What the Denker Meant to Me


GM Alexander Fishbein

 GMs Alex Fishbein, Alex Stripunsky, & Joel Benjamin

GMs Alex Fishbein, Alex Stripunsky, & Joel Benjamin

September 9, 2016

In 1985, the US Chess Federation announced a new tournament.  It was called the “U.S. Tournament of High School Champions.”  It was a novel concept:  each state sends its High School champion to compete for the national title.  It is a tournament where all the participants are already winners.

I was a high school senior at the time.  Living in Colorado (and before that, in Wyoming), I was known mostly in the Rocky Mountain West.  In late 1984, I started studying with Grandmaster Dmitry Gurevich – my first coach after I came to the United States from Russia in 1979, and my chess improved quickly.  By the summer of 1985, I was the best player in the region, but I was looking for some national recognition.  The Tournament of High School Champions seemed like a perfect way to achieve it!

The first step was to qualify.  There was one other competitive high school player in Colorado: an expert named Steve Towbin.  Although I outrated him by about 300 points, I knew that in a Swiss system state junior championship tournament, with a fast time control, anything could happen.  Following the tradition of Botvinnik, I lobbied to change the qualification rules so as to increase my chances!  I had a seat on the board of the Colorado State Chess Association and this gave me additional power.  I wanted to virtually guarantee that I got in!  It seemed that chance should not decide who goes to this very important event, and I was able to make that case.   I suggested a match between the top two players in the state (with a slow time control) to decide who qualifies, and I won the match against Steve, 4-0 (the state championship tournament had ended with us sharing first).

After qualifying, I was able to raise funds for my trip by giving simuls around the state.  I remember that at the end of one of those simuls, one of the participants told me “When you go to that tournament, win it, and show them who is the boss!”  I don’t think I had the confidence yet that I could do that – but by the time the event started I felt that I had a chance.

When the tournament started, it was called the “U.S. Tournament of High School Champions”, but by the end of the tournament it had been renamed the “Arnold Denker Tournament of High School Champions”, and now people just call it the “Denker”.  It was the start of a great tradition – and a great tribute to Grandmaster Denker, who always saw youth chess in America as a top priority.

Looking at the crosstable now – I was the highest-rated participant at 2409.  But I did not at all think I was the favorite.  Before one of my games, my coach Dmitry Gurevich told me: “Don’t be afraid of your opponent because you are stronger than he is.”  I am not sure I quite believed it.

Winning 5 games in a row after a first-round draw, I won clear first in the inaugural Denker tournament.   I feel honored to be part of the history of this event.

Fishbein,Alexander (2409) – Lief,Adam (2382) [C02]

Denker (6), 08.11.1985

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 (The Advanced was my favorite line against the French, and I still play it now from time to time.) 3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7 6.dxc5 Qc7 (In this line, Black should develop the Knight and immediately fight for the center  with 6…Bxc5 7.Bd3 Nge7 8.Bf4 Ng6 9.Bg3 f6) 7.Bf4 Bxc5 8.Bd3 Nge7 9.Qe2 f5 10.h4 0-0-0 (It was better to castle Kingside. On the queenside, the King will feel unsafe. Adam was a half-point behind and probably wanted a very sharp game, but my space advantage makes it easier for me to attack.) 11.b4 Bb6 12.0-0 h6 13.a4 (It was better to start with Na3, with a quicker development.) 13…g5! 14.hxg5 (14.Bh2 immediately was probably better) 14…Ng6 15.Bh2? (A mistake, giving Black a strong attacking chance which he missed. Correct was 15.Bg3) 15…a5? (With 15…hxg5 Black could have taken advantage of White’s loose bishop on h2 with an immediate attack.  For example, 16.a5 Bxa5! 17.bxa5 g4 18.Ng5 Rxh2! 19.Kxh2 Nf4 20.Qe3 Nxd3 21.Qxd3 Nxe5 22.Qg3 Rh8+ 23.Kg1 f4 24.Qxf4 Nf3+) 16.Na3 (Now White is on the right track.) 16…Be8 17.b5 Nb8 18.c4 d4 19.c5! (A thematic clearing sacrifice, in the style of Nimzovich. The pawn gives itself up, allowing both the Knight and Rook to join the attack.) 19…Bxc5 20.Rfc1 b6 21.Nc4 Kb7 22.gxh6 Rxh6 23.Ng5 (An imprecise move order. 23.Nd6+ Ka7 24.Ng5) 23…Qe7 24.Nh3 Nh4 (Now Black’s queenside falls apart. He could try to hold his position together with 24…Nd7.) 25.Nd6+ Ka7 26.Rxc5! (An efficient concluding attack.) 26…Qg7 27.Bg3 bxc5 28.Qd2 Kb6 29.Nc4+ Kb7 30.Qxa5 Nf3+ 31.gxf3 Rxh3 32.Kg2 (Taking on d8 was also possible.) 32…Rxg3+ 33.fxg3 Qe7 34.Nd6+ Rxd6 35.exd6 Qxd6 36.b6 Nc6 37.Qa6+ Kb8 38.b7 Kc7 39.Rb1 Nb8 40.Qxd6+ Kxd6 41.a5 1-0

Footnote:  Alexander went on to become a GM in 1992.  The game that appears above was played in the last round and gave him the title of 1985 GM Arnold Denker Champion of Champions.