After twenty-five years at the Oregon DMV, in 1973, Arthur Dake loaded his car and headed south to Lone Pine, California. His radar detector on, Dake sped down the interstate with urgency, stopping for an evening at blackjack tables in Reno before arriving at the chess tournament.
Dake at Lone Pine in 1976 with former World Chess Champions Vasily Smyslov and Tigran Petrosian.
On the east side of the Sierras, straddling Highway 395, Lone Pine sits on a stretch of desert between Mt. Whitney and Death Valley. Millionaire chess patron Louis D. Statham, who pioneered tracking technology for spacecraft, called together an international chess tournament in the isolated desert redoubt. Statham had retreated to Lone Pine after he sold his Westwood mansion to Hugh Hefner, who then fashioned it as the Western Playboy Mansion.
Although remote, Lone Pine had provided the setting for a wide range of cowboy movies, including the Hopalong Cassidy franchise. Statham enjoyed the desert beauty, but he missed his LA chess cronies. He soon built a new town hall to properly stage the tournament, offered to pay travel expenses for his guest players and guaranteed a generous prize fund to draw the best chess players in the world.
Bald with a prominently hooked nose holding up thick black-rimmed glasses, Dake appeared as though he would be more comfortable playing bingo than chess. At age 62, he was the oldest participant and virtually unknown to a generation of American players brought up in the shadow of Bobby Fischer. Most players who sat across from Dake at Statham’s tournament wouldn’t know that their opponent was the man who had defeated Russian world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1932.
The returning grandmaster from Oregon, Arthur Dake, wasn’t just a giant killer, he was also the fastest player of his generation, a reckless gladiator who pushed pawns with a love for speed in a game often played at the pace of glaciers.
The Early Years and the Portland Chess Club
The 1931 American Olympic chess team in Prague: Arthur Dake, Isaac Kashdan, Frank Marshall, I.A. Horowitz and Herman Steiner.
Young Arthur Dake first came to the public’s notice in 1919, when he rushed past the Secret Service to address President Woodrow Wilson, who was crisscrossing the nation in support of the League of Nations. The Oregonian captured this feat in an article entitled, “Lad in Corduroy Dodges Past Outer Guard, Respect Paid, Hat in Hand.” The nine-year-old could not be held back and thanked President Wilson for ensuring freedom for his immigrant father’s homeland, Poland.
Dake was an independent youth, selling newspapers on the street, at the docks and ouside the railway station. He used that money to see movies, and at age twelve, his infatuation with the Silver Screen led him to run away from home, slipping aboard a train to Hollywood. After a few days wandering Tinseltown in search of movie stars, he was discovered by the Santa Monica police dozing on a street car and was promptly sent back to Portland. That trip may have been encouraged by increasing marital discord at home—a major factor in the sixteen-year-old’s decision to lie about his age and join the Merchant Marines, sailing to Japan, China and the Philippines.
After sowing his wild oats overseas, he returned to Portland, finding school uninteresting and home unbearable. He learned to play chess and began spending all his time at the Portland Chess Club, where he came under the tutelage of E. G. Short, a third-grade dropout who was employed automating telephone switchboards.
Dake watched and learned as Short battled his main PCC rival, A.G. Johnson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who worked for the Strong & McNaughton Trust. Short was a socialist and Johnson a capitalist, and their struggles at the chessboard represented more than a personal dislike for each other. Despite their political animosity, the two men established a national reputation for the Portland Chess Club as they took turns defeating masters visiting the Rose City. These included victories over Frank Marshall (1913, 1915), and world champions Jose Capablanca (1916), Alexander Alekhine (1924), and Emanuel Lasker (1926), as well as the nine-year-old prodigy, Sammy Reshevsky (1921).
Though Short’s play was brilliant, he was often outmatched by Johnson. Short resorted to an alternate strategy to defeat Johnson. By 1927, a precocious teenager was quickly marching his way up the PCC rating board. Short recognized an opportunity to wound his main rival and arranged a match between Dake and Johnson. Dake won handily, and Johnson was rarely seen down at the club thereafter.
Teenager vs. Chess World Champion
During the fall of that year, in Argentina, Alexander Alekhine and Jose Capablanca played a match for the world championship. The Russian expatriate defeated the Cuban in a brilliant manner and during the spring of 1928 celebrated his victory by conducting a series of simultaneous exhibitions across the United States. Simultaneous exhibitions are spectacles that pit a single chess talent against dozens of players at a time. The chess boards are set up at consecutive tables so that the champion can move easily from one to the next. Unfortunately Alekhine’s schedule did not include the Pacific Northwest. At first, the PCC was going to send Johnson to California to face the new champion, but instead they chose Dake. A hat was passed around, and the young club champion went to Los Angeles, where the rambunctious Oregonian held Alekhine, the new crowned world champion, to a fifty-four-move draw. Dake followed Alekhine to San Francisco, where he played him once more in a simul that included the strongest players in California. This time the champ was prepared. Within a few moves Alekhine quit circling the room and stood across from the Portland teenager, challenging him with a defiant stare. As the entire gallery stopped to watch, the two began pushing their pieces at a second per move and, despite his supreme confidence, Dake lasted less than a half minute before resigning to the world champion.
