Putting on airs, playing squeamish, acting sensitive, shilly-shallying, finessing, fussing, and frequent dreaming in the night, all this too appertains to freedom, which one can never, in my opinion, comprehend, sense, consider, and respect variously enough. One should always be bowing inwardly to the pure image of freedom; there must be no pause in one’s respect for freedom, a respect which seems to bear a persistent relation to a kind of fear. A remarkable thing here is that freedom sets out to be single, tolerates no other freedoms beside itself.
— Robert Walser from his short story “Essay on Freedom” (Selected Stories)
Funny, funny Jude. You play with little pieces all day long, and you know what? You’ll live to be an old, old man someday. And here I am.
— Janis Joplin
The Man in the Red Beret
If you have visited New Orleans or live here, you’ve probably seen Jude Acers (pronounced a-kers). He invariably wears a red beret and sets up his “World Chess Table” on Decatur Street near the Gazebo Cafe, a short walk from Cafe du Monde. He charges five dollars a game or into the thousands for more intensive lessons.
He returned to New Orleans in 1979 after a decade living in San Francisco and zigzagging the country on Greyhound buses. He gave chess exhibitions in malls, elementary schools, colleges and prisons, and a couple times got himself listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for simultaneous chess games by an individual. He sometimes hustled to keep himself fed.
He cast about the French Quarter a couple years with his chess table looking for the right spot. On July 21, 1981, local television journalist Eric Paulsen’s segment about Jude broadcast nationally on PM Magazine, the same day Jude set up his table at its current location near the Gazebo and realized he’d found what he’d been looking for. If it rained, he could easily slide his operation beneath shelter. He had lighting for nighttime play, heavy foot traffic and streams of cars along Decatur, and two of the most famous sites associated with 19th century chess legend Paul Morphy nearby, the Beauregard-Keyes House on Chartres Street where Morphy was born, and the building where Morphy lived out his life and died in a cold bathtub, upstairs at what is now Brennan’s New Orleans on Royal Street. That was also the day when Jude came up with the red beret hook:
A man came by with (a delivery) for the Gazebo, and he said, ‘Excuse me, sir, do you know where I can find someone to sign for this?’ I looked over at 81-year-old Chuck Ney, who had cooked for President Kennedy on the Mississippi River, and was chef for a short time at the Gazebo, and I said, ‘Chuck Ney over there. See that man in the black beret?’ As the man was going away it suddenly hit me. If mothers of children want to find me to play a five dollar game, or a three dollar game at that time for children, they may not know what I look like, so maybe if I wore a red beret. That’s all it was.
Some of the tour bus and carriage drivers call him “The Hand” for the royal wave he serves up for them if he’s not focused on a game, reading the New York Times, or occupied by his chess studies. He usually sets up around one in the afternoon–1 p.m., in fact, is his standard issue start time for pretty much everything. (“It simplifies things enormously.”) But if he’s in town, chances are he’s out there:
The important thing is to do it all the time. You think you need days off. You will find if you get enough sleep, you can go a hundred days in a row without any days off, unless you absolutely have to take them. But I do this every day. I never get tired of it.
Jude’s contention that he is a tourist-worthy landmark–or, rather, “the center of the universe,” right up there with “the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Pyramids, Rio”–is to an extent Fodor’s-certified. The Fodor’s 2011 New Orleans guidebook features a blurb that links Jude with Morphy:
Jude’s personage, his table and chess boards and signs, the location–he sees it all as a “theatrical full page ad in the paper every day.” But don’t let the showman fool you: he’s given his life to the game, if on his own terms. Certified as a master at 17, he’s studied chess with a singular focus for 60 years. He majored in Russian History and Language at LSU and can read chess-related words in 10 languages. His manner of play is aggressive:
I am an exponent of the old school Alexander Alekhine. Get every ounce of pressure that you can get out of the opening, play it like a hurricane …
New York Times chess columnist Al Horowitz frequently featured Jude’s games in his columns: “A tournament buff with tactical flair” (April 4, 1968); “Enthusiasm, competitive drive, plus talent for objective analysis advanced Jude Acers of San Francisco into a three-way first-place tie” (October 31, 1968); “A clean 7-0 sweep for the young San Francisco star” (August 7, 1969); “Over-the-board, Acers is an adventurous tactician playing to win all the time. As an analyst, he is breezy, informative, objective and possessed of a pungent wit that can turn on himself” (October 29, 1970); and in describing Jude’s opening win in his match tie with six-time U.S. Champion Walter Browne, Horowitz wrote, “The West Coast star revitalized (the Petroff Defense) with sharp opening play” (March 1, 1971). The game (see below) was also voted a “Top Ten” theory game in the world in 1970 by a panel of six grandmasters and published in Chess Informant (Informator/Belgrade).
I met Jude in 1998 when I worked at the Loyola University library shortly after I moved to New Orleans. The library had maybe a dozen or so computer stations back then, and Jude would sometimes use 2-3 computers at a time. He did it in the evening when few students were around, rotating from online chess game to game. He wore his red beret, with a red or white t-shirt, maybe a sweater tied around his neck in the cool months. He could be exuberantly friendly and boastful of his chess prowess. Matthew Teague’s Oxford American article about Jude came out in 2000 (and was later collected in Best of the Oxford American: Ten Years from the Southern Magazine of Good Writing). Teague nicely captured how Jude speaks in association rich and sometimes dizzying monologues:
His boots thunked against the asphalt as he walked, and his monologue flowed from subject to subject, slipping and sliding along the path of least resistance.
“Comfortable boots,” he said. “I must dress smart head to toe, toe to head. Boots on my feet, beret on my head. The beret is red. Red in traffic means stop, so people walk past my boards and stop to play. And red is just a beautiful color. Nobody used color like Van Gogh. Now there was a genius. He knew nobody was going to buy his paintings. He was going a little crazy, but he knew it. Knew it perfectly well. Knew nobody was going to understand him, and knew he would die poor. But he was the boss of his world….”
Teague chose an illuminating quote–replace “Van Gogh” with “Jude Acers” in those last four sentences and wa-la, we have found the beating heart of meaning!, or at least a beating heart. Where I think Teague erred was in over interpreting Jude’s irregularity and getting hung up on the “and knew he would die poor” part, as if he saw Jude’s Bohemian skirting-the-grid ways as accidental or a form of self-delusion:
“I have made a lot of money on this sidewalk. Two hundred thousand, easy.” To the casual observer, Acers appears to have scraped by twenty-three years on fewer than ten grand a year, winning an endless stream of five dollar bills off drunks and tourists. But to him the money is a fortune, compiled and invested in twenty-three years of coffee and beignets. Each time a new opponent pays to play, he sees it as validation, as proof that he is a global treasure, and that pilgrims as far away as Alaska and Italy travel to sit at his little chess table and bask in the light of his genius.
Jude’s grandiosity extends far beyond Jude Acers, however. He delights even more in praising others, such as Viswanathan Anand for his heroic defense of the world chess title in 2010–or even Teague:
(Teague) followed me around for four days and four nights and I just couldn’t believe how good he was. I was totally fooled. He is incredibly good. He didn’t feel he did a good job but I told him, ‘You’re wrong.’ He captured very accurately—his editors phoned me about content, I told them it was absolutely correct. One thing he put in, he didn’t want to but they had to, my mother, to show that she was very sick, simply, her mind was going, she would simply take the dirty dishes after the meals and put them in a closet, and things like that …
I usually know what’s going on but I didn’t know what was going on until Teague bombed me with that wonderful surprise, a gift from God when the article game out, I had no idea he was that good. He made sure I didn’t know he was that good. He was very low key.
Jude is a charming, personable loner, a hustler with a low profit margin, a braggart who reveres many. Casey Bush thinks Teague didn’t quite get Jude:
What I liked most about Jude is how he has lived his life. He is a true pedestrian in a motorized world. He is a non-materialist who owns only what he needs. Michael Teague was not ready for the depths of Bohemia or a Louisiana address without air conditioning, when he was honored to be invited to visit Jude’s barracks. ‘… he threw open the door to his apartment, and the smell that poured out drove me back a step. It was a mixture of old clothes, coffee, and mildew. The entire apartment was about eight by four feet. There was a closet at one end, and at the other end a toilet and shower, where Acers washes his clothes. Newspaper clips featuring Acers – including one that described his relationship with roomie Janis Joplin – were randomly tacked to the walls. On the floor was a pile of towels and blankets that he used as a bed, and stacks of books: hundreds, maybe thousands of books, some in Russian and Chinese, all about chess.’ Teague summarizes the wealth of association that has made Jude Acer’s life so rich but doesn’t quite get it: “He was a little off, but he knew it. Knew it perfectly well. Knew nobody was going to understand him and knew he would die poor. But he was boss of his world.” I believe Mr. Teague meant King, Jude Acers is the King of his world, Grand Ambassador of Cassia with his embassy located conveniently at the crossroads of the world on Decatur Street in New Orleans’ colorful French Quarter.
And Jude pointed out:
You realize I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars playing. And people are staggered. But realize, I have no hotel expenses. I have no travel expenses. The money that comes in goes to rent and everything else is reasonably clear. So I’ve been able to make at least a bare living. It’s staggering money for a chess player. It’s a simple business model, much of it is by accident.
Jude does exactly what Jude wants to do (“play it like a hurricane”), he’s unfailingly polite, and he’ll do what he thinks is right–always–regardless of the personal sacrifice.
His idea of a wonderful afternoon is simply a cup of coffee, a good walk, a chess problem. A live band would be nice.
In 2000, not long after Teague’s article came out, I caught Jude at a St. Charles Avenue eatery where he held a simultaneous exhibition against a couple dozen people, maybe half kids. He bopped around the room with the focus of a cold professional, quickly making a move at each board while his opponents had opportunity to mull theirs. A friend of mine who fancied himself naturally talented at chess came along and lost with efficiency. I took pictures. The next time I saw Jude I gave him a print of the shot below (note that Jude is playing black; Bobby Fischer always took white when he played simultaneous exhibitions):
Thrilled, Jude grandly insisted I would be paid if I allowed him to use it on a website where “millions” would see it. I strongly doubted the money and the millions, it was enough for me that he liked the picture, but–full disclosure–I got a $100 check in the mail a few weeks later.
I cannot say I “interviewed” Jude when we recently sat down at a small sticky table at Cafe Du Monde, even as it certainly looked like I interviewed him. I scribbled into a notepad, a digital recorder balanced on the paper napkin dispenser between us, I frequently nodded. Jude ordered a tall cafe au lait and two plates of beignets, I had a small cafe au lait. He made a big deal with the waiter about how I would be picking up the tab. Jude also gave a tip.
Jude had talking points he’d written on the reverse side of a couple French Market Restaurant & Bar paper placemats. He talked nearly non-stop for four hours, clicking down his talking points. I don’t think he so much as sipped his coffee for the first three hours.
I dropped in at his World Chess Table several more times for follow-up questions and to clarify certain details. Sometimes when I sat down it would seem like I was joining him mid-sentence, as if he’d played through the moment in his mind and I was a few seconds late.
We had originally agreed that the departure point for our conversation would be Frank Brady’s Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall–from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Crown, 2011), which Jude hewed to. He spent three days with Fischer in Baton Rouge and New Orleans in 1964 when they were 19 and 21 years old, respectively. (Jude lost twice to Fischer and they drew in a seven-hour-long simultaneous exhibition; they also played many speed games). Jude has written about the three days he spent with Fischer in “Hurricane I” and “Hurricane II,” which were published in John Donaldson’s A Legend on the Road: Bobby Fischer’s 1964 Simul Tour, 2nd ed. (Russell Enterprises, Inc., 2005). (Jude has given me permission to make a PDF available of Hurricane I & II; the download link is at the end of this post.)
