He Went From Losing Nickels To The Big Time by Paul Jenkins

Sentinel Star

September 4, 1978, 3-C

 They used to take Arnold Denker’s nickels.

But that was years ago in a New York high school cafeteria during quietly vicious chess games.  Nowadays, opponents would be wise to keep their money in their pockets.

Arnold Denker is “big time.”

The dapper international master, a former U.S. and state chess champion, is the premier attraction at the Florida chess championships at Florida Technological University.  Final matches are today at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Denker’s the man to beat, observers say, and he’s the man many of the 138 contestants came to see.

“If I knew just a tenth of what he knows, I’d be better than good,” said one youthful player Sunday.  Asked if he would play Denker if the chance arose, he replied, “Nah, that’d scare me to death.”

Between matches, Denker, never far from his seemingly omnipresent straw hat, holds court outside the dead quiet Village Center auditorium, going over moves with awed younger players, discussing strategy, talking chess.

“I’m really fond of most of these kids.  They’re so damned bright… they pick up everything.  And don’t let anybody tell you differently, youth is the most important factor in chess.  These long matches are a tremendous strain…,” Denker said.

Denker’s age “is a very sensitive subject with me.  I’m going to be 65 soon.”  He retired from his New York brokerage business two years ago, but his passion for chess is still strong.

“I think chess is the greatest mental discipline in the world… better even than mathematics.  It should be taught in the schools.  It mirrors life… a little mistake and you pay for it.”

During his chess career Denker has played the greats, including Bobby Fischer, the former world chess champion, who beat him once and played him to draw in a second game.

“Fischer will never play anymore… he’s a kook… it’s a shame because he won the championship and did nothing with it,” Denker said.

When Denker was 12 he started watching older boys play chess.

“I learned from watching. I’ve never had any formal training, but I did a lot of studying.  I did some kibitzing and they finally told me that if I knew so much why didn’t I play them.”

“We played for nickels and I lost all my nickels… that was my milk money.  So, I decided to get some books and study.  Six months later I was on the high school chess team.”

He smiles, remembering those early matches.

“I got my nickels back from the guys.”