Arnold Denker: The Beginning

Have you ever noticed how certain events which profoundly affect one’s entire life, often glide by completely unnoticed at the time? They seem to bury themselves in the subconscious waiting patiently for just the right moment to pop out and assert themselves. It happened to me so I know whereof I speak.
I was the youngest in a family of five (4 boys and 1 girl). My parents were Orthodox Jews, and as custom had it in those days, the boys all entered Hebrew School at five years of age. During services we all sat alongside our father who listened closely to see that we slurred not a single word. He was a perfectionist who fervently believed that religion was the foundation for the so called “good life.” For all his pains we referred to him as the “little general” when his back was turned. Hardly the kind of background to nurture a future U.S. Chess Champion. What’s more chess, as well as all games, were frowned upon by both parents. Their common complaint was, “from such ‘narrischkeit’ you’ll never win a scholarship to the Yeshiva.” Of course, studying chess was totally forbidden, but that didn’t stop me from sneaking down to the basement to study in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep.
How had I gotten myself into such an awful predicament? It all started the summer of 1923 when my eldest brother, Peter, returned from Heidelberg where he had been studying medicine on a scholarship. While there he acquired a taste for two things: chess and beer, and it wasn’t long before be passed on both to his closest brother, Sid. Occasionally when they played I was allowed to watch. That is how I learned the moves that summer, and that is when a turning point in my life slipped unobtrusively by.
In the fall when my brother left to begin his internship at Bellevue Hospital, chess left with him. Years passed without even a mention of the game. Suddenly in my freshman year in high school it all came back to life. I was having lunch in the school cafeteria when a group of boys entered and began setting up the pieces on the table alongside me. There were six of them, and after watching for a while I innocently asked if I might play. I was told they played for nickels, and if that was alright with me they had no objections. That nickel was my milk money, and for the longest time I did without any milk.
Then one day I discovered Lasker’s Common Sense in Chess in the school library. My visits to the basement began in earnest, and I soon knew the book by heart. From then on my nickels came pouring back with interest. Still later when I discovered, Chess Fundamentals by Capablanca, there was no holding me. I now played Board One on the Theodore Roosevelt High School Team, and our team walked off with the Interscholastic Championship of the City of New York. In addition, I won the Individual Championship for the highest score on Board One right up until graduation.
After graduation I won the Intercollegiate Championship while playing for NYU, and then the New York State Championship twice in a row. Still later, I won the US Championship and successfully defended it over three years. Unfortunately, it was not possible in those days to earn a decent living playing chess, though I tried every way possible. Nevertheless, I would not change a thing if I were to live it all over again. Chess has enriched my life in so many ways that I will ever be grateful.
Through my work as the Zonal President of the World Chess Federation, I have friends all over the globe. Chessplayers young and old share a common bond that removes all age barriers instantly. It is this common interest that binds them together. Youngsters too enjoy the challenge of chess, and that is one of the reasons it is such a fine educational tool. Just as remarkable is how the game ruthlessly points out the error of one’s ways. It forces you to concentrate, and punishes illogical thinking in a way one will not soon forget. Many objective studies have point this out, and my own experience with twelve Harlem students that I took to the Soviet Union on a match tour, convinced me that it can be of great help to underprivileged children. Maybe it’s because in chess they see true justice and equality for the first time in their lives. Whatever the reason, I have never seen such a transformation in twelve would-be hoodlums. By the end of our tour they made me feel proud and fulfilled
In 1985 after working with teenagers for many years I thought it might be a good idea to hold a tournament consisting of the fifty State High School Champions. With the help of the United States Chess Federation I soon raised enough money to pay the players expenses and supply scholarships to the top prize winners. The tournament was an immediate success and has now become a permanent fixture in American Chess. Last year I had the pleasure and the honor of seeing it renamed the “Denker Tournament of High School Champions”.
Today is my eightieth year in chess and it still keeps on paying dividends. Whenever there is a dull moment I vanish into my chess room for an hour or so, always to return refreshed and invigorated. There is always something new and interesting in chess. Just losing oneself in fields of Elysian delights for only a few moments can prove as salutary as any religious experience. For all this and much more, I am truly grateful. I would like to show my gratitude for that fleeting moment that set all this in motion. Would it be enough to pass on some of what I’ve learned to the next generation?