Brady’s book, despite being a delight to read and marvelous at repairing the reputation of Bobby’s mother Regina, omits entirely Fischer’s 1964 “Simul Tour,” which Jude contends is a serious omission given that tour happened at a peak of Fischer’s fame following his shocking 11-0 victory at the U.S. Championship and “is the central image that America got of Fischer at his best when his mind was working properly.” The tour brought Fischer to more than 40 cities over four months, from Montreal in February to Baton Rouge and New Orleans in March, from San Francisco in April to Indianapolis and Flint in May. According to Donaldson, for $250 Fischer would play 50 players simultaneously and deliver a lecture. The lecture in New Orleans, Jude said, was “not just good, (but) tremendous.” Jude learned from Fischer in developing his own approach to lecturing.
It’s no surprise we returned to Fischer many times in our conversations.
Fischer’s impact on chess in the United States cannot be overstated; leading up to his Championship match with Boris Spassky in 1972, Fischer sometimes bumped Watergate as the top story on network TV news broadcasts.
Russell Miller promoted Jude’s tours for about 6 years in the 1970s, from 1970 to 1976, and, in an email, recently summed up the conventional wisdom: As went Fischer, so went U.S. chess:
If Fischer had kept playing after he won the world title it would have been a lot better for chess and Jude Acers.
Jude agrees to a point. Fischer certainly was good for business–when Fischer competed against Spassky for the world title in 1972, Sam Donaldson with ABC-TV flew into Atlanta to interview Jude at a prison where he was giving an exhibition.
But Jude wasn’t counting on Fischer to catch fire; Jude would’ve done his Greyhound chess tours regardless:
I was on Greyhound buses, traveling from one town to another, playing for $200 a night, $100 a night, maybe $300. I had no idea that Fischer was ever going to get his act together and actually play. He was ahead in a tournament in 1967, 3 points, and he just quit the tournament. Look, I wished Fischer well, he was very nice to me in Baton Rouge for three days and three nights, but it never occurred to me that I would actually be helped by Fischer.
I had no idea that no other person after me would ever have this chance because the buses don’t even go to many of those towns anymore. But you understand, I was seeing America and not realizing–like Jack Kerouac–like no other American chess master would ever get to see America again. The small towns, the little places. Not being dumb, I would purposefully stop, I would ask them for ‘the longest ticket you’ve got. If you’ve got 20 stops going to San Francisco, that’s better than 10.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s illegal but okay, I’ll book you zigzag all across the country, who’s going to care?’ … I rode several hundred buses and trains. I crossed the country five times in one year, and there were unbelievable experiences, just unbelievable …
And as much as Jude admires Fischer as a player, especially for how doggedly Fischer studied chess and his honesty as a player, he pulled no punches with Fischer the man:
And remember, I do not like Fischer at all, despite that he treated me very well. I will give away this book [Brady’s biography] very soon to a friend. But I insist he is the most important professional player who ever lived. No one is even close.
What is it you don’t like about him?
Oh, everything. The way he could not do business, just against all my ethics. I don’t like him because of his unbelievable profanity on radio; one doesn’t use profanity on the radio. I don’t like him for his statements against women, his incredible, convenient condemnation of Jews, when it’s convenient for him but associating with many Jews who helped him when it counts. I don’t like, basically, his visa stupidity [Fischer was arrested in Japan and spent 8 months in jail for a visa violation]. He knows if he stays in one place he can live out his life, with his money, why would you operate on a visa that is highly suspect twice a year going to different countries? I don’t like basic stupidity, presenting the Japanese and the United States with a problem they really don’t want. I don’t like his basic attitude in dealing with the Los Angeles Police Department or the police officers who arrested him, who were his jailers, who didn’t know anything about chess but have since learned chess and become motorcycle enthusiasts and rode to my chess table three decades later, told me Fischer would not cooperate, kicking and screaming, would not tell people who he was. He (looked) like a bank robber, they brought in a bank robber that night and he would not supply any ID and perhaps he was mistreated but he walked out of there alive and was able to function comfortably. Above all I do not like the fact that he bummed off friends (while he had a) million dollar escrow, his treatment of his mother and sister I don’t like …
So, in failing to put himself in a position where he could do comfortable business, he violates all my rules because … he basically failed to acknowledge what was true, basic working ability, basic visas, basic common sense which is spelled out to you by doctors and your friends, and your sister and your mother, have to be listened to. And I blame him for everything he did to himself, including his death. He violates all of my basic instincts. My message to Fischer would be: ‘The Jewish people need all the help they can get, the Palestinian people need all the help they can get. I like black people, I like Indians, I like white people, I like homosexuals, I like transgender people, I like every kind of person, more power to everybody. I want everybody to get a break, including me. And any signification of inferiority–I’m better than you are–is a bad mistake in today’s world.
What follows is a biographical portrait of Jude, emphasizing crucial (frequently cinematic) moments in Jude’s life while quoting liberally from our conversations, as well as from Jude’s writings, which I will link to whenever possible. I’ll present Jude’s thoughts on a wide array of topics, including Bobby Fischer, the U.S. Chess Federation, why he sidestepped the world of cutthroat chess, what it was like to live four blocks from Fillmore West in 1968, his Greyhound bus chess tours of the country in the 1970s, his advice for how to stay sharp and fit, and his preparations for the World Senior International tournament in Opatija, Croatia coming up in November.
“On Paper, I’m an Orphan”
Jude Frazier Acers was born April 6, 1944 in Long Beach, California. Jude’s father was a football player at Notre Dame under Knut Rockne and a Marine in World War II, with bullet scars on one calf to prove it, and an alcoholic. The family moved from California to Hawaii to North Carolina. Jude’s mother was a drug addict who died in a plane crash on the way to an asylum when he was three years old. Only about ten years ago was he shown a picture of her.
But then you have the baffling thing that is unexplainable. All across the country and when I traveled across the Northwest, Seattle, northern California, several couples came up to me, ‘Jude, when you were a little boy we held you as a baby.’ My mother, who was by all accounts a drug addict, before she would go on her binge she would always get me to safety. And I just never seem to have really traumatic memories, World War II or anything, I think somehow she did a pretty good job of taking care of me before she was killed.
At four the police found him and his sister rummaging through garbage in Newburgh, New York. Jude remembers little.
There’s only one thing I remember when I was two or three or four years old. I remember a ship, a monstrous battleship in the distance, in the fog, I must have been two or three. That’s all I remember. And I remember also my mother, I didn’t know my mother was a drug addict but somehow my mother was taking care of me, and I remember we were going somewhere and the cab went down these long streets, I remember that, and strangely, I remember being lifted upside down by my father or mother and given some kind of bath, I hope they weren’t sexually molesting me or whatever, but they were bathing me. I don’t remember any pain. But I remember being given a bath of some kind, held by my feet, it could’ve just been normal cleaning. It’s all I remember. I remember it for five, ten seconds.
At five years old, while living in an orphanage (his father was fighting in the war), he came across a book about chess and began to play the game with soda bottle caps as pieces. The nuns would take them away, and he would gather more.
His father had a penchant for shaving young Jude’s head and he once knocked Jude down in an alcoholic stupor, but generally all he offered was silence. Or at least that’s what Jude emphasized with me. In a piece he wrote in 1974 that glanced back at his childhood, he wrote of chess helping “you survive even when your father is beating you to a bloody pulp. Chess is that wonderful for the mind, a pure narcotic.” And five paragraphs later Jude made explicit his intent to leave it behind:
Little by little, I am forgetting the bad breaks. I do not hate anymore.
Jude’s father remarried and moved the family to Louisiana, where he worked as a law clerk in downtown New Orleans, though it seems he ran into difficulties related to his unfamiliarity with the Napoleonic Code. Jude went to several schools in the New Orleans area, including Kenner Junior High and Gentilly Terrace Elementary. His family lived for a time at the Mirabeau Apartments. In fifth grade, Jude was the “weirdo in the back.” His teacher, Miss Zeegan, regarded him with disdain until he won a spelling bee (against 29 girls). The next day, she beckoned him with her finger to her desk and handed him an unsealed letter. She told him to deliver it to the principal’s office.
I ran across the green, a hundred yards, to the principal’s office. Naturally, she knew I’d open the letter and read it, and I read, ‘Mr. Morgan, I was wrong about this remarkable, talented and brilliant individual. Signed, Miss Zeegan. Please disregard everything I ever said. He is extraordinary.’ I gave it to the principal and I ran back and I just sat in the class and didn’t even move. I was very properly behaved and began to be overly courteous from that moment on. She changed my life.
Jude grew increasingly interested in chess and wrote letters with chess problems or questions to famous chess columnists such as Horowitz (who took to calling him “Judee,” even listing the 9-year-old “Judee” as a correspondent on the masthead of Chess Review), Hans Kmoch, Larry Evans and Jack Collins. As a 12 year old his family lived in Harahan and Jude began to take the hour and a half bus ride to New Orleans, then the streetcar to the chess club at the Lee Circle YMCA. He wasn’t yet a strong player and the other players at the chess club ignored him, probably not wanting to bother with a kid. (Jude hasn’t forgotten these players–to this day, he will not allow them to sit at his chess board.)
About the fifth or sixth time he went to the club that summer, sad, nobody willing to play him as usual, without a dime for a Coke, thinking about that dime he didn’t have, reduced to surveying the scene through a couple empty Coke bottles as a kind of “kaleidoscope self made entertainment,” a man he hadn’t seen before wearing a grimy Pelican Plumbing Supply uniform called out from across the room: “Hey, young man, would you like to play a game of chess?”
Adrian L. McAuley, the first officially rated chess master in New Orleans history. (Morphy played before ratings.) He would win the Louisiana State Chess Championship nine times from 1955 to 1972. A graduate of Alcee Fortier High Schoool and Soule College, McAuley was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II. His chess pieces were made of wood, 6-8 inches tall, triple weighted, and his board, also made of wood, had green and white squares. “Anything less, young man, would positively not be civilized.” He promptly check-mated Jude twice, and each time instantly replayed the game from memory to provide improvement tips.
Around midnight, the other players and janitor already gone, the lights out, McAuley said, “Well, young man, how about a draw, a tie?”
“Sure, Mr. McAuley.”
McAuley bought Jude a Coke and walked him to the streetcar stop, then climbed into his “ramshackle falling-apart-on-St.-Charles-Avenue-cloud dusting truck” and drove off in the rain. Across the street a Slim Harpo song blared from a gas station radio.
“I’ve always been alone and I like it that way”
A couple years later, when he was 14, Jude arranged for himself to be declared a ward of the state of Louisiana. A police detective who was investigating a robbery at the church where Jude served as an alter boy came by Jude’s house to talk to him. The officer, struck by Jude’s father’s manner or Jude’s longing to be away, took Jude out back. “Jude, let me ask you about this. You seem a strange little boy, tell me about your father a bit.”
The officer also asked, “What do you do here?” Jude answered, “I just stay in the house. I never go out or talk to anyone. My father and I don’t ever talk.”
The officer suggested to Jude he might prefer going to a school in Mandeville, noting there was a nice library over there. “You’ll have to get out of here. You can do it gracefully, I don’t want to upset anyone.”
Jude agreed and arrangements were made.
