In Whitney's Shadow

In Whitney's Shadow

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Mt. Whitney, the hightest peak in the contiguous United States

     Nestled within the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the base of the highest peak in the lower 48 states, the high desert community of Lone Pine became the unlikely location for the strongest series of chess tournaments played in the United States during the entire 1970s.

     The town was named for a single, large pine tree that overlooked the original settlement back during the American Civil war.

     This narrative will eventually focus on one event, possibly one of the the least important, that occurred dead center in this series of tournaments but will spiral down to that event from a rather wide panoramic scope.


     Almost half a century before the first chess tournament in Lone Pine, California, a man named Arthur Letts, Sr. died.  Mr. Letts had been a department store tycoon who built a chain of stores from a single bankrupted business he had bought for a song.  His chain was called the Broadway Department Store and it was based out of Los Angeles.  With his fortune, Mr. Letts bought 400 acres of farmland which he had hoped to develop into a community.  This land encompassed what eventually became Hombly Hills, Westwood and the UCLA campus.  Arthur Letts died in 1923 and his son, Arthur, Jr. used his inheritance to build a 14,000 sq. ft. manor on 4.5 acres at 10236 Charing Cross Road in Hombly Hills, completed in early 1928. He lived there until his death 31 years later.


     In 1943, an engineer/inventor at the Curtis-Wright Corp., at that time a maufacturer of airplanes and airplane technology, formed a separate company using his own priority inventions as its basis. Louis Dee Statham and his wife Anna became partners and the business prospered beyond their dreams.  Statham became quite wealthy and in 1961 he purchased the Letts mansion, now 22,000 sq. ft.,  from Letts' widow, Kathleen, for the bewildering low price of $110,200. 

     The Stathams lived a lavish lifestyle complete with parties, concerts and charitable events.  But Anna died in early 1965 and much of that hustle and bustle ended with her passing.  Louis married Doris Hazel Johnson in 1968.  Doris, a Renaissance woman, was once a concert pianist, an organic chemistry instructor at UCSF and fluent in nine languages  but is now best remembered as an oil painter under the name Dea Berg.  Doris played an integral part in the focal story.

"French Milk Can and Fruit" by Dea Berg

     I was very fortunate to discuss Louis Statham with his grandson and learned a few things I may not have discovered otherwise. He said Louis had grown tired of the the society life and the skyrocketing property taxes and wanted the more serene existence that the Eastern Sierras offered.  He bought land and built a home in Lone Pine with his large living room window facing the looming Mt. Whitney.  One thing that struck me was Louis' love of ham radios. Along with a studio building for his wife's painting and an organic garden, he also had a ham radio room filled with radio paraphernalia and accoutrements. Louis' "ham call" was K6VG.  He passed this passion for radios onto his grandson.  Besides communicating to the outside world, I was told he also "played chess with other hams via radio."
     Amid bitter protests from the local residents, he sold his mansion on Charing Cross Road to Hugh Hefner for use as his "Playboy Mansion West" for $1.1 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for a home in L.A..   Hefner, just this month (Aug. 2016), sold the mansion for $100 million to the co-owner of Twinkies maker, Hostess Bakery.
     After marrying Doris, Louis took up chess.  Isolated from the rest of the world except for his business dealings in LA, Statham decided to create a chess tournament in his adopted home town, the first one of which was played in 1971 and attended by 3 grandmasters.

Introduction to the inaugural tournament in 1971

winner, Larry Evans, in 1971

     This account won't attempt to summarize all the eleven tournaments (from 1971 until 1981 after which Louis became seriously ill up until his death in 1983).  In fact, since the focus will be on a 1976 happening, not much past then will be considered other than a couple images.  But this account will show various reporting and images in order to to gain an overall idea of the tournament series.  Many masters today, such as IM Jeremy Silman, have memories and stories from these unique events. It would be a joy to one day compile as many as possible.

