My Only Meeting with Al Horowitz

The time was late 1968. I was 18, and I had just had a couple of strong tournaments that had gotten my rating close to the USCF's "Top 25 Juniors" list for the US. In those days the ratings were lower than they are now and there were fewer juniors, so my 1900+ rating was getting me toward the elite in both the junior ranks and in the Philadelphia area.

Late in the year two friends of mine, USCF Expert Jerry Kolker and Lester Shelton, who was rated about 1700, decided to travel to New York City with me to watch a round of the US Championship, with the additional hope of getting a glimpse of the elusive Bobby Fischer.

When we arrived at the tournament, we were disappointed to find no Fischer (I never did cross paths with him, but that's a different story) but most of the best players in the US attended (Crosstable).

One of the participants, IM Al Horowitz, was then playing in what I believe was his final US Championship. Al, the long-time publisher of Chess Review, seemed pretty old at the time, but at 61 he was younger then than I am now Cry! It was not a good day for Al. He dropped his queen in less than 20 moves; I believe his opponent was GM Robert Byrne.

After the round Jerry suggested we drop over the famous Manhattan Chess Club, now defunct, but then the center of chess in the US. Jerry and Lester decided to play some five-minute and I was kibitzing. In one game Jerry, who normally would beat Lester every game, played a series of amazingly poor moves and I chuckled at how uncharacteristic his silly mistakes were.

Unfortunately for me, Al was nearby and overhead my chuckle. He was still in a bad mood and, to make matters worse, likely assumed the three youths from Philadelphia were just chess patzers who wandered in off the streets.

"What are you laughing at?!" he charged at me.

Uh-oh! I had to think fast. I was a guest at the club and Al had just lost his queen. Perhaps some circumspection was required, although I was tempted to let Al know I was not, as he probably assumed, just some beginner who barely knew the moves. But instead of defending myself, I just told the truth: "I was laughing at a couple of my friend's moves."

"Chess is not a laughing matter!" Al admonished in a distinctly unfriendly tone. He went on to lecture me a little more on how I should have more respect for the game.

That got me a little upset since he had no idea that the person who had made the poor moves was one of the top players in Philadelphia (Jerry had been invited to the prestigious Gr Phila Invitational Championship) and I was not far behind. Treating me, a stranger from out-of-town, like a chess nincompoop, was not exactly a friendly greeting.

So I contemplated a wise-guy reply, like "Well Al, we are some of the top junior players in Philadelphia, not a bunch of patzers, and I doubt any of us would have dropped our queen as quickly as you did to Byrne a few hours ago! So if you had given us, strangers in your club, the benefit of the doubt and a friendly greeting instead of assuming the worst, we might think a lot better of you."

That is, I contemplated that reply of which you, the reader (and others to whom I have related the story over the years), are now aware 44+ years later. Just contemplated.

Instead, I just gritted my teeth and quietly muttered "Yes, sir", giving the gentleman the benefit of the doubt which he had not seen fit to give me. Al barreled off in a huff, I guess feeling a little better that he had let out his frustration on someone or something. I am sure he has had better days but, unfortunately, I only had a sample of one.

There is no moral of the story but I guess if there was one, it would be "Always treat strangers with kindness and respect; you can never tell if one might turn out to be an author and write something about you 44 years later..."

PS: I learned a lot from Al's books. Point Count Chess, which he wrote with Mott-Smith, strongly ingrained the idea in me that doubled pawns were sometimes beneficial (an idea I expounded on only a few years later when I wrote the first edition of Elements of Positional Evaluation, now in its 4th edition). And the following problem, a White to play and win, from page 60 of the helpful How to Win in the Middle Game of Chess, is always one of my favorites:


















The solution:


  • 4 years ago


    Oh yeah, I would have never guessed that is how White wins.. maybe i should've took more time to solve it.. Better luck next time Eh?

  • 4 years ago


    What a great short story Mr. Heisman! I felt like was right beside you the whole time as it was taking place.. 2 Thumbs up.. I especially enjoyed how you ended it, it made me laugh! Thank you for the pleasure.

    Off to read another Dan Heisman Short Story. wooo!

    Michael Ridge.

