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I'll Never Forget the Brilliant NM Alan Baisley

Jun 7, 2013, 10:02 AM 17

The event was the first US Junior Closed Invitational Championship in 1966. The top eight junior players in the US are invited to play a round robin. It's the final round and things are tense among the young masters. Walter Browne of Brooklyn has a half-point lead over his opponent, Alan Baisley of tiny Hatboro, PA. Both players get into extreme time trouble - there was no increment or time delay in those days. Baisley's flag falls first and Browne wins the championship. Browne goes on to be six-time US Champion (see my game with him; also archived here after mid-June) but Baisley has quite a different fate. What happened?

When I got my second Chess Life Magazine in July 1966, Browne was on the cover, but there it was in the tournament crosstable: Alan Baisley of Hatboro! I was attending Hatboro-Horsham High School (HHHS) and was from Horsham - in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia. Who was this Alan Baisley from my school district? So I started asking the teachers.

Turned out Alan Baisley was, by all accounts, by far the most brilliant student ever to attend HHHS. It was rumored he figured exactly how fast to walk to school so that he could wear a light jacket in the middle of the winter. Every teacher had a different Alan story. Here is one by Ms. Soufer, who taught Eastern World Cultures:

"I had a student in my class who was having difficulties. So one day I called him up after class and said, 'Look, you are sitting next to the best student we have ever had, Alan Baisley. Alan probably takes excellent notes. Why don't you see what he is doing and see if that will help you?' So the next day that student started looking at Alan's notes but he kept doing double takes, so after class I called him up again and asked 'What's going on with you and Alan?' and he said 'Ms. Soufer, I knew that Alan was strange, but now I think he might be an alien from outer space. He's taking his notes in code!' So the following day I called Alan up and asked him to bring his notes. He did, and when I looked at them I said 'Alan, you are taking your notes in Latin! Why are you doing that?' Alan replied, 'I was bored...'" Smile.

Some of the other stories were just about as interesting, but you get the idea. Alan went on to graduate a year early (normally HHHS does not skip students!) and attend MIT.

So, anyway, here's me, an unrated kid going into 11th grade and just starting tournament chess, and there's this genius master who had attended my high school. In those days it was a lot tougher to become a master; today to get into the US Junior Closed you likely have to be over 2400 rather than 2200. In my second tournament I was still unrated (in those days it took USCF months to rate a tournament by hand) and playing in the NJ Open over Labor Day weekend in Newark, NJ. Well, who should be among the top players in the event but Alan Baisley.

So I looked him up on the pairing sheet and saw he was playing on 8th board (I think there was ~223 players in one open section). So I found his board and waited patiently for him to make his move. I then tapped him on the shoulder and said "Alan, Hi! I'm Dan Heisman of Hatboro-Horsham High School". That really surprised him since our school did not even have a chess team. He said "What are you doing here?" meaning, how could anyone else from our school even be that interested in chess to come all the way up to Newark to play? I replied that I was just starting and was there with my friends. After the round Alan nicely joined us and played a couple speed games. We were just beginners, so you can imagine how that went. Alan quickly dismissed us as no-talents (!) - not verbally, of course, and politely gave us a farewell and walked away. If you had told him I would eventually become a master, too, I am sure he would have been amazed. I never saw Alan again.

The story is that Alan treated the Professors at MIT like he treated the teachers at HHHS. That didn't go over well since those professors are pretty intelligent, too. So Alan transferred to Berkeley, where he became involved with the counter-culture of the late 1960's and early 1970's. The word was that he died of a drug overdose while still a very young man. So, so, tragic and such a waste of a brilliant mind.

Ironically, HHHS continued to produce not just experts, but masters: Baisley (class of 1966), Heisman (1968), Joe Sentef (1972), Karl Dehmelt (1974), and later Dan Yeager (2008). An amazing run for a school without a strong chess coach and, much of the time, without even a team.

But I'll never forget Alan Baisley and, by writing this blog, hopefully he won't be forgotten. I wonder what would have happened if Baisley had beaten Browne? Would that have helped Baisley to win such a prestigious title, and/or hurt Browne? I rather doubt it - I think Alan had his problems and Walter was determined, but maybe in an alternate universe where that happened we could find out. Maybe Alan would still be alive today and everyone would know him instead of Walter...

[PS: Here's a link to my other Chess.com material]

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