After Frank Marshall retired in 1936, the US Championship had consisted of biennial Championships even through the years of WW2. The USCF eventually developed a ‘master plan’ for the tournament because the 1948 tournament had shown that the idea of holding qualifying tournaments had resulted in a drastic reduction in the level of play.
The USCF's solution was a three-year cycle of elimination contests that would begin with regional preliminaries as in the past and then the next year there would be a ‘Candidates Tournament’ made up of the regional qualifiers plus seeded players. The trouble was that nothing was organized in 1950 which was supposed to be the candidates year. As a result, the USCF planned to hold a large invitational with 50 players from across the country in 1951but it was decided that this would be too large so the eighth championship was cut to 24 due to lack of interest. Even Herman Steiner, the reigning champion, wasn’t interested in playing! In addition to Steiner, Denker, Fine and Kashdan declined invitations.
The 24 players who did show up in New York all had to go through an elimination to qualify for the 12-player finals to be held the following month. Included in the preliminaries were players like veteran Alex Kevitz who was trying for the first time since 1936 and Milton Hanauer who had last reached the finals in 1940. Hanauer qualified as did another veteran, Albert Simonson, who hadn’t played in eleven years. Also qualifying were Larry Evans, Al Horowitz, Herbert Seidman, Sidney Bernstein and Samuel Reshevsky who had not lost once in more than 70 championship games. Reshevsky was expected win but after being upset by Mengarini, Evans went on to win the championship.
After that, the plan fell apart when only a few of the regional preliminaries were held in 1952 which was supposed to be the start of a new cycle. In addition, few sponsors could be found to foot the bill. As a result the USCF planned a ‘Candidates Tournament’ in September 1953 that was open to anyone with an expert rating (ELO 2000) and $25 for the entry fee. There were only 23 players in this, a Swiss System tournament with first prize of $250. The event also offered the six top finishers a spot in the 1954 championship. The big name in this qualifying event was Arthur Bisguier who was 23 years old and just out of the Army. Bisguier had won the 1950 U.S. Open and his first international tournament, at Southsea, England and finished first in this qualifying event.
But then things were further complicate when the USCF didn't have the money to hold the championship. Fortunately tournament was salvaged when the Marshall Chess Club offered its facilities to hold the 14 player event. This event was not particularly strong. On the newly implemented rating list Bisguier, who attended college classes during the day and ended up sleeping at night in one of the Marshall's upstairs apartments was eighth on the list. Larry Evans, the defending champion, was only tenth and none of the five top rated players (Reshevsky, Robert Byrne, George Kramer, Donald Byrne and Arnold Denker) had accepted invitations. The strongest competitors were Evans and Bisguier and the French émigré Nicolas Rossolimo, Max Pavey and junior star, James T. Sherwin.
Sherwin, 20 years old and only ranked 24th took the early lead after five rounds but Evans and Bisguier fought back to tie Sherwin by the 8th round with 6-2 scores. Then disaster stuck when Evans lost to Marshall Chess Club junior Eliot Hearst. Sherwin drew his game so Bisguier took the lead. The leaders were scheduled to meet each other in the next three rounds so an exciting finished was assured.
Evans vs. Bisguier saw Evans finesse his way out of a lost position and draw. In the next round Evans won from Sherwin thus pretty much ruining the latter’s chances. Bisguier could only draw with Hans Berliner. The next important game was Bisguier vs. Sherwin which turned out to be an exciting affair with ups and downs for both players, and ended with Sherwin losing on time. The result was Bisguier entered the final round with a half point lead ahead of Evans who had White against Herbert Seidman while Bisguier had Black against Ariel Mengarini. Mengarini refused Bisguier’s draw offer and tried desperately to win a drawish endgame. He blundered on the 47th move and lost while the Evans-Seidman game was drawn and the result was Bisguier won the US Championship without a loss and pocketed $254.35.
It’s also interesting to note that this tournament was witnessed by the visiting delegation of Soviet players who were to stomp the U.S. by a 20-12 score in a match a few weeks later.
Here is the Bisguier-Sherwin game that had the spectators buzzing. The opponents castled on opposite sides and P-stormed the enemy Kings. Mate threats were everywhere when Sherwin, very short of time, tried to force a draw by repetition, but Bisguier didn’t want a draw; he wanted the championship. Bisguier hoped his defensive resources could withstand the attack and he went for the win. In the process he overlooked a stunning R sacrifice by Sherwin that Bisguier said, “shook me to my socks” but his luck held and he managed to win but only after Sherwin, in desperate time pressure, threw away his advantage.