The Dean of American Chess

The Dean of American Chess

| 29 | Chess Players

   The expression "Dean of American Chess"  officially refers to specific individuals whose contribution to American Chess deserves special recognition and, as such, the title is considered the highest honor the national organization can bestow.

    However, sometimes the expression has been used loosely.  For example Reuben Fine granted it to Frank Marshall in "The World's Great Chess Games." :

          A slightly less savory example is found in Larry Evans book, "This Crazy World of Chess" under the heading of "About the Author." :


   The artful placement of this quote is underscored by the fact that Evans did, in fact, received that title in 2007, but from the completely unofficial organization, "The American Chess Association" (not to be confused with the valid organization founded  during the 1st American Chess Congress).

null"The Chess Monthly,"  Nov. 1957



     There seems to have been only been four individuals to have had the official title of "Dean of American Chess."  The latest one was the recently deceased Arthur Bisguier who received it on March 8, 2005.  Previously Arnold Denker had received it in 2004 and held it until he died a year later. George Koltanowski had  also received it sometime during the 1970s.  But the very first person be honored in such a way was Hermann Helms - during the U.S. Open held in Syracuse, N.Y. in August of 1943.





    The spotlight for this article shines on Hermann Helms.

     At the time of his death in 1963, Helms' image made the cover of "Chess Life"


  Inside the issue, William Lombardy (not yet Rev. Lombardy) penned a touching testimonial to Helms:

    With deep sorrow I learned of the passing of the Chess world's most loved figure, The Dean of American Chess, Hermann Helms. The loss of such a dedicated and vigorous worker, a truly generous soul, is one, I'm sure, that comes as a heavy blow to all of us. This is more fittingly expressed in the words of his devoted secretary Miss C. Sullivan,

"After many years association with a man who was an inspiration, the blow hurts very much.  I'm sure he went straight to Heaven, because I don't think he ever did a wrong thing in his life."

    I feel honored and privileged in saying of those players in my generation, I got to know Mr. Helms best Not to have known him at all would of course be the greatest loss. In the course of a fourteen year acquaintance, I took every opportunity to visit him at his office on Nassau Street or to speak with him whenever he came to the Marshall or Manhattan Chess clubs for the rapid transit tournaments, in which, incidentally, he frequently captured a high prize. In fact, I can still remember being the victim of one of his brilliancies on the Black side of the French Defense. That particular game was played as recently as 1956 [Helms would have been 86!]
    Whenever I made one of these visits or he visited the clubs, Mr. Helms invariably would invite me for a bite, to chat over some coffee, as he would put it. this privilege I shall always cherish as a singular honor. We talked of the "old" days, for me the ancient days. We spoke of the differences existing in American Chess, for the Chess-master and organizer alike. He always had a pertinent suggestion to offer.
    I suppose Mr. Helms never fully developed his own Chess talent because, through his writings  "the American Chess Bulletin" and columns in the "new York Times" and "The World Telegram and Sun" and "The Brooklyn Eagle" he was too busy trying to nurture the talent of others, while he also provided enjoyment for those of lesser ability. Thus though he was never recognized as International Grandmaster, he was truly the Grand Master of them all.
    The tireless, dedicated, generous, the great-hearted spirit of Hermann Helms will long be remembered in the annals of Chess. Rest in Eternal Peace.

                                                                                                                         -William Lombardy

      No doubt because he was modest and reserved by nature,  I have rarely seen a picture of Mr. Helms.  For this reason this photograph is one of my most cherished possessions;  but nevertheless thought that I should share it with the rest of the Chess world.
     The picture was taken at the home of Jack and Ethel Collins int eh winter of 1957.  I had my new camera with me; so I jumped at the opportunity of taking a picture of so famous a personality. I had promised everyone present a copy of the photo, but eventually forgot about it. Now at least I can present it for posterity.
     We were having refreshment and chatting at the time. Mister Helms very kindly posed for the picture that will certainly give me many wonderful memories.    W.L.


     This photo published in "Chess Life" in Feb., 1959 somewhat belies Lombardy's assertion of a lack of photographs of Helms.  This image accompanied an article by Fred Wren in which he wrote, "Although I have known Mr. Helms casually over a period of thirty years or more, I never realized until recently the extent to which New York chess depends upon him for help, information and publicity. I wrote to a well-known American International Master in New York asking him for information concerning his own score in a tournament in which he had competed back int eh twenties.  He replied saying, 'my records don't go back that far, and I don't remember any of the details of the tournament in question but I telephoned to Helms and asked him about it. He said the score was...'"

