Serendipity Leads to Fischer and Beyond

Serendipity Leads to Fischer and Beyond

| 40 | Chess Players

phpbTSE5t.jpeg      I had stumbled across the archived "New York Times" obituary notice for Edmar Mednis (February 22, 2002, by Dylan Loeb McClain).  The obit, of course, reviews his life, but pivots on the point that, although Mednis (pictured left in 1974) was never quite in Fischer's league, his late-life chess career was pretty much hinged on the fact that when they met, for the first time, across the board in the first round of the 1962-3  U.S. Championship, Mednis beat Fischer, a four-time champion, with the Black pieces in a 73 move game. Although Fischer eventually won the tournament and although his lifetime score against Fischer was only +1=1-5,  Mednis, who had been working as a chemical engineer until 1972 when Fischer won the WC title, was able to capitalize on Fischer's fame by publishing his most successful book, "How to Beat Bobby Fischer."  Subsequently, he became a Chess Life contributor and author of 21 more books. In 1980, he earned the title of Grandmaster.

     . . . and so the obit ends.

          Dr. Max Pavey

     Flash back to 1951, January 17 to be exact. 7 year old Bobby Fischer took part in a simul given by Dr. Max Pavey (1949 NY state champion) at the Grand Plaza Library in Brooklyn. Pavey was no slouch. With a rating of 2442 he was the eighth ranked player in the U.S. in 1951 (according to "Chess Review," April 1951).  Fischer, predictably, lost his game, but another participant, Edmar Mednis, a 14 year old emigrant from the Riga, Latvia (from where his family had fled in 1944, finally arriving in the U.S. in 1950), drew his game with Peavy. In the audience was a certain Carmine Nigro who was then secretary (and former president and club champion) of the Brooklyn Chess and Checkers Club.  Nigro invited Bobby to join the Brooklyn Club. Nigro subsequently became Bobby Fischer's first teacher.


Who was this Carmine Nigro?

     I discovered several distinctive and often conflicting sources (listed below) concerning Carmine Nigro. I was able to cull enough facts to paint a reasonably acceptable picture of the man in my mind.

     Carmine Nigro was less than and more than one might first assume. The automatic assumption might be that, as Bobby Fischer's first chess instructor that he was a superb player himself .  Undoubedly, Nigro was a quite capable player by most standards. His 1951 rating was a bit over 2000 (before all this rating inflation). His son claimed that, "he could play chess blindfolded, sitting in another room calling out the moves in multiple games and play just as well."  Still in the same breath his son said, "He really had the ability to teach beyond what he was capable of doing, because he could visualize and had such a terrific mind."   Fischer himself wrote in the introduction to his 1959 book "Bobby Fischer's Games of Chess,"  "Mr. Nigro was possibly not the best player in the world, but he was a very good teacher."


      Standing only 5'3", Carmine Domenico Nigro, born on January 2, 1910, the middle of 3 brothers, proved beyond any doubt that size truly does not matter.  He dropped out of school and moved away from his impoverished home to make his own way at the age of 14.  For a time he lived with his older brother Sal who had taught him to play the mandolin when he was only 8.  Living with the musically-inclined Sal, Carmine also became quite proficient on the clarinet and saxophone.  He and Sal formed a small and seemingly only marginally successful band. 
     He joined the Brooklyn Chess and Checkers Club in 1938 (at age 28) - not to play chess, but to play bridge.  While there he learned chess from an unspecified chess "master" whom he had beaten at bridge.  By now Carmine had a wife, Anne, and was soon drafted into the Army (March, 1941).  Anne sent him a book on endgames, which he devoured, and when he returned home in 1944, he was already a strong amateur.

     He formed his own 7 piece band, complete with a female vocalist, which he called "Tommy Little and his Orchestra."  This band was quite successful locally but since they now had a child, William, his wife encouraged him to take up a more serious and stable career. Carmine became a stockbroker as well as a band leader and a serious student of chess.