  • 4 years ago


    Now i understand why my uncle persuaded me to take Aikido lessons if i ever take up chess seriously.

  • 4 years ago


    Joebanks: Genius may indeed have its privileges, but sadly I think there is something else at play here. I've been thinking of blogging about it, but it would cause a firestorm. By my observations, chess players as a whole have a worse character than the general population. We all know some friendly chess players, no doubt: people who are kind, jovial, generous of spirit. Far more often than would be expected though, it seems, chess players are spiteful, boastful, arrogant, cold, mean. We see this when we play live internet chess: the comments that so often come through the chat box do not tend to reflect well on the character of chess players. We can ascribe much of this to the anonymity afforded by this medium, no doubt, and we certainly see similar behavior around the web. But still, when I consider my in-person experiences, there are far too many cases such as are documented here. This is especially sad if true, because it would further diminish the chances of people becoming interested in chess: no one likes to hang out with jerks.

    Twobit: I agree with you. I think Dan was perhaps reading too much into the simultaneity of the occurrences. But we'll never know for sure. Still, "old fashioned principles" such as you listed should never go out of style.

  • 4 years ago


    I remember an encounter in the mid-nineteen eighties between Garry Kasparov and Rueben Fine (in the Manhattan chess club, which at that time was housed on the 10th floor of Carnegie Hall). Garry was playing various grandmaster players like Michael Rohde, Patrick Wolff, and IM’s like Jay R. Bonin. He was also playing some of the top young players in the country some blitz before the serious (simultaneous), match in the Russian tea room later.  He also played Rueben Fine at least one blitz game as well. Kasparov laughed at how weekly Fine (a top 2, or 3 player of the 1930's), played.  I think Fine was in his 80’s at the time, and I'm sure that he didn't appreciate the young world champion making fun of him in that moment - But then I guess genius has its privileges?

  • 4 years ago


    I think Mr. Horowitz was pretty old school (guessing from two of his books I read) and I do not believe he meant any harm. Just look at his picture, he looks like a drill sergeant...

    He sees a youngster chuckling next to a chess board so he points out that playing chess should be with respect, dignity and maturity. What is wrong with that? I wish we could hear his side of the story, but I strongly believe that dropping his queen earlier had less to do with this episode than his strong belief in old fashioned principles.

  • 4 years ago


    Great Story Dan! I loved Al Horowitz and his writings on chess. Sometimes it's best to keep the invisible thought bubble silent. After all, you can never tell what's really going on inside of someone's head at the time they make a seemingly rude comment. It took me 50 years to figure that one out and I'm 52 years old.

  • 4 years ago

    NM danheisman

    Draconis and Ghostchant (and all) - Thanks for your comments. I agree more with Draconis, although I dont' think age was the key factor. I recognized that Mr. Horowitz, one of most famous chess personalities in the US, was in a bad mood and I was trying to be a good guest. While that in no way excuses his erroneous assumptions (which were particularly demeaning to me, since I think most of my blog readers know I have a tremendous respect for chess and it is has been my full-time job since 1996 - and I felt similarly about it in 1968, too), two wrongs don't make a right. Therefore, in retrospect, I am glad I did not say anything I would regret. I have bad days, too, although I hope I don't say anything that demeaning on purpose to anyone.

  • 4 years ago


    You should've punched Mr. Horowitz in the mouth.

  • 4 years ago


    I agree with the moral of your story. But I also wish that people would remember the age-old injunction to respect your elders. You did this by holding your tongue instead of delivering a sharp reply. 18 year olds should be taught that those who've lived for decades have typically seen, struggled with, and survived a lot more than your average teenager. With age comes wisdom, as well as battle scars. While it is true that not every person who lives to 62 (or 75 or whatever) is wise, or ultimately worthy of respect, I think we'd all do well to do as you did: give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • 4 years ago


    How to win in the middle game of chess was the first chess book I ever read. I didn't know notation, and to make it worse, it was written in  desription notation. It took me awhile, but I finally "cracked the code."

  • 4 years ago


    lovely puzzle - really makes me smileSmile. I remember the first time I saw that puzzle and the enjoyment I got from solving it then. 

  • 4 years ago


    I am happy that you could finally get that off you chest Mr. Heisman.

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