     While Helms' death didn't make the cover of "Chess Review,"  the inside devoted several pages to his memory, starting with a memorial written by Jack Straley Battell, followed by a short look at his games,  using the same photo from 1943.


"Chess Review" Feb. 1963, p. 33

     Quietly, on January sixth, one day after he became 93 years old, Hermann Helms passed away. And. if anyone deserves the title of the Grand Old Man of Chess, it belongs to him.
      Paul Morphy was alive when Helms was born, and Mackenzie became American Champion a year after. By 1886, Helms was an active player and a redoubtable master in the 90's. He knew Pillsbury and Marshall here, and such greats as Lasker, Tarrasch, Schlechter and Marco — and of course Steinitz. He observed the rise of Capablanca, in fact, he handled the cable matches between English and American colleges in which Cepa played before he really had any international reputation. And of course, he saw Alekhine come on, and Reshevsky and Kashdan and Fine and so on, right down to Bobby Fischer.
A strong player, he gave up his playing career for reporting and editing. He and Hartwig Cassel put out a bulletin to cover the famous Cambridge Springs Tournament held in Pennsylvania in 1904, and they did such a job of it that the bulletin became permanent, the American Chess Bulletin which Helms carried on to the very day of his death.
      A strong player, he turned to covering chess events, local and foreign. He carried a column in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1893 and in the New York Evening Sun till they folded and the latter was taken over, still under Helms' management by the World-Telegram and San. And he wrote regularly for the New York Times, covering events abroad by a net-work of contacts which he had built up over many years. Similarly, he culled news from associates throughout the States. But, mostly, he did the job by painstaking legwork. He was a familiar figure at the New York State Chess Congresses, phoning in the day's results each evening. He was even more familiar at the weekly Rapid Transit tournaments of the Manhattan and the Marshall Chess Clubs — and many an evening he turned in his copy at the Times at one and even two in the morning, and kept doing so right into his 90's!
      A strong player, he danced attendance on others. When there was a crisis in a chess clubs' affairs, as there was for the Kings Club in Brooklyn in 1939, he was there. When any chess notable arrived at New York, he met the ship or the plane. When the American team, or any American representative set out for exploits abroad, he saw them off. And he always gave a faithful and honest account of chess events. A thoroughly honorable man, there were some in the chess world whom he hated for sham and hypocrisy — but he still reported accurately what each and everyone did at chess.
      A strong player — why emphasize that? Well, in 1936, when we foolishly thought him old, he placed second to Kashdan in the New York State Championship when it ran at a grueling three sessions daily and when he had his reportorial chores to do as well. And, in his 80's, he stopped some of the best cold in the rapids and won not a few of those four and five hour long tournaments, too. The games on these pages are but a suggestion of how he could play chess. Remember, for all his "extra-curricular" activities. he did win the New York state title twice!
      In 1943, he was voted "Dean of American Chess." The title hardly suggests what all he did, conducted tournaments without fee, performed likewise in simultaneous exhibitions — in short, carried chess through some very dull and very hard times. It is worth mentioning, too. that Helms was the editor of the Book of the 1924 New York Tournament, possibly the greatest tournament book ever.
Now, twenty years later, he surely deserves the title, "Grand Old Man of American Chess."
                                                                                              JACK STRALEY BATTELL


Hermann Helms played many a brilliant game. Here are a mere three.
We know this game was played in the New York State Championship, as best we can make oit in 1941, which means Hermann was seventy-one at the time. But then the next game was in 1942!

This brevity was from a rapid transit tournament, which means the winning conception was nimble-witted indeed!

Most famous of all his games however is this from a New York tournament in 1915. Few players can lay claim to an Immortal Game; but this game conceivably has the qualifications. British Champion and brilliant chesswriter William Ewart Napier applauded it in his "Amenities and Background of Chessplay" and said of it: "Besides brilliancy, there is a debonair flow from the first move." He used the position in the diagram on the cover of one volume of his work. And the position has been further commemorated by a painting by Anthony E. Santasiere (an old friend and colleague of Helms) which hangs in the Marshall Chess Club.


nullTony Santasiere's painting of the position above hangs on the wall of the Marshall Chess Club.

