There are 90 college chess teams in the U.S., and championship matches have been held regularly since 1892, but the stupendous lack of popular interest in this historic event has long been the most newsworthy fact about it. While a few hundred thousand spectators were assembling for the Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange Bowl spectacles, the most recent of these chess classics approached a precedent-breaking climax in Philadelphia with no spectators present, no newspaper coverage, no television broadcasts and no gate receipts whatsoever. The total budget came to $140. Most of the 56 players paid their own expenses, roomed at the YMCA for $2.25 a night, ate at the nearest cafeteria—and fairly often didn't eat the customary three meals a day that science recommends for men in strenuous competition.
One reason for the lack of interest is obvious. New York always won. Of the 26 college-team tournaments that have been held since 1922, City College and New York University alone have won 17, Columbia, Brooklyn College and Fordham the others.
Throughout the rest of the country, college chess enthusiasts have come to look upon the metropolis the way chess players in general look upon Russia. "Those guys from New York always stick together," said Mitchell Sweig, a short, energetic physicist from the University of Chicago. "They're always analyzing games and figuring out variations to make each other's games look good." This year Fordham was captained by Anthony Saidy, now a chess master, who led the American team in the international college match in Sweden last year. City College had at it first board Arthur Feuerstein, a budding headliner, and at third board Joe Tomargo, who alone outranked most of the players from all other colleges I present. William Lombardy of City I College, one of the three top-ranking American college chess players, was not even present; it was said that City College would not need him.
But chess is an art, not a game, and like all arts is subject to mysterious visitations of inspiration. One of these now descended on four grateful beginners from the University of Chicago. Not tyros by any means, the Chicago players were nevertheless not suspected of being of the caliber of chess masters; they were present only' because their captain, an 18-year-old scholarship winner from San Diego named Robin Kirby, had wangled $100 from the university authorities for expenses. "We came in second in the West Side division of the Chicago Chess League," said Michael Robinson proudly, "and this year we're tied for first." He introduced Leonard Frankenstein, a tall, solemn, 20-year-old genius from Kansas City: "Same name as the Boris Karloff character," he said, lips compressed like a Chicago gambler in a movie. Grim and relentless, Frankenstein won one critical game in the tournament in eight moves. Chicago took all four of its games against Muhlenberg, won three and drew one against Penn, held City College to two victories, beat Harvard with two wins and one drawn game and then whipped Fordham. Lombardy hurried from New York to take over first board for City College in the semifinal and final rounds but barely avoided defeat himself.
By the finish of the tournament the Chicago players needed shaves, sleep and food, but they had won by the margin of one full game and had ended the myth of New York's invincibility.
Doubtless the great bowl games were better spectacles. Yet it may not be moralizing too much to point out that there were aspects of the collegiate chess tournament that even bowl game promoters might study with profit. The bowl games provided a conclusion which was final. Baylor, Iowa and the other bowl game winners emerged as better than their immediate opponents, but it was still unclear, and always would be, whether one bowl victor was stronger than another, or which, if any, of the bowl winners was as good as Oklahoma. There was no question about the chess champions: they're University of Chicago.
The whistle blows, the players hoot—
It's not a foul, they all agree;
And just to make their point they shoot
A basket with the referee.