Albert Pinkus: The Indiana Jones of Chess

Albert Pinkus: The Indiana Jones of Chess

Mar 19, 2016, 9:09 AM |

A second later, I was up in panic, heart pounding, eyes
staring fearfully into the blackness around. Something was in
the hammock with me: some "thing " that crawled. A snake!
What else of that size crawled? Any second I expected the
strike-it was as if I could feel the creeping numbness, the
pain and writhings. I waited, tormented by a frantic mind
feeding on its own fears. But nothing happened, and painful
seconds lengthened to the pro'Verbial minute of eternity.
And yet it waited. Why? Was it all really a dream? Just a
tenderfoot's nightmare? Maybe I had imbibed too freely of
jungle-book mystery and stealthy blackness. I became bolder.
My hand stole cautiously to the tickling spot, inch by inch. But
halfway to its objecti'Ve, it paused. Strained neroes resisted
further progress, and its newfound daring withered under
the logic of possibility. There was just a chance, an outside
chance, that something was there . . . .
-A Lost World Beckons by Albert Pinkus and Milton Pauley


Albert Pinkus-young American Tal of the 1920s, powerful kingpin
of both the Manhattan and Marshall chess clubs, eventual owner of
the seventh best won-lost record in U.S. Championship history,
intrepid jungle explorer better remembered at New York's Museum
of Natural History than by the chess world, and the man whom I
call the Indiana Jones of Chess-was spending his first night in the
jungles of British Guiana.

But I knew better. Al was not an accidental tourist in the tropics
but a man in whom celestial fire burned. Its flames shot up in his
eyes and glinted off his wide, toothy smile. Possessed of what a New
York Times reporter termed "a quick, sure manner of speech," Al
was described in Raymond Ditmars and William Bridges' SnakeHunters'
Holiday (1935) as a "solidly built young fellow, muscled
like a prizefighter and a demon of energy."

The year was 1932. And AI was out to win fame and glory in the
darkest regions of South America-in places with lazy, muddy rivers
and ill-shaven soldiers of fortune who wear white suits and Panama
hats, and who travel on tramp steamers into desolate green hells.
Al's mission was to Bring 'Em Back Ali'Ve, as in the title of Frank
Buck's hit movie of the same year. The "'Em" were rare plants and
animals for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and the private
collections of men with the means to pay.

Short, serious and soft-spoken, AI was not a head-turner. His
dark, broad and flat Slavic face was as square as a block of granite
and looked a lot like the map of current Supreme Court Justice
Antonin Scalia. Most people probably mistook Al for a conservative,
buttoned-down businessman with a penchant for three-piece pinstripes
. Any movie director seeking someone to play a shoe salesman
would have cast Al on the spot.

That got it just right.


Boy with a Butterfly Net

Born March 20, 1903, AI Pinkus grew up in a small, third-floor
walk-up on West 82nd between Amsterdam and Broadway. A tough
neighborhood in those days! Al and his brother Milton found that
the price for being budding Tom Swifts interested in chemistry,
ham radios and natural science was having to defend themselves
against neighborhood toughs.

"I endured the special attention of gangs of hoodlums who
fancied any boy with a butterfly net delicious bait," Al wrote in the
autobiographical A Lost World Beckons. "We fought with fists,
fairly, no chains, clubs, or belts. Never was there two or three
against one, and pairings usually gravitated to contenders of equal
age and weight. In all justice, our opponents were 'rough gentlemen,'
though greedy for our subservience."

Al became an Eagle Scout in 1917, and his early interest in
natural science blossomed into deep study. He compiled a notable
butterfly collection and was featured in a two-page spread in the old
New York World. "My mecca," he wrote, "was the Museum of
Natural History, a few convenient blocks from home; the curators
there were my heroes. They spun tales of exciting incidents in
strange lands with the enviable ease of those who have seen all-my
impressionable eyes widening with wonder."

"Eyes widening with wonder"-that was the man I knew.


Like a Mike Tyson Uppercut

On April 27, 1924, the young and unknown Pinkus sat down to
play against Alexander Alekhine in a 26-board blindfold simultaneous.
The exhibition, a record-breaking affair, was held shortly
following the famous New York International, and AI won his game
from the great man as did another unknown, Isaac Kashdan.

The following year, AI came into his own. Indeed, he hit the New
York chess scene like a Mike Tyson uppercut. Not only did he
sacrifice chess pieces like the young Tal, he won every tournament
in sight. From 1925 to 1928, Pinkus outpaced all of the peers in his
age group, including Kashdan, AI Horowitz, Sammy Reshevsky,
Tony Santasiere and Herman Steiner.

Consider Al's record. In October 1925, he won one of Eddie
Dimock's theme tournaments, a particularly strong event played to
test the Moller Attack in the Giuoco Piano. He finished ahead of
Frank Marshall, Carlos Torre, Santasiere and Steiner. In December
came the Albert Hallgarten Tournament in which he scored 9.5-2.5
to outstrip Kashdan and Steiner. In early 1926, he tallied 4.5-1.5 to
tie with Marshall for top spot in another Dimock event, winning
several Wing Gambits in scorching style.


Albert Pinkus-Anthony Santasiere

Dimock Theme Tournament, 1926

Sicilian Defense

At about this point, I always like to quote what John Adams
once wrote to Thomas Jefferson: "Our last resource is resignation."