In the annals of American sport it would be difficult to find any event so completely overshadowed as was the first annual armed forces chess tournament in Washington a fortnight ago. About the time the 12 contestants had adjusted themselves to playing in the air-conditioned basement of the USO building on Lafayette Square, the U-2-summit affair exploded, and the entire city was awash with excitement.
Maybe baseball players can keep right on with their games, no matter what the international situation, but it is another thing for chess players, who tend to be intellectual types absorbed in what is an essentially military game. And when the chess players are also highly intelligent military men, it is impossible. Nevertheless, from 9 every morning until 7 or 8 every night they tried.
Since all chess players in the reserves and National Guard were eligible, it may seem odd that everyone knew ahead of time that the real contest was going to be between an Army private and a captain in the Air Force. Either Arthur Feuerstein, attached to the Seine Area Command in France as an accountant, or Captain John Hudson, a bombardier-navigator from Chennault Air Base in Louisiana, was considered certain to be first; why this was, and why the tournament still remained a first-rate competitive struggle, is one of the fascinations of chess, and particularly chess in the armed forces. Feuerstein, four times New York state champion, is an experienced tournament player of recognized standing among the top American civilian chess players. Hudson was United States Amateur champion four years ago. A botany student at the University of Pennsylvania, he enlisted during the Korean War and remained in the service.
The other contestants—a Navy captain and commander, an Air Force major and a number of technicians—lacked comparable credentials, but no one entirely discounted them. For one thing, military life does not permit the sustained play needed to keep a Feuerstein or Hudson in top form. For another, even relatively inexperienced chess players are likely to flare up for a moment—not long enough to win the tournament themselves but long enough to knock out Feuerstein or Hudson or any other master.
June 5, 1960
Each morning the contestants arrived promptly, faultlessly groomed, nodded to each other with reserved cordiality, took their places at the six tables and began to play chess. There was no gallery whatever during the day. The scene resembled that of a classroom in which a group of special students is taking a final examination in advanced mathematics. Two professional-appearing men watched over the games: Hans Kmoch, the referee, a chess master and chess authority and famous prewar European chess correspondent; and Colonel John Matheson, a West Point chess wizard in his cadet days. Occasionally, a player glanced at a newspaper while waiting for his opponent to move, but for the most part they merely waited.
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In the USO halls upstairs there was constant—and noisy—activity that could be plainly heard in the chess room below. While the players were brooding over their moves, The Free Lancers, a somewhat progressive group, gave a jazz concert. A snack supper was served by a Methodist Church group and a variety show was put on. There was a Wednesday evening dance, a calypso party and a gala fiesta floor show. A supper party was held by the ladies auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. From time to time visitors from upstairs ventured into the tournament room, looked impressed at the sphinx-like, motionless players and tiptoed away. After five o'clock in the evening a considerable gallery formed, but by that time the players had been at the tables for seven hours or so, and their eyes were beginning to glaze.
Feuerstein, after winning five games in a row, unexpectedly drew his game with Michael Robinson, a former physics student at the University of Chicago, who was far down in the standings. But Hudson, just as unexpectedly, then drew his game with Robert Grande, a technical sergeant from Boiling Field. Hudson and Feuerstein consequently met in the decisive game of the tournament on terms of equal exasperation, since either could have had first place cinched. They played the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defense, which leads to clogged and complicated positions, pretty fancy highbrow chess, in which the board looks as if the pieces were just scattered at random. This is characteristic of modern sophisticated play, with the players striving to prevent symmetrical and logical patterns from emerging. After almost five hours and 34 moves, Feuerstein offered a draw. Hudson accepted it with the greediness of a sleepy man hearing the five o'clock whistle. They shared first-and second-prize money ($1,000 and $500) put up by Thomas Emery, a New York capitalist. A marine in World War I, Emery has earmarked the interest from an investment—reportedly $100,000—to provide annual prizes from now on, as long as chess and the armed forces exist.
That will be a long time, for chess and military tactics have gone together for centuries. In the early days of the nation, chess was the favorite game of military men; for generations it was regarded as the great sport of the intelligence services. As chess players, the military men playing in Washington were no match for the current Russian masters, nor even for many top civilian American players. But as soldiers and sailors returning to an older tradition, and to a game in which Americans once excelled, they accomplished their mission with distinction.