Book Review: New York 1936: The First Modern United States Chess Championship

New York 1936: The First Modern United States Chess Championship by John Hilbert and Peter Lahde

review by James Schroeder

In 1985 I discovered that the John White Dept. of the Cleveland Public Library had a box containing the original game scores of the 1936 U.S. Chess Championship Tournament. So I hand-copied all of them and intended to publish the tournament book in 1986. But many of the game scores were missing so I quit. Several years later John Donaldson mentioned that some persons were going to publish the tournament book so I sent him my box of game scores.

Because of the Great Depression the U.S. had many great players in the 1930’s. As Arnold Denker wrote (The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories) there wasn’t any work available but Masters could make some dimes and quarters by playing chess. As a result the U.S. won the International Team Tournaments in 1931, 1933 and 1935 with Isaac Kashdan, Frank Marshall, Arthur Dake, Israel Horowitz, Herman Steiner, Reuben Fine, Abraham Kupchik and Albert Simonson. Samuel Reshevsky played first board as they won again 1937.

In 1907 Marshall claimed the title of U.S. Chess Champion and this was accepted because no one else cared. He defended his “title” once, winning from Edward Lasker in 1923 with five wins, four losses, nine draws.

Marshall accepted a challenge from Kashdan in 1933 but they couldn’t find enough sponsors to donate enough money, so the match wasn’t held. Marshall then agreed to play in a tournament for the title, but later decided to retire “undefeated”.

In addition to the seeded players: Kashdan, Horowitz, Steiner, Fine, Kupchik, Alexander Kevitz, Dake and Samuel Reshevsky, four qualifying tournaments were held in New York City from which came Simonson and Samuel Factor; Denker and Weaver Adams; George Treysman and Sidney Bernstein; Harold Morton and Milton Hanauer.

Kashdan started with wins over Simonson, Bernstein, Horowitz and Denker. As White vs. Simonson: 1 e4 e5; 2 Nf3 Nc6; 3 Bb5 a6; 4 Ba4 Nf6; 5 0-0 Be7; 6 Qe2 b5; 7 Bb3 0-0; 8 c3 d5; 9 exd5 Nxd5; 10 Nxe5 Nf4?; 11 Qe4 Nxe5; 12 d4! (And not 12 QxR?. I believe this is old analysis and 12 d4 was played by Carl Schlechter.) Instead of losing a Pawn without compensation Simonson tried the desperate 12 … Nh3ch; 13 gxh3 Ng6; 14 QxR and White won in twenty-three moves.

Hanauer had lost four games and had Black against Kashdan in round five. They began with the same moves but then Kashdan played 9 d3? WHY? Probably because he had found something good for Black after 9 exd5 Bg4; 10 dxc6 e4. This is better but White should still win. Kashdan must have mis-analyzed the position. After 9 … Bg4 Kashdan foolishly played to win material. 10 h3 Bh5; 11 g4? Bg6; 12 g5? dxe4; 13 gxf6 exd3; 14 Qe3 bxf6 and was properly crushed. 15 Nbd2 Qd7; 16 Kg2 Rad8; 17 Ne4 Be7; 18 Bd2 Kh8; 19 Rae1 f5; 20 Nc5 Qd6; 21 Ne6 f4; 22 Nxf4 exf4; 23 Qe6 QxQ; 24 RxQ Bd6. Not known why Kashdan played on in an utterly hopeless position, two Pawns and then three Pawns behind, until move sixty. Hanauer won and finished in 14th place, with 4-1/2 – 10-1/2. Kashdan lost to Reshevsky, Fine and Treysman and finished fifth with 10 – 5.

After losing to Bernstein in round three and Horowitz in round four, Reshevsky had only 1-1/2 points. Chess Review said the New York Times published the round four game and said: “The game that cost Reshevsky the U.S. Championship.” Reshevsky then had nine wins and two draws to win the tournament with 11-1/2 – 3-1/2. Simonson, only 21 years old, was second with 11 – 4, but never again played so well. According to Denker he was wealthy and really not much interested in chess. Fine and Treysman tied for third with 10-1/2 – 4-1/2. Treysman was a coffee-house player who, at age fifty-five “went thirty-two games without a defeat – a skein that began with the Rice-Progressive Chess Club Championship, continued through the qualifying tournament, and ended in round 10 of the final” (Denker). Except it wasn’t round ten, but round five, where he lost to Simonson, who played the Budapest Gambit: 1 d4 Nf6; 2 c4 e5; 3 dxe5 Ng4; 4 e4 h5. Treysman was a superb endgame player, which is very important. After one knows all the tricks it still requires technique to win a won game.