     Louis' grandson sent me a scan of the poster below from 1978 and is signed by most of the participants (right-click/view-image to view at twice this size.  The actual scan is twice THAT size -too large for uploading here, but I will send the file anyone wanting the larger image).

Svetozar Gligorić, the 1972 Lone Pine winner.

     The following article was written in 1972 by the Statham's perpetual tournament director, Isaac Kashdan who had been one of the strongest U.S. players during the 1930s and 40s.  He also seemed to have been loved and respected by everyone.
By  Isaac Kashdan

     Hastings, England; Palma de Majorca, Spainl Skopje and Vincovci Yugoslavia; Wijk aan Zee, Holland; Mar del Plata, Argentina; Natanya, Israel; and Reggio Emilia, Italy.  What do all these have in common?  Chess players will recognize them as small towns around the world which sponsor chess tournaments on a regular basis.
     Add to these Lone Pine, California.  The second in an unusual series of tournaments was held there from March 12 to 18 this year.  Remember the name.  It will prove to be one of the great centers of American chess, at least once a year.
     Chess came to Lone Pine when Louis D. Statham established his residence there, moving from an estate in Beverly Hills.  He learned chess several years ago, after semi-retiring from an active business career. He is involved in correspondence chess, with dozens of games going on regularly.  But there was no one to play with in Lone Pine.  Statham wanted the residents to see what the game was all about, and he thought that some of our prominent chess masters might enjoy enjoy playing where they could breathe fresh air away from the usual hotel atmosphere.
     Both tournaments were limited to players rated as masters or experts by the USCF.  There was no entrance fee for those qualified.  Having a completely open tournament would no do as there was no site in Lone Pine that would hold more than 50 players with any comfort.  But Statham did want the strongest players he could attract.  The prize fund, $2500 in 1971, was more than doubled to $5000 this year.  This certainly helped.  Three grandmasters, Browne, Evans and Gligoric, were in the field of 33 last year, and they all came back, along with Bisguier, to make it four this time.  How they fared is another story, as the details will make clear.
    One of the novel ideas Statham had was to match our most promising juniors with the grandmasters.  Thus the eligibility for the tournament this year was changed somewhat.  All masters could still enter, but only rated experts who were under 21.  As a result there were 12 juniors among the 35 starters this year.  They contributed more than their share to the excitement of the event.
     One of the juniors, California champion Kim Commons, played against three of the grandmasters and outscored them 2 to 1.  He lost to Gligoric in the opening round, then beat both Browne and Bisguier.  In two other meetings between grandmasters, Tarjan drew with Gligoric and 15 year old Christiansen drew with Browne.
     What happened to the grandmasters at Lone Pine?  Treu, Gligoric walked off with first prize, but the other three all would up with 50% scores!  This is unheard of in Swiss system events, where there are enough weaker players to fatten the scores for those on top.  There may have been "weakies," as Fischer calls them, at Lone Pine, but not enough for Bisguier, Browne and Evans.  The summary below tells the story in all its gory detail, but the final standings were 3.5-3.5 for Biguuier and Browne, and 3-3 for Evans. There were only two games among them, both involving Bisguier.  He lost to Gligoric and drew with Evans.  In the later rounds B, B and E were too low to be paired against each other by the Swiss system rules.
     Evans had to miss his final game because of a misfortune outside the tournament hall.  His wife Ingrid was driving from their home in Reno to Lone Pine before the final round, which happened to fall on her birthday.  On the way she met with an accident.  Fortunately she emerged with only a few bruises, but the car was wrecked.  Statham arranged for a driver to take Evans to her.
     For his good work Gilogiric took home $2,000.  The four playerswho shared second to fifth prizes garnered $700 each.  Those who tied for 6th to 11th divided the remaining $700.  In tie-breaking order, they were Martz, Fritzinger, Commons, Brasket, Martinovsky and Cleghorn.  Two brilliancy prizes were offered.  Karklins won $100 for the game witn Commons, and Browne picked up the second prize of $50 for his win against Brandts.
     Following each round a number of players were invited to the palatial home of the Stathams, with its marvelous view of Mt. Whitney.  The final banquet and prize awarding ceremonies were held at the Sierra Trails Restaurant, where the tournament was held last year.  This time the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars offered their contiguous premises.  The American Legion Hall, with the special lighting installed,  proved ideal for the tournament, with the VFW Hall used for the analysis and "crying" room.  It worked out very well.
     A word about Lone Pine is in order.  It is about halfway between Los Angeles and Reno, on the main road between the cities.  The public transportation is by bus.  here is no plane of train connection to Lone Pine.  Those who don't like buses can rent cars at either Los Angeles or Reno air terminals, or try to get rides from players driving to the tournament.  Once in Lone Pine, there is ample accommodation at very reasonable rates at motels, and eating facilities for every taste.  Taking care of tourists is the principal occupation of the 1300 residents.  Lone Pine is on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an altitude of 3700 feet.  It is near Mt. Whitney, the hifghest peak in the U. S. except Alaska, and also near Death Valley, the lowest point.

