Archive for May, 2007

2 1/2 Minutes

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My father taught me how to play chess when I was about six years old. Of course, he would beat me every time. It was not in his nature to let me “win” every now and then. Worse, when he did beat me, he would sit back and laugh – he had a distinct sadistic streak which manifested itself in ways such as this. So I stopped playing, refused to take any more psychological abuse.

When I was about twelve, I stumbled on Evgeny Alexandrovich Znosko-Borowski’s The Art of the Middlegame in Chess at the Main Street Flushing branch of the Queensborough public library.  I studied it in secret and a month or two later surprised my father by challenging him to play a game. What’s more, I won! – and I sat back and laughed. That started me on a five or six year obsession with chess.

At age thirteen I started playing once a week at the Queens Chess Club, partly to avoid going to Boy Scout meetings which I detested (after a year or so I quit the scouts). There were a couple of strong teen-aged players there, George Kramer and Maurice Ginzburg and the adult players included the wonderful Partos brothers, Julius and George (in Hungarian spelling, Gyula and Gyorgy) who encouraged me in every way they could. After playing there for a year or so Julius told me that the Manhattan Chess Club, the premier club in the country, was offering free memberships to young people in order to get an early hold on the next generation of masters. In this they were very successful. Among the teen-agers at that time were the Byrne brothers, Robert and Donald, Arthur Bisguier, Walter Shipman and George Kramer (who had also moved there). (I once overheard one of the club leaders talking to another of an extraordinary kid in Brooklyn who refused to change allegiances – that would be Bobby Fischer.) For me it was a great improvement in ambience, from a basement in Jackson Heights to a ground level carpeted room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Central Park South.

I played at the Manhattan club from about 1944 to mid 1946, usually going in on Friday afternoons to play in the regular rapid-transit tournaments Friday evenings. This was a full fifteen round, round robin tournament played at ten seconds a move. Donald Byrne, who was wildly talented at fast chess was a frequent winner, even coming in ahead of Reuben Fine, who had a big reputation as rapid transit player, on at least one occasion. I believe I came in fifteenth in every tournament I participated in. I just didn’t have the ability necessary to compete in such lofty company – I was, quite literally, out of my league. There were a number of interesting or amusing episodes at the MCC which I may talk about when the opportunity presents itself.

In the summer of 1945, not long after the German surrender, plans were made to have a ten board team match between the USSR and the USA played at a distance, using MacKay Radio to transmit the moves. Several of us young also-rans were asked to help out with the logistics. The American team was housed in a large catering room at the Henry Hudson Hotel. The audience was in the Grand Ballroom and the MacKay Radio operators were on a mezzanine level balcony overlooking the ballroom. There was a back staircase from the balcony to the catering room. My job was to carry messages to and from the radio operators from and to the catering room. Each of us was given one or two boards to service. I had board number two, Reshevsky, which, as you will see, I remember very distinctly, and must have had board number one, Denker, but have no clear recollection of that.


The match was scheduled for four days starting September first 1945. In August, the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so VJ day fell on the second of September in the middle of the match schedule. There is an accurate account of the match, including the records of the games on this page. What is not recorded there is the politicking and backbiting that went on before and during the match. Arnold Denker was given the first board because he was the US Champion that year but the feeling was that he would not have been if either Reshevsky or Fine had been able to compete for the US Championship. Both of them had been off the scene during the war years because of their “day jobs” (Reshevsky was an accountant and Fine a psychologist – what they were doing that was essential to the war effort is not known by me). They both did very little to conceal their resentment of Denker’s assignment and Fine seemed to think he should have had the second board. As things turned out, I doubt that any of the six permutations for the top three boards would have made any difference at all – all three would still have been trounced.

Reshevsky was a devout Orthodox Jew and required a dispensation from a Rabbi to play on Saturday but still could not write his own game record (because that constitutes work, which is forbidden) so a young man from CCNY was doing that for him. As the game progressed and Reshevsky’s humiliation was becoming more evident he took out his frustration on the CCNY student – an extremely unpleasant display of prima donna petulance. The game record is available in a very nice format (interactive) here.

