GM Arnold Denker, 1914–2005

1/5/2005 – In his heyday he was a prize boxer and one of the most aggressive chess players. Arnold Denker used his tempestuous style and slashing assaults on the world's top players, drawing five world champions in his career. Now the former US Champion (1944) and great chess promoter has died at the age of 90. Here's a portrait.

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Arnold Denker, 1914–2005

Arnold Sheldon Denker, the "Dean of American Chess" and United States chess champion from 1944 to 1946, died on Jan. 2, 2005 at his home in Fort Lauderdale after a brief struggle with brain cancer. He was 90 years old.


More than half a century between the pictures

Arnold Denker was born in 1914 in New York City and graduated from New York University. His playing career spanned nearly three quarters of a century from 1929 to 2002. Denker was renowned not only for tournament successes but also for a tempestuous attacking style filled with risky sacrifices and slashing assaults on the opponent’s king (he was also a prize boxer). Al Horowitz, a former New York Times chess columnist, wrote of GM Denker’s play, "The attack is both his strength and his weakness. He can handle an attack with a fertility of ideas and a richness of imagination that are rare. Yet frequently he tries to attack where defense is necessary or where the position does not warrant aggressive tactics." To which GM Denker responded with his famed feistiness, "I still like to attack. If this be treason, then make the most of it!"


Denker awarding a medal to the world's top woman player Susan Polgar

He first attracted attention by winning the New York City individual interscholastic championship in 1929 at age 15; he considered those games some of his finest. In 1940 he won the first of six championships of the Manhattan Chess Club, which was then regarded as the strongest aggregation of chess players in the world. He faced one of the strongest arrays of world-class players the U.S. has ever produced: Reshevsky, Fine, Kashdan, Horowitz, Dake, and others who were making America the top nation in the early Olympiads.


...and getting a medal himself

Denker set a world record by playing 100 opponents in 7.33 hours, beating Capablanca’s record by one hour. During WW II, Denker gave simultaneous exhibitions at military bases and even aboard aircraft carriers. He was also invited by the US government to help crack enemy codes because of his chess prowess.


GMs Arnold Denker and Susan Polgar

In 1944 GM Denker won the U. S. Championship with the score of 15½:1½ (14 wins, 0 losses and 3 draws), a result of 91%, that is surpassed in U.S. title history only by Bobby Fischer’s clean slate of 11-0 in the 1963-64 championship tournament. In 1946 GM Denker successfully defended his title in a 10-game "East vs. West" challenge against Herman Steiner of Los Angeles, scoring 6-4.


Group photo with Susan Polgar and ex world champion Anatoly Karpov

Business commitments prevented GM Denker from participating often in international tournaments, and he never mounted a challenge for the world championship. However, his tie for 10th – 12th at Groningen 1946, the first great tournament following WW II, placed him in the elite two dozen of world chess. In tournament and exhibition play, he drew with at least five world champions, including Bobby Fischer.


Arnold (left) in his favourite role, as a mentor to budding young chess players

Grandmaster Arnold Denker represented the United Sates in numerous international competitions. He was a mentor of the World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer. He served as President of the North American Zone of the World Chess Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE). Denker was on the Board of the American Chess Foundation, the United States Chess Federation and the US Chess Trust. In 1992, GM Denker was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.


Arthur Bisguier (76), Susan Polgar and Arnold Denker

Denker received virtually every honorary award the chess world had to offer. He was designated a charter lifetime honorary member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Chess Association. In 1999, he was only one of two Americans whose names were entered into the World Chess Federation’s Gold Book at their 75th Anniversary celebrations in Paris, France. At a special awards banquet held in Boca Raton, Florida on June 11, 2004, Denker received America’s highest chess honor when he became only the third person to ever be proclaimed " Dean of American Chess" of the United States Chess Federation.


With close friend and associate Barbara DeMaro, managing director of the US Chess Trust (of which Denker was a member) and Susan Polgar

After retiring to Florida, Denker gave unstintingly of his time to teach chess to young children. He helped create programs to bring chess into the school curriculum. The children who played chess were found to perform better in all academic areas. Teaching chess and passing the game to the next generation was his great passion. Grandmaster Denker took special pride in first starting (1984) and then sponsoring the national championship of high school state champions, known affectionately as "The Denker". Each year college scholarships are awarded to the top participants. Among his many other accomplishments are his books, "If You Must Play Chess" and "The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories".

Arnold Denker married the former Nina Simmons in 1936 and was married for 57 years until her death in 1993. Survivors include his daughter, Randie, of Tallahassee, Florida; and two sons Mitchell of Belleview, Florida, and Richard of New York City, as well as his grandchildren Jana, Gaea and Dylan.


Arnold with his companion during the last two years of his life

The above information was provided by Richard Denker
Photos supplied by Paul Truong


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