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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Was Howard Landis Marks?

     If you are over 50 or 60 years old and lived in West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Ohio, you have probably heard the name H. Landis Marks. If not, then you probably never heard of him. But I remember the name. I like browsing old chess literature and the West Virginia Chess Bulletins from the 1940s mention his name a lot. That's because in the 1940s he was one of the of the strongest players in the state. 
     From Huntington, West Virginia, Marks was born in Lewiston in 1911. He learned chess at the age of 11 from reading books and started playing tournament chess while a young man. In 1932, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Marks drew a simultaneous game against Alekhine. Alekhine had participated in the Pasadena tournament which he won with 8.5 out of 11 (+7=3-1), followed by Kashdan with 7.5, Dake, Steiner, and Reshevsky with 6, Borochow with 5.5, Reinfeld, Bernstein, and Fine with 5, Araiza with 3.5, and Fink with 3. Alekhine won $250 (about $4300 today), Kashdan won $150 ($2600 today), and Dake, Steiner, and Reshevsky won $50 ($860 today) each. The tournament was promoted by Cecil B. DeMille and followed the 10th Modern Olympic Games, which were held in Los Angeles. Afterwards Alekhine conducted a simul tour in the U.S. BTW, if you're interested in what things cost is the 1930's you can check it out on The People History website.
     Marks didn't become a mainstay in West Virginia chess though he won the 1942 State Championship. He moved to Virginia during the war years and later returned home. His second title came in 1947. 
     For chess ratings, the Harkness System was invented by Kenneth Harkness and it was used by the USCF from 1950 to 1960. Professor Arpad Elo is generally regarded as having invented the chess rating system, but that is not true. A rating system had been existence for ten years before Elo got involved. What Professor Elo did was make significant modifications and improvements to the existing rating system. 
     The older system allowed for rating changes to come about faster. The first National Rating list was published in the December 1950 issue of Chess Review magazine and it was devised by Kenneth Harkness. The first rating statistician was William Byland of Texas (later Pennsylvania) who did all calculations by hand! 
     It all started with assigning every player who had an even score in the US Open a rating of 2000. The ratings were then calculated until there was a rating for every player. The basics of the rating system was that if you achieved an even score in a tournament, your performance rating was the average rating of your opponents. If you got a plus score, your performance rating was the average rating of your opponents plus 10 points for each percentage point of your score above 50%. For example, if you scored 7.5 out of 10, or 75 percent, your performance rating would be 250 points more than the average rating of your opponents. So, if your opponent's average rating was 1800, your performance rating was 2050. 
     The truth is, Professor Elo's modifications did not change the system much...only by about 50 points. Elo's biggest change to the system was that ratings were based on individual games. Under the old system, if you played only one tournament of at least five games within a six month period, your performance rating in that event was averaged with the old rating to establish your new rating. Only round robins or Swiss tournaments of at least 5 games counted. You could manipulate the system because if you had a bad tournament you could withdraw after 4 rounds and your rating wouldn't be affected. 
     On the forerunner of the official USCF rating list Marks was rated 2117 at the end of 1949. After that Marks disappeared from chess only to pop up again in 1960 when he took his third West Virginia title. 
     Over the next few years he was extremely active, successfully competing in events in the tri-State area. By the end of 1962, his rating near 2100, not much different than it had been under the old system. Marks was elected President of the West Virginia Chess Association in 1967 and won three tournaments that year and finished second in the State Championship. He passed away in December of 1975 at the age of 64.
     The following game has some interesting tactical points. 

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