Rapid Transit Chess and New York
Tournament chess games can last six hours, while games of blitz, or speed chess, are finished in ten minutes—pieces flying off the board. Before the widespread use of clocks, it was called Rapid Transit and conducted with a bell that rang every ten seconds compelling players to move or lose. After learning the moves at age seventeen, Dake honed his chess skills playing Rapid Transit at the Portland Chess Club. He didn’t play his first slow tournament game until two years later, but soon established himself as one of the best in the world. Often using less than half the time of his opponents, Dake confidently answered each move with the first idea that came into this head.
It was in 1929 that Dake burst upon the New York City chess scene. Returning from sailing around the world as a Merchant Marine, he set up a stand in Coney Island and played all comers for a quarter a game. After the stock market crashed that October, he moved into Times Square, where he raised the stakes to a dollar. Playing for wagers at the prestigious Marshall Chess Club, he discovered that he could support himself, even offering his opponents a pawn or a knight advantage just to keep them on the hook.
Dake fondly remembered one of his earliest encounters at the Marshall Club with arch rival, Reuben Fine. “I was a nineteen-year-old sailor, a self-styled Jack London, who rode a chess knight into the Big Apple. The New York lads, they all thought I was a big, juicy peach fit for skinning and eating. I recall a very young and much thinner Reuben Fine pounding a piece down on the board, letting me know that it was a ‘Fine move.’ Fine, I replied, I’ll Dake it off.”
Dake (r) plays a match in New York in 1938.
The kid from Oregon was met with the kind of snobbish disdain New Yorkers, at that time, reserved for greeting those from the hinterlands. Dake was undaunted and soon took everyone by surprise. Within a few months, he had won the championship of both the Marshall and Manhattan chess clubs, the two strongest chess clubs in the world.
Frank Marshall, the longtime U.S. Champion, then nominated Dake to be a member of the 1931 American Olympic chess team. Friends helped Dake arrange a cross-country tour playing simultaneous exhibitions to raise money for his trip to Prague, Czechoslovakia. This type of event favored Dake’s fast-paced style, as he would take no more than a few seconds to make his move at each board. He would typically finish such events in several hours, winning almost all of the games. After crisscrossing the country, the return of the prodigal son was documented by The Oregonian under the headline “Chess Wizard Plays 43: Boy Who Studied Moves Instead of Multiplication—Junior National Champ Now.”
In the summer of 1931, in preparation for the Chess Olympics in Prague, he played in a tournament that included the esteemed Capablanca. Entering the endgame, he had “The Chess Machine” on the ropes but then suffered a loss that he remembered the rest of his life. “I was a young cocky kid who wanted to show the great Capablanca that I could move just as fast as he could,” Dake said. After that game, Dake took up smoking just to have something to do while waiting for his opponent to move.
Over the next few years, Dake would achieve his greatest chess accomplishments. During the 1930s, he won nine major tournaments, pursuing his fortunes from Mexico City and Antwerp, to New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. He finished second and third in a dozen other tournaments, often beginning those events strongly only to fall off the pace near the end. Those accomplishments were all covered on the sports page of The Oregonian.
Pasadena, 1932. (Seated) Alexander Alekhine vs. Isaac Kashdan. (Standing) Mexican champion José Araiza, Dake, Reuben Fine and Sammy Reshevsky.
Undoubtedly Dake’s finest hour came in 1932 with his victory over Alekhine in round ten at the Pasadena International Tournament, the only American to defeat the world champion. That game was preceded by two other encounters that set the stage for the Oregonian’s triumph.
Several months earlier, upon arriving in America, Alekhine first spent some time in New York hanging out at the Manhattan Chess Club. Dake often recounted an evening he spent there with Alekhine and Arnold Denker playing Rapid Transit for a quarter a game.
A large crowd collected around their table as the world champion took the first three pots, whereupon Denker won a couple. Then Dake mopped up by winning six in a row, dropping one to Denker and then winning another half dozen. As Alekhine lost more games, his face went from red to purple. The humiliation of reaching into a black coin purse to fetch more quarters, combined with surrendering his seat at the board, enraged the champion. He challenged the Oregonian to a regular match but Dake begged off, addressing the gallery directly, “Everyone here knows that you would slaughter me in a match, so why play one?”
