The GM Denker Legacy Continues: Interview with Mitchell Denker by Ralph E. Bowman

NOTE:  We are saddened to report Mitchell Denker passed away in August, 2013.

Who are the members of your family?

My father was Grandmaster Arnold Denker (1914-2005).  He won the US Chess Championship in 1944 and 1946.  In 1985 he started the Grandmaster Arnold Denker Tournament of High School Champions.

My mother Nina Denker (Born 1915- Died 1993) was a woman who spoke her mind.  She was always puttering around with something artistic.

I am the middle child.  I played tournament chess until I was 10 or 11 and I stopped when I became more interested in baseball (my father once had a tryout with the New York Yankees).  Richard is 6 years older so he may very well have been involved in tournament chess just not after I had cognizance. My sister Randi (named after one of my mothers favorite poets) was the youngest.

My parents brought home an orphan from Spain in the early 60s named Maria-Teresa.  She lived with us about 5 yrs. Randi and I always thought of Maria-Teresa, who was about 4 years older than me, as a sister.  Maria-Teresa did play chess and Richard and Randi and I stay in touch and visit her in Spain, where she is married with children.

Growing up, was the fact that your father was a famous chess person a hindrance or benefit?

Neither really.  It was a benefit among chess people and since chess was not as popular as baseball, not that many people knew of his accomplishments outside of the chess world, so it was not a hindrance.

 What well-known chess persons have you met through your father?

Very many.  Many in foreign countries either when I was with dad or not.  My sister actually dated a couple of grandmasters the only one I can remember was GM Miguel Quinteros from Argentina. I would say a majority or more of the American GMs from the 30s to the 1994 US Championship, which dad and I had brought to Key West in honor of my mother.  As to names when I was a little kid Horowitz, GM Arthur Dake (during my dad’s last 15 years they wrote and talked a lot), GM Sammy Reshevsky (my father had more losses than wins against him).  I remember dad telling me that in the big 1946 tournament in Russia that Reshevsky would go a couple of days without eating because he was Jewish and could not find Kosher food), IM James Sherwin (President of the American Chess Federation) and probably everyone that belonged to the Manhattan Chess Club.  I was there a lot from age 10 to 18.  Dad would bring me to the city, I would go do my thing (ballgame etc.) and then meet him for a ride home.

Others like GM Jan Timman and IM Hans Bohm stayed with me while visiting the US.  Bohm actually stayed for months.  A majority of these meetings were brief, a lunch with GM Alexey Shirov, and a dinner with GM Victor Korchnoi. I got to know GM Gabe Schwartzman pretty well as he lived 30 miles from me in Florida.  I remember that my dad had a tournament record of 13-1 against GM Arthur Bisguier.  GM Reuben Fine was a close friend of my dad’s, even though my dad always beat him in tournaments.  GM Boris Spassky was a good friend of my dad’s and often stayed at our house, especially just before he became World Champion.

My father had an uncanny ability to forecast future world champions.  He predicted that Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov would be world champion’s years before they actually became world champions.

What was your first memory of Bobby Fischer?

I was there in 1957 when Bobby Fischer won his first US Championship at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City.  What I thought was unusual is that all of the other competitors were wearing suits and Bobby was wearing a t-shirt with horizontal strips, basketball shoes and jeans with the pants legs rolled up.  I immediately liked him because he was a rebel.

Bobby Fischer won the 63-64 US Championship with an 11-0 record. The record Bobby broke in going undefeated was that of my father.  My dad had previously won the US Championship with a record of 14-0-3, which was the best won-loss record to that date.

Years later, after I became a lawyer, my father asked that I handle some legal work for Bobby Fischer.

Did your family ever sit down for games of chess?

Once, about a year before he died, my brother, sister and I played him a simul.  He never looked at any of the boards; instead he was doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku.  He beat all three of us.

Late in his life, did he do anything to really impress you?

The day before he died he played a simul against USCF past president, Don Schultz and another man and won both games.

Do you remember an unusual story about your dad in your younger years?

My father took the family to a Dairy Queen one day.  We waited for some time for service.  Dad was annoyed at no one was coming forward from the back so he started tapping a coin on the metal counter very loudly.  Still no one came forward, so he went outside, around back, entered the back door and found the owner and another person playing chess with the other employees watching.  He bet the owner $300 against the store that he could beat him three straight games.  The man accepted the bet and my father promptly beat him three straight games.  Being the gentleman he was, my father did not ask for the store, but we did get our ice cream.

Why did your dad start the Denker Tournament?

He wanted to help get young chess players into the national spotlight.

Why are you continuing to support the Denker Tournament?

I shared my father’s enthusiasm for helping young players.  When my father asked me to keep the tournament going after him, I agreed.  My son, Dylan, has also agreed to keep it going after me.