           * As an aside - I'm not sure how this plays out, but Carmine Nigro is
             most often referred to (by very reliable sources) as President,
             Secretary and Club Champion of the Brooklyn Chess and Checkers
             Club. However, Carmine's son, Bill, mentioned that his father was
             "president of the YMCA chess club [in Brooklyn]."  Fischer, in his chess
             column in Boy's Life in 1966  wrote, "One of the biggest thrills of my
             lifewas when I won first prize at the YMCA children's championship.
             One critical game, incidentally, was against my teacher's son, Bill Nigro.
             I was nervous in that game, but the training I got from my early games
             was important to me and gave me confidence. I still have that medal
             at home."  Another well written source states that, "Bobby. . .was
             playing a lot of chess at the Brooklyn Chess Club and Brooklyn YMCA." 
             So, whether the Brooklyn Chess and Checker Club and the Brooklyn
             Central YMCA Chess Club were separate entities, or whether the
             Brooklyn Chess and Checker Club met at the YMCA or whether Nigro
             was president of one or both - is all a bit confusing. *

     In "Endgame, "Dr. Frank Brady tells us that Nigro not only instructed Fischer in chess but also taught him a bit of music and trained him to play the accordian. Fischer even gave a few accordian performances at the school assemblies, but eventually felt music was interfering with his chess studies and gave it up.

    From Frank Brady's "Profile of a Prodigy":
            "Mrs. Fischer's aim of finding Bobby a chess playmate was realized 
             that very evening. Mr.Carmine Nigro, President of the Brooklyn 
             Chess CLub, was teaching his son Tommy the game and offered to 
             tutor Bobby also.  Tommy was basically uninterested and Nigro, a 
             chess lover all his life, greatly increased his son't allowance on those 
             days that the boy "agreed" to take a chess lesson from his father.  
             Nigro had no such problem with Bobby.   He couldn't wait from 
             week to week to take another lesson from Nigro...
                  In addition to Tommy Nigro and Boby Fischer, there were a few 
             other children in the same age group, and Nigro mustered them 
             into an unofficial team.  Dr. Harold Sussman, a strong Brooklyn 
             master, was teaching his son Raymond and a number of other 
             children from eight to ten years old, and it was arranged for the 
             two teams to meet, thus occasioning Bobby's first formal competitive
             chess. The teams played two matches the first ending in a score 
             of 5-3 for Nigro's proteges. Bobby drew one game and won one 
             game against Raymond Sussman.  The score of the second match 
             has been lost and forgotten. . . .

     For what it's worth, either Brady seemingly confused the name of Carmine's son (which is Bill) with that of the name under which Carmine played music (Tommy Little) or Bill had a nickname that I failed to uncover.  At that time, Carmine was no longer president of the Brooklyn Chess Club according to most sources.

     Bill Nigro added, "He [Fischer] spent every weekend at our house for several years. He was an eccentric kid -- he so much loved to win, he would throw the pieces across the room if he lost. I would play a game or two with Fischer, then I was ready to go play outside. He stayed with Dad the whole day."

     At any event, Nigro took on Fischer, as well as other students, and tutored him in chess for 5 years - up until just prior to Bobby winning the U.S. Junior Championship (July 1956).  In 1956 Nigro moved his family to Miami Florida where Carmine took up a new hobby - Golf. Taking up the game with a passion he brought to all his endeavors, Nigro was soon working as a stockbroker by day and giving golf lessons at night at a driving range owned by Sam Snead's brother, Homer.

     Carmine's wife, Anne, died in 1976. He later married Francis (Angie). Carmine Nigro died on August 16, 2001, leaving behind his wife Angie, his son Bill, Bill's wife Martha, 6 grand-children, 3 great-grandchildren and a lifetime of memories.

     According to Janet McGregor in "Man of Many Talents", "Even into his 90's, Nigro was still playing chess on a daily basis. After retirement he taught music and chess, 'for the fun of it.' In a 1996 article, titled "Chairman of the Board," in "The Palm Beach Post, " Ron Wiggins wrote, "He is a gentle and patient teacher with an almost Pied Piper appeal to children. But at the chessboard, he is a bloodthirsty warrior. Sit for a few lessons - on life as well as chess - with a master."



"Profile of a Prodigy"
     by Frank Brady
     by Frank Brady
"Carmine Nigro, 91, Bobby Fischer's First Chess Teacher"
     by Dylan Loeb McClain, obit for the "N.Y. Times,"  Sept. 2, 2001
"Man of Many Talents"
     by Janet McGregor for "The Citizen," July 5, 2000
More Than Just A Golfer
     by Bill Fields for Golf Digest, January 25, 2008.
Carmine Nigro . . . More Than Bobby Fisher's Early Chess Teacher
      by Daren Dillinger for the New York State Chess Association.
"The Life of Carmine Nigro" (in Catalan)       

"Carmine Nigro" at Wikipedia



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