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Monday, January 26, 2015

Jacob Bernstein

     Bernstein was a little known player whose early life, place and date of birth are all unknown; he died in December 1958. A book on the Rice Gambit, published in 1916, called him "a promising young master."
     After 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. h4 g4 5. Ne5 Nf6 6. Bc4 d5 7. exd5 Bd6 8. 0-0 (The Rice Gambit where, instead of the normal 8.d4, White offers the sacrifice of the knight on e5 in order to get his king to safety and prepare a rook to join the attack against Black's underdeveloped position). The move 8...g3 is called the Bernstein Defense by the tournament book.

     Born into a Jewish family, he lived in New York and was good enough to have won three consecutive New York State Championships (1920, 1921 and 1922); he also shared 1st with Herman Steiner in 1929, but lost on tiebreaks. Bernstein tied for 8-9th at New York 1913 (Rice tournament, Capablanca won), tied for 5-6th at New York 1915 (Capablanca won), tied for 7-8th at New York 1916 (Rice tournament, Capablanca won), and lost a match to Abraham Kupchik (1.5 : 3.5) at New York 1916.
     After World War I, he tied for 3-6th at New York 1922 (Edward Lasker won), took 13th at Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary) 1923, and tied for 7-10th at Pasadena 1932 (Alexander Alekhine won).
     In one of Edward Winter's articles the strong New York master Sidney Bernstein described meeting Bernstein (no relation) in New York City in the Spring of 1987 and described him as "very old" but still good enough to defeat him (Sidney) easily in offhand games. Arnold Denker described Jacob Bernstein's establishment, the Stuyvesant Chess Club of the 1930's, as being filled with people "who would rather play chess than eat." 

Street view today
     Denker said there was no restriction on smoke or noise and English was rarely heard; it was mostly Russian, Yiddish or Polish. The club was a long room in a brownstone building with chess tables at the front, then card tables and all the way at the rear was a small kitchen run by Bernstein's wife. Denker described the place as a "gambling parlor" which Bernstein ran despite the fact that his wife had numerous relatives on the police force. Things hadn't changed when Sidney visited the club because he also described it as a gambling parlor.
     Jacob Bernstein, known to his friends as Yankele, was described by Denker as being completely bald, short, fat and greasy looking with a neck like wrestler. That description does not fit the photo I discovered on Edward Winter's outstanding history site. 

     According to Winter, the photo is taken from the Carlsbad, 1923 tournament book and while many sources identify the player as Ossip Bernstein, it is actually Jacob. Winter also has a photo taken in New York, in 1915 showing Jacob sitting across from Frank Marshall. He looks like the same guy. Apparently by the time Denker met him, Bernstein's appearance had changed a lot or else Denker's 84 year old memory was fuzzy by the time he wrote, The Bobby Fischer I Knew.  By the way, Denker's book is great reading. It has over 300 games and positions, many never before published, and Larry Evans described it best when he wrote, "So many people in these pages...seems to emerge from the walls to take one last bow." The price has gone up $5 since I bought my copy, but I would spend $25 for it if I had too because I enjoyed it that much.

     I was, as usual, going to present one of Bernstein's games but decided not to because to be honest, all the ones I played over were boring affairs with little in the way of spectacular play. So, I decided not to bother.

1 comment:

  1. According to a poster on chessgames.com, he was born in Kaunas, Lithuania