More about Norman T. Whitaker

I have received a lot of e-mail asking questions about Norman T. Whitaker, so I feel I should say something more about him.

I have found a game in my chess database where Whitaker defeated Capablanca in 1909. I have never seen this game before. I would like to have it authenticated to determine if this is a recognized Capablanca game. Since Capablanca lost the least games of any important player in chess history, games like this are rare.
Norman T. Whitaker in 1956 with Sam Sloan, age 12, facing him and Creighton Sloan in the foreground. This photo was taken by Dr. Marjorie Sloan

Whitaker learned chess from Harry Nelson Pillsbury on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey. Pillsbury was unquestionably the greatest chess genius of his time. An early issue of American Chess Bulletin describes "Whitaker the Invincible", because Whitaker won every game while playing on the University of Pennsylvania Chess Team. Whitaker obtained a law degree but later was disbarred.

According to the Social Security Death Index, Whitaker was born April 9, 1890 and died May, 1975. He died in Burtonsville, Maryland, which is half way between Washington DC and Baltimore. His social security number was 160-26-0762.

The reason I feel that Whitaker was probably never the best chess player in America is that Abraham Kupchik, who was born in 1892, was clearly a stronger player than Whitaker by probably 50 to 100 rating points. Kupchik was born on March 15, 1892 and died in November, 1970 and was a 2400 player at five minute chess up until the day he died at age 78.

However, Kupchik rarely played outside of New York and New Jersey, except that at New York 1913 the top seven prize winners as part of their prize were put on a boat to Havana where they played in another tournament. Kupchik finished in the top seven. This was the only time Kupchik ever played outside of the US, except that he played in the International Team Tournament in Warsaw 1935. However, in New York, Kupchik defeated almost everybody he played, including Bogoljubov, Marshall, Chajes, Bernstein, Edward Lasker (many times) and drew Capablanca and Alekhine when they were world champions. Because he almost never played in Europe, the world never got to know how strong Kupchik really was.

There was a time when Marshall was old and no longer active and Reshevsky and Fine were not yet strong, when Whitaker may have been the best player in America, but Kupchik was about the same age as Whitaker and was always better in my opinion. Still, Whitaker did play first board for the USA in 1928. Kupchik did not compete in that event. Not long thereafter, there was the Lindbergh kidnapping and Whitaker was not active in tournament chess for the next 18 years.

After he got out of prison, Whitaker played in several US Opens in the late 1940s. However, by the late 1950s, he was declining opportunities to play against other masters. Instead of competing in Washington DC where he lived, Whitaker went to the South and played in tournaments in North Carolina and Georgia where there were no masters. In those events, there might be one or two experts and Whitaker could beat up on the weakies.

However, Whitaker was not playing seriously. He would generally use only fifteen minutes on his clock, even though it was a two hour time control game. I remember one game which he won using less than five minutes on his clock. It was a Guioco Piano. His opponents claimed that he psyched them out. Because he played fast, they played fast too.

I cannot remember him winning any of those tournaments. In one event, he lost to Dr. Albert Warshawer, who was a 1900 player. In another, he lost to Oliver Hutaff. In yet another, he drew Oliver Hutaff. Many of these games were published in the Carolina Gambit, edited by Dr. Norman Hornstein.

In one North Carolina 30-30 in Raleigh in about 1960, I was playing a game against Davis, the Champion of Georgia. Under the rules, the game was to be adjudicated after 30 moves (a bad idea). Whitaker was the adjudicator. I was white. He came to my board and said "White wins" and walked away. Davis protested, demanding that Whitaker demonstrate the win. Whitaker said "Its ridiculous" and refused to analyze it.

Davis then did a big analysis of the position and claimed he had a way to hold a draw. I analyzed with him and could not prove him wrong. I did have an advantage in the position, but certainly not an overwhelming advantage. Had the game been played out, I probably would have lost, as Davis was a much stronger player than I.

Needless to say, I got the point. I no longer have the score sheet. If Davis is still around, I would like to get that game to see if really had a win.

Whitaker would travel to Germany every Summer. He would buy a Volkswagen Beetle there, bring it back to the US., drive it around for one year until the next summer, and then sell it at a profit.

I believe that Whitaker played in many tournaments in Europe, but I have never seen mention of any of them. He did get the FIDE International Master title in 1965 and, if he did it legitimately (a questionable assumption), it was from his European results.

Most players today who remember Whitaker remember him from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which is after I knew him.

Whitaker wrote an endgame book with his friend, Glen Hartleb.

Hartleb and Whitaker traveled together to many tournaments, including the 1961 US Open in San Francisco. On their way back, they allowed a boy who was traveling with them but who did not have a driver's license to drive.

There was an accident in Arkansas. Hartleb was killed. Whitaker was maimed for life, which is why he walked with a cane or braces for the rest of his life.

The boy was uninjured. I do not know his name but I suppose that he must have been in the US Open in San Francisco.

The last time I saw Whitaker was in 1962. We had played in a tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was going to Lynchburg. He was going to Washington DC.

I needed a ride, so he agreed to drive me about half way. At that time, I usually hitch hiked to chess tournaments. He dropped me off on the highway and I hitch hiked the rest of the way to Lynchburg.

Whitaker was walking in braces and was talking about suing the doctor in Arkansas who had treated him for his injuries. He said that he had been maimed for life because of the malpractice by the doctor. I wanted to ask him about the Lindbergh Kidnapping, but never had the nerve to bring it up.

As far as I am aware, Whitaker never went to jail again after he got out of prison in 1946.

Somebody expressed doubt that Whitaker spent 18 years in prison. There was an article in Chess Life within the two years which said that Whitaker spent 18 years in Alcatraz, or perhaps the number is 17 years.

I went through every issue of the American Chess Bulletin from the time that magazine started publishing until the end (except for a few issues which were missing from the Mechanics Institute Library) plus I went through every issue of Chess Review Magazine ever published, and from the early 1930s until the 1946 US Open there is no mention whatever of Whitaker.

So, I believe Whitaker must have spent substantially all that time in prison, although to get to the number 18 years it would be necessary to include the time he spent in prison in the Lindbergh case, plus his other prison sentences.

Sam Sloan

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