Who Was Abe Kupchik?

Who Was Abe Kupchik?

| 41 | Chess Players

A little perspective:

     At the turn of the 20th century Harry N. Pillsbury was the dominant American chess player. Most other well known American chess players of that time, such as Jackson Whipps Showalter, Albert Hodges and Simon Lipschütz, were on a decline. In fact Pillsbury himself wouldn't survive the first decade of the new century.  In 1904 there was an international tournament held in the Rider Hotel  located in a sleepy little town south of Erie, Pennsylvania called Cambridge Springs. Great players from all over -Em. Lasker, Tschigorin, Carl Schlechter, Richard Teichmann, David Janowski, Geo. Marco to name a few - participated. It was here where Pillsbury's story ended and a new American chess hero emerged- Frank Marshall. 

     Marshall, despite his showing at Cambridge Springs, was never quite in the same class as other prominent players of his era such as Em. Lasker, Capablanca or Alekhine, but in the United States he was the dominant figure for over a quarter of a century.  Marshall was so dominant, that other names are sometimes buried under his laurels.

     Back then chess in the United States centered around New York City.  Anyone who reads chess reporting during the "Marshall years" will see names of strong N.Y. players such as Charles Jaffe, Hermann Helms, Edward Lasker and Oscar Chajes. But leading this packfalling somewhere in between them and Marshallstood Abraham Kupchik.

     In 1903 eleven year old Abe Kupchik arrived in New York from Belarus with his parents, Pinchas and Bessie and his five siblings.  Where he went to school, when he learned chess, in fact everything for the next 9 years remains a mystery to me but by 1912 his name is appearing in the chess news:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 12, 1912


Abraham Kupchik
image from the World Chess Hall of Fame

     Arnold Denker, who wasn't even born when Kupchik started his rise in the NY chess scene and who hadn't made his acquaintance until after Kupchik's peak years, devoted an entire chapter to him in his book, The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories (published in 1995).   Denker described Kupchik as "timid, tiny whisper of a man with the saddest eyes and the most disproportionately large nose on a small face that I have ever seen."  Denker continued that Kupchik "was barely five feet tall in his stocking feet and at most 115 pounds."

    As mentioned, where Kupchik went to school is unknown to me, but he received enough education to become an accountant - as would another diminutive chess master named Reshevshy.  He and his wife Fannie had two children, Philip and Adele and lived in Brooklyn during most of his chess-playing years.

     I think it may be worthwhile to look at some of the chess notices from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other papers just during November-December of 1912 to appreciate how abruptly this new chess star had risen.

          Finishing in the top six of the National Masters Tournament held in New York City from January 19 -February 5, 1913 (serving as venues were the Café Boulevard, the Rice C.C., the Progressive C.C.  and the Manhattan C.C.) and sponsored by the Manhattan Club seeded Kupchik into the Torneo Internacional de Ajedrez, celebrado en La Habana de 1913 as Capablanca's tournament book is titled.

 The National Masters Tournament, also termed the American National, along with the Havana Tournament were a scaled-down version of a planned grand event called New York-Havana Tournament which ran into difficulties during December of 1912 and was scraped only to resurface in a more austere form.  This explains why the top six places of the first tournament were seeded into the Havana tournament. 

The results of the Master Tournament published in the San Francisco Call, Feb. 9, 1913

Havana, February 15-March 6, 1913

Sitting:      Charles Jaffe, Frank Marshall, Oscar Chajes, Abraham Kupchik, Rafael Blanco
Standing:  David Janowski José Capablanca, Juan Corzo, Salvador Capablanca, Enrique Corzo 
                   Alberto Ponce (referee) , Leon Paredes (president of the Athenaeum Club) .
                   --p. 61 of Torneo Internacional de Ajedrez

     That the young, relatively inexperienced Kupchik was invited was attributable solely to his placement in the American National Tournament which just ended.  The New York players, in fact, left for Havana on the steamship Saratoga on February 8,  only 3 days after the American National had wrapped up. The Havana tournament would comprise of these six players plus two Cubans, Juan Corzo (a four-time Cuban champion)  and Rafael Blanco (a future Cuban champion). Held as the Athenaeum Club,  this was Cuba's first international chess tournament. 
     In the final round of the tournament, Marshall was leading but Capablanca had an opportunity to tie for first by beating Kupchik -  who had earned idolization of the Cuban audience but was clearly an inferior player to Capablanca.  Kupchik managed to draw, effectively securing Marshall's victory. Capablanca blamed the playing conditions but Kupchik's tenacity played a big part.  Chajes and Kupchik shared the $125 fourth and $50 fifth place prizes.

N.Y. Tribune March 13, 1913

     Before returning to the U.S., Kupchik played Rafael Blanco in a six game match, winning convincingly with 3 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss.   Kupchik also gave a simul -

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 23, 1913

     Already in 1913 Kupchik was demonstrating his natural talent for speed chess:

American Chess Bulletin, June 1913

     Kupchik would win many rapid-transit tourneys over the years.  To appreciate just how good he was in this avenue of play, here is Kupchik winning a rapid-transit ahead of Capablanca in 1919:

Although I couldn't substantiate it, Arnold Denker informed us:

"At the 1926 Lake Hopatcong International, he finished ahead of Jose Capablanca in the lightning event. Kuppele [Denker claimed that club members called him "Kuppele" or "Kup"] remained a real power at speed chess into the 1940s, finishing third in the 1943 national championship."


     Speed chess aside,  Kupchik's main "claim to fame" would have to be winning the Manhattan Chess Championship - not once or even twice, but thirteen times.  How impressive is this?  Chess Review wrote:

     Kupchik had won his first Manhattan Championship in 1913, his last in 1935.

