U.S. Chess Loses 3 Influential Figures

U.S. Chess Loses 3 Influential Figures

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
Jun 17, 2016, 1:22 AM |
7 | Chess Players

A trio of prominent people in American chess died recently in less than a week. Each made a unique impact on the game: organizing, computer programming, and stewarding the national organization.

On June 6, former U.S. chess championship sponsor and organizer Frank Berry died of a heart attack at age 70. Later the next morning, past U.S. Chess (formerly USCF) Executive Director Bill Hall also died at the age of 46 due to complications from diabetes. Five days later, IM Danny Kopec sadly became the third important personality to die, at the age of 62 from pancreatic cancer.

IA/IO Frank Kim Berry (1945-2016)

Frank Berry's best-known chess accomplishments as an organizer and arbiter came later in life as he sponsored the 2007 and 2008 U.S. championships, the last two times the tournament took place before moving to St. Louis. The twin events also bore his name. The first event coincided with his awarding of the International Arbiter and International Organizer titles by FIDE.

The Oklahoman brought the tournaments to Stillwater, Okla. (Berry was born in Washington, D.C. but grew up in Stillwater) at a time when the U.S. Chess Federation was desperately in need of a financial backer. The Seattle group that had hosted for eight years had pulled its sponsorship, and the financially-robust Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis had yet to be formed. Berry's interregnum between the two well-funded hosts should not be forgotten.

Frank K. Berry. (Photo: Oklahoma Chess Federation.)

Berry, a former paratrooper and major stockholder in a regional bank, put up hundreds of thousands of his own money to ensure its continuation. Players largely derided the USCF for the obscure location and smaller conditions, but were it not for Berry's backing, the events may have had much smaller prize funds, much weaker fields, or may not have been held at all.

"Now that the championship has a lucrative home in St. Louis, few people remember that FKB kept it alive for two years; long enough for the new patron to be found," longtime friend and fellow Oklahoman Tom Braunlich wrote.

You could even use the "butterfly effect" to explain how momentous the events were. GM Yury Shulman specifically played in 2008 to try to get a spot on the Olympiad team. Sure enough, he won his only U.S. title, giving him an automatic berth. In the final game of the final round in Dresden later that year, his upset victory gave the U.S. a spectacular match win over Ukraine and the team bronze medal.

Despite Shulman's win, the second U.S. championship in Stillwater will perhaps best be known for the controversial time scramble between Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih.

Braunlich dubbed Berry a "chess conservationist." He said that Berry didn't think the game was marketable like traditional sports, and therefore needed the backing of grassroots support. Braunlich said Berry wanted the reinvigoration of traditional over-the-board tournaments, and lamented the new focus of U.S. Chess on scholastics and online play.

Berry with the "Red River Chess Shootout" trophy, given to the winner of the Oklahoma/Texas match. (Photo: Jim Hollingsworth.)

A former editor of the "Oklahoma Chess Quarterly," Berry was the de facto historian for the state. He dug up records of past champions and compiled a massive electronic database of games played by Oklahomans, or games played in Oklahoma (Bobby Fischer played in Oklahoma City in 1956).

Berry was also the organizer and even creator of other national events. He hosted the original North American Open, a U.S. Senior and a U.S. Junior Championship, and several U.S. women's championships, among others. Even last year, he brought the first U.S. Junior Girls Invitational to his home state.

Berry (top right) and the 10 young ladies from the inaugural U.S. Junior Girls Invitational in 2015.

Braunlich described a tireless organizer/arbiter who traveled far to help others and preferred to "teach a man how to fish" so that the newcomer could direct many future events. Berry played in more than 1,200 rated games and was a USCF Life Member before he graduated high school.

WIM Ruth Haring, a U.S. Chess Board Member, first met Berry as a teenager and remembered his humor.

"I am not a psychologist, but from my many conversations over the years, I attribute his need to make people laugh including himself, to his experiences in Vietnam," Haring said. "Frank wanted to make the world a more joyful place. Frank loved chess and writing about chess and spreading chess in any way he could."

