The criminal who was an international chess master: he played as a team with Bobby Fischer and was imprisoned in Alcatraz with Al Capone

(Creative Commons)
(Creative Commons)

This is a chronicle rescued from the shadows; its greatness was smutted by the inferiority of its protagonist. He knows of paradoxes and contradictions in the life of a man with various personalities and two professions. Norman Tweed Whitaker was a lawyer who studied the law to know how to break it, and a chess player who learned tactics and strategies to apply them to his misdeeds. Sitting in front of the board he defeated two world champions, and in Alcatraz he shared the prison with Al Capone. In his old age he became friends with a boy named Bobby Fischer.

On April 9, 1890, Norman arrived at the Whitaker home; First offspring and fruit of the love of Dr. Hebert (professor of mathematics) and his wife Agnes (champion of Whist -traditional English card game-).

Norman went through his childhood and youth years as a benchmark for his siblings as he smoothly completed his elementary and secondary stages in the schools of Philadelphia. During adolescence, he discovered chess; His parents started it and together they polished their rudiments. But one afternoon, when he saw the American master, Harry Pillsbury, in action, giving an exhibition of simultaneous games to the blind (with his back to the boards), the young man was enraptured by such a show of ingenuity and decided to decipher that mystery. For this he dived thoroughly in chess; I wanted to know all its secrets.

He enrolled in the Franklin Mercantile Chess Club (vice-dean entity and in force since 1885), created in honor of Benjamin Franklin, an enthusiastic chess player from Philadelphia and considered the Founding Father of the United States; his progress and good performances made way for him to integrate the Club team into various challenges. Now without pauses, and while completing his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, with a degree in German literature, Whitaker would shake the board with two immortal plays: he would achieve two amazing victories -both in simultaneous sessions, against two world champions-, that would modify the destiny of his life and raise his self-esteem to the stars.

In 1907 he defeated the then champion, the German Emanuel Lasker (he had traveled to the USA to face the local, Frank Marshall), and in 1909, the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca, who would succeed Lasker from 1921.

Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, where Whitaker was imprisoned with Al Capone.
Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, where Whitaker was imprisoned with Al Capone.

It took until 1913 for Norman Tweed Whitaker, 23, now as a law student at Georgetown University, to make his debut in an international tournament, at the legendary Chess Manhattan Club, with 14 participants, and among them, five of the best players of the moment. Capablanca was the winner and Whitaker finished, 8th. In the duel between the two, the American almost brushed the feat; He beat the Cuban in the opening and the middle game, but fell in the end (with a draw forecast) after 66 plays.

At age 26, and with the title of lawyer, Whitaker moved to Washington where he was assigned a government position as an official of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. With the power of naming and his fame alongside chess, the boy from Philadelphia seemed on track to realize "The American Dream"; but the young man was shot by demons and modified the end of the film; left the Hollywood boy acting for the role of Don Corleone.

Taking refuge in the powers of his office, Whitaker traveled extensively throughout the interior of the country to avoid the call to the Military Service coinciding with the First World War. His concealment did not prevent him from participating in the Wester Chess Association openings, later called the United States Open Championships. In 1916 he was 2nd, behind Showalter and 4th in the tournament won by Edward Lasker, in 1917.

The following year, and after only being one day enlisted in the armed forces, Whitaker was discharged, following the presentation of a dubious medical certificate that advised against admitting him due to defective vision. A few months later his name returned to occupy spaces in the press, His new moment of glory was associated with the victory over the former North American champion, Jackson Showalter, by 4 to 1 and three draws, in a challenge match, agreed to 8 games. Now, the chess player and lawyer, was following in the footsteps of Frank Marshall, the historic American champion (between 1909 and 1935), but negotiations stalled due to the lack of an economic agreement.

But Whitaker began to exhibit strange personality behaviors; a mental disorder that would trigger his worst pent-up desires. His actions seemed out of the play "The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Perhaps, believed that his fame and power would immunize him against the lumpen world with which he had decided to associate, Whitaker began his first steps with small scams, and later became involved in robberies, crimes, kidnapping, drug and prostitute trafficking, and pedophile abuse.

In 1921, as the first rumors about the scope of his scams began to circulate, Whitaker, who had already learned to stutter excuses, appeared to play the tournament of the 8th American Congress, in Atlantic City in which he fulfilled an outstanding performance: Escort from Poland David Janowski finished, relegating Frank Marshall to 3rd place. The news in the media alerted the police that it did not take long to arrest him and send him to serve a minimum sentence. Some chess players maintain that knowing what happened, the American Marshall expressly agreed to put his title on the line immediately in front of the young man from Philadelphia, knowing that his invitation would not receive a response; Whitaker was unable to report to play because he was stopped.