My parents were totally unaware that I was setting the whole thing up. I had to have some kind of psychiatric evaluation, so I went down and sat for half an hour, an hour, in quiet, and I’m sure they were watching me with TV cameras, but I was very calm, because I knew I’d talked to the police detective, and he was working with my father, too, I don’t think that my father realized I was more than willing to go, and then as I was leaving, when the ambulance came to get me for the school/hospital thing, where I would go to school in town and just live in Mandeville and I’d go to the chess club by the hospital … I don’t think (my father and stepmother) realized—actually, we never talked about where I was going. My father opened the door and said, ‘Jude, they’ve come for you and they’re going to take you to Mandeville.’ Then he stepped out in the hall and I looked up at him and said, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’ I didn’t want him to feel hurt or anything, but he had no idea I was never coming back. I knew that it was dangerous. That he had completely lost it.
Jude would never see his father again. About ten years after his father died, someone gave his wallet to Jude. In it was the picture of Jude’s mother he hadn’t seen before.
Basically my father died with press clippings about my books, my book Grandmaster Chess which the Los Angeles Times reviewed, he had it in his wallet with my name circled, they found it on him when he died, and he died screaming out my name [summer 1978]. He’d been dead about 60 days when I was told about it. I didn’t want to bring his body back to New Orleans [from California]. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it … He left a hundred thousand dollars to the Catholic nuns, he disinherited all my family because he knew they would give me money, not that I wanted the money, but the people in my family tree, who I would rather not talk about, were good people, but I was just estranged from the family. I went my way and they went theirs my teenage years. I always lived alone. Not that I in any way dislike my family, but I’ve always been alone and I like it that way … I don’t like birthday parties, I don’t like giving out Christmas gifts. I like to have a cup of coffee, play the radio, go over chess, take a two mile walk and enjoy the wonderful people of New Orleans, see bands. Different strokes for different folks. I want everyone to have an enormous break and be happy.
Several times Jude told me if he had to do it all over again, he’d pick the same parents. The refrain was always: “They did they best they could.” “I’d never change parents.”
And if he did it over again with the same parents, he would surely leave again.
I understand, when I left, my family never dreamed I was never going to come back again. Ever. Not that I hated them, or disliked them, I had just found a new world. It’s something people can do. You hear about this occasionally in actual life. A man is married with three children. He has several hundred thousand dollars in his bank account. He takes a hundred thousand, leaves the rest, all the credit cards and the home, and disappears. He is just unhappy with the situation. Leaves all of his money to his wife and children and goes to a new world. It has happened. Police all around the country are familiar with it. Occasionally they find the person and they tell him, ‘Oh, please, just let them alone,’ and the police, by law, are not allowed to reveal a person’s [whereabouts] if they haven’t committed a crime. And they keep the privacy and the man tells them, ‘Look, I’m all right, I want them to have everything and good luck to them, I’ve gone my own way.’ Within reason, you know. It’s happened. It doesn’t happen every year … [That’s] exactly how I felt. Look, I don’t feel negative, I’m just glad there’s this beautiful race track for this great thoroughbred horse to run on and there’s nobody else on the track but me. I was already a very good public speaker. I knew I could give good chess lectures. And I just knew things were going to work out for me.
For his high school years Jude lived at a hospital in Mandeville. And it felt like freedom.
You know, I was so independent, reading chess books and so on, going to school in town–and also, another thing, very important, I loved to dance. Oh, I was manic, I loved the women. I would dance with the girls, and they were very nice to me, but I was always ‘that weird Jude,’ I’m sure, but I was the Salutatorian at Mandeville High School, and so on. But then I would ride the bus back to the little hospital there, but there was never any problem. Although once, when I was just running for exercise, they ran after me thinking I was running away and they took me back, and he said, ‘No, that’s Jude.’ By that time they knew (me), I was a pretty famous chess player, there’d been articles in the newspaper, but I in general realized I was being very well taken care of and if I learned to live by myself, read, I’d have a chance, and I knew I could go to Louisiana State University on a need scholarship. It saved my life. But also, the key thing I want you to emphasize, the girls at the dances at Mandeville High School were very important. I danced with the girls and it was very nice, and just little things like that (lifted his spirits).
He also indulged his dance mania at the long gone La Casa de Los Marinos near Jax Brewery in the French Quarter:
Because I looked old for my age I could sneak in to the greatest bar of all time in New Orleans history, the greatest bar, no bar ever touched it. Ask anybody and they will tell you. It was open twenty-four hours a day, it was across from the Jax Brewery, nothing touched it. It’s where Walgreens is now, right by Jackson Square. It was called La Casa, The House, La Casas. No bar even touched it. It rocked beyond belief. In the front was Spanish music and Spanish dancers, seven days a week, with a juke box. In the mid-section also was some Spanish and some American music on a second jukebox. But on weekends, a third back bar was opened with a jukebox of all American rock and roll. And women danced on the tables. These were just normal college students who came. La Casas was the greatest bar anywhere in the world. … in the front the Spanish drums were there. Anybody could bring drums and play along with the jukebox. And the women were hot. The Spanish women were hot, did Salsa, everything. Man, it was unbelievable. In addition, your high class, high grade lady of the night would bring their millionaires in there. They would sneak them in. And you would see people at five-thirty in the morning, as I was going back to catch the hospital limousine from the Café du Monde, you’d see a fabulous woman in a green dress with a sixty year old man in an elegant suit and you could pretty well size up the situation that this was a secret liaison … That’s where I heard a record that followed me around for twenty years. I never knew the name of it. It was in all french. It was called “Je T’aime”. It was the only million selling record Gainsbourg ever did. It was done with Brigette Bardot (this version was recorded in 1967 but not released until 1986) and Birken (released in 1969) and all it is is organ music, unbelievably beautiful organ music and they’re talking to each other in the background. It gets really intense.
When Jude was 16 or 17, probably because he didn’t drink or do drugs and was always reliable, the hospital allowed him to “go wherever (he) wanted.”
They let me travel 2,000 miles to the U.S. Junior, they got me a ticket and I just got on the bus and went and played in the United States Junior Championship. There’s a photograph in the Dayton newspaper of a bald headed Jude Acers playing Robin Ault, U.S. Junior Champion in round one. It’s a tremendous photograph. Oh, the greatest photograph ever taken of me was in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. I’m playing Milas Momic, a tremendous player, went to the U.S. Open. Little Jude Acers, a little kid, has traveled by Greyhound bus to play in Memphis, TN, and Acers in the distance in his suit and tie, approaching the board, still pretty tall for my age, and Momic is [getting ready to play me], the great master. And cigarette smoke is going up to the ceiling and I am in the middle of the smoke and it was on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
“If he can’t play, I’m not playing”
At the Texaco in Mandeville, Jude made it a point to drink from the colored water fountain. And on the streetcar in New Orleans, he would sometimes toss the “colored” sign out the window, or he would sit in the colored section.
Well, I didn’t know squat. I just thought it strange, but I didn’t understand that black people were lynched, they were massively discriminated against. I did find it strange there were no black people in St. Regis Church in Harahan. That seemed strange. But I just didn’t put two and two together, I had a lot to learn.
In 1962, when Jude was 18 years old, he rode with McAuley to a chess tournament in Natchez, Mississippi. McAuley had paid Jude’s entry fee, as was his custom. Ahead of Jude in line at the Natchez hotel was William Scott III. It was the first time Jude met Scott and they would become lifelong friends (Scott, for example, helped “save” a couple of Jude’s Atlanta exhibitions in the early 1970s). In 1945, Scott had served as an army photographer–a Reconnaissance Sgt. with the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion–and documented [link behind free registration wall] the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. In 1954, Scott had not been allowed to play at the U.S. Open chess tournament held in New Orleans because he was black. Scott was also editor of the Atlanta Daily World. Behind Scott in line was Milan Momic. Formerly of Yugoslavia, Momic was an Alabama state champion.
“I’m sorry, sir, but the hotel will not admit you. Black players are not allowed in the tournament.”
“Why can’t he play?” asked McAuley, still in his Pelican Plumbing Supply uniform. “If he can’t play, I’m not playing.” He turned and walked out of the hotel.
“If McAuley’s not playing, I’m not going to play.” Jude turned to walk out.
“They no play, no me.” Momic followed.
Jude is ever quick to praise McAuley:
There is no one in Louisiana [chess] history, bar none, that touches–especially (Paul) Morphy–McAuley in class in terms of real world class manner. Morphy had many idiosyncrasies, he did not treat people well in many occasions, and did not fulfill professional contracts. McAuley was strictly by the book.
Room 104, Graham Hall, Louisiana State University
Jude went to LSU in Baton Rouge on a state need scholarship. After the state hospital, 104 Graham Hall felt like a palace. It only got better when his roommate flunked out his sophomore year and Jude had the room to himself.
As much as Jude felt a sense of liberation in college, he also fought a fierce loneliness that he would remember later in his writings. He wrote of being rolled in Baton Rouge:
Three hoodlums hold you up and dump you in a ditch in a bad news neighborhood. They take your shoes, wallet, and papers. By a miracle, you are unharmed as they drive away, leaving you with the $154 in your left pants’ pocket. You are laughing hysterically at this irony, but still must wind your way out of the sticks at 3 a.m.
And of taking “incredible chances to have a ‘good time,'” such as “in lily-white Louisiana” going to see Otis Redding perform three nights in a row at a black night club and walking home along a super highway at night, exposing him to the abuses of “fraternity guys who tried to run me over“:
But I dodged and their car stalled in the mud alongside the road. I grabbed a loose board, ripped it from a gate and advanced like Hannibal on the terrified occupants. Then I put out every window in their car as they watched incredulously, with me screaming ‘Ko-Wan-Ko! Ko-Wan-Ko!’ a voodoo chant which I made up on the spot.
Afterward, I stepped back and bowed gracefully. ‘You may now leave or die,’ I said. While cursing insanely, the driver did manage to get the car going again and peeled off in the the Louisiana night, leaving me, as before, alone. The Bee Gees were playing on their car radio while all this was going on …
Professors who had an impact on Jude included George Putnam, a Russian History professor who broke the news about Stalin. He fondly remembers T. Harry Williams, Huey Long biographer and Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. Another professor made the Holocaust come into focus:
‘Professor, you say that the people in towns outside the death camps knew what was going on—sir, these were in top secrecy, I mean millions of people were killed in these camps but the people outside didn’t seem to know what was going on.’ And the professor, seventy years old, looks over and says, ‘Well, Mr. Acers, it’s like this: When you burn several hundred thousand people a month, it’s in the air, you can smell the bodies.’ Oh. Oh!
In late March 1964, when Jude was just shy of turning 20, Bobby Fischer, who had recently turned 21 (and declared 4F medically disqualified for the draft), landed at the airport in New Orleans. Just three months earlier, Fischer had won the U.S. Championship by an unprecedented 11-0. Here’s how Frank Brady describes the moment in Endgame:
The incredible final score was picked up by the wire services and sent by radio, newspapers, and television throughout the world: eleven championship games, eleven wins. At this level of competition, such a streak wasn’t supposed to happen, no matter how adept a given player might be. Fischer’s first prize for his two weeks of intensity and brilliance was just $2,000.
The non-chess media gave the tournament far more attention than usual, though they’d never been sure whether chess was a sport or an art. Life and the Saturday Evening Post arranged to interview Bobby. Sports Illustrated headlined its story THE AMAZING VICTORY STREAK OF BOBBY FISCHER.
Fischer was eight years away from being World Champion, and looking back it’s easy to assume it must have been obvious that Fischer was poised to become World Champion. But not necessarily so.
