Eric Rosenthal – remembering a chess friend

by ChessBase
5/14/2016 – Swept up in the Bobby Fischer-inspired American chess awakening of the early 1970s, three high school boys from Florida, bonded over chess, travelling together to tournaments all over the state. Sadly, one of the trio, Eric, passed away in 1992. Decades later, Eric’s old chess buddies Mike and Marc conceived the idea of organizing a tournament in Eric’s honor, featuring this poignant remembrance of Eric by Marc.

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Eric Rosenthal, October 1956 – January 1992

A remembrance by Marc Polonsky

I was excited to join the chess club at my high school. The first day it met, in September of 1972, we elected a club president but no one played chess! One boy announced plaintively as the “meeting” came to a close: “I want to play chess! Does anybody want to play chess?” I did, but the club was closing for the day, so we went to his house and played. He won, but that was okay. He also showed me the Ruy Lopez opening, and explained to me how White could win a pawn on the fifth move.

At that time we used descriptive notation so I’m going to stick to that in this account. The Ruy Lopez that Eric showed me went like this: 1. P-K4, P-K4 ; 2. N-KB3, N-QB3; 3. B-N5.

“Okay,” he said, “pretend you’re Black. Now what do you do?” Reflexively, I moved 3. … P-QR3. “See?” said Eric triumphantly. “Everyone does that, but now I take your knight (4. BxN), you take my bishop (4…QPxB), and …” -- here he snapped off my king’s pawn with his knight – “… White wins a pawn!”

Position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nxe5

I thought this was very clever. Yet we were perplexed that apparently, in several of their match games the previous summer, both Fischer and Spassky had overlooked this continuation. It was our friend Mike Lucente who, from a book, delivered onto us the answer to this arcane Ruy Lopez mystery a month or two later. (And if you don’t know the answer, you’ll have to find out yourself!)

Eric Rosenthal and I became friends that day and he remained one of my closest friends until I moved to California in 1979. I don’t know how I would have made it through high school without him.

Eric playing in a simul versus Victor Korchnoi in Hollywood, Florida.
Eric was the only player to draw that day!

Eric was dependably exuberant, funny, and kind. He could present himself as a very serious and studious person, which served him well years later when he became a court reporter and started his own business. He often looked rather prim, with his glasses, his bony frame, his lack of flamboyance in a flashy era.

But his sense of humor was irrepressible and delightfully nuts. He’d burst into whimsical little monologues. He would imitate songs on the radio in a way that sent his friends into stitches. I remember in particular the song “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate and how Eric would spread his arms theatrically and belt out the lines “Now you’re lying next to me/Giving it to me” with a New York accent and a flat affect that was so uncannily silly it made me heave with laughter.

Eric, Mike Lucente, and I became tight chess buddies, and in early 1973, with Eric spearheading the enterprise, we started going to tournaments in nearby cities, sharing hotel rooms for a weekend and going full-geek with our chess books and poring over our respective tournament games together after each round. Who the heck knows what other kids were doing? Maybe some of them went out of town for sports events, or wild parties in the Keys. But we were chess nerds and couldn’t have been happier.

Eric’s passion for the game was unsurpassed. I remember seeing him once play a positional exchange sacrifice in a skittles game at a chess club we visited somewhere; it was the first one I’d ever seen. Eric won the game. I was in awe.

Eric was also, truly, the least egotistical of chess players. A well-played game, in which he felt he’d learned something and/or played creatively, gratified him more than victory. It was a running joke amongst his numerous chess friends (and Eric, with his generous energy and spirit and bubbling humor, made many friends on the chess circuit) how, after a tournament round, if you saw one of us smiling, you’d say “Did you win?” and the answer would naturally be yes. But if you saw Eric smiling, with a spring in his step, you could ask, “Did you draw?” And the answer would probably be yes! Eric found draws most fascinating.

Some of the sweetest memories of my young life are of hotel rooms in “faraway” cities like Boca Raton or Orlando, analyzing just-played tournament games with Eric, or simply watching him and Mike analyze. (They were much stronger players than I). Unfortunately, I lost touch with all my Florida friends for decades, before Mike found me on the Internet in 2004 and sent me an email. I inquired if he was still in touch with Eric, and Mike sadly informed me of Eric’s passing.

I still miss Eric. Now that Mike has honored him by organizing a tournament in his name, I suppose I need to find a way to pay tribute too, though learning the French Defense (Eric’s favorite) may be a bridge too far. Perhaps Eric would be proud of me though if I could just learn the Sicilian Pelikan more than six moves deep. (That’s another opening he showed me.)

If Eric were at this tournament in the flesh, we would all be laughing a lot more. We probably wouldn’t take our “results” quite as seriously. Then again, maybe Eric will grace this tournament with his presence in some way. If he does, it’ll be the most flat-out fun tournament you ever played – win, lose, or draw.

Eric, wherever you are, I hope you might whisper a move or two in my ear. Or just say hello in some way that I’ll notice. Surprise us, old friend. We sure miss you.

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