions, known affectionately as “The Denker”. Each year college scholarships are awarded to the top participants. Among his many other accomplishments are his books, If You Must Play Chess and The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories.
Born February 21, 1914 in New York City, GM Denker graduated from New York University. He married the former Nina Simmons in 1936 and was married for 57 years until her death in 1993. Survivors include his daughter, Randie, of Tallahassee, Florida; and two sons Mitchell of Belleview, Florida, and Richard of New York City, as well as his grandchildren Jana, Gaea and Dylan.
The above note was provided by Richard Denker.
Donation information and tribute from Harold Winston, Chairman, U.S. Chess Trust
Grandmaster Arnold Denker, who did so much for chess, was a longtime Trustee on the U.S. Chess Trust and served as our President at one time. Tax-deductible donations to the Chess Trust can be made in Arnold’s memory, either for general charitable pruposes, or for the Denker Tournament of High School Champions, which Arnold created and supported. Arnold was a warm and caring person and full of ideas about popularizing chess. I was very greateful to kow him and all of the Trustees miss him.
Tribute from Larry Parr, former editor of Chess Life:
Gentlemen and Gentleladies,
Harold Winston puts his finger on the two things that made Arnold, Arnold. Vibrance and empathy.
Some people appear at times to be barely alive; Arnold usually was barely able to contain himself. He loved everything he was doing, right down to crossing a street by running through traffic with a saint’s faith that he would make it to the other side. Most of us think it is one of life’s little chores to get across a wide street with flowing traffic. He turned it into an adventure.
Arnold’s empathy was of an unusual type. Most people who have the quality of empathy demonstrate it at an immediate moment. Arnold’s was a reflective empathy. He often gave thought before helping a person, perhaps to find the best way, and he spent decades thinking about the great men of chess he once knew before putting his thoughts on paper.
One subject that came up often, when he and I had hot pastrami sandwiches at the old Applebaum’s just down from Macy’s, was the condemnation of Alekhine at a tournament in England following the war. On one occasion tears came to his eyes when thinking about the feeling of abandonment that Alekhine must have experienced. It was a subject that he never dropped from his mind, mentioned to me in a serious way at least a dozen times, though the events were a half century old.
Arnold felt he had done something wrong, and he could not help feeling what Alekhine might have felt.
Vibrance and empathy. Harold Winston hit it just right.
Yours, Larry Parr
Tribute from Daren Dillinger
I first met Denker at a chess tournament in Jacksonville 30 years ago. Since the tournament was not far from my home, He took me up on my invitation to come over and we did our first interview. Our picture ran in a 1974 issue of Florida Chess News.
Over the years I have talked with many bright lights of chess. I have liked them all (so far!), but sometimes a master’s ego will show through as being a self-promotion of themselves. Which is quite all right, for a healthy ego is good for a master to have. Denker, however, seemed more focused on promoting chess — not only at the master level, but as his life legacy has shown, he touched so many at every level. From the top of U.S. and International chess, to the common guys playing in regional events. As I had the pleasure of serving on the Florida Chess Association.. Board of Directors with Denker, I saw his tireless work up close.
Before I was aware of Denker’s health issues, I started doing a rewrite of the Denker piece which ran in Florida Chess and also the Chess Journalist magazines. The attached update and rewrite attached is a good bit more text and has the addition of Denker’s favorite game when he was only 15 years old. Denker may have passed on, but his legacy is ongoing. Warmest regards, in the fellowship of chess.
From Gilberto Luna II, Programs Director with World Chess Hall of Fame
Arnold Denker made more of an impact on the Chess world as person, than he did as a chess player. He was a great person. Always polite, never hesitated stop and take time to talk to you. Every person was important to him. Every person was somebody. I remember the first time hearing his name. I was 14 playing my second open tournament; my father told me Arnold Denker is over there . He was 80 and moved like he was 30. I was at his 90th birthday party and thought he would live another 90. His energy rubbed off on you. He was only old by numerical standards. Always walking tall, and speaking with a strong voice. We were walking down the hall at this year’s US Open and he told me I m getting old Gil . If he hadn t of said it no one could of accused him of it. May his memory live on; the chess world will surely miss him.
Reprinted with permissions from the US Chess Federation.