It’s extremely important to realize, number one, I never dreamed that I was talking to a [future] World Chess Champion because I already knew that he had dropped out of a match (in 1961), forfeiting ten thousand dollars while he was not losing, he was tied, with Samuel Reschevsky in Los Angeles. After game 11 he’d missed an easy win and was so angry he said that he didn’t want to play in the morning. And after eleven games he forfeited $10,000 and Reschevsky won the match by forfeit … I knew that he rarely played and I knew you would have to play for about three or four years in a row on schedule to win the world title. I never dreamed that special exceptions would be made for him. So you need to understand, although he was wonderful to me, he’d just won the U.S. Championship 11-0, which to this day is his greatest achievement, a much greater achievement than beating (Tigran) Petrosian (in 1971), his greatest match victory in my opinion, he beats Petrosian, a match that practically killed him in Buenos Aires to qualify for the world title, and then beating Spassky, who he had never won a single game in his life from. [Fischer] had never even beaten a reigning world champion before Reykjavik in the world title match [in 1972]. And make no mistake, he is the best player in the world, but to get a world title match I never dreamed he would be able to play consistently for even one or one and a half years, much less four, which is what happened.
To be fair, also contributing to Fischer’s forfeit to Reschevsky was the fact that the match start times were being shifted around to suit a wealthy tournament sponsor as opposed to the players. The next couple years would see Fischer pull back from competitive play before making his World Championship run.
Jude’s friend Don Wagner, a chess promoter and attorney, raced from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to pick Fischer up at the airport, trying to get to Fischer before some New Orleans chess heads. Wagner found Fischer playing pinball at the airport and brought him back to his house in Baton Rouge. Wagner picked up Jude and then pranked him by saying they needed to hurry to the New Orleans airport to get Fischer. Wagner then spilled hot coffee on his lap and said they had to make a pit stop to get a new pair of slacks. While Wagner went inside, Jude waited “outside in a posture of prayer,” when a moment later
Fischer, the world’s youngest chess grandmaster, stuck his head out of the Wagner screen door and said ‘Hello, Jude.’
Jude spent the next three days with Fischer, first in Baton Rouge, where they shot pool at the Old Chimes Street billiard hall, then in New Orleans. In Baton Rouge, Fischer defeated five LSU students live on Baton Rouge Channel 9. Jude served as a color commentator alongside longtime “voice of the LSU Fighting Tigers” John Ferguson. The program ran again twice that week and was erased for a car commercial two weeks later.
At no time did I realize how fabulously lucky I was … no other person had an experience like that, ever. A TV program and I’m in the background making comment. The day before I’m interviewing him in my dorm room, I’m playing him a two game match at Don Wagner’s house …
Jude practiced his interview question for Fischer 10 times. Here’s Jude’s account from “Hurricane II”:
‘Bobby, even cursory examination of your career shows fantastic self-improvement. Study? Talent? Written analysis after all your games? I have wondered. Please look back at one specific case for me: Bled/Belgrade/Zagreb 1959 international chess tourney. You lose by six games to the Soviet players, lose all four games to Mikhail Tal. Then like a bomb flash two years to Bled, 1961. Nineteen games. You mow down Tal, (Tigran) Petrosian, plus score the Russians, go undefeated in all 19 rounds. Naked improvement, there it is. Bobby, how does a player do this? Get better while all other players are standing still?‘
Fischer instantly said, ‘Simple. First, learn the chess openings, really learn the ones you play for White and Black. Second, keep the pressure on them every second–they all crack. No exception, play every game to the end, never give up.’
Jude lost both of his games against Fischer at Wagner’s Baton Rouge house:
PLAYING FISCHER A TWO-GAME MATCH: Acers remembers, the crowd was enormous in Wagner’s home. Wall to wall, two games … Remembered best: colored streamers running from Wagner’s air conditioner. As I stepped back watching for Fischer’s quiet, always-the-same-hand-meter moves, I was surrounded by colored paper strips, apparently to show the direction of the air flow. A frame with Fischer in the center. Really incredible.
Sportsmanship. Fischer wanted to be completely sure that I knew my time was running out. I did. Dead lost, I just let it run out quietly.
Ethical conduct is crucial to Jude. For example, he harshly criticizes Morphy for not upholding contractual obligations, such as failing to write a chess column for the duration of a contract. Fischer, for his many faults (about which Jude has much to say), had a sterling reputation for ethical play:
(Chess Grandmaster) William Addison, who knew Fischer very well, said. ‘There were two things about Fischer at the board. He was absolutely honest and would never cheat.’
This is what Addison said. ‘I played him thousands of speed games, I watched him play people all over the country and he’d get like a knight and a bishop and his opponent might have a queen and a pawn, on the rare occasions he got in trouble, and Fischer would just flip over his king in a five minute game and I’d tell Bobby, ‘Look, Bobby, I don’t care what the position is, I don’t care if you’re a rook down, keep playing, if you’ve got two bishops and the other guy has a queen, he’s not going to be able to beat you, even though it’s a win for the queen. Go ahead and play it, you’ll still win on time, you’ll still beat him.’ And Fischer just threw the chess pieces in the center of the board and said, ‘If I can’t win it clean, I don’t want to win it.’ At the board he would die before he would cheat. No one, ever, ever, for one moment, caught Fischer in anything that wasn’t strictly class at the board.
Likewise, Fischer was unfailingly polite and gracious during his stay in Louisiana. He impressed Jude immensely:
On a superficial level, good traits run in bunches. And the physical evidence of Bobby Fischer at his best would be the Dick Cavett Show where for one hour he was interviewed and I simply ask you to look at that, the reactions of the women in the audience to him and so on, at the peak of his fame. And my case will rest …
… and now I will tell you what I personally saw. Number one, he traveled with one suit by Greyhound bus, by planes, by train, but mainly by Greyhound bus. He took a plane (in 1964) from Chicago to New Orleans where he was picked up by Don Wagner, the promotional genius … Number one, he had one suit with him, when he traveled he used the same suit all across the country, he had it quickly dry cleaned I’m sure, it fit him perfectly, the guy was absolutely one of the best looking people I’ve ever seen. He was about six feet six, he towered high. He had a tremendously fast walk, a little bit gangly, but I didn’t notice it much because he took short steps, but many other people noticed that he had a gangly walk, but the guy was powerfully built. He had walked many thousands of miles in New York ever since he was seven, eight, ten years old. He was traveling on the subway nine, ten, eleven [at night] by himself to go downtown and play [chess] in the parks.
Now, I want to go into everything he was given. First of all, I would rate him one of the five best looking people I’ve ever seen, really looking good, hair, facial complexion and so on. He was incredibly well behaved and courteous at all times. In the Don Wagner home he stayed there asking to go from room to room, he was very courteous to everyone. I cite as an example of his diplomacy the only live TV program he did on this (1964) tour, where he played live on the air five Louisiana State University students and he was asked point blank by the voice of the Louisiana State Tigers, John Ferguson, the guy you heard for many years calling LSU games, died just recently (2005), ‘Bobby, you’ve been called a high school dropout, what about this?’ I just died on the spot. And Wagner literally turned purple, because this was his great promotional work worth millions which he’d given Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge didn’t even appreciate it.
In New Orleans, Fischer played 75 opponents simultaneously (he won 70, lost 3, and drew 2) at the old YWCA on Gravier Street (one of players to draw against Fischer in New Orleans after seven hours was Jude; one of his vanquished opponents was Orleans Parish District Attorney and JFK assassination theorist Jim Garrison). Fischer offered to do a lecture in New Orleans–he hadn’t been contracted to do one–provided a copy of The Games of Paul Morphy by P.W. Sergeant (1916) could be found, which spurred a fevered and finally successful effort to locate the book, delaying the New Orleans exhibition two hours.
Fischer earned $200 for his Baton Rouge appearance and $485 in New Orleans. And Jude’s draw with Fischer earned him respect in some quarters:
People began to realize, ‘You know, he’s weird but he really likes chess.’ The only person who knew all the way was McAuley. From day one, he knew.
Jude graduated from LSU in 1968 and took a Greyhound bus to a chess tournament in Denver, which he won 7-0. As luck would have it, shortly before graduation Jude received an unsolicited credit card from the Shell Oil Company, which is what got him from Denver to another chess tournament in Marysville, Washington. At the Strawberry Open in Marysville, Jude met grandmaster Larry Evans, Dennis “Fritz the Poet” Fritzinger and Russell Miller. Miller had organized chess tournaments primarily in Washington state up to that point and soon would be booking Jude’s chess tours across the country. Miller served as editor of Northwest Chess and published a short profile of Jude following the Strawberry Open:
Jude came in 9th out of 95 players; Evans went undefeated. Fritzinger convinced Jude to come to San Francisco:
[Fritzinger] brought me to San Francisco, bought me Orange Julius treats, shown me magic Chinese restaurants, where a man can get by on a few pennies.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti would later publish Fritzinger’s poetry.
Using his Shell credit card, Jude paid his way to San Francisco, riding with a postal employee for two days. In San Francisco, Jude stayed with Max Burkett, three blocks from Fillmore West, where over the next two months he would see Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Vanilla Fudge, Blue Cheer, Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. He saw the Rolling Stones at Altamont. Burkett introduced Jude to Joplin at a postal workers’ Thanksgiving party and he ran into her a few more times:
I was at a party and I was the only one who had any clothes on and I had a California Chess Reporter, a couple books and a pocket [chess] set, I’d sit around and drink coffee and so on … I was in the bathtub there and she said, ‘You play with little pieces all day long, and you know what? You’ll live to be an old, old man someday. And here I am.’
About Altamont, Jude wrote in September 1974 :
Are policemen necessary to keep the mad dogs and the gorillas in line? Altamont says yes, Dianne and Berkeley say no. To this day I believe that bus drivers, cab drivers, garbagemen, firemen, newspaper reporters and policemen are the most important, needed people living in the city. To this day, absolutely nobody in the Jude Acers in-crowd agrees with me. Nobody. Not Shig. Not Specs. Not *Supervolk*. Not Ferlinghetti. Not Burkett. Not Fritzinger, (James) Tarjan, (John) Grefe, Karl Bach, Kent Bach, Caradian, Waterman, Mary Lasher or Browne…
Ten blocks from Burkett’s place was the Mechanics’ Institute, a more than 100-year-old chess room where people could walk in off the street and, without too much difficulty, play a game. To Jude, “It was a miracle.”
The top eight players in the country were coming through Burkett’s house and the Mechanics’ Institute. I knew them all. William Addison, he had 600 days before he would quit chess forever. And I was there every one of those 600 days.
It was crawling with people. You won’t find two or three people today of like nature in San Francisco today like that. There were twenty people coming through there—John Hall came in from Texas and was there for two weeks. Unbelievable player. They were coming in there like railroad trains. And I saw them all. Jim Schmidt, Jim McCormick…
Over the next two years, from 1968-1970, Jude played more than 800 clocked games at the Mechanics’ Institute. Jude also began to take Greyhound bus tours of the country, which he often wrote about in his chess column, published both in the Berkeley Barb, a weekly underground newspaper, and, later, in Francis Ford Coppola’s short-lived magazine City (Jude says Coppola closed City to make Apocalypse Now).
Jude could travel for two months on Greyhound for about $200 in 1970 (according to The Inflation Calculator, that’s $1,110.27 in 2011 dollars). Miller developed a promotional template that Jude continues to use. In the days leading up to a simultaneous exhibition, Miller would book Jude to conduct free exhibitions in schools or prisons to drum up media coverage and increase interest in the paid exhibition.
I did dozens of [prison exhibitions]. You do them forty-eight hours before the weekend. All TV stations have a chance to come and do it. It’s in a neutral location. You get public goodwill …
Jude typically gave exhibitions for $100-$300 a night, even as the Fischer boom happened.