     Santasiere, who was a great admirer of Helms, wrote:
     "Hermann Helms, truly a superman, for seventy-five years has given almost his every moment to chess. During all that time I've hardly known him to take a single holiday. And for this devotion has come to him a financial reward so small as hardly to be worth mentioning.  Where in the chess world, where in the United States have we found such love?"



null"American Chess Bulletin," 1916

     Hermann Helms was born in Brooklyn to a German father, Carl Amandus Helms, and a Welsh mother,  Emily Mathias Helms in 1870.  At the age of three, while accompanying his father to Germany,  the boy finished the steamer ride alone after his father died was was buried-at-sea.  His mother moved her family, consisting of Hermann and Charles - his brother, older by two years - to Hamburg where they lived for the next seven years. 
      Halifax, Nova Scotia was where his parents had been married, Charles born and his maternal grandparents lived .  So in 1880 the small family unit relocated to Halifax.  Hermann and Charles attended Halifax High where he learned chess from a classmate at age 17.  Neither boy could play well but they spent the summer playing morning, noon and night with only a volume of Morphy's games for inspiration.  Then in 1887 the Helms moved to Brooklyn in order to present the brothers with better employment opportunities.
     The following year, Hermann joined the Central YMCA Chess and Checkers Club and soon was elected secretary. The club was quite active with over-the-board matches as well as correspondence games. In fact H.N. Pillsbury gave one of his earliest chess/checker simuls (sighted since the club was known for its strong checkers players), comprised of ten boards each. 
     In October, 1893, the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle" published the full report submitted by Helms, the club secretary. It caught on and the newspaper started publishing chess and checker updates every Thursday, starting Helms career as its chess editor.
     A year earlier, Helms, the Central YMCA champion, had also joined the Brooklyn Chess Club where he had success in some minor tournaments but move notably in winning two back-to-back handicap tournaments sending W.H.K. Pollock, whose brother owned the Cafe Bonde on the Bowery which served as the venue for the second event, and who gave  Pawn&2 and Pawn&Move odds respectively, to 2nd place.


From the "American Chess Magazine" 1898 
(reprinted from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle")

     Playing in the NY  State Championship in Buffalo in 1894, in which he didn't place, Helms had overslept one morning and arrived at the hall with only 12 minutes on his clock - his opponent was no less than Eugene Delmar. Helms had never played rapid transit, but when the time-control was reached, Delmar had to resign.  It was in this same year Helms met Hartwig Cassel.  He and Cassel reported chess events to a variety of papers. Together, Helms and Cassel had the scoop in American papers on Hastings 1895 and Pillsbury's stunning victory.


     Helms was the Brooklyn Club Champion in 1895 and 1896, losing the title to William E. Napier in 1897 in spite of having beat Frank Marshall in both their games, drawing with Napier in both their games while Marshall and Napier split their two game.
     In 1894 Helm decided to try his hand at postal chess, joining Walter Penn Shipley's Continental Correspondence Chess Tournament.  Although he didn't fare too well, his interest was sparked.  He joined Pillsbury National Correspondence Chess Association and quick rose to the position of vice-president. During his tenure he managed the New York-Pennsylvania match consisting of 254 boards and the Brooklyn-Chicago match consisting of 100 boards. 
     In 1898 Hermann married May Whitney, of the then-famous Whitney Mozart Sextet of Brooklyn. Two years later their only child, Thelma, was born.  In 1921 Thelma married Angelo Scarpio Foster, at the time a voice student of Enrico Caruso, but they separated in 1922.  Thelma served as assistant director of the Plainfield Chapter of the Red Cross and who was a cellist and contralto for the Mozart Sextet, died in 1941 or a heart attack. Her mother died two years later.