In his puberty, Bobby Fischer shared a team with the mature Whitaker, and they traveled together to play tournaments in different cities. They carried a magnetic board to challenge themselves along the way, although Whitaker almost always won.
In his puberty, Bobby Fischer shared a team with the mature Whitaker, and they traveled together to play tournaments in different cities. They carried a magnetic board to challenge themselves along the way, although Whitaker almost always won.

When he regained his freedom, Norman chose to follow the path of the shadows and planned a new coup; now, with greater treachery. He formed a clan with his friends and brothers, and devised an elaborate scheme consisting of the alleged theft of cars with fraud from insurance companies, which included the transfer of vehicles to other states (from New Jersey to California) and thus, later, to be able to collect their policies. When the maneuver was discovered, only his legal capacity and knowledge to travel through the twists and turns of the Law allowed him to delay with appeals, for more than three years, the various calls for justice. Meanwhile, Papa Hebert Whitaker's heart did not bear the sting of the news when he learned that all his children had been arrested; died in 1925. Norman assumed responsibility for the maneuver, freeing his brothers from guilt. He lost his job and was expelled from the Bar Association, while convicted and sentenced to a 30-month sentence at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. There he would leave anecdotes for a book, and would adopt the nickname "Zorro", which would accompany him until his last days of life.

In late 1927, Whitaker left the prison and his family as well; he put action before thought and returned to chess. He traveled to Michigan and participated in the First Tournament of the National Chess Federation (predecessor of the US Chess Federation); with a surprising performance (6.5 points on 8 wheels) he took the title and relegated Samuel Reshevsky, one of the best American chess players along with Bobby Fischer, in the second part of the 20th century. His double aspect of chess player and criminal had begun to cause discomfort in the environment of the gambits and castles; it was no wonder that the following year, despite his status as an American champion, he did not receive an invitation to defend his title at Bradley Beach.

With solitude of bachelorhood, and more than 30 years ago tired of dreaming, Norman Whitaker believed that it was time to start a journey and start a new life in even numbers. From his collection of loves he chose the fastest yes and went to the Netherlands, with two objectives: to enjoy his honeymoon in The Hague, and to play in the II Amateur World Championship. The dream almost turned into a nightmare when nine people died in a train accident in which his wife was traveling (she was very badly injured). Without blame or remorse, Whitaker's stony heart didn't even seem to be taken for granted; continued playing the contest (won by local Max Euwe) and reached 4th place, with 9.5 points out of 14 possible. For his work he received a cash prize that he kept in his still bulging wallet.

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Upon his return to the United States, he was received with little less than indifference by his colleagues and leaders; He played one tournament in St. Louis, another in Chicago and represented the Washington DC team in a radio match against London. When the federation did not take him into account (due to his criminal past) in the formation of the American teams for the Hamburg Olympics in 1930 and the Prague Olympics in 1931, Whitaker drew on his experience as a lawyer and filed lawsuits against leaders and institutions. But his claims that even reached the International Chess Federation (FIDE, founded in Paris in 1924) were never met. Without their presence, the US He finished 6th in Germany and won gold in Czechoslovakia. With no possibilities of progressing and living from chess, the "Fox" returned to his old ways. He was arrested in Florida, after committing a new fraud with the theft of cars. And although he managed to get out on bail, the worst was yet to happen.

On March 1, 1932, the American people were moved by the terror of the news; 18-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr, the son of United States aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to cross the Atlantic linking New York to Paris in 1927, had been kidnapped in his own crib. Norman, who by Then he was worse than in the band, he recalled that in times of crisis new opportunities often arise.

Faced with the pathetic social situation, his busted mind planned a new blow; They contacted an old rascal, Gaston Means, a former Justice Department agent, and together they visited Evalyn Walsh McLean, a millionaire and co-editor of The Washington Post, assuring her that they had contact with the kidnappers and that they could return the boy safely, in exchange for the u $ s 104,000 positions in reward.

Means collected the money and fled like green in the fall; Faced with the betrayal, Zorro did not flinch and started a plan B. He visited the journalist and informed her that the kidnappers had rejected the money because she had published her numbering in the newspaper. In exchange, he asked for $ 35,000 and a promise to return his previous payment, but McLean suspected the deception and called the FBI. Weeks later, the baby was found dead and Whitaker and his partner Means were imprisoned. With more doubts than certainties, a German carpenter, Bruno Hauptmann was charged with the crime and sentenced to the electric chair. In 1933, during the trial, Whitaker was questioned about the fate of the money received. He only replied, "I would rather not remember it." And he was convicted of "attempted extortion" with 18 months in prison in Alcatraz. Instead, Means fell 15 years and died in prison.