All of a sudden, Fischer crushes in Vancouver , Canada, Taimanov, a Russian, 6-0. Then goes to Denver four months later and beats (Bent) Larsen [Danish champion] 6-0. It’s never happened in history. He’s now won 12 games in a row and six games and at the Interzonal. He’s now won 18 games in a row. And I’m traveling around the country, the only player in the country off Greyhound buses playing for only $300, not $2,500. About 10,000 people came to an exhibition at the largest mall in the world, Woodfield (near Chicago) … I gave these exhibitions there and [an organizer at the Woodfield Mall] said, ‘Hey, Jude, I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but you go to all the schools 3 days before, we put you up and we pay your food, but you only charge us $300, why you so cheap?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Miller does it.’ And I had enough sense to let him do it because understand, man, he was a great genius, and he didn’t know what he was doing, he was just did it by instinct. Post cards to all the TV stations announcing my arrival. Two weeks in advance. One week. Five days in advance. We only got $300, enough for the Greyhound bus, whatever. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were winning.
Things did not always go so swimmingly and it’s clear the chess tours mostly lost money :
The Greyhound slid out of Little Rock and Russell W. Miller of Yakima, Washington had already messed up the Jude Acers tour badly with his only mistake of the year. Miller routed Jude through Indianapolis and misread the schedule. There was no bus to get out of Indianapolis, period! You have to fly to Memphis and barely make it to Arkansas on time. You’ve lost a lot of money and can only break even. This is not important, as Miller has gone to the bank 50 times to save your tour. Miller has at least one hundred free passes. He has personally lost $4,000 on your tour to date and will stick with you through thick and thin, while the US Chess Federation and Piatigorsky Chess Foundation refuse to even answer your pleading letters. You are chess in America. They are nothing.
The stresses of the road were many: An Austin promoter got a look at Jude and his long hair and thought he could short him pay, prompting Jude to destroy his hotel telephone. Jude witnessed a murder at a prison and he had to hug the floor and pretend he saw nothing. Prison guards locked him in a room for his own protection for many hours and when they finally let him free, he didn’t know how he would get home because he didn’t have money for bus fare. On a lark he called a millionaire cement contractor who had sponsored a couple chess tournaments in San Francisco, someone he had never even talked to before, and the man promptly flew to pick him up in his monoplane. Still another time, while eating breakfast at a York, Pennsylvania diner, a waitress was attacked by a couple teenagers, prompting Jude to jump up on a table and chuck glass sugar shakers at the men in her defense. At an airport in Pasco, Washington, Jude helped an old man with a package board a plan, then later made the mistake of joking to a flight attendant that he “certainly hope(d)” the box he carried aboard the plane wasn’t “a bomb.” He was booted from the plane and only avoided arrest because the plane’s pilot thought him “a nice chap.”
If you’re going to live like and be an individual, you’ve got to start planning to live by yourself and look out for yourself. And I became much more protective of everything … I realized, be grateful for your health. I could never have survived without the accidents of watching my father drink himself to death. God bless him, he really helped me to learn not to do it. And I watched him smoke himself to death. So I realized, I won’t ever smoke, I won’t ever do dope, I’ll never drink. Simple things. I’m not a moralist.
Jude liked being alone, the performing, seeing new towns:
[Miller] didn’t realize, as I did, when I was rolling into [town] … and making three hundred dollars, so what? I’m the best who ever lived at that kind of work. Presentation, being pleasant to people, doing what you have to do on radio and TV, playing a very fine exhibition. There are many great chess exhibition players but mine are some of the finest … Many people have noticed it, they’re beginning to notice, ‘Well, if Jude Acers is just run of the mill, how come he can play the white pieces or the black pieces, and play a hundred people at one time?’ Fischer always took the white pieces. I’m not saying I’m a better player, a better genius, that I can think better, I just know this: I have a wonderful mind and I’m aware of it.
Even so, Jude often had to scramble to keep fed and from time to time had to rely on chess hustling. “Trophies, the US Chess Federation people, who do not care if a master lives or dies, and the USCF’s Mickey-Mouse Swiss tournaments would not feed me.” In a 1974 Berkeley Barb column, he described his hustling precepts, in particular to conserve resources:
The nature of my hustling ability during 1967-1970 U.S. barnstorming rested on four very significant apples and meant the difference in hard times. By difference I meant EATING.
FIRST, I made it a point to never drink anything, which puts 90 percent of the money games into my wallet post haste. Almost nobody can drink and play 40 moves accurately, especially if they have never once played 40 consecutive humdingers in their lives! Now for that remaining ten percent, hereafter referred to as the points.
SECOND, I get a good eight hours sleep always during the daytime and am playing in the evening hours against people who have been on their feet at least 14 hours before they run into the strong class C opposition (2 points).
(Note: It is astounding that most Swiss system players do not get enough sleep as well! Remember this. It’s worth a lot of money to you!)
THIRD, I never, never, never say a word during a game, which enormously helps a hustler concentrate. Any words tell your opponent what your position looks like to you, that a rook or queen is (en prise) and, most dreadfully, in the case of a stronger, tips that you are trying to hustle him by false encouragement (3 points)!
FOURTH, until Bobby Fischer messed up the hustler scene by tossing forty million new US chessplayers into the pot, it was possible to ‘book’ strong players. Thus in 1970 there were only about 300 names and faces I had to know by studying chess magazines, rating lists and, above all, photographs.
And to pick your opponents carefully:
You see, it is an unfortunate fact of life that here is nothing to be gained but starvation from an unofficial ten-hour marathon between two master players in the Coffee Gallery. The only point in playing (in) a US Chess Federation rated tournament … is for blood and national reputation. What is lost, you may wonder, if two players fight it out in the Coffee Gallery?
‘Theoretical knowledge’ is what is in danger, lost. Every good master has his whole ten or twenty move opening system memorized with new moves, something more than is published by theoreticians. Also, you show your future tournament opponent what his weaknesses are in your opinion. These two factors explain why chessmasters never socialize with chess and clocked serious games. You don’t give free goodies away for peanuts, particularly when the study of your opening systems has taken hundreds of hours.
There is no way out. If a strong player shows up at the Coffee Gallery, you don’t play him even if you know you will beat him (unless you’re desperate for money, naturally). It wears you out, gives away a great deal for free, and worst of all, tips off everybody within miles that you are the strongest class C player who ever lived.
But for all the scrapping and near-death experiences, he scored incredible victories, like the liberation of “high volume” prostitute Paula, with whom Jude developed an elaborate system to drop loads of cash through a garbage chute over many days to secure the $10,000 she needed to escape from her brutal pimp, Celerio. Or the triumph in Augusta, Georgia, where Jude gave an exhibition before an enthusiastic and attentive 1,000 people and did loads of press. Or the Helen Gurley Brown-recommended “swish-swish-swish” of the nylon sound atomizers that the lovely Verne wore when she rescued him at the St. Louis bus station (moments before Jude had dramatically–gallantly–given a stranger his last $350). Verne took him on a slow six-day drive to New Jersey. At Verne’s urging, Jude drew by stalemate against her father three times.
“I’m the best you’ve ever seen”
But life on the road wore down even Jude. Fischer forfeited his world title and opportunities began to dry up. It all crystallized in El Paso, Texas, where Jude was on a layover and had only $15. He was “slightly mentally ill” and “a little bit depressed but getting it together,” with his chess rating frozen by the United States Chess Federation.
He left the bus station, crossed the street and came upon a large coffee shop with a “movie star looking young kid” and his beautiful girlfriend. The movie-star-looking-guy was playing chess against an old man.
Jude stared at the chess players a moment, not quite believing.
Jude went into the coffee shop and a waitress asked if he wanted a cup of coffee. He gave her a tip and sat and watched the chess game unfold. He could tell that Movie Star was good and the old man not so much.
The old man said to Movie Star, “I’ll get my government check so I can pay you.”
Movie Star said, “Well, you have to cash the check now, old man.”
Jude interrupted: “Excuse me, sir, you’re going to play for how much?”
“Maybe twenty,” said Movie Star, “maybe thirty. Maybe a hundred. Whatever he’ll do.”
Jude turned to the old man. “And you’re going to get a check? Why don’t you just, um … let me see here … Well, listen, would you like for me to play this man?”
“Are you really good? Can you beat him?”
“I’m the best you’ve ever seen.”
Jude played Movie Star with the $15 he had, and the old man matched. After losing that game, Movie Star wanted to play for a hundred: “You’re really not that good.”
Jude walked over to the coffee shop’s owner. “My name is Jude Acers. I’m a world famous player. This man wants to play me for a hundred dollars. Would you like to give me the money—I’ll give it back to you with interest, whatever you want to do?”
The owner agreed.
Jude put the $100 on the table and “played just straight theory.”
After Jude won, he gave the owner $80 of the winnings and kept $20. He took another look at Movie Star and his beautiful girlfriend, noticed an open air convertible on the street and assumed it belonged to Movie Star.
As he got up to leave the coffee shop, Jude thought, “I own the world. They’ve got nothing.”
And then I go out, back toward the bus station. I turned around for a moment. And the waitress was still there [in the window] with a coffee cup. And she said, ‘You’re really good, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, I am.’ All the people in the restaurant were lined up at the windows watching me walk across the street.
* * *
Jude’s El Paso story reminded me of another one I heard a bluesman tell at the 1990 Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, Mississippi, about losing his harmonica as a young man. He said he got another one that “only God can take away,” then unleashed an astonishing harmonica solo, only to reveal he produced the sound with his hands, mouth, and microphone. There was no harmonica.
As Jude said,
I have this delight in chess, and I study chess, and it can never be taken away.
Jude’s Rule: “I’m going my way”
As best as I can determine, in 1972 then United States Chess Federation Executive Director Ed Edmondson froze Jude’s rating at 2399 until he played in an open tournament. The distinction that apparently matters, at least to the USCF, is that Jude crossed the 2400 threshold by playing “matches.” These matches were against low-rated or unrated players. Here’s his curious Wikipedia entry:
Questions have arisen concerning his actual strength at chess. He got his U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) rating up to 2399, just one point below Senior Master, by playing matches against players who had never played rated chess before. This led the USCF Executive Director Ed Edmondson to freeze his rating at 2399 until he played in an open tournament.
In 1995, a new rating statistician, apparently unfamiliar with the “Jude Acers Rule,” added one point to his rating, giving him a rating of exactly 2400.
The first time I talked to Jude about his frozen rating, he explained:
Because I travel, I don’t get my rating up. I mean I never play where I don’t get paid. I don’t care, I’m famous, I don’t really care what people think. And to this day I was never allowed to play in national tournaments, except for sponsors sending me the last three years. The U.S. Federation lowered my rating. I’d rather not go into it because I don’t want to get any bad vibes.
He identified William Goichberg as the primary force behind his rating staying frozen for so long. Goichberg has served the USCF in a variety of capacities, currently he’s “Member-at-Large” of the USCF executive board, and he is also founder of the Continental Chess Association.
I contacted the USCF and asked for clarification about Jude’s rating. Joan DuBois, Director of Communications, Affiliate Relations, TLA’s, Advertising Inquiries & Correspondence Chess, responded via email:
Our records do show a over-the-board (OTB) rating of 2400 for Jude Acers. Over the years he has had some very strong performances, especially in the Senior Championships.
Regarding Wikipedia…we find them to be accurate…..
