Arthur Feuerstein Dies at Age 86

Editor’s note: US Chess was saddened to learn of the death of Arthur Feuerstein at the age of 86. We could think of nothing better to honor this great player from America’s past than by reprinting Al Lawrence’s magisterial account of Feuerstein’s life, near-death, and rebirth as found in the January 2012 issue of Chess Life. (Thanks, Al.)

We extend our sincere condolences to Alice Feuerstein and the entire Feuerstein family.


Tenacious: The chess life of Arthur Feuerstein is a story of promise, tragedy, and rejuvenation.

by Al Lawrence
Chess Life, January 2012

It was a rainy day but full of getaway-anticipation. Arthur Feuerstein and his wife Alice left work behind and headed west in their Dodge from their house in River Vale, New Jersey, toward their vacation home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Alice sat in the back seat with their beagle Daisy. Behind the wheel, Arthur looked forward to a relaxing weekend and had good reasons to feel satisfied with life in general. He had, at just 37, already risen to the top of his profession, about to be sent to Belgium to head up the European division of Sun Chemical. He was married to the beautiful girl he had fallen in love with as a student. And in the world of chess, the other love of his life, he was a leading player.

It was true that he had decided against turning pro after a very promising start as a youngster, including a solid result in the 1958 U.S. Championship. But even as an “amateur,” he had won the 1971 championship of New York City’s vaunted Manhattan Chess Club, and competed in the 1972 U.S. Invitational Championship, chalking up a draw against powerful GM Pal Benko and a win against the legendary Al Horowitz. Art could boast an even career record against Bobby Fischer, the man who had just rewritten the record books on his way to the world championship throne.

As Feuerstein drove that day in 1973 near Fort Lee, New Jersey, on a two-lane stretch of Route 46 just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the site of his many chess victories, the driver of an oncoming 18-wheeler was going too fast. He locked his brakes to avoid running into the back of the car in front of him. Suddenly the truck shimmied precariously and jackknifed slightly, the front of its trailer angling out into the oncoming lane — Feuerstein’s lane. Faster even than the 1960 U.S. Blitz Champion could analyze and react, the trailer caught his car at the roofline, tearing off its top like foil from a popcorn tray. Something smashed into his head and then sped past him through to the back seat, where it reached so far toward Alice that it killed poor Daisy, who was resting in her lap. Alice’s back was broken in the accident. Arthur slipped quickly into a coma.

Twenty-two years earlier, as a 14-year-old student at Taft Grand Concourse High School, Art had learned chess to play with his older brother. “Harry came home from the service in World War II,” Art said, “and while he was going to college, his friends came over to play chess with him. I wanted to get closer to my brother, who was 16 years older, so I watched the game and learned chess from him.” The game captured young Art en prise. He quickly organized a chess club at Taft, playing first board during challenge-matches against other schools. “I found out that Bronx Science was supposed to be the best,” he said, “so I challenged them, and also Stuyvesant.” Art joined the Marshall Chess Club for a year. “But later someone told me that Manhattan Club was stronger,” he remembered with a laugh, “so I joined it instead.”

Inspired by a rare moment in chess history

After graduating from Taft in 1953, Feuerstein (FYOOR-steen) went on to the school of business at Baruch College, City University of New York. He continued to play chess and improve his game. “Horowitz’s and Reinfeld’s book How to Think Ahead in Chess really helped me with the openings,” he said. “I started playing the Stonewall as White.” It was an exciting era to be an up-and-coming chess player in New York City. In 1954, the Soviet team, led by Smyslov (who had just drawn an “unsuccessful” title-challenge match) substituting for world champion Botvinnik, visited America for the first and only time to play a third post-war match with the U.S. (The first match, in 1945, was played by radio; the second and fourth matches — in 1946 and 1955 — were played in Moscow.)

The match generated excitement about chess and guarded curiosity about the Soviets. The impact and historical importance of the Soviet visit can only really be appreciated in the context of America’s then-ongoing great Cold War fear and self-examination. At the time of the match, schoolchildren like me regularly rehearsed “duck and cover”—the act of crouching under your wooden school desk in the event of nuclear attack by the only other atomic power, the U.S.S.R. A national debate raged over the value of McCarthyism and its focus on even long-past associations with communism, which populated the notorious “blacklist” — names of U.S. citizens who thus became unemployable, many for decades. In fact, the televised McCarthy-Army hearings, which gripped and divided the nation with its impassioned outbursts, were concluding even as the hushed chess match began.

Treasured in Feuerstein’s scrapbook, among yellowed newspaper clippings of the era that headline his name, is a letter from the organizers of the USA-USSR match, thanking Art for working one of the giant wallboards at the event. “I remember being excited to be a wallboard-attendant,” Arthur told me. What young and ambitious player wouldn’t be? After all, he was in the room with the greatest players of the generation. Although the Soviets hammered-and-sickled the U.S. 20-12, the resulting effort to better fund the development of American chess helped to create the three “Lessing Julius Rosenwald Trophy Tournaments,” the last of which would in a few years provide a platform for a surprising Feuerstein debut.