     In September of 1913, Kupchik lost a 3-game match, played at the Progressive Chess Club, to the famous master from Prague, Oldřich Duras, who was attending the master's tournament at the Rice Chess club during his world tour, losing 2 and winning 1.   Here is his single win published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on September 25, 1913:

     In 1915 Kupchik won his first New York State Championship.  He won it again in 1919:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 23, 1915

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 9, 1919

        Marshall won the U.S. Championship at St. Louis in 1904 but refused the title since Pillsbury had been too sick to attend. Pillsbury died in 1906  but it wasn't until 1909 that Marshall became the official U.S. Champion.    Since until past his prime the U.S. Chess Championship was match-based, Marshall was the de facto U.S. Champion until he retired in 1936   He  only defended his title once - in 1923 against Edward Lasker. In 1933 Isaac Kashdan challenged Marshall and, though Marshall accepted, Kashdan's backers backed-out.   I can only presume it was Marshall's popularity that prevented more bonafide challenges. 

     The 9th American Chess Congress was played at the Hotel Alamac-in-the-Mountains in the resort town of Lake Hopatcong, NJ in 1923.  After a Checkers tournament was held there in August of 1922, Albert B. Hodges, who had attended that tournament, contacted Harry Latz, the hotel general manager, about potentially hosting the chess congress. The manager agreed and offered "free board and lodging" to all the participants.


          The congress, which ran from August 6-21, resulted in a first place tie between Frank Marshall and Abraham Kupchik.   The American Chess Bulletin had this to say:

     Marshall never lost a game but Kupchik won 10 to Marshall's 8.  This was one of Kupchik's shining star moments.

Marshall and Kupchik at Lake Hopatcong, 1923 
They shared the $500 1st and $300 2nd prizes.

   In 1924 Kupchik lost a six-game match to Efim Bogoljubov, winning 1, drawing 2 and losing 3. 

   In 1925 Kupchik drew a six-game match with Carlos Torre Repetto (played at the Marshall C.C., it was intended to have been a 10 game match but was abandoned after receiving a cable from Dr. Tarrasch confirming the participation of Marshall and Torre in the Baden-Baden International),  each winning one game, the remaining four being drawn.  Kuppie had previously beaten Torre in their individual game for the Manhattan C.C. title (won by Kupchik).  Kupchik also won the championship of the Western Chess Association at Cedar Point, Ohio in August of 1925.

    In 1926 Kupchik was invited to participate in the "Pan-American chess tournament of the Alamac-in-the-Mountains Hotel," a rather modest affair with only 5 participants, though those five were particularly strong players: Jose Capablanca, Frank Marshall, Edward Lasker, Geza Maroczy and Abraham Kupchik.  This tournament, which was played from July 7-21, possibly gave  Kupchik his greatest achievement.

     In 1928 Kupchik put another feather in his cap by winning the second congress of the newly established National Chess Federation played at Bradley Beach, N.J.   Created in 1927, this federation would control the U.S. championship tournaments starting in 1936 but merge with the older American Chess federation in 1939 to form the USCF :

        As players such as Isaac Kashdan, Arthur Dake, I.A. Horowitz, Reuben Fine, Samuel Reshevshy and Arnold Denker started gaining prominence in the N.Y. chess world,  the older Abraham Kupchik's star  began to recede.  However, he was picked along with Marshall, Fine, Horowitz and Dake to represent the U.S. in the International Team Tournament (now called the Chess Olympiad) in Warsaw in 1935.

    This team won the event. Kupchik himself scored 6 wins, 8 draws and 0 losses (71.4%, highly respectable though behind Dake's 86.1% and Horowtz' 80%.  Young Reuben Fine scored 52.9% and Marshall 62.5%).

Milton Hanhauer and Abraham Kupchik at the Master's Tournament of the ACF congress in Philadelphia in 1936.  Kupchik tied with Kashdan for 4th-5th place.

     Although he continued to remain competitive Kupchik became increasingly inactive.  He did retain some of his old spark. Here is a clipping from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 10, 1944 showing Kupchik winning a rapid-transit tourney at the Manhattan C.C.  Even more interesting, if non-germane, is that second place went to a woman, Sophie Greenberg while another women, Gisela Gresser also finished in the money. 

     Kupchik's last significant contribution to chess was his participation in the 1945 USA-USSR Radio Match.  10 players from both the US and the Soviet Union were matched for two games, one with White, one with Black pieces.  The Soviet team totally devastated the US team. 

The US Radio Match team (Kupchik stands second from right)

     Out of the 20 games played, only Herman Steiner, Albert Pinkus and I.A. Horowitz managed to win one game.  Steiner, Reuben Fine and Kupchik managed to draw one game.  Kupchik's opponent was Vladimir Makogonov (see simaginfan's blog to understand who Kupchik was up against:

     Below shows Kupchik playing Herman Seidman in the 1946 U.S. Open.
     Kupchik took third place.

     In 1949 Chess Review offered this short tribute to Kupchik (featured on the cover in the uppermost image).  This represents one of the last mentions of Abraham Kupchik in the chess news. He died in November of 1970.  I looked but found no mention of his passing in the Chess Life & Review issues subsequent to his death.  It would seen he was already forgotten but in 2014, Abraham Kupchik (along with Jacqueline Piatigorsky) was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Chess Review  May, 1949

     The cover image depicts  1943 Speed Championship held on the 4th of July, 1943.  The phenomenal Reuben Fine won with a perfect 11-0 score. Reshevsky came in second scoring 9-2 while the 51 year old Kupchik took third place with a 7-4 result.
     In the photo:  Kupchik (lower right) and Reuben Fine both were captured reaching for their move at the same time, Fine with his left hand, Kupchip with his right.  Kupchik's opponent was Weaver Adams. Fine's opponent was Isaac Kashdan.

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