At Alcatraz, Norman Whitaker was alternately friend and enemy of Alphonse Gabriel Capone (famous American gangster, although his personal card read antiques seller), and who since 1932, after passing through Atlanta, had served an 11-year prison sentence for tax evasion, after his arrest for Eliot Ness. In 1936 the Fox and Al Capone had a hard confrontation when the latter did not want to be part of a strike that Whitaker led. Years later, both of them refloated the interested friendship.

Once again released, the ignored chess player and suspended lawyer, returned to the game without forgetting his criminal past. He devised new misdeeds and mean bastards. He spent more than twenty years behind bars after new convictions, now for pedophilia cases and the shipment of prohibited substances through the mail.

In 1954, and after almost a 20-year absence from high competition, Whitaker entered the 55th US Open. that it was played in New Orleans; there, the local Larry Evans and the Spanish Arturo Pomar shared the 1st place with 9.5 points, and among 109 participants, Norman finished in 19th place, with 7.5.

At 66, Whitaker, and after a despicable and unsuccessful marriage proposal to a 14-year-old girl, finally took refuge in chess; He returned to his first club, Franklin Mercantile Chess Club, where he was still considered a strong chess player and a good challenger for the best promises of the institution. There he met Forry Laucks, a wealthy chess player known as "the old Nazi," who wore a Tyrolean hat, T-shirt and khaki pants, with a dark tie, Hitler's mustache and a black badge enameled with a gold swastika; In the basement of his house, Laucks had created a “Log Cabin” chess room, where a group of friends met daily, among which a 13-year-old boy named Bobby Fischer stood out. In 1956, Laucks organized for the group a 5600 km trip, which included participation in several team tournaments in the south of the country and a final stopover in Cuba to challenge the local team: Club Capablanca. Whitaker was selected to defend the 1st board, and Bobby Fischer the 2nd.

His last years, Whitaker spent them touring the country in a Volkswagen Beetle, scoring as soon as he found a chess tournament and with the small prizes he kept his life wandering.
His last years, Whitaker spent them touring the country in a Volkswagen Beetle, scoring as soon as he found a chess tournament and with the small prizes he kept his life wandering.

"Either I go, or Bobby does not travel," was the blunt response from Regina Wender (Fischer's mother) knowing that the boy would share the trip with a criminal and pedophile. Eventually the mom was invited to board the unreliable Chrysler 1950 van owned by Laucks. Bobby traveled in the first seat flanked by a fascist and a criminal, perhaps, without knowing what was happening around him; he was only interested in playing chess and beating Norman who was the only member of the team who always defeated him.

During the long journey they played games with a magnetic board and also blindly; Norman was generally the winner. In the book "Endgame" a biography of Fischer written by Frank Brady, the author says that Whitaker was a great accountant of stories and jokes (usually in bad taste), with which he used to qualify the hours of the trip, but the little Bobby most of the time needed an explanation of the outcome. "I know a woman who would pay $ 1,000 to see me naked," said Norman. And who is it? Bobby asked naively. "A blind lady," Norman replied with a shrill smile, while Regina and the rest hit her bald head and the boy repeated heartbrokenly, and why would he do it?

Although the Cubans won the match 26.5 to 23.5, the New York Time following in Fischer's footsteps published what happened on the Caribbean island. Only Whitaker and Fischer triumphed comfortably on their boards; each defeated his rival by 5.5 to 1.5; the rest of the team members lost their duels. Bobby also took the opportunity to show himself as a serious player, and at the age of 13 he offered a simultaneous match against 12 boards, with 10 wins and 2 draws.

The last call that Whitaker received from Justice was as a consequence of a traffic accident in 1961, in Arkansas, in which his friend Glenn Hartleb died. Facing doubt, the 71-year-old man preserved his freedom. Then, without knowing how he obtained the means, Norman acquired a Volkswagen Beetle with which for almost a decade he traveled an infinity of kilometers through the south of the country participating in how much tournament he managed to register. The little strength of his rivals assured him of obtaining prizes, and the necessary coins to survive the day to day, and continue his journey to a new stop. In 1965, FIDE, in a survey of his chess players, awarded him the title of international teacher (one step lower than grandmaster, the highest) and positioned him among the 25 best players in the world in 1918.

In 1975, the man who monstrously tarnished his sports career died in Alabama; he was 85 years old and from his time in front of the board he left a minimal legacy: the book, “Selection of 365 chess finals; one for each day of the year ”, and the enrichment of game theory, with a variant of the French defense named after it. Twenty-five years later, in 2000, John Samuel Hilbert brought to light all his atrocities; it took more than 500 pages to write so much horror: "Shady side: The life and crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, chessmaster".

Norman Tweed Whitaker, an unforgettable character; Creator of minimal feats in the game, and the author of the greatest miserable checks.

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