Image
U.S. Student Chess Team, 1957
from the August 20, 1957 issue of Chess Life

 

From wallboards to the Rosenwald

Two months after mirroring the moves of the USA-USSR match on the wallboards, Arthur himself played a game against Erich Marchand at the 1954 New York State Championship in Binghamton that was widely admired for its tactical daring. The game, in which he gave up his queen for three pieces, was reported on in both local newspapers and in Chess Life, which described it as “a game of remarkable depth and beauty, earning for [Feuerstein] the first brilliancy prize.”

By 1956, Feuerstein placed only a half-point out of first place in the Greater New York Open, behind Bill Lombardy and Ariel Mengarini. Art even beat young Fischer, who finished a half-point behind him. Feuerstein was favored to win the 1956 Junior Championship in Philadelphia, but finished tied for second after drawing his individual game with Fischer, who won the event. Yet, at the city’s Mercantile Chess Club, Art won the U.S. Junior Blitz Championship, again drawing his individual game with Bobby, who finished second, followed by Lombardy.

From 1936 through 1948, USCF held the U.S. Championship round-robin tournament, dominated by Samuel Reshevsky, every two years. But then FIDE took control of the world championship on a three-year cycle. So, for a time — 1951, 1954, and 1957-8 —, the U.S. title tournament was held only during the years the U.S. needed to produce a zonal winner. Thus, in the ‘50s, there were reduced chances for Americans to compete at the top level. But the American Chess Foundation helped to fill the void by sponsoring three powerhouse round-robins—the Rosenwald Tournaments—between December 1954 and October of 1956. The third and final Rosenwald was played at both the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs and directed by Hans Kmoch. Reshevsky — trying out his brand-new David-Niven- mustache — won the event in strong form, with nine out of 11, ahead of Arthur Bisguier with 7. But a whiskerless 20-year-old named Feuerstein was the surprise third-place finisher in the 12-man invitational. He drew Reshevsky, Bisguier and Fischer (who finished eighth but played “The Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne) and scored five wins to finish with 6½.

Image
Bernstein (Black) versus Feuerstein
from the March 1958 issue of Chess Review

 

Climbing the rating ladder and falling in love

Readers of chess publications began often to see Feuerstein’s play praised. Dr. Harold Sussman wrote: “He showed splendid tactical finesse under pressure and pressed Reshevsky for the lead in the early rounds. Had he not weakened in a favorable game against Mednis, he would have finished second. … We need more training tournaments like the Rosenwald to develop our young players like Fischer [and] Feuerstein …” Annotating their encounter in the Manhattan Chess Club Championship in the April 20, 1956 Chess Life, Bisguier wrote that “the younger Arthur displays a tactical resourcefulness and tenacity which seem destined to place him among our leading players for many years to come.”

Art’s climb up the rating ladder was quick. In USCF’s May, 1956 rating list, Feuerstein was listed as a high expert, at 2150. By the spring, 1957, he was one of 60 on the master list, printed beneath 14 senior masters and one grandmaster (Reshevsky). One year later, he was a senior master, ranked 12th overall.

In 1957 Art was selected for the team to represent the USA at the fourth World Student Team Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he played third board behind Bill Lombardy, already an IM (and who that year won the World Junior Championship with a perfect score), and Edmar Mednis, and ahead of Anthony Saidy and reserve Robert Sobel. Feuerstein finished his first international event with a respectable 50 percent as the U.S. team finished fifth out of 14. The USSR was first. The next year at the Student Team in Varna, Bulgaria, Feuerstein, with the same teammates, finished sixth out of 16, the Soviets winning again. Art and Saidy, switching boards that year, both finished with an impressive winning percentage of 67 percent.

But Feuerstein, Saidy, and Mednis were competing at the seaside resort for more than mere checkmates. In Varna, all three were captivated by the beautiful, 17-year-old Alice Rapprich, a physician’s daughter on vacation from her hometown of Prague before beginning her own study of medicine. All three young Americans played their games until late afternoon, then would go out for evenings of dancing and walks. “My traveling friend was ill and told me to go ahead and go to the dance. I was sitting at a table alone when I saw both these two Americans—Feuerstein and Mednis—get up and make a dash for me,” Alice remembered with a laugh. She put them off, but Art was persistent. Ten days later, he spotted Alice walking on the beach. He took her to see the opera Aida. “After that, I hung out at times with the team and their friends,” Alice said. “Many women had eyes for Saidy—he was gorgeous. But Arty was so funny! He always made me laugh.” Returning home to the U.S., the team members wrote Alice letters. Feuerstein, as we’ll see, however, was once again to prove the “tenacity” Bisguier had praised.