Reshevsky sat for 45 minutes on his sixteenth move, a sacrificial line. This sort of thing was not uncommon for him. He often used much of the allotted time for the first set of moves for the early middlegame. The common description was “Sammy has sitzfleisch”. But, still, 45 minutes at move 16 … After Smyslov’s reply very quickly came back, Reshevsky asked me to get the time on Smyslov’s clock. I sent a radiogram request and the answer came back “2 ½ minutes”. When he saw this, Sammy became very agitated (his own clock was well over an hour at this point) and demanded confirmation. I sent another request and the reply was the same. On Reshevsky’s insistence I sent another request: “We received the time as 2 ½ minutes, repeat, 2 ½ minutes – please confirm” They confirmed 2 ½ minutes.

While all of this was going on, Al Horowitz, a genuinely nice guy, publisher with Kenneth Harkness of Chess Review the most popular chess magazine in the US, came up and turned the game record so he could read it, looked thoughtful for a few seconds and then said: “Sammy, have you been keeping up with the Russian journals?” and when Reshevsky said no, he added “Smyslov published 22 pages on this line and beats it in every variation.”

A post script on this story: when I got Smyslov’s first move (e4) from the radio operator, I charged up the stairs, burst through the catering room door and ran smack into Mayor Fiorello Laguardia, nearly bowling him over. He was there with a little troop from City Hall for an opening ceremony. As an illustration of how memory works (or doesn’t), I had completely forgotten this detail of my participation. My mother, who was about 95 at the time, reminded me of it a couple of years ago. To her this was the memorable event; to me it was Smyslov v Reshevsky.

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An obituary for Sam Kagel appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle which brought to mind an interesting meeting which featured Kagel, Paul St. Sure and Jeff Cohelan.

In 1956 or ’57 my then father-in-law, Richard Flambert, a consultant in the food service industry, conducted a twelve session course at the UC Extension on food service management. The first eleven sessions were either conducted by Flambert or a single guest speaker, people prominent in the local industry, on various management issues from restaurant design to advertising to menu design and so on. The final meeting was a panel discussion on labor relations. The panel was made up of the three individuals mentioned above.

At the time Sam Kagel was a federal arbitrator and mediator – I should have said the federal arbitrator. He was widely and deeply respected by all sides of such controversies and negotiations. Kagel was a close friend of Harry Bridges. His labor career dated back to the 1934 Maritime Strike (which led to the General Strike).

Jeff Cohelan was secretary-treasurer of the Milk Drivers and Dairy Employees, Local 302, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, a position he gave up when elected to Congress in 1958.

Paul St. Sure was president and chief negotiator for the Pacific Maritime Association, elected chairman of the Board in 1965. His career also dated back to the Maritime Strike but he was on the other side, a negotiator for the PMA.

Each panelist spoke for five or ten minutes and then all three were to respond to written questions from the class attendees.

Kagel talked about labor-management relations had matured over the years, the necessary tensions between them and how resolution of conflicts generally advanced both parties, and so on and on – about what you would have expected.

Cohelan’s talk was a bit surprising, especially for the class members. He talked about what his union went through before making wage and fringe benefit and work rules demands. He said before they would ask for a nickel raise they would estimate what that would do to the local dairies – how many dairies would be driven from business, how many would reduce staff, what would happen to the price of milk, how many workers in both the industry and outside of it, would be unemployed as a result and so forth. (Remember, Cohelan was a graduate of the UC School of Economics and Oxford.). They would then adjust their demands and see what that would do.  It was very impressive to say the least.

The biggest surprise was St. Sure’s presentation. He talked about how the rise of trade unions was a good thing for management, that it made better managers because they could no longer cover their weaknesses by making up for them at the expense of their workers. We were all stunned by this statement coming from this speaker.

Now it was time for questions from the class which were written out on three by five cards, addressed to a specific panelist or to the group as a whole, collected by me and given to M.C. Flambert, who read them aloud. Most of the class members were owner-operators of small restaurants, some little better than greasy-spoons – a tough, hard bitten lot. Most of the questions were thinly veiled pleas for the respondent to say something negative about unions and all went unsatisfied in that regard.

Finally, there was a question addressed to Jeff Cohelan: “What is the philosophy of the American trade union movement?” I guess the questioner wanted him to beat his breast and say “Oh, we’re all clandestine Communists trying to subvert American free enterprise and the US Government.”

Cohelan replied: “I am unaware of any philosophy held by the American trade union movement, unless it is what Eugene V. Debs said: ‘MORE!’”