As Dake kept winning, Alekhine leveled the challenge a second time, and the Oregonian again declined. “I know you are the better player and are merely off form this evening,” he said. Alekhine exploded, gesturing at the spectators surrounding the board and loudly lecturing his young protégé, “You know that, I know that, but these silly people don’t know that.”
In August, Dake again played the Russian during a publicity stunt that preceded the international tournament, in a blimp high above Pasadena. Mixing altitude and attitude, Dake drew that game, defeated the only other player in the blimp and declared himself “champion of the air.” The world champion had not lost a tournament game for several years and vowed to seek his revenge in round ten. In that game, Dake surprised Alekhine with a thirty-eight-move win, pacing himself with a series of slow burning cigarettes.
In addition to defeating Alekhine in the Pasadena tournament and owning him at Rapid Transit, Dake is best remembered for his performance on three consecutive American Olympic chess teams which won the gold in Prague (1931), Folkestone (1933) and Warsaw (1935), where Dake had the highest winning percentage of any player.
On the trans-Atlantic voyage back from the Chess Olympics in Poland, he met Helen Gerwatowski, who he always referred to as his “greatest chess prize.” They were soon married, and within a year had a daughter. Dake’s attempt to support his young family as a chess player during the depths of the Great Depression proved daunting.
The USSR and the DMV
Around this time, Dake’s place on the chessboard was slipping as he finished sixth in the 1938 national championship. He lost ground to younger players such as Reuben Fine and Sammy Reshevsky. After only eight years at the top of the chess world, Arthur Dake decided to retire and dedicate himself to supporting his family. That decision led back to his hometown, where his chess celebrity wasn’t worth more than a cup of coffee.
Over the next few years, Dake took jobs digging ditches, and selling insurance and reverse phone directories. On a trip back from California, he crashed his car near Eugene and spent a month in the hospital with a broken neck. While recovering, Dake found employment as a boilermaker on Swan Island. After his health returned, he enlisted in the army.
Before the start of the Cold War, the U.S. State Department recruited Dake to join a ten-man diplomatic chess team that was dispatched to Moscow to take on the Soviets as a gesture of good will. Dake drew both of his games, but the hosts provided the American team with a drubbing, marking the dawn of the preeminence of Soviet chess. The Soviets were unbeatable until Bobby Fischer overpowered Boris Spassky in 1972.
The American Chess Team lands in Moscow in 1946. Bottom to top: Sammy Reshevsky, Alexander Kevitz, Isaac Kashdan, Weaver Adams, Helen Dake, Arthur Dake and Albert Pinkus.
Soviet players maintained their edge through state support, while the Americans all had to find jobs, unable to dedicate themselves to training and competition. World champion candidate, Reuben Fine, quit chess and became a Freudian psychologist; perennial national champion, Sammy Reshevsky, worked seasonally as an accountant; and 1944 U.S. Champion, Arnold Denker, worked in a meat packing factory, which he eventually owned.
Likewise, upon returning to Portland, Dake took a job with the DMV, eventually administering 70,000 driving tests. During the 1950s, he played in some West Coast tournaments and developed a taste for bridge and blackjack. During the 1960s, he didn’t play competitive chess at all. But with the excitement caused by Bobby Fischer, Dake became a public figure again, covering the 1972 world championship for The Oregonian, hosting simultaneous exhibitions, and playing a public match at what is now the Civic Theater.
1973: The Return to Lone Pine
After having been absent from competitive chess for decades, Dake again faced some of the world’s elite players. That first year he finished with only one win, three draws and three losses. Undeterred, the grandmaster from Oregon returned four more times to Lone Pine and in the desert rediscovered the pleasures of his youth. Over the ten-year history of Statham’s tournament, Dake achieved a rank of 39 among a field of 230 players.
After a disappointing finish in 1977, Dake again retired as the only chess grandmaster ever to come out of Oregon—and one of the few who beat the aristocratic Russian world champion, Alexander Alekhine, in his prime.
In 1987, Dake again came out of chess retirement for the U.S. Open in Portland. That’s where I first met him. He was the master of ceremonies and finished a respectable thirty-second in a field of more than 500.
Dake competes in the 1987 U.S. Open in Portland.
In 1991, world champion and Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov, gave the keynote address at the induction of Arthur Dake into the Chess Hall of Fame. In April 2000, the Portland Chess Club hosted a ninetieth birthday party for “King Arthur.” Some 100 friends and players from around the country came for the celebration. A month later, he died of a heart attack in Reno after a winning night at the blackjack table. Many of the same people who were at the birthday party returned to Portland to attend his funeral at St. Agatha’s Church in Sellwood. The service was followed by a reception, where attendees brought out their boards and clocks to play speed chess in Dake’s honor.
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