Chess Great Wanted by FBI: Norman Tweed Whitaker


Norman Tweed Whitaker (April 9, 1890 in Philadelphia – May 20, 1975 in Phenix City, Alabama) was an International Master ofchess. Although he did not receive his title from FIDE until 1965 (at age 75), he was awarded it based on his earlier play. His picture appears on the cover of the December 1969 issue of Chess Life magazine, which contains an article he wrote about his life. 

Whitaker was taught to play chess by his father at age 14 and learned more watching Harry Nelson Pillsbury play in 1905. By 1918, he was one of the strongest players in the country. He was scheduled to play a match for the U.S. Chess Championship with Frank Marshall, but did not show up. However, in 1927 he won a twelve player invitational event in Michigan, ahead of Samuel Reshevsky. He was declared champion of the National Chess Federation, a predecessor of the United States Chess Federation (USCF). In 1928, while on his honeymoon, he went to The Hague to play in the Amateur World Championship (round-robin tournament against the champions of 15 other nations). Despite being in a terrible train wreck which killed nine people and severely injured his wife, he finished 9½ - 5½ and won a prize. The winner was Max Euwe, who became World Chess Champion seven years later.

Norman T. Whitaker, mug shot

Whitaker graduated with a Bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Georgetown University. He served for a time in the United States government as an Assistant Secretary of the Interior, in 1922. However, he was soon thereafterdisbarred from the practice of law. He was convicted of several crimes, including auto theft, sending morphine through the mail, andsexual molestation of a minor. He often brought suit for false arrest.

In 1932 Whitaker gained fame during the Lindbergh kidnapping. A former FBI Agent named Gaston Means concocted a scheme to swindle $104,000 from a wealthy heiress by claiming to be in contact with the kidnappers. Means intended to use Whitaker as the bagman to pick up her money, but both were arrested and convicted. What Whitaker was really convicted of was "attempted" extortion (Hilbert 2000:121). He claimed that the Lindbergh kidnappers had refused $49,500 of the ransom money paid by Mrs. McLean because the serial numbers on the money had been published. Therefore, he demanded replacement money in the amount of $35,000, in exchange for which he promised to return the original $49,500 plus the baby. That was when the FBI was finally called in. Whitaker never got any of the money and, when asked what happened to the money, Whitaker replied, "I do not know and I wish I did". Whitaker got out in just 18 months, but was soon arrested again. He served time at several prisons, including Alcatraz, where he befriended the notorious Al Capone. They had a falling out in 1936 when Capone refused to join in Whitaker's prison strike, but reconciled later on.

After his parole, Whitaker again became a full time chess player. For several years he was one of the most active players in America and Europe. He played in many US Opens with good results, tying for first in 1923 and 1930. However, he could only manage to finish 16th out of 20 in the 1948 U.S. Chess Championship in South Fallsburg, New York.

Whitaker was skillful as resetting car odometers with a screwdriver. He supplemented his income with this and otherconfidence tricks (Fox & James 1993:24-25).

The last years of his life were spent driving around the country in his Volkswagen Beetle playing in weak tournaments he could win in the South. In 1961, he was involved in a serious automobile accident in Arkansas in which his friend Glenn Hartleb was killed, but Whitaker still continued to compete actively until his death in 1975. (Hilbert 2000)

Professor Arpad Elo gave Whitaker a rating of 2420 in his authoritative work The Rating of Chess Players, Past and Present.