Berry won the Koltanowski Award from the the U.S. Chess Federation in 2015, the highest honor bestowed by the organization. He is survived most immediately by his twin brother Jim, a former USCF president, and his longtime partner Lauretha Martin.

William "Bill" Hall (1969-2016)

Bill Hall was best known as the USCF executive director from 2005-2013. He was from Cumberland County, TN, which became the new home of the USCF when it moved from New York to Crossville, TN in the mid-2000s.

Hall was working as a teacher at his alma-mater, Cumberland County High School, and moved to the organization's top leadership role. Previously, he had been valedictorian of the high school, and also held a degree from MIT. Several Facebook memorials referred to him as usually the smartest man in the room.

Bill Hall at the Supernationals Chess Tournament in his native Tennessee in 2013. (Photo courtesy Robert McLellan.)

Like Berry, Hall helped the national organization through some troubled times. The USCF was mired in expensive lawsuits, and Hall led it through that period and retained its financial solvency.

Colleague Hal Bogner described Hall's situation at this time as being "up to his neck in alligators."

Chess Life Online Editor and USCF colleague WGM Jennifer Shahade wrote, “Bill was extremely passionate about chess, and it was never too late or early in the day for him to take a phone call or work on an issue pertaining to the growth of our game or organization. His work ethic, even when facing adversity, was inspiring.”

"Bill was uniformly gracious, respectful and kind to me whenever we met...a professional in every sense of the word," wrote previous USCF Executive Director Frank Niro on his blog.

Hall on the 4th hole at River Run Golf Club in Crossville, TN. (Photo posted by Brian and Angela Conatser on Hall's Facebook page.)

Hall won a dozen county championships and also a state and team national title according to the radio station that reported his death. He was winning tournaments at least as late as 2014 (according to this article with friend Harry Sabine, he may have "only" won 10 county titles). Many top players know Hall from his frequent appearances and speeches at the opening and closing ceremonies of recent U.S. championships.

Hall is survived by his wife and two children. Despite declining health he kept his U.S. Chess rating as expert (2021) until his death.

IM Daniel "Danny" Kopec (1954-2016)

While Berry and Hall made their names mostly by staying in their childhood backyards, IM Danny Kopec took his skills all over the world. Born in Israel, Kopec won the 1980 and 1981 Scottish championships, then moved to Canada and eventually the United States.

During his time in the U.K., he earned his PhD in machine intelligence from the University of Edinburgh. Later this would help him co-create the "Bratko-Kopec Test" in 1982 for determining the strength of chess-playing computers during their fledging days. Some sample questions can be found at Kopec's website.

IM Danny Kopec (right) having dinner after teaching a chess camp with NM Peter Giannatos.

Dr. Kopec wrote eight chess books and also ran a decades-long chess camp.

In his youth, he won the New York High School Championship, and became a master at the age of 17 (back when masters were much rarer breeds). He also finished tied for second place in a Canadian championship.

Besides the computer chess evaluation system, he also lent his name to an offbeat opening, the Kopec System. Against the Sicilian, he was a proponent of playing Bd3 before advancing his d-pawn, then dropping it back to c2 via a c2-c3 advance.

In recent years he was a professor of computer science at Brooklyn College (the same alma mater as GM Gata Kamsky).

"Danny was also one of the most eloquent and truly best speakers when it came to explain the basic concepts of chess to beginners," wrote GM Kevin Spraggett, who met Dr. Kopec during their time in Montreal in the early 1980s. Despite his later interests in academia, Spraggett wrote, "He continued to promote the game with bravo and gusto."

Watch Kopec eviscerate the dubious opening choice of 1.b4 by his opponent Michael Basman in 1979:

Dr. Kopec also maintained a lifelong friendship with GM Walter Browne until the latter's death last year. The two met in 1976 when Browne ground him down in the endgame that followed from Kopec's namesake opening.

According to an obituary in the New York Times, Dr. Kopec is survived by wife Sylvia, sister Patinka, and stepson Oliver.

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