US Championship

Sammy Reshevsky vs. Arnold Denker

New York - 1942

One of the more famous and oft-repeated disputes in US Chess history. In Round 6 of the 4th US Championship, in 1942, Denker, with a 4- score was black against Sammy Reshevsky, winner of the first three US Championship tournaments. After what Denker called "the maddest time scramble in which I have ever participated", Reshevsky blew his last winning chance on the last move of the time control, leaving a dead drawn position.

But then an odd thing happened. With the time control past, the tournament director, L. Walter Stephens (one of chess history's greatest goats), picked up the clock to examine the times. Reshevsky's flag was down, Denker still had a few seconds left.

But that isn't the way Stephens saw it. He had been standing behind the clock at the time, so when he picked it up to examine it, he turned it around backwards so that Reshevsky's clock was facing towards Denker, and vice versa. Failing to notice this, he announced that Denker had forfeited the game.

Several witnesses pointed out to Stephens what he had done But Stephens, (in a delusion of grandeur incredible to find coming from a High School teacher directing a chess tournament) stuck to his decision, with the rhetorical question "Does Kennesaw Mountain Landis (the then Commissioner of Baseball) ever reverse himself?"

How did Reshevsky deal with this situation? He simply said "It's not my decision," and quickly left the tournament hall. Possibly the first time a player has ever claimed to have no interest in the outcome of his own game.

Though this story has been told innumerable times over the years, there are several questions about it that never seem to get addressed. For example, a) since when is it the tournament director's job to call a flag fall in the first place? Usually, this is strictly the responsibility of the players (unless perhaps the rules were different in 1942?) b) why on earth did Denker continue playing in the tournament after having a game literally stolen by the tournament director?, c) what penalty, if any, did Stephens suffer for turning in a patently false decision that just happened to benefit the strongest player in the country? Was he ever allowed near an important tournament again? and d) How did such a result ever hold up in a tournament being played in the same city as USCF headquarters? Was there no appeals process?

This story is often told in such a way as to say that Stephens mistakenly forfeited Denker instead of Reshevsky. This is wrong. Since Reshevsky was thinking about his first move after the time control at the time of the incident, the fact that his flag was down no longer mattered. (Stephens was (conveniently?) out of position at the only time that a Reshevsky forfeit could have been called). If the rules had been enforced properly, neither player would have been forfeited, and the game would almost certainly have been drawn within a few moves.

As for Stephens, he comes out a 3-time loser in the incident. First there was the initial error, which may (or may not, who really knows?) have been an honest mistake. Secondly, sticking to the first error and knowingly taking a game from a player who hadn't really lost it, either to salve his ego (best case), or to benefit the defending champion (worst case). And thirdly, as mentioned, the fact that Stephens was only in position to forfeit one of the two players.

Assuming that it was perfectly within the tournament director's rights to call a flag fall at all, Stephens had put himself in such a position that he would not see Reshevsky's flag until after it was too late to matter. When he picked up the clock, a Denker forfeit was the only one that he could have called. As mentioned, even if Stephens had correctly identified Reshevsky's flag as the one that was down, he could not have forfeited him, since there was, by that time, no way to prove that the flag hadn't fallen after Denker's 45th move. To call a Reshevsky forfeit, he would have had to be watching after Reshevsky had made his 45th move, but before Denker had done the same; a time when Stephens was (by accident or design) out of position. Since a Denker forfeit was the only one that he could have seen, is it any wonder that that's what he saw, whether it was there or not?

So, what happened here? Deliberate bias towards Reshevsky? Or Unconscious bias? Or simply incomptence plus arrogance? Not much of a choice.

The game ended up having enormous implications. Thanks to the gift half point, Reshevsky ended up in a tie for first with Isaac Kashdan, a man who had been one of the country's top players since the late 1920's, but who had never won the national championship. After the First Place tie, Reshevsky went on to beat Kashdan in a playoff match. Kashdan never did win a US Championship again.

NOTE: Kennesaw Mountain Landis died two years later, probably out of shame.


For another instance in which the rules were bent on Reshevsky's behalf, check out the 1957 Byrne-Reshevsky dispute.


ADDENDUM: An account of the story in Denker's own words:

"I scored 4- in the 1942 U.S. Championship and met Sammy Reshevsky in round six. It featured my maddest time scramble and his flag fell on move 45 or so. L. Walter rushed up, grabbed the clock from behind, turned it around so the dial was on my side and without the slightest hesitation forfeited...me!

"A near riot broke out. When several witnesses tried to reason with L. Walter, he retorted with his now famous query, 'Does Kenesaw Mountain Landis ever reverse himself?' That supremely stupid statement ended all possible discussion. For Judge Landis, the czar of baseball who had been appointed to clean up the sport after the White/Black Sox scandal of 1919, was notorious for never changing a decision. I played the rest of the tournament, to use Bernard Shaw's memorable image, like a squashed cabbage leaf."