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Monday, March 3, 2014

Whitaker vs. Marshall, the Match that Never Was

     Norman T. Whitaker was a unique character among U.S. chess masters. As one of America's top players in the 1920s, he began a life of crime that would bring him national notoriety, infamy and years in prison. GM Arnold Denker, with what seems a trace of admiration, dubbed him "Stormin' Norman, Caissa's Conman" while historian Edward Winter disdainfully called him "irredeemable."
     Early in his career Whitaker began showing an argumentative streak, started becoming sensitive to real or imagined slights and showing hostility toward established chess authority, which led to his expulsion from the Franklin, Philadelphia's premier chess club.
     In 1916 he lost a match to former U.S. champion Jackson Showalter 6-1, but improved rapidly and defeated Showalter 5½-2½ in 1918. Whitaker peaked as a player in the 1920’s and in 1928 and played in one of his few major events outside the U.S., at The Hague in the 1928 FIDE "Amateur Championship," where he scored a respectable 9½-5½, finishing fourth-sixth of sixteen, 2½ points behind future world champion Max Euwe. His Elo rating for the 1920s has been estimated at 2420 to 2490, which during that period placed him probably in the country's top five or six.
    From 1916 on Whitaker three times began negotiations for a title match with Marshall, but for various reasons one never took place. Most likely a match never took place because of Whitaker’s life of crime. He committed his first felony, car theft, in 1921 and would spend substantial portions of the years 1925-1950 behind bars and virtually all of 1932-1946 away from organized chess. Whitaker felt little obligation to keep promises, tell the truth, respect the feelings or possessions of others or honor debts. The result was his penchant for committing numerous thefts and frauds. Some were petty such as not paying parking tickets, using fake coins, stealing library books, bouncing checks, failing to pay business debts, dodging the military draft, using aliases, filing false insurance claims, stealing cars, dealing in narcotics, attempting extortion, seducing, swindling and jilting women.
     His worst crime was his conviction for sexually molesting a twelve-year old girl, committed when Whitaker was fifty-nine. At the age of 68 he proposed marriage to a girl of fourteen.
     His most famous crime, committed with Gaston Means, a notorious swindler, was in 1932, when the baby of Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped. The two convinced a wealthy heiress that they had contact with the kidnappers, and could, for $104,000, secure release of the child. Whitaker posed as a gangster in the scheme. Means and Whitaker were arrested, but the money was never recovered.
     In 1958 Whitaker was accused of forging the will of a sister but it provided him with a small, but steady income. In 1965, after years of heavy lobbying on his own behalf, FIDE awarded him the International Master title, based mainly on his 1920's achievements. He was a thorn in the flesh of the USCF, filing innumerable nuisance lawsuits. In his late years, Whitaker's reputation began to improve, mostly because those who remembered him were no longer on the scene and he participated in chess education and organization. As time passed though he was increasingly alone and at age eighty-four a series of strokes gradually left him incapacitated and friend got him into a nursing home in Alabama, where he died a pauper on May 20, 1975. I met Whitaker at a small weekend tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1967. He was selling one of his endgame books, adjudicated a game and spun a few yarns.
     Frank Marshall’s title of U.S. Champion which he wrested from Jackson W. Showalter at Lexington, Kentucky by a score of +7 -2 =3 in 1909 had not been contested for 12 years. Marshall’s title was coveted by the nefarious Whitaker of Washington D.C.
     Whitaker had just won second place in a masters tournament at the Eighth American Congress that had been held in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1921. The event was won by David Janowsky with 8.5 – 2.5 a half point ahead of Whitaker even though Whitaker had handed Janowsky his only defeat in the tournament. Whitaker had lost two games: Vladimir Sournin and I.S. Turover. He defeated Frank Marshall, with three losses had tied for fifth place with Sournin and Samuel Factor.
     The relatively unknown Sournin (1 August 1875, Mstislavl, Russia – 21 August 1942, Baltimore, USA) was born into a Russian family of an Army officer, studied in Paris where he met Emmanuel Schiffers, and also learned about the Spanish-American War preparations and decided to join the Volunteers and crossed the Atlantic to fight for the United States. In 1896, he lost a match to Marshall (+2 –7 =2) in New York. He played at Ostend 1906 but was eliminated, took 19th at St Petersburg 1911 and tied for 14-15th at Vilna 1912 (B tournament).  He was the Washington D.C. champion in 1932 and 1933, with a comeback in 1938 at the age of 63.
     Isador S. Turover (July 8, 1892 - October 16, 1978) was a Belgian-American master. Born in Poland, he moved to Belgium and then to the United States. He was a champion of Baltimore from 1918 to 1921 and enjoyed success in many master tournaments on both the east and west coasts. Turover settled in the Washington, DC area and had a very successful lumber business. Turover became a director of the American Chess Foundation and was also known as a chess patron and philanthropist. He sponsored Bobby Fischer's attendance in the 1962 Stockholm Interzonal. Throughout his life he offered cash prizes for brilliancies.

     In a letter dated September 16, 1921, Whitaker sent the following letter to Marshall:

Mr. Frank Marshall
Marshall’s Chess Club
146 West 4th Street New York, N.Y.

Today I returned from the West and note with pleasure in the Brooklyn Eagle that there is a possibility that we might play a chess match. I, therefore, challenge you to play a chess match for the championship of the United States. Please let me know the conditions and if I can meet them I will promptly go to New York and sign the match agreement. It is my sincere desire to avoid any misunderstanding and I shall endeavor to co-operate with you in every way to promote this match. Awaiting your early reply, I am, very truly yours.

Norman T. Whitaker

     Upon receiving Whitaker’s letter Marshall consulted friends and sent a reply in which he outlined his conditions. Marshall’s reply listed only the financial conditions, leaving the playing conditions open to further negotiations. In addition to a $300 for living expenses he demanded a purse of $2000 of which he wanted 60 percent.

Dear Mr. Whitaker:

I have the honor to acknowledge your valued favor of the 16th inst., and am pleased to state that it will give me pleasure to consider playing you for the chess championship of the U.S., if mutually satisfactory terms can be arranged. I tentatively suggest the following terms which I would consent to enter the proposed match: (a) Since I shall be rising my present title, I will require that you put up, or cause to be put up, $2300 with such party or parties as we may mutually agree upon: the same to be disbursed as follows: (b) Three hundred ($300) dollars to be paid over to me upon the signing of the agreement between us, covering the terms of our understanding. (c) Two thousand ($2000) dollars to be held in trust by a party or parties to be designated by us, pending the outcome of the proposed match and is to be subsequently divided as follows: Sixty (60%) percent, twelve hundred dollars to go to me, win, lose or draw and forty (40%) eight hundred dollars, to go to you, win or lose. Trusting the foregoing suggested general terms for the proposed match meet with your approval, I beg to remain;

Very sincerely yours,
Frank J. Marshall
Chess Champion, U.S.
New York, September 25, 1921

All things considered, it’s probably best for Marshall that the match never took place. Who knows what scheme Whitaker had up his sleeve?

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