Which leads to, in my opinion, the best chess book published in 2000: New York 1936: The First Modern United States Chess Championship by John Hilbert and Peter Lahde. [Chess Archaeology Press.] Plastic cover. 202 pages. Algebraic notation. Excellent printing and binding. Good diagrams. Bold type for game moves and light type for analysis. In addition to the running commentary the tournament games are accompanied by contemporary notes and analysis – which means that they are not always correct.

That is all the authors can do, and much more than I could have done. You either hire a grandmaster to annotate the games properly or you do the best with what you have. Amateurs, and that includes me, don’t have the ability to annotate master games. They found 116 of the 120 tournament games and have added thirty-one games form the qualifying tournaments.

BUT they begin with sixty pages containing forty-four games by U.S. players in other tournaments along with a condensed “history” of U.S. chess.

While I don’t believe it is all historically accurate, it is interesting.

Unfortunately they waste FIFTEEN PAGES telling the utterly boring details of WHY a match between Marshall and Kashdan was NOT held.

They make the egregious error: “Willhelm Steinitz in 1891 …” WILLIAM Steinitz was a naturalized citizen of the U.S.A. by then and did NOT use “Wilhelm”.

MANY of their comments are worthless: “The one and only draw of the first round”; “Time never lets its victim escape in the end.” (“… in the end” adds insult to injury); “Winning the Marshall Chess Club Championship for the third time, no less.” (I don’t understand why horrible writers say “no less”.); “A treat for kibitzers.“; “No doubt Adams found the conclusion somewhat less amusing.” (A typical “smart-ass” comment. They can’t possibly know what Adams thought.)

The American triumph at Warsaw reinforced the view in this country, rightly or wrongly, that the United States was the strongest chess playing nation. This belief would persist for another decade, until shortly after World War II, when the illusion was to be unequivocally shattered by the Soviet Union.” That U.S.S.R. was not a “nation”, it was a federation of MANY countries. I think there were thirty by then. How does losing to a federation of thirty nations in 1945 have any relevance to how strong the U.S.A. was in 1935? The U.S.A. won the FIDE Team Tournament in 1931, 1933, 1935, 1937 and every chess player in the world knew that the U.S.A. WAS “the strongest chess playing nation”. How foolish to write “rightly or wrongly”.

As is well-known, in 1895 Pillsbury won the great tournament at Hastings.” NOT everyone knows that. Every year there are millions of new players who know nothing of chess history.

… without any competition for bragging rights to the nation’s highest chess honor.” Very crude and senseless and insulting to the players who have been U.S. Chess Champions to use such derogatory slang.

full point” instead of “point”.

After stating that the U.S. Championships were decided by matches until 1936, and tournaments most of the time after, they add the pretentious comment: “Whether one believes the latter system superior to the former is another issue.” It is NOT an “issue” at all, and only horrible writers abuse “former” and “latter” in such a grotesque manner.

1 e4 e5; Nf3 Nc6; 3 d4 PxP; 4 NxP. The Scotch Gambit“. White has NOT played a “gambit”, that is the Scotch Game.

1 d4 d5; 2 c4 e6; 3 Nc3 Nf6; 4 Nf3 c5. The Tarrasch Defense“. WRONG. Only 1 d4 d5; 2 c4 e6; 3 Nc3 c5! is the Tarrasch Defense.

Very poor format for cross-tables. The print is tiny and the space between the lines is greater than the size of the type.

Only last names are given in the cross-tables. OBVIOUSLY they should have given first names.

Highly recommended, even if one must suffer through horrid writing and inexact “history”.

It is very important to buy this book in order to support persons who spend an enormous amount of time creating books that are worth reading. Another great book is 1940 U.S. Chess Championship by Hilbert and Lahde.

This article copyright © 2006 James Schroeder, Vancouver, WA.

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