Brady, Frank. End Game: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall–from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. 2011. New York: Crown. (pp. 44-47)

As Bobby was becoming more involved in the world of chess, he attracted the attention of a wealthy and unusual man named E. Forry Laucks. A chess player himself, Laucks liked to surround himself with other players, many of them offbeat and highly talented. He was always generous to Regina [Fischer’s mother] with small amounts of money–$25 to $100–for tournament entry fees and other expenses. During the spring of 1956, Laucks gathered a group of chess players for a thirty-five-hundred mile motor trip through the southern United States and ultimately to Cuba, stopping off at towns and cities for a series of matches with local clubs.

So that twelve-year-old Bobby could participate in the barnstorming jaunt to Cuba, Regina allowed him to withdraw from school temporarily. Her thinking was the trip would be educational, exposing her son to new places and different people. However, she agreed to Bobby’s participation only if she could serve as his chaperone. Laucks didn’t know or care that Regina, and therefore Bobby, was Jewish, nor did Regina seem too concerned about Laucks’s neo-Nazi (someone called him “an old Nazi”) allegiance. The idea of travel, especially to the politically exploseive country of Cuba, stimulated Regina’s wanderlust. Permission from the Community Haywood School was forthcoming for Bobby’s three-week absence, and the boy was delighted to be on the road playing chess instead of being in the classroom.

Laucks frequently wore a small, black-enameled lapel pin bearing a gold Nazi swastika. Amazingly, it never seemed to attract much attention. He didn’t wear it all the time, but often enough, and it didn’t seem to inhibit him when he went to a Jewish delicatessen to get his favorite sandwich of pastrami on rye, or when he was talking to Jewish chess players. One player, William Schneider, said he was embarrassed when he and Laucks–sporting his swastika–were driving back from a tournament and they stopped at a Jewish restaurant. Now one said anything about the swastika, or even seemed to notice it. In addition to the pin, Laucks often wore–weather permitting–a small-brimmed Alpine fedora with a feather in the band, adorned with emblems from the countries to which he’d traveled. He ostentationsly dressed in lederhosen at times, and for a few years even sported a Hitlerian mustache. When he entered a tournament, dressed in khaki shirt and pants and dark tie and displaying that mustache, it was as if a doppelganger of Der Fueher had been incarnated. In his home he hung Nazi flags in prominent locations and displayed airplane models of Messerschmitts and Junkers as well as an oil painting of Adolf Hitler and other memorabilia from the Third Reich.

Laucks was inarguably one of the most eccentric people in the New York chess community, with conflicting values and erratic behavior. But despite his Nazi trappings, he rarely talked about his political beliefs. His financial patronage of teams and players could always be relied upon, and he was the sponsor of many chess events, some major. He’d also formed a fully functioning chess club–the Log Cabin Chess Club–that met in his finished basement (decorated to look like a log cabin) of his spacious house in West Orange, New Jersey. A number of players, some outcasts or close to homeless but with master-level playing ability, actually lived–on and off–in the house with him. Laucks’s wife and two children lived in another house, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Laucks rarely visited them, preferring to stay in New Jersey with his chess cronies.

Aside from her self-serving desire to travel, Regina insisted on being part of the tour because she didn’t trust one of its participants: the shifty-eyed Norman T. Whitaker. He was a disbarred lawyer who’d served years in Alcatraz and Leavenworth for a variety of crimes and confidence schemes, including the extortion of more than $100,000 by claiming (falsely) that he knew the whereabouts of the missing Lindbergh baby. Whitaker, known as “The Fox,” the name he was referred to in the Lindbergh duping, had also been imprisoned for car theft and raping a twelve-year-old girl. When he was in his sixties, he proposed marriage to a fourteen-year-old. Regina worried that his pedophiliac tendencies might apply to boys as well as girls, and she didn’t want him to be alone with Bobby on the trip. Why Whitaker was accepted as a part of the Log Cabin team or in the chess community at all is a difficult question to answer, beyond noting that at the time of Laucks’s journey Whitaker was still a powerful player at age sixty-six, and in his prime he had been one of the strongest players in the nation. He also had a charming way about him, as do most confidence men. His chess prowess and velvet tongue may have blinded some people to his despicable past, proving the adage that sometimes chess players make strange team fellows.

In contrast to Whitaker, one of the chess caravan’s more delightful players was Glenn T. Hartleb, an expert-level Floridian. A tall, gental man with steel-rimmed glasses and a perpetual smile, Hartleb greeted everyone he met–champion of patzer, beginner or veteran, child or octogenarian–by bowing low and saying with deep reverence, “Master!” When asked why he used his salutation, he said, “In life we are all masters,” countering a past champion’s chestnut, “In life we are all duffers.”

The disparate team crammed into Laucks’s unreliable 1950 Chrysler station wagon … “Let’s schuss!” said the millionaire Laucks jovially, using his favorite expression, and off they sped at seventy miles an hour down the turnpike for a hair-raising trip (Laucks was a dangerously careless driver). Bobby sat up front between the fascist and the con man.

About the Author

Derek Bridges

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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