concerning Lone Pine 1973:

winner of Lone Pine 1973
      The 1973 tournament included 5 GMs.  It's rating average was 2322, a new record for any Swiss system tournament played in the U.S. and possibly the world. Walter Browne and Laszlo Szabo of Hungary.

Kashdan shows the continual growth of the tournament in 1974:

     The fourth annual Louis D. Statham Tournament was again held in Lone Pine, California.  We expected it to be the strongest, but not the best attended of the series.  As it happened, it excelled on both counts.
     As to the number of participants, Louis Statham and I wanted to limit it to between 35 and 40.  For one thing, space was a consideration.  We used adjoining buildings of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, generously made available for the tournament by the two organizations.  One was set up as a playing area, the other for analysis ans skittles.  We preferred a maximum of 20 tables in the playing area, though more could be and actually were used.
. . .
     Some statistics will attest to the strength of the tournament.  The average rating of all 53 players was 2329, which must be the highest of any Swiss system tournament ever held.  There were six grandmasters, including the foreigners, Gheorghiu and Levente Lengyel of Hungary, former U.S. champions Evans and Arthur Bisguier of Rock Hill N.Y., and Benko and Browne.  The international players included Canadian champion Peter Biyiasas, Kaplan, Anthony Saidy of Los Angeles, and two old-timers, former U.S. champion, Arnold Denker of Fort Laurderdale, Fla. and Arthur Dake of Portland, Ore.  Dake was a valuable member of three U.S. Olympic teams in the 1930s.

1974 winner, Walter Browne


The Lone Pine venue for the first 4 years

     In 1975 Louis Statham completed the building of a new structure, at a cost of $300,000, not only to be used as a chess hall, but donated to the town for use as the town hall.  Today it is still the town hall as well as the senior center.

Statham Hall today
(contemporary photos courtesy of Keith Franson)


Statham Hall in the 1970s


 The "California Chess Reporter" (thanks to Kerry Lawless and wrote this about the 1975 event:

Vladimir Liberzon, Louis Statham and Isaac Kashdan, 1975

The 1975 winner, Vladimir Liberzon at Lone Pine

     Liberzon won $4,000 of the $12,500 prize package for first place. Another $1000 was set aside for a $50 per day "Best Game" and for four ultimate best games.  The top four best game grand prizes went to Alla Kushnir, Istvan Bilek, Leonid Shamkovich and Peter Biyiasis.  The 1975 tournament hosted 22 GMs and 12 IMs.

     The following scenes from the 1975 tournament are from the "California Chess Reporter," again thanks to Kerry Lawless for preserving, archiving and making available these views into California's chess past.

Statham 1975

     This image of Statham with Petrosian was part of the cover of "Chess Life and Review" for May, 1976

    The following scenes from the 1976 tournament are from the "California Chess Reporter."

