Arnold Denker: US Champion, Author, Chess Enthusiast

by Johannes Fischer
2/27/2019 – In the 1930s and 1940s Arnold Denker (February 20, 1914 – January 2, 2005) was one of the strongest players in the US and in 1944 and 1946 he became US Champion. After the end of his chess career Denker became a successful businessman, chess promoter and chess official. He is also the co-author of "The Bobby Fischer I knew", a wonderful and charming collection of chess memories. On February 20, 2019 Denker would have celebrated his 105th birtday.

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Arnold Denker: A Passion for Chess

Arnold Denker was a really passionate chess player. Looking back on his career he wrote:

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. ... 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. ... 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. (

According to the Wikipedia Arnold Denker was born February 20, 1914 in New York, though US journalist Dylan Loeb McClain gives February 21, 1914 as Denker's birthday in his obituary in the New York Times from January 4, 2005.

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 call "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... . (

Denker had the first contact to chess while watching his older brothers play against each other but the game really started to fascinate him later, in his freshman in high school. He saw by chance how six boys were playing chess and wanted to join. Which, however, came at a price. The boys were playing for a nickel per game and in the beginning Denker lost one game after the other, and because "that nickel was my milk money" Denker "for the longest time" had to do "without any milk". But one day he discovered that the school library had chess books and with the help of Emanuel Lasker and Common Sense in Chess Denker's "nickels came pouring back with interest".

In 1929, when he was 15 years old, Denker won the New York City individual interscholastic championship and soon became one of the best players in New York and the USA. In 1944 he won the US Championship with 14 wins, three draws and no losses, the hitherto best result that had ever been achieved at a US Championship. 20 years later this record was broken by Bobby Fischer who won the US Championships 1963/1964 with 11 points from 11 games.

In 1946 Denker won his second US Championship title but a while later he withdrew from tournament chess to work in a steady job with a regular and safe income to provide for his family. In 1936 Denker had married Nina Simmons. The couple had three children and Denker and Nina Simmons stayed together until Simmons died in 1993.

Denker first worked as an employee, but later took over the company in which he worked and proved that he also had a knack for business. "'We were doing $900,000 a year in sales when I got there. ... We were doing $38 million when I left', 26 years later, in 1974," McClain quotes Denker.

In 1950 FIDE awarded Denker the title of International Master and in 1981 the title of honorary Grandmaster. In 1992 Denker was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame and in 2004 he was the third person to be proclaimed "Dean of American Chess" by the US Chess Federation.

book cover

As a player, official and promoter of chess Denker did a lot for the game, but he was also a successful chess author. He wrote numerous articles for chess magazines and in 1947 he published a collection of his best games under the title When you must play chess. After a break of almost 50 years, Denker's second book, The Bobby Fischer I knew and other Stories, written together with Larry Parr, followed in 1995.

The title, however, is a little misleading, because the book is not really about Bobby Fischer but rather a collection of portraits of chess players that Denker has encountered during his chess career. Bobby Fischer is among them, but also players like Samuel Reshevsky, Reuben Fine or the young Kasparov and also numerous well-known and less well-known legends of the New York and American chess scene. Denker and Parr describe the chess players with a good eye for their strengths and weaknesses, but always with a lot of warmth and goodwill. Every portrait and every article conveys Denker's positive attitude to life and his passion and his love for chess.

Denker died of brain cancer on January 2, 2005.

The following game was played during the US Championship 1944 where Denker won his first title — Reuben Fine, Denker's opponent in this game, was once one of the world's best players and among the favourites to win the Championship 1944.



Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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