The next time I sat down with Jude, I brought up the Jude Acers Rule again:
I asked [the USCF] about the whole ‘Jude Acers Rule’ thing, you know–
–oh, thank you, thank you! They’re horrified, because now they realize, ‘Look, we’ve got Jude Acers where we want him, he’s a crazy nut down in New Orleans.’ But all of a sudden people are realizing, ‘He seems to have credibility. He never complained, really. He never complained about the way we tampered with his rating. He took it for twenty years. He didn’t sue us.’ And now they’re realizing, they hear the sound of drum beats, but the worst thing of all—
Here’s their answer [I handed him a printout of the email].
Would you send her back a letter: Joan, Jude Acers wishes to thank you for your very nice letter. And he is fully aware that you in no way discriminated against Jude Acers, that it all was by direct order of William Goichberg, thank you very much.
I handed him a pen.
Jude wrote: Joan — You are a princess! Yes, direct orders/hands on rating cards was by William Goichberg. He is a tragically flawed but very great chess personage. Jude’[Goichberg] ordered them never to raise my rating. It was done originally by the late Edmundson, but Goichberg is the main man. I mean, [Goichberg has] done many wonderful things for chess. This was a huge mistake as he now knows. Listen, I also know—I can’t give you names—two people who actually worked in the office came right here and they just told me, ‘Jude, Goichberg froze your rating at 2399 for twenty years.’
How long ago was it frozen?
Decades ago. But the point is I don’t care. Understand, if it had not been for Goichberg, I wouldn’t have the wonderful world I have. I would never have done five years with Miller. I would’ve played in all the tournaments during the seventies, but I kept thinking, ‘Fischer isn’t going to play again. If Fischer doesn’t play me, and allow the top twenty people to play in the U.S. Championship, this isn’t going to go anywhere.’ And here’s another thing. Fischer asked, after winning the U.S. Championship 11-0—he said, ‘One year I almost didn’t win, the tournament’s too short’ … and Fischer asked for a double tournament. That is twenty-two rounds, where they would let in twenty-two people in, not the same old tired faces but twenty-two people, or you’d play everyone twice. Naturally, during the seventies, they would have done anything to have Fischer play after he won the world title. I kept thinking, ‘If they’re crazy enough, after Fischer won the U.S. Championship 11-0, not to hold a twenty-two round tournament a year or two from now to get him to play, the only time he’s going to play at all, then I seriously question whether they can promote anything. I seriously question if I can get any basic money as a chess professional, I’m going to have to go it alone.’ Again, another thing, I just had it right. Some people just have a real genius for promotion and survival and I’m one of them. And, of course, you realize, I really don’t care what people think about me. I’m going my way.
I contacted Goichberg via email and here is his response:
[From Wikipedia:] Questions have arisen concerning his actual strength at chess. He got his U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) rating up to 2399, just one point below Senior Master, by playing matches against players who had never played rated chess before.
Not true. In 1965 when his rating was roughly 2230-2240, Acers submitted a large number of individual match results (about 70 games total) at one time against players who either were unrated (had never played rated chess before) or very low rated (about 1200-1300). Unlike a tournament, an individual match involves only two players.
Under the rating system in effect at the time, a win over any player, no matter how weak, produced a minimum gain of 2 points. However, according to statistical theory, a 2 point gain was proper for beating someone about 440 points below, but a win over someone 900-1000 points below (or an unrated of that strength) warranted only a gain of just a small fraction of a point. The 2 point gain was permitted for simplicity because such pairings occurred too rarely in tournaments to allow the higher player to amass a significant number of points, so no problems had ever resulted.
When the USCF office received the 70 games or so from Acers with him winning every game, if this was rated using the 2 point minimum, he would have gained 140 points and it would probably have qualified him for an invitation to the US Championship, and whoever would have lost an invitation as a result would have been very upset, to say the least. To invite Acers based on a lot of wins over such weak players would have caused a tremendous scandal.
I was USCF Rating Statistician in 1965, and when I received these matches from Acers, I took the rating report to my boss, USCF Business Manager Joe Reinhardt, and said, “You don’t want me to rate THIS, do you?” Reinhardt immediately agreed that we could not possibly rate the matches, and after some discussion, he decided that a new rule was needed: Individual matches cannot be rated if the players’ ratings are more than 400 points apart, or if one or both players are unrated.
I wrote to Acers to inform him of the new rule and say that his matches would not be USCF rated. He was very upset and said we were keeping him out of the US Championship, which was true, but we had nothing against him and would have done the same had any other player submitted such matches.
I am surprised that apparently because I wrote that letter, Acers thought that I was also responsible for the much later action freezing his rating at a maximum of 2399. I left as Rating Statistician in 1967, Executive Director Ed Edmondson froze Acers’ rating at 2399 maximum in 1972, I held no USCF position in 1972, and I was in no way connected with what Edmondson did, nor was I aware of it before it happened.[Wikipedia:] This led the USCF Executive Director Ed Edmondson to freeze his rating at 2399 until he played in an open tournament.
True, Edmondson froze his rating as 2399 maximum; that happened in 1972. I’m sure he didn’t do so until Acers “played in an open tournament,” as open tournaments exist, for instance in small chess clubs, in which all the players are rated well below Acers and he could have easily defeated them. Rather, Edmondson must have attached an opponent’s rating requirement as a condition for lifting the freeze- for example, to go over 2399, playing (or scoring against) a Master (or maybe two) would be required. I don’t know if Acers ever asked Edmondson what he needed to do to get the freeze lifted.
I don’t know why Edmondson imposed the 2399 maximum, but am sure it was not because of matches against unrated players, as such matches have not been ratable since the Reinhardt decision of 1965. My guess is that the reason for Edmondson’s action was that Acers was gaining many points by playing very low rated or unrated players in tournaments, possibly events that he arranged. USCF tournament records prior to 1977 are no longer available, but if we look online for the most recent Acers results prior to his recent play in World Senior Opens, we find that in 1995-1997 he directed and submitted for rating a total of 11 games, scoring 11 wins against very low rated or unrated players.[Wikipedia:] In 1995, a new rating statistician, apparently unfamiliar with the “Jude Acers Rule”, added one point to his rating, giving me a rating of exactly 2400..
I do not believe there was ever anything called a “Jude Acers Rule.” I have never heard that term before, and In 1996, a different Executive Director assigned a maximum rating to Claude Bloodgood, and no one referred to a “Jude Acers Rule.”After Edmondson assigned Acers a 2399 maximum rating in 1972, Acers remained active through 1976. His rating on annual lists was 2399 in 1973-1975, and 2374 in 1976. He was inactive in 1977-1978, 2364 on the 1979 annual list, inactive in 1980, and back to 2399 in 1981. Then inactive until 1982-1984, 2399 in 1985-1986, and inactive in 1987. Meanwhile, Edmondson left USCF in 1978, and I don’t know whether Acers ever asked any of his many successors to lift the freeze.
On the 1988 annual list, Acers’ rating went up a point to 2400. Ratings were done by computer and had been since 1976, so a maximum 2399 must have been programmed in, and then removed in 1988, by who and why, I don’t know. With the freeze lifted, on the 1989 list he was up to 2462, but I don’t know what sort of players he was beating.
I can’t find my 1990 or 1994 annual lists, and Acers was inactive in 1991-1993. On the June 1995 list he was back to 2399 again, and in August 1995, 2400. I don’t understand where his 2462 went, possibly it was considered an error and the 2399 maximum was returned, but this was apparently then changed to a 2400 maximum in 1995.[Quoting from my email to the USCF]: In my conversations with Mr. Acers, he has claimed that Mr. Goichberg was the primary person behind his rating being frozen so long. Mr. Acers says that although Mr. Goichberg has “done many wonderful things for chess … this was a huge mistake.
Please if possible, ask Mr. Acers why he thinks that other than the rules change Reinhardt and I did back in 1965, I have ever done anything that had any influence on his rating.
Acers’ strong results in the World Senior indicate that at his peak, he was probably over 2400 strength. Whether he ever demonstrated this in rated play against Master opposition, I don’t know.
I printed out Goichberg’s email and brought it to Jude. Here’s what he said:
I like this letter. But he’s responsible for the fraud. He simply told the rating department, after Edmundson died—Edmundson was killed by Bobby Fischer, he had done everything for Fischer and Fischer did not play for the World Championship, forfeited the world title in 1975. The USCF had, you could say, illegally spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help get Fischer to defend his World Championship in 1975. Fischer had disowned Edmundson and said, ‘Don’t send any money whatsoever,’ and poor Edmundson died of a heart attack on a beach two years later, but he’d been disowned by the U.S. Chess Federation which realized—in other words … if Fischer had played, nobody would’ve cared. Because Fischer forfeited the World Championship, all of the money that Edmundson spent on Fischer came due. Edmundson was disowned and dumped by the U.S. Chess Federation. He died on a Hawaii beach two years later. Absolute dicatator of the Federation, with all of the Fischer money leftover, anything leftover, was and has been until recently was Goichberg. Goichberg fixed the rating, personally told everyone, ‘It’s fixed at 2399,’ and kept it there for 20 years. And, of course, you realize, I was never going to play, period. Here’s the whole point. To him, nothing was wrong. He was preserving the integrity of the U.S. Chess Federation, whatever. In other words, it never occurred to him that he was committing fraud. And that if you do this all across the country, nobody’s going to play chess. And fortunately he didn’t have to worry about it because most people were giving up chess at age eighteen. And remember, too, that actually for me, Goichberg was a fabulous break. Because once I saw that he was doing this, much less had actual testimony from people within the [USCF] office, that naturally I had my own world and I just went away from the U.S. Chess Federation and made my own world and had enormous success. In other words, there would be no Jude Acers today without Goichberg. He was incredibly valuable. He was an absolute dictator, absolute power corrupts absolutely and there is no question whatsoever that from 1977 on, he is lying through his teeth, totally dishonest in his manner, because he has to be, he could not afford to involve the U.S. Chess Federation in another multi-million dollar suit, and he lost all the records, he never mentions the more than 1,000 games that I played in San Francisco in 1969-70-71, he never mentions my games in the New York Times where I drew or won against people like Walter Browne, a grandmaster, or dozens of other games that appeared in the New York Times, all that has to be not mentioned. He hopes you will be an amateur and not skilled at research. But, fortunately for you, you can just go to the New York Times and type in my name and all my names will come up … So he’s in a position in 1977 where he’s freezing the rating of a player who’s drawn a match with international grandmaster Walter Browne, had a game voted one of the Top Ten Theory in the world and had made hundreds of thousands of dollars playing chess already, he’s in the position of doing that and thinks he can get away with it. He can, because in 1990 they lost all of the records, and there’s no way in the world to check all the tournament records, whatever. In San Francisco there are people who are bewildered today when they read about me in Wikipedia and other places, they saw me play hundreds of games in a year, Frank Thornally, a U.S. master said, ‘This man plays more chess matches than any other player in history.’ I was playing five experts and masters at one time. I was getting such good results many masters would not sign the results to turn them in for rating, they just did not play the final game and I couldn’t get them rated, but I didn’t care. The point is, Goichberg politely is lying. Because what’s he going to do, involve the U.S. Chess Federation in another lawsuit? He can say he fixed the rating in 1967-68 but later on someone else did it. It’s not true, he did it all the way for thirty years, he’s totally responsible. He’s also totally responsible for the Susan Polgar lawsuit. No Bill Goichberg, no $700,000 loss. He’s totally responsible for it. But on the other hand, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The collapse of the U.S. Chess Federation is now imminent. I’m sorry to tell you that the USCF membership in this month’s magazine, one of the people running for the executive board, already on the board [but] running for another chair, has announced that [the USCF] is now being sued again by someone who, believe it or not, could not get the board to allow him to run for election in the U.S. Chess Federation election. I think the person would probably be Sam Sloan (chess book publisher; he came out with the 2009 edition of Jude’s Lone Pines book). And if he can prove that they tried to [hinder] his right to run, that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, if he can get standing in the court. I think he can prove it, that the delegates are a small, mob-like force that do not want change, because 90% of the members do not vote. At any rate I’m not going to worry about it because I am gone. I’ve already announced I’ll never play in the United States again [in USCF events], but I do wish them well. Now, there is something very pleasant, the guy … in Chicago, Sevan (Muradian), he has a policy statement that is simply magnificant. He may be elected [to the USCF executive board]. His criticism of the U.S. Chess Federation is tremendously strong. You can read it on the website right now.