A Rather Strange Side-Story

     Thelma Helms became embroiled in a rather unsavory situation when she was 21.  She had married Foster in January of 1921, but, according to Thelma's testimony,, Angelo entreated her to keep the marriage a secret from his adoptive mother who was "in financial difficulties at the time."  The following year when his mother learned of the marriage,she insisted he leave his wife and return to her or lose his inheritance. The couple separated in April of 1922 and in May, Foster asked his wife for a divorce, promising to pay for her support.
     Angelo Scarpio had been adopted by Mrs. Nona  McAdoo, sister of the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, William McAdoo (who was also the Woodrow Wilson's son-in-law) in 1917 when he was 26 years old (some reports give age 32). McAdoo was a widow whose husband had left her a sizable estate.
     Support wasn't forthcoming however.  Foster claimed he had no income. At that point Thelma sued him for support, claiming abandonment and also sued Mrs. McAdoo for $50,000, citing alienation of affection.  
     In a bizarre twist, Mrs.McAdoo made the claim that the marriage had been a plot to bilk her out of her fortune. She asserted that Thelma's grandfather, Charles M. Whitney "induced her to sell $75,000 in New Haven Railroad and other stocks and invest the proceeds in the Whitney-Foster Corporation dealing in real estate."  
     The suit against Mrs. McAdoo was dropped after 5 years for "failure to prosecute" but, after 6 years, Thelma won a $35 weekly alimony judgment from Angelo. Nothing ever resulted from McAdoo's counter-charges,

"Brooklyn Daily Eagle" 


     Helms had been employed as a bookkeeper for a rice importer named Thomas Rigney & Co. Around 1900 he gave up this position to work full time at chess and journalism.   He won the N.Y. State Championship in 1906 (beating out Frank Marshall) and participated in 5 U.S-Great Britain cable matches (1897,  1902, 1903 and 1908 (+2-2=1).  But his most important act was to team with Harwig Cassels in 1904 to establish the American Chess Bulletin. 
     While the legacy of having created that periodical would alone be enough for anyone, this duo did so much more.  They had managed the famous Cambridge Springs Tournament in 1904., the Capablanca-Marshall Match in 1909, the Rice Memorial of 1916.   They organized, with the help of Issac Rice, the annual Triangular College Chess League Tournament (for which Helms also served as secretary for 18 years).  For years Cassels acted as TD for the New York State Chess Association while Helms acted as referee for the  annual tournaments between Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia.  Helms also arranged for what was then a record-setting simul given by Capablanca in which he played 65 boards against 84 opponents representing 30 clubs (+38-5=12) in 6¾ hours.  Through the years Helms also arranged simuls for Alekhine, Lasker, Capablanca, Maroczy and Marshall.  Two particularly notable ones included one for Alekhine in 1931 and one for Capablanca in 1932; each one took place at the Seventh Regiment Armory, involved 250 boards and featured a brass band for pageantry.  In 1923, Helms served as tournament director for the Lake Hopatcong Tournament (the 9th American Chess Congress) and for the 1924  New York International Tournament (which he also helped organize and for which he edited the tournament book).  His service as tournament director took him to Baltimore, Boston, Omaha, Peoria and Pittsburgh as well as Los Angeles where he directed the famous 1945 Pan Am tournament in Hollywood. 
     They also edited together the "Riga Match and Correspondence Games," the second edition of "The Rice Gambit" as well as, with the help of Dr. Hermann Keidanz, the exquisite "Twenty Years of the Rice Gambit."
      In 1916 Helms took over as chess editor for "The Evening Post," replacing Em. Lasker who had taken up residence in Berlin.  In the 1930s Helms and Schuyler Broughton conducted a chess program on the WNYC radio station Sunday mornings.  Helms' other journalistic endeavors included chess columns in the "New York Times" (for a half-century), the "New York World" (for 15 years), the "New York Post" (for 10 years) and the "New York. Sun" (for 10 years).


An announcement in the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle" Valentine's Day, 1935

     As Dean of American Chess, Helms was an honorary member of all U.S. chess clubs. Even in his 80s he seldom missed participating in the weekly rapid transit events at the Marshall and Manhattan clubs, usually winning a prize. 
      Helms had also been also a strong cricket player for which he won several individual trophies and served as secretary of the Brooklyn Cricket Club. It was almost unavoidable that Helms was also a cricket (and soccer) reporter for the "N.Y. Times" and the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle."  In order to facilitate this effort, he operated the Flannery News Service which he later bought after the death of Walter Flannery in 1916.. 

nullLong Island Star-Journal, Feb. 6, 1960

     Hermann Helms died at the age of 93 of natural causes on January 6, 1963 at the Brooklyn home of John Boyhan and family where he had lived for his last 13 years.  

More from batgirl
Beth Harmon, the isoLanni?

Beth Harmon, the isoLanni?

Rook Players

Rook Players