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Chess Memories of My Grandfather

My grandfather was the dentist of some of New York’s best chess players, including Samuel Reshevsky, Al Horowitz, and Edward Lasker. And he wasn’t so bad at the game himself.

Howard Langer
November 23, 2016
Samuel Reshevsky in May, 1968Wikimedia
Samuel Reshevsky in May, 1968Wikimedia

The return of the World Chess Championship to New York City after over a two-decade absence has led me to recall the chess in the life of my grandfather, who was a dentist on West Side of Manhattan. In 1941, two of his patients, Samuel Reshevsky and Al Horowitz, vied for the U.S. Championship. Ten years later, on April 16, 1951, Reshevsky and Horowitz played a simul, alternating moves against 25 experienced chess players. They won twenty-three games and drew two. The New York Times reported that one of the draws was against Dr. Samuel Greenberg, my grandfather.

Reshevsky had been brought to New York from Poland as an 8-year-old prodigy in 1921. He had already won medals in Europe and his parents took him on tours in which he would play simuls games against large numbers of skilled players. My grandfather, who would have been 27 in 1921, apparently first played Reshevsky at one of these exhibitions. Later, they became almost lifelong friends.

Reshevsky, age 8, giving a simultaneous chess exhibition in France, 1920. (Wikimedia)
Reshevsky, age 8, giving a simultaneous chess exhibition in France, 1920. (Wikimedia)

Reshevsky was an Orthodox Jew and ultimately made a living as an accountant. When he took the CPA exams he slept on the sofa in my grandparents’ apartment. Once, William Lombardy, an American grandmaster who is perhaps best known as Bobby Fischer’s former coach, called my grandfather from a tournament in Caracas. He feared his roommate, Reshevsky, had lost his mind. He was sitting in his hotel room on an overturned chair swaying back and forth. My grandfather explained to Lombardy that it was the fast day, Tisha B’AvReshevsky was reciting Eichah, Lamentations.

My grandfather’s friendship with Reshevsky extended from Reshevsky’s childhood until the 1970s, when it ended abruptly. One day, Reshevsky was in his office and my grandfather showed him a game he was playing. (Between patients, my grandfather would play postal chess and when you would come into his office, you were likely to find him studying his chess games. He had spiral bound books with tabbed cardboard chess boards in which he recorded the moves, which were exchanged on post cards. Games took months, often years.) Reshevsky suggested a move, but it didn’t sit well with my grandfather and he lost sleep over it. The next time Reshevsky was in the office, my grandfather questioned him about the consequences of the move they had discussed. Reshevsky, apparently offended at my grandfather’s presumption in questioning the move he’d suggested, exploded at him, stormed out of the office, and never spoke to my grandfather again.

My grandfather, an Orthodox Jew like Reshevsky, had rabbis mediate to no avail. An almost 50-year relationship ended over a chess move.

His relationship with Al Horowitz was happier. Horowitz too was a great player. He won the U.S. Open Championship three times. He wrote a chess column three days a week for the New York Times, when it still had a chess column, and was the editor of the now defunct Chess Review. He once wrote a column describing my grandfather’s loss to a blindfolded Miguel Njardorf in a six person simul in 1964. In another column, he was effusive in his description of one of my grandfather’s games, describing one of his moves as “the most intriguing move of the tournament.” He went on to ask regarding the move, “in actual play, was there ever such a versatile knight as this black intruder?” My grandfather would show off the column.

Horowitz and his wife frequently dined with my grandparents. My grandfather owned several of Horowitz’s books, all of which were inscribed warmly to him. My grandfather was shaken when Horowitz, in his mid-60s, died suddenly in 1973. He placed an obituary in the Times. It read, “We are deeply shocked and sorrowful at the loss of Al, a life-long friend, patient, and help mate.”

* * *

When he wasn’t in his office, you’d find my grandfather at the legendary Manhattan Chess Club, which closed in 2002, where he had several colorful acquaintances, many of whom were also patients. He told me that he’d always beat Harold Schonberg, the music critic of the Times. Schonberg had panned the opening of The Golem, an opera composed by Abe Ellstein, in which my uncle had debuted with the New York City Opera. Ellstein had interceded to get my uncle the role. Ellstein was devastated by the review and died a year to the day after the opening. While I liked to think my grandfather consistently beat Schonberg out of vengeance, he insisted that Schonberg just wasn’t a very good chess player. The actress, and Warhol protégé, Sylvia Miles, was also a chess partner. But my grandfather hadn’t known she was an actress. He came home speechless from Midnight Cowboy after seeing her romping half naked with Jon Voight.

On Saturday afternoons he played in Riverside Park between the 76th Street playground and the West Side Highway. He carried the chess pieces in a purple velvet Crown Royal bag. Here I met Tinsky with whom he’d been playing for decades and whom my grandmother forbade to set foot in their apartment. I don’t know whether he had insulted her or was just such a mess. And it was here that I saw one of my grandfather’s most extraordinary moments. He was playing Brother Theodore, a monologist and comedian who’d appeared frequently on The Merv Griffin Show. Brother Theodore was saying harsh, mean things to my grandfather while they played, but my grandfather always ignored the comments entirely. I remember him escalating his insults and saying cruelly of my cousins whose mother was not Jewish, “So how are your shegetz grandchildren?” My grandfather played without lifting his head. When they had finished and we were walking home I asked him how he could ignore the stream of insults. My grandfather looked at me genuinely surprised and asked me what I was talking about. I pointed out things that Theodore had said. “Ach,” he said, “How can I pay attention to that? He’s terribly jealous. I am there with you and he has nothing.” And it was clear that he was so accustomed to Theodore’s insults and so understood them that he did not even hear them.

At age 80 my grandfather retired to Florida. He told me that he played with the former American Champion, Edward Lasker, at the Miami Chess Club and frequently beat him. What he didn’t tell me that Lasker had been champion between 1916 and 1921 and was in his 90s when they played. In 1981, Miami’s Sun Reporter newspaper featured my grandfather’s picture in a piece on the Miami Beach Chess Club. In his old age, my grandfather threw his modesty to the wind, saying, in the article, “I’m an expert. I’m one of the best players around.”

Howard Langer lives in Philadelphia. He the founding partner of Langer, Grogan & Diver, which specializes in consumer protection law, and is adjunct professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Competition Law of the United States, published by Wolters Kluwer.