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One of the first jobs I had after I returned from the University of Chicago to New York was at McGraw-Hill Research the market research department of the very large magazine and book publishing company. It was a temporary job paying a dollar an hour for a 35 hour week, which, believe it or not, was considered rather good starting pay at the time.

The job was to process responses from about 43,000 respondents in a magazine readership survey. The respondents were people who were influential in buying goods and services such as purchasing agents, VPs from appropriate departments and so on. It was sponsored by about 10 of the very large industrial firms at the time, such as Alcoa, US Steel, Dupont, Goodyear, Union Carbide and others like them.  There were about seven or eight of us who were hired to prepare for the inputting of the data to the tabulation process.  We were given about a 10 page list of magazines and associated with each magazine name was a punch position on 60 columns of an 80 column card, so there was provision for 720 magazines. We were also given an eight and a half by eleven pad of images of an 80 column card.  We would take each response, find each magazine named in the response, find the right column and spot and blacken that spot on the graphic representation of the punched card. 

They sat all of us around a large conference room table right in the middle of the department office. It was tedious, mind-numbing work and I tried providing some relief by telling stories and jokes and making wise-cracks out of any opportune remark or event. Our group enjoyed this but it was irritating the other workers so that I was shushed or mildly reprimanded a number of times. There was one keypunch operator to create the cards from the forms. She looked exactly like Marie Wilson of My Friend Irma and was just as dumb. There were several other people who were interesting, such as the wonderful Kay Rooney, and there was a typical office political battle going on which I will talk about in a separate post. When the job was done, in a month or so, the temps were let go but I was retained for a while longer to do the tabulations on an IBM 080 sorter. I’ll take that up in the next post as well.

A couple of weeks after I started a new woman was added to the group. She appeared to be rather older than myself and the others in the group, was dressed in an ill-fitting tweed suit, had no make-up on (which was unusual in Manhattan at that time), hair not well combed and had a load of musty looking library books under her arm. As she went past me, I ducked my head to see the titles of the books. All I could make out was Robertson’s History of Scotland, an eighteenth century classic. Clearly this was no ordinary novice clerk.

During a break I introduced myself, commented on her reading matter and we were soon chatting away like old friends. She was English (of course), “born within the sound of Bow Bells,” that is, London Cockney. She had gone all the way to a Masters degree from the London School of Economics (in Medieval Economics!) on scholarships, had been bombed out twice during the Blitz. Her name was Winifred Scott-Fleming, married to Angus Scott-Fleming, a Chartered Accountant, and was called simply Freddie. She was among the most admirable people I have known. We became good friends during our time at McGraw.

Angus and Freddie lived near the Long Island Railroad’s train yard and the crashing together of trains in the middle of the night would cause a WW II reflex response: she would get up, still half asleep, put on a robe and slippers, pick up the dog and start out the window – until she realized where she was. One rainy day she asked for a favor. She was to meet Angus in the catalog room on the first floor of the New York Public Library and return some books. I took the shuttle across 42nd street because I lived on 84th street near First Avenue and would use the east side express to go home. She asked me to take the books, give them to Angus and tell him she would be going straight home. I asked how I would identify Angus in what was sure to be big crowd (avoiding the rain) and she said don’t worry, you’ll know him when you see him. She was right. In the middle of the crowd there was his head, a head above everyone else, topped with a black bowler, a brief case in the right hand and a brolly hooked over the left forearm.

The last time I saw Freddie was at her office in her new, permanent job. She was on the staff of the Secretary General of the United Nations developing an industrial coding system for emerging nations, a very complex task.

In the McGraw-Hill building, that awful looking green thing on 42nd Street near Ninth Avenue (I couldn’t find it in the Google Satellite images – it has probably been replaced), the ground floor contained a Walgreen’s, complete with a long lunch counter. Many of us used it for coffee-breaks, breakfast or lunch. The servers behind the counter used truck-stop slang for calling orders to the cooks or each other which was very entertaining for the customers.  One day Freddie asked me what an English Muffin was. I explained it was an American invention, never seen in England but that it was quite good. She asked if I would share one with her, apparently afraid to undertake a whole one by herself. We went to the Walgreen’s and I ordered an English Muffin. The toaster was at the far end of the counter so our waitress called for one to be prepared: “Burn the British!” 

It is impossible to describe the look on Freddie’s face.

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