In 1954 I was nine years old and had never heard of chess. Instead I had an affection for board games and baseball. Favorite among the board games were Monopoly, Clue and the obscure Pony Express.
I also watched the Adventures of Superman, the Roy Rogers show and Candid Camera, which was all the rage, and Death Valley Days on television. The latter was one of the longest-running Western series on television. It began on radio in the 1930s and was sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax, a product formerly mined in Death Valley. It was also hosted by an actor past his prime named Ronald Reagan, the same fellow that would someday be President of the United States.
My father never missed the Ed Sullivan Show, the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and we always had to watch the nightly news and on Sundays, Meet the Press.
Unless you lived in France in 1954 an obscure country named Vietnam was in the news. In May at Dien Bien Phu a French military outpost had fallen to the Viet Minh army. A couple of months later a conference was held in Geneva to bring peace to the country which was divided at the 17th parallel and had democratic elections pending. The conference failed as many of us were to learn to our consternation a decade and more later when President Kennedy used Vietnam to distract the country from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. See Crossfire, the Plot That Killed Kennedy, page 284
But, as a nine year old none of that concerned me and the summer was consumed with baseball. In the fall the World Series was eagerly anticipated because my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians, had set a record by winning 111 games and they were heavily favored to defeat the New York Giants. It didn't happen. The Giants swept the Series in four games to win their first championship since 1933. The Series is remembered for "The Catch", a sensational running catch made by Giants center fielder Willie Mays in Game 1 when he snared a long drive by Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz near the outfield wall with his back to the infield. I saw it on television.
I was unaware of it but the chess world also had some big headlines. The 11th Chess Olympiad was held in Amsterdam 1954 and was won easily by the Soviet Union. The U.S. was not represented.
The 1st World Student Team Championship was held in Oslo. Again, the U.S. was not represented and three teams were undefeated in the finals: Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Bulgaria.
The Czechs won all nine matches while the Soviet Union lost one match (to Czechoslovakia). Bulgaria was defeated by both Czechoslovakia and the Soviets. The winning Czech team was made up of Miroslav Filip, Ladislav Alster, Julius Kozma, Jiri Vesely and Josef Marsalek. The Soviet team was consisted of Viktor Korchnoi, Oleg Moiseev, Nikolai Krogius, Alexander Nikitin and Vladimir Antoshin.
The 1954 World Championship was played between Mikhail Botvinnik and Vasily Smyslov in Moscow from March 16 to May 13, 1954 and Botvinnik retained his title.
The 55th U.S. Open was held in New Orleans, Louisiana from August 2-14, but it almost didn't happen thanks to the Louisiana State Legislature. Herman Steiner and his Hollywood Committee refused to discard the old idea of a group of graded tournaments in favor of the Swiss system so the USCF had to seek another sponsor and Louisiana Chess Federation and the New Orleans Chess Club stepped up and the USCF accepted their bid.
It was a USCF tradition that its tournaments must be open to all without restriction or distinction and without any thought to the matter the Louisiana sponsors accepted the fact that a few of the entrants might be black.
The Louisiana State Legislature had other thoughts. Shortly before the tournament began and in the final days of its session the Legislature passed several very restrictive segregation laws which made it illegal in Louisiana for the Open to accept entry from black players.
The USCF did not receive word of the new laws in sufficient time to change the locale nor was there time to notify USCF members of the restrictions imposed by the new Louisiana law. So, as a practical measure the USCF decided to accept the restrictions.
It was suggested that the USCF cancel the Open as a matter of principle, but the organizers in New Orleans had spent money and expended time and energy promoting the event. It was the opinion of the USCF that the injustice to the black players “would not be ameliorated by imposing an equal injustice on the innocent promoters...” and the tournament took place as scheduled and drew 109 players.
Favorites included former US Champions Larry Evans and Arthur Bisguier, Spanish IM (at the time) Arturo Pomar and former French champion Nicolas Rossolimo. Evans won on tiebreaks over Pomar and both players got $700 (about $6,500 today).
Lost in the news was a tournament in Montevideo. The surprise winner was the untitled (at the time) Chilean Rene Letelier (February 21, 1915 - July 2, 2006) who scored what was probably his greatest victory when he finished ahead of Najdorf, Bernstein and Toran.
One of the better games of the tournament was that between and old man aged 72, Ossip Bernstein, and Miguel Najdorf who was in his prime.
Nadjorf protested that it was unfair to play such an aged opponent and was so confident of victory that he convinced the tournament organizers to double the First Prize money at the expense of reducing the payouts for the lesser prizes.
In their individual game Bernstein routed Najdorf in a game that won the brilliancy prize. At the time this game was played Chessmetrics puts Najdorf's rating at 2655 ranking him number 7 in the world. Poor old Bernstein hadn't been ranked among the top players for twenty years and was way, way down Chessmetrics' rating list far outside the top 100.
1) Letelier 14.5
2-3) Najdorf and Bernstein 14.0
4) Toran 13.5
5-6) Trompowsky and De Carvalho 11.0
7) Salas 8.5
8-10) Horberg, Bauza and Cantero 8.0
11) Estrada 7.5
12) Corral 7.0
13) Olivera 6.5
14-15) Kalkstein and Salomon 6.0
16) Alvarez del Monte 4.0
17) Munoz 3.5
18) Linskens 2.0