I would play if Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield personally asked me and personally handled the plane, met me at the plane, and arranged for me to stay, I would play, but otherwise no. They are the only people I would trust.
What if they personally sent you a letter saying these people we give the responsibility to pick you up and take care of your—
Oh, sure, as long as I could pick up the phone and talk with [Rex Sinquefield] about any matter, but naturally, they have so many players who will play for them.
By the way, I’m very glad you [contacted] Goichberg because I don’t have any hatred for him at all, but he is now having to realize the consequences of his actions, he’s trying to make a magnificent effort to hold tournaments all across the country, his tournaments are the only ones held, he has a monopoly, but no one is going. People have just left the U.S. Chess Federation. Local people are staying there but mentally everyone has left.
The truth is, I have to be honest with you, the U.S. Championship was so far from New Orleans and Baton Rouge I don’t even think I was thinking of it. I was thinking of having a high rating, having people know who I was. As far as the U.S. Championship, I don’t think I ever terribly wanted to play.
I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My whole world had crashed. Fischer hadn’t played. Miller had abandoned me; he would take no more phone calls. But I had my one last contract exhibition [in New York City]. I now have whatever money I have to get to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I am for several weeks—where I met this unbelievable girl, too … She became a very famous news broadcaster but I don’t want to mention her name… Anyway, I called [Goichberg] from Ann Arbor. I did not have a plane ticket to get to my contracted exhibition. I talked to him on the phone and he was baffled, as if to say, ‘Why me?’ Well, he had millions of dollars. Fischer was not going to play again, all of that money had already come in. And the Fischer boom had not ended yet, the money was still coming in. And this is the background: He had been talking long distance, every day, to a member of the policy board. And I was sitting in the living room when he did it. There was a tournament that he was hosting in Ann Arbor, [Goichberg] offered to give me free entry fee to the tournament. I said, ‘No, but thank you.’ I’d already quit playing in all tournaments after 1970 unless I could see some benefit. I was already famous. It was out of my world, I was doing my exhibition and that was it. So, anyway, I did not have a plane ticket, and I knew he was spending thousands of dollars on long distance phone calls, thousands every month, there was no oversight, the policy board members would call each other, they were having membership meetings once a month and everything, they wasted millions, and then you could argue that Goichberg, in a vacuum period after Fischer played, was worth every cent of the millions they wasted. There is a strong case to be made that William Goichberg fully justifies the horrendous cost of William Goichberg. That the ends justifies the means in true Machiavellian terms. You could make that argument and there’s a strong case to make it. ‘I had to kill Jude Acers [and] all rivals because they just weren’t cutting it,’ that kind of thing he could say. So, anyway … The conversation was short. ‘I need a plane ticket. They’ll pay me in New York and I’ll send you the money immediately.’ Doris Thackrey says, ‘Everyone advises me to not lend you the money, Jude, but here it is.’ So she bought me the plane ticket, and I said, ‘Lady, you’re in for a surprise. And the first thing I did when I arrived was say, ‘The first forty chess sets you bought I want them,’ because I’m mailing them to her. She got forty chess sets. And she was totally unprepared. They arrived in a box. She didn’t understand what was happening. She sent them on to a prison. That was one of my thank yous. And, of course, I had the money sent to her in twelve hours. I had them pay me in advance, so I mailed it to her immediately. And the exhibition was huge. Against all odds. I did advanced promo four days in a row. It was not immediately big. But with 24 hours to go I got red hot on TV and radio and people were calling in, free exhibition, their child could play in the Guinness Book of World Records exhibition. Miller had set it up, because of 1973 in Portland they [Guinness] knew how to set it up so it’d be certified in the Guinness Book of World Records. Shelby Lyman, the very famous chess writer was the moderator, he came and was the master of ceremonies, and he called it a ‘World record insanity’ later, but at any rate, it was huge, and it was well documented … But the final story is this. [Goichberg] called me, after the [Guinness] exhibition was all over, it was in the afternoon. Everybody had heard about it, he knew it was monstrously big. I told him it was going to be big. And he said, politely, ‘We’re holding a World Open downtown. You’re going to be by this afternoon?’ That’s when I couldn’t believe it. He lives in another world. I’m not a perfect person. I have my faults, like everyone else. But you make a mistake with me, you won’t be getting Jude Acers to visit your hotel. And when I look back at it, I didn’t mean to hurt him, but the loss of Jude Acers was a huge loss to Goichberg, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Now, looking back, I realize I could have really helped Goichberg a lot. All he had to do was put me on the plane. And he had millions in the bank. But understand, I’m a wild child, Jude Acers is insane, he doesn’t have any parents, he came from a mental hospital or something, he’s a nice person but he’s crazy, don’t loan him any money, that kind of thing. [Goichberg] knows he can pull it off, but in the end, over the phone, he’s very nice, very polite, but he’s blown it … If I were offered $500,000 to play in a Goichberg tournament I would refuse, that’s how strongly I feel. If I were black, I would never have made it because of Goichberg. Fortunately, because I have snap, crackle, and pop, because I listen to the Boy Scouts of America, I do not smoke cigarettes, don’t do dope, don’t drink if you can help it, try to avoid beer, alcohol, if you’re going to drink I guess drink really fine liquor once or twice a year, but in general, avoid substance abuse, stick to coffee, coffee’s all you’ll ever need. Or fine tea. Because my mind works very well—and remember, it was not vengeance, I remember feeling empty as I hung up the phone. I didn’t say, ‘I won’t be there,’ I didn’t say that I wouldn’t come. Naturally, I will never come. He’s held several tournaments in New Orleans in the past thirty years. I’m not rude. In no way would I ever be rude to him … Let me give you a token example. You and your wife are in a restaurant and someone you know comes up and insults your wife. That’s it, Jack. You’re not going to shoot the guy in the restaurant, but that’s it, Jack. He’s packed. He’s gone. It doesn’t matter what he does. Goichberg made the fatal mistake you can’t make. And, of course, how was he to know that one of the greatest chessmasters of all time, an electrifying media personality, a person with a tremendous ego required to go long periods of time when nothing is happening in his career and can make things happen. Big time. Oh, he did say one very nice thing to me over the phone. Just as I recognize his absolute honesty on-site as a tournament director, he would die before he would make an imperfect decision. In other words, if he kills you, he’s going to kill you honestly, he’s going to tell you, ‘I’m doing this, I’m killing you, and I honestly believe it’s okay.’ That’s what I’m trying to tell you. This is what absolute power does. To this day, Goichberg does not believe he has become a monstrously evil person in segment. But that is what’s happened to him. The Polgar lawsuit is totally blameable on William Goichberg. No one who has my knowledge of how chess works could dare say that Goichberg isn’t the Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles of chess bureaucracy in the U.S. Chess Federation office. He is the person who fixed a player’s rating after he had drawn a match with a grandmaster. He is the person who has lost more than 1,000 games that I played in San Francisco. I am sure at least 500 games against internationally-rated players, people like John Grefe, U.S. Champion Walter Browne, James Tarjan, tremendous player, William Addison, all of these people, matches with Robert Burger, a 2300 player, I played George Kane, experts, it just goes on and on … I was just playing night and day and many of my games were published in the New York Times, the London Times published my win over Browne, Infomater helped keep me alive, and so on. The point is this: Those are all bygone days. The price that Goichberg is paying is horrendous. As he realizes, he will be in chess biographies forever stained by his few bad days. He had 95 good days, 5 bad days. But those 5 days will destroy him.
If I were running a tournament and I wanted a referee, he would be my first choice, providing he would referee it from his house, he wouldn’t be allowed be allowed to operate in the tournament room. But he would make all pairings, all standings, whatever.
All through the years, as people began to realize that Goichberg and the U.S. Chess Federation were not going to make it, gradually people began to come up to me, and say, ‘Jude, you know, you are really eccentric but the real truth is the U.S. Chess Federation seems to be poisonous. Essentially there’s no true criticism allowed. Let me make clear that the criticism in this month’s issue (Chess Life magazine, published by the USCF), the rule is the four candidates [running for] the executive board. They are allowed to have mild criticism of the U.S. Chess Federation in their policy board statement. It’s the only page Goichberg cannot censor. The only one. Even then, it comes in like a nuclear bomb, just a few criticisms, three of [the candidates] just give the routine, ‘Guys, you want to keep your money coming in and your small gang-like tournaments, vote for me, I won’t sink the ship until it’s absolutely sunk.’ But already, in the policy board, you get the fantastic freedom, what freedom does, it frees you, it lets you learn a little light. Just the few things these people mention that are wrong with the U.S. Chess Federation: ‘Our website is in shambles, we’ve spent thousands of dollars on nothing,’ not ‘Jude Acers is right.’ The U.S. Chess Federation must be totally changed. All critics of the Federation must be allowed to publish letters in Chess Life and Review. Just because Jude Acers doesn’t like William Goichberg doesn’t mean he can’t write a letter to the U.S. Chess Federation, or that Larry Evans has to be gotten rid of so 400 Acers letters cannot appear in the magazine (Evans, who died last year, was a frequent critic of the USCF and for many years published Jude’s letters in his chess column that appeared in Chess Life; late in his column’s run Chess Life, cut the commentary portion out of it). Freedom excels where freedom dwells. Freedom is worth dying for. We’ve got to have a free expression of opinion on our website. We’ve got to be honorable in treating people. And here is what is going to save the Federation: There’re more good guys than bad guys. And a father of a child is suddenly looking at the magazine, flipping onto the website, and next time more people will vote. Just as black people in America learned our country absolutely can change, but God, it’s slow.
If this all seems messy, all I can say is there’s more where that came from. Check out this smattering of links: Goichberg’s takedown of Muradian in the current USCF executive board race, USCF settles, Welcome to the USCF racist, sexist, homophobic, and deplorable standard, NYT reports, and Goichberg uses “the office for a hangout in his free time is both a conflict of interest and a disruption to the staff.” Interestingly, this blog post by grandmaster Susan Polgar is still up, despite its relationship to her recently settled lawsuit with the USCF. Or read Larry Evans’ This Crazy World of Chess. You don’t have to look hard to find more institutional weirdness in the world of chess–just this last week, the President of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) Kirsan Ilyumzhinov sat down for a game of chess in Tripoli with Moamer Kadhafi (in 2004, Kadhafi banned the Israeli team from competing in a championship tournament held in Libya; the FIDE motto is “We are all one people”). And even Goichberg has had his chess rating questioned. And for kicks, here’s the obligatory message board drip who feels compelled to declare Jude a “low life.” But the Jude haters in these forums are consistently well outnumbered by his fans and supporters. Some of these online back alleyways can provide a lovely range of anecdotes about Jude, such as this thread at Chessgames.com:
Jul-15-04 sawbone: In about 1971, Jude played a simul at the Leesville, LA Chess Club and beat all 10 of us blindfolded. Everyone should read his new book, The Italian Game. I think that Jude can regulate his game to make it interesting and barely beat players of various levels. He is indeed a charming fellow and wears a red cap so you can see if he is there from 3 blocks away. He was once rated over 2500, according to his book. Has the best presentation of The Two Knights Game I have seen.