Tirgan Petrosian, winning of Lone Pine 1976
     Petrosian won $8,000, the highest single prize ever given in any American chess tournament to date.  The total prize package was $22,000 with $700 for brilliancy prizes (divided among Minguel Quinteros, John Grefe, Tony Miles, Tim Taylor, Ken Rogoff, William Martz, Kim Commons, Craig Barnes and Curt Brasket).

Smylsov, the other of two former world champions at Lone Pine 1976

Doris and Louis Statham stand behind Petrosian, Lone Pine 1976

Bent Larsen flanked by Louis and Doris Statham in 1978

Almost there . . .

     And this leads us to the story that inspired this article. But there's is even a story about getting the story.  About 10 years ago an acquaintance of mine, Lawrence Totaro, a chess collector from Las Vegas, learned about my interest is Diane Savereide, former (5 times!) U.S. Women's champion, particularly concerning a little contest she had with Brazilian women's champion, Ruth Volgl Cardoso.  I couldn't find a record of the games when suddenly out of nowhere, Mr. Totaro drops a scan of the original scoresheets (purchased from NM Alan Benson) in my lap.  There had been four games but he only had the scoresheets for three of them.  Mr. Totaro said he was in Kerry Lawless' office with Alan Benson when the transaction occurred and the final scoresheet was inadvertently left in the scanner, unscanned.  I published the 3 scoresheets online at that time and the three games soon became part of most databases.  I had hoped to find the missing scoresheet before putting togehter this presentation, but failed.

At long last . . . here's the story!

Lone Pine 1978

Lone Pine 1976   Diane Savereide was the U.S. women's champion at this time. While she was attending the Lone Pine Tournament, she wasn't qualified to play in it.  Also attending the tournament, and also unqualified to play, was Ruth Volgl Cardoso.  Ms. Cardoso, 20 years older than Ms. Savereide, was the Brazilian women's champion who was awarded her WIM in 1969.  Far more than simply being the Brazilian champion, Ms. Cardoso was the strongest woman chess player in that hemisphere and had a list of victories in both national and international events to prove it.  At this point in time her most recent impressive achievement had been winning the women's trophy, ahead of Ms. Savereide, in the 1975 U.S. Open, played in Lincoln, Nebraska (Cardoso placed 85th with 7 pts.;  Savereide placed 135th with 6.5 pts.).
     One would think that with Cardoso's record which included numerous Brazilian and Argentine championships, many Olympiads (including the best women's results in 1972 Skopje), winning two Canadian Opens, two U.S. Opens, a World Open and even the Women's Championship in New Jersey , Diane Savereide would have been outclassed. But, much to Savereide's credit,  the close results in the 1975 U.S. Open indicated otherwise.
Diane Savereide at the 1975 U.S. Women's Championship

Jerome B. Hanken wrote in the "California Chess Reporter," 1976:
In 1975, there was a lady in the tournament, Alla Kushnir, who received a lot of attention and did quite well. No woman entered in 1976, but Arthur Dake noted after Round one that Diane Savereide, United States Women's Champion, and Ruth Cardoso, United States Open Women's Champion, were both present, but not high enough rated to play. Dake suggested a match and Doris Statham came through with a prize of $100 to the winner and $50 to the loser. The match was arranged and set up on a card table in the extreme west end of the playing hall, and yours truly was pressed into service as the official arbiter. Cardoso was ill with the flu and hung a rook in game one. Game two was postponed, but when it was played, Savereide had a pawn more, but could not win. In Game three, Savereide again could not push home a pawn advantage and when Cardoso sacrificed successfully in the last game, the match was declared drawn and the cash split.

     Game 1, played on Monday, March 8, 1976 was won by Savereide.
                   This is the missing game.

     Game 2, a draw, was played on Wednesday, March 10, 1976.

     Game 3, played on Thursday, March 11, 1976, was also a draw.

    Game 4, played on Friday, March 12, 1976, was won by Cardoso.


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