Jun-01-05 deschner: … At a chess tourney in Wyoming, he declined a 2nd place trophy, handing it back to the TD. “1st Place or Nothing!” was Jude Acers motto.
Sep-12-05 deshad: Glad to hear he made it [for several days after the levees failed in New Orleans in 2005 Jude’s whereabouts were unknown]. I had the pleasure of playing him on Decatur Street about a year ago. We spent about 10 minutes playing (mostly me thinking). Despite being quite charmed and distracted by my wife, whom he was busy entertaining, he easily beat me in about 20 moves. He then took us on a whirlwind, theatrical tour of the French Quarter that included a tale of Paul Morphy in front of Morphy’s house. It was the single most interesting and enjoyable part of our trip there.
Dec-10-10 chuckr: I was recently in New Orleans and played Jude in a few games. Even though I knew what he was going to play (Veresov) he crushed me quickly. I tried the Veresov against him, but he wore me down there. He’s good. Funny too. As it became apparent I was about to mated, he high fived all the spectators (including my wife). He’s a good guy.
Dec-10-10 kingfu: Is Jude at the old, same place? I need to know where exactly.
Most people want to climb Mount Everest.
I want to play Master Acers and visit The Moscow Central Chess Club.
Jude’s beefs with the USCF far exceed his personal battles. He holds it in contempt for what he sees as awful outreach to women, minorities, and those who live outside North America, the less privileged:
You need to understand when you look at the website of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, there’s no USCF logo, they won’t let the USCF operate (there), they’ve moved into the Jude Acers ballpark, the Jude Acers world. I don’t hate the U.S. Chess Federation now. I don’t involve them in my world. They don’t exist. I wish them well, but they’re not going to make it because they simply cannot link worldwide and anything that doesn’t have women and all players, [from] India, South America—look, I don’t want to mention names, there was an executive director [who I told], ‘We should play radio matches—or, now, internet matches—with our friends in South America.’ ‘Jude, we’re so strong it wouldn’t be worth doing.’ What? What is he thinking of? Even if it wouldn’t be worth doing, you do it. For example, Yugoslavia, the strongest chess team in the world, twenty-three years in a row they played the strongest Soviet teams, they lost all twenty-three matches. It didn’t seem to hurt them. Every game gets internationally rated, so their players’ ratings go up. Remember, when you’re an average player, and you have five players rated hundreds of points above you, you get just a draw or two, your rating goes up, you can’t lose—at all. You love to have the world’s highest-rated players come in there.
And the absolute worst strike against the USCF, as far as Jude is concerned, is the loss of its tournament records in 1990 when it moved to its new headquarters in Nashville. Jude sees this offense in the gravest of terms. Say, for example, a child is doing research about the family history and discovers his grandfather was the highest rated chessmaster in the state of Kansas in 1956. Because the USCF lost its paper records, there may, in fact, be no surviving record of the 1956 Kansas grandmaster’s chess games.
They have lost all records before 1990. The U.S. Chess Federation has lost all Jude Acers records, all records of William Addison, all tournaments held in California before 1990. I played four hundred games, at least, in a three year period. Many rated. All records of who beat who, everything, lost, a whole generation of players lost, and tournament organizers in small towns by the hundreds forgotten forever because of this ridiculous U.S. Chess Federation loss in 1990, which I think was intentional because they know they couldn’t, potential lawsuits could be filed against them for things they had done earlier, but I won’t go into that. But anyway, they lost all records. Hideous, unforgivable oversight. People are now looking back to see where their father played and there’s no record of their father.
Sharks and Cold Fish
Over the years Jude took note of certain details which informed the choices he would come to make:
- When he met Fischer in 1964, right after Fischer’s incredible run at the U.S. Championship when he won an unprecedented 11-0, Fischer told him he’d won only $2,500 and he had not been given any grants by the U.S. Chess Federation. That’s what the best player in the country gets, Jude thought.
- The cold ruthlessness of Walter Browne:
[It] was just before round two of the San Antonio, TX World Hemisphere Tournament in 1967 [Browne’s] playing, before the round starts, a player of average rating, around 1900 or whatever, and [Browne’s] a grandmaster, a strength player, but he gives the guy two minutes, he only takes one minute, or [the other guy] has five minutes—I forget how it was, but had big odds. And it’s for five, ten, fifteen bucks, whatever. Browne runs out of time, so he loses the ten bucks… Anyway, Browne is losing—Browne, a grandmaster, a world famous player—and he’s losing to the amateur in the five minute games, and coldly, unemotionally, the bell rings to start the tournament and Browne says, ‘Well, okay,’ and this grandmaster pays this absolute beginner twenty dollars or something like a cold fish, you know, not with anger, and I realized, ‘Do I really want to be around cold blooded killers like this?’ Not because I’m afraid of Browne, or any of these other guys, but I realized, ‘These are good players. Do you really want to spend your lifetime playing these guys on weekends?’ And … here’s the other thing that I knew—and I told Browne this later. If he needed money and I’d won a tournament, I’d have to loan him the money, or a couple hundred dollars. He said, ‘You can’t think that way,’ and I said, ‘Grandmaster Browne, I can think that way, and I do.’
- In 1970 Jude visited with grandmaster and chess journalist Larry Evans in Reno. Evans was also into real estate, poker, and quite literally, mind games:
Evans played all the markets, he was a really great, great universal business man, he was involved with Reno real estate, benefits for women, civil rights, exhibitions, a gambler beyond belief, would bet hands of poker, drop in right out of the car and bet twenty dollar hands of poker, jump back in the car and he’d be banned from a lot of casinos because he won an enormous amount of money, they banned up just politely when they banned him, because he was able to memorize the cards, but he lost a lot of money before he won it back and was about even when it was over. But, anyway, Evans was taking me to a hotel and I was standing in line waiting to get in and he paid for the hotel on a credit card. He had parked the car and he walked up to me and he said, ‘Jude, I’ve invented a refutation to the Evans’ Gambit. The Evans’ Gambit is named after Captain Evans of England, a hundred and fifty years ago, and he flashed out the moves and I said, ‘No, I’ve got you. Establish a pawn center.’ And so we played it blindfolded. And he lost a piece! I played a key move, bishop to d5. He said, ‘What kind of move is that?’ ‘I’ll play pawn takes d4.’ I took a knight and (inaudible) twenty-five in a blindfold game, and winning a piece. Okay, now, we’re continuing the blindfold game. All right, we’re playing in our minds. I’m checking into a hotel room and we go to a casino restaurant. We finish the game and he moves a knight to a6 and to c5 and beats me in the blindfold game. But we’re playing blindfold, I don’t understand what’s going on. We’re sitting there and I took out a pocket set and I suddenly realized, there was no knight at b8 that he could move to a6. He’d invented a piece. And he said, ‘I simply wanted to see if you were paying attention.’ And suddenly I realized, I don’t mind that he cheated in a sort of funny game, but I realized, ‘Do you really want to play people like this—all your life. These people are very, very clever. And these were little things. Not out of fear. Cold common sense. I can make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing, publish books, I’m very famous, touring, I’m not going into this world.
- In 1972, Fischer was a week late for the World Championship match against Boris Spassky in Iceland. He’d technically forfeited, but exceptions were made and Fischer finally made it to Iceland and won the world title, which he would never defend, taking the air out of the chess scene in the U.S.
I kept thinking, ‘Special exceptions are being made for Fischer but unless Fischer plays me or other people for the U.S. Championship, this isn’t going to work. I’ve got to get out now. Do my small town exhibitions, study chess as normal, that’s it, I’ve got to get out. Unless something extraordinary, expenses-paid, comes up.’
- In 1975, millionaire Louis Statham, at great expense, built a town hall and other facilities on the top of a mountain in Lone Pine, California, sponsored an international chess tournament–technically, he invited all grandmasters, but, because of Soviet/U.S. chess politics, the Russians stayed away. But the few thousand in prize money, especially given the great expense of the facilities, left Jude unimpressed and he elected to not play.
Very early on, and continually reinforced through the years, he could see that survival playing tournament chess required not only playing at a very high level, day in and out, but it would be next to impossible to make a living at it.
In the end, on paper, things look real tough. If I had it all to do over again, I’d do the same. I have no regrets … If it ended tomorrow, okay. I did it my way and I chose to act with tremendous speed on simple information that I got, and I got the right information. I talked to Fischer about the U.S. Championship, the money he got paid, I talked to Larry Evans, I just had the right people at the right time, I was clued in, I made all the right moves. I, alone, survived … And no one’s ever had a career like me.
The accumulation of these observations finally led Jude to set up shop on Decatur Street in New Orleans:
It never occurred to me that I would be the Energizer bunny of chess, that every other grandmaster would fade into the woodwork, they would have health issues and so on, I just keep a truckin’. And I was doing all the right things, making all the right choices, just be intuition. The most important of the confrontations with the grandmasters was the wonderful James Tarjan, international grandmaster who never got to play Fischer. He said to me, ‘All the players want the glory to rub off on them and let them play Fischer in the U.S. championship and Fischer won’t do it.’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s true, James.’ I was very close to Tarjan in terms of liking him the few times we talked. And then, he was climbing onto a subway to see this dynamite woman, and as he climbed on the trolley car, he said, ‘Jude, you can say anything you want about the U.S. Chess Federation and the American chess scene, something is happening,’ and as he’s pulling away on the trolley, I said, ‘Grandmaster James Tarjan, my good friend, nothing is happening.’ And I was right. The whole scene of the U.S. Chess Federation, Fischer, meant nothing.
It all closed and the whole American chess scene has to be rebuilt from the ground up with fifty or sixty players in America allowed to play in the U.S. Championship, as a chess university, with all of our wonderful foreign grandmasters also allowed to play, but you’ve got to have fifty masters from all around the country, just master rating, play in ten or fifteen round internationally-rated tournaments, at their own expense, for the right to play in the U.S. Championship as a qualifier, everybody has got to be world rated, nothing can be provincial or neighborhood, everybody’s got to feel part of the program. So every hometown hero is in it. And I’m right and the U.S. Chess Federation is wrong. I was right about everything … I would just say that I see things faster. I wouldn’t say that I am in possession of an ability to process information faster than anyone else. I would just say I choose to process the information faster than anyone else. When I find out that Fischer isn’t playing, is forfeiting the World Championship, I’m playing in shopping centers, department stores, I’m not playing anywhere else, because it’s not going to get better. And I also act on information. Fischer has not played for two years. There’s no proof he’s ever going to play. I basically was able to act on this information. There would always be next year—no, there wouldn’t necessarily be next year. Take what you can get, do what works for you, maintain good health, manage your money as well as you can, get back to New Orleans, and try to figure out a way to exist.
Even now, the primary reason he has done the Senior tournaments abroad the past few years is because he’s been financed by generous patrons.
They get out of a limousine, they drop the money off, they drop the ticket off, they put it in my hand and they’re gone in five minutes.
It’s never been a question of confidence:
The guy can be sitting there and be reasonably good, but I’m better. Because I’ve worked more and I’ve studied more and physically I’m stronger than he is. I’m in tremendous shape. I mean, I don’t drink, I don’t do dope. You know, if he wants to play twelve, fifteen, twenty straight hours for money, I can do it, even now [at 67 years old]. I mean, I have won a thousand games in a row against varied opposition. Some weak, some reasonably strong, out there at the table, without even a draw. It has happened. I’ve done it over a three or four month period … Oh, I belong in jail. I’m a real thief. I’m sure I’ve stolen more games than anyone but Walter Browne and Frank J.