In December of 1957 and January of 1958, Feuerstein, now 23, got his first chance to play in a U.S. Championship, placing equal sixth among 14 of the country’s best masters. He finished tied with Edmar Mednis and former champion Arnold Denker — and ahead of defending champ Bisguier. Along the way, he beat James Sherwin, Hans Berliner, Denker, and Herbert Seidman. A 14-year-old Bobby Fischer won the event, beginning his run of eight championship victories.

Because of his good sportsmanship, Feuerstein secured an interesting place in Fischer-trivia. Bobby’s victory against Feuerstein was played some two weeks before the opening round of the event so that Bobby could take his exams at Erasmus High — so it was Fischer’s very first win in the U.S. Championship. Bobby then went on to triumph in all eight events he played in. To Feuerstein’s credit, Fischer’s victory in their last game together only evened their score.

Serving his country, with a special request

Later in 1958, Art joined the army. But he made sure to request a stint in Europe. He had been writing Alice! Assigned to Munich, he went to visit Alice in Prague. He hadn’t been the only member of the student team to do so. Saidy met her family there when he was shopping for a microscope for medical school. Alice recalls her mother’s advice, given in Prague when the young girl had received two letters from America on the same day — both with photos enclosed—one from a suave-looking Saidy and one from Feuerstein, who was topped off with an unflattering GI buzz-cut. “My mother looked at them both, and told me to go with THAT one!” she laughed, gesturing at Art more than 50 years later in the couple’s elegant home in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Alice and Arthur were married in 1960. “I had to get special permission,” Art said, “since Czechoslovakia was a communist country!” The same year, Art also found time to win the very first U.S. Armed Forces Championship. Art was soon transferred to a dream assignment in Paris, where the couple lived much like civilians and enjoyed what seemed an extended honeymoon. In fact, Art had to get into uniform only to pick up his paycheck once a month. They roamed the romantic streets of the Left Bank together. He frequented the legendary Club Caissa, where its benefactor, Madame Le Bey Tallis, who hobnobbed with the world chess elite, would greet him enthusiastically with “Ah, Monsieur Fooy-ur-steen!” Their stay was extended into 1961 because of the Berlin crisis, caused by Soviet demands for the withdrawal of western troops from West Berlin and sudden construction of the infamous “Berlin Wall.” Indeed, Alice and Art wouldn’t have minded staying even longer in Paris, but Art’s older brother advised him to come back to begin establishing life in the U.S.

“We moved from an apartment on Rue de l’Université in Paris to a four-story walkup in Brooklyn!” Alice said. “But I soon loved Brooklyn too.” Back in New York, Art understandably heard the siren call of a professional chess career. But earning a living was of course the first priority. The couple still remembers a letter Art received congratulating him on winning another brilliancy prize—which amounted to a check for ten dollars and a cheap set that was admittedly on “back-order!” So it was clear chess wouldn’t put caviar on the table, or perhaps even cold cuts. And then Alice met Bobby.

Art brought Alice to a congregation of chess players at Jack Collins’ apartment — also known as the Hawthorne Chess Club, a hub of America’s best, like Donald and Robert Byrne, Lombardy and Fischer. “Bobby came up to say hello, and I introduced him to my wife.” It was clear Art was retelling a foundational family story. Alice took it over. “Bobby looked shocked and ignored me! He kept his eyes on Arty and blurted out, ‘You got married! What did you do that for?’ He was very rude.” The implication was clear, why sacrifice a promising chess career to get married? “I had been friends with Bobby,” Art recalled, “but sometime after the Fischer-Reshevsky match in 1961, I didn’t see him much anymore. And Alice was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

Image
Feuerstein, date unknown
Playing at a top board at an unknown event.

 

Life-changing accident

Art began working for Sun Chemical, and was soon promoted to more and more responsibility. At the same time, he continued to be a strong force in New York City chess, finishing high in tournament standings, winning the Manhattan Chess Club Championship, playing in another U.S. Championship … and then, on Route 46, on that drive to the Poconos, it all suddenly went dark.

At the insistence of her surgeon-father who was now practicing in Brooklyn, Alice would spend the next six weeks in a torso-covering cast that “was like armor” but allowed her to get around enough to go back and forth to the hospital to visit Art. She credits her complete recovery to her father’s prescription.

Didn’t know what a toothbrush was

The results of Arthur’s head wounds would be more long-lasting, indeed lifelong. “Recovery is still an ongoing process,” Alice said. Art spent six weeks in a semi-coma, sometimes able to respond to simple commands, like instructions to move his head or open his mouth, but not fully conscious and unable to speak. The neurosurgeon in charge of his case told Alice that her husband — the confident business leader and chess champion — would never talk again, and probably never be able to think about anything very complicated. She could only watch as Art lay silent in the hospital bed with a breathing tube in his trachea.

Then one day Alice’s phone rang at home. A nurse told her that Art had pulled out the breathing tube and wanted to talk to her. She rushed to the hospital. What would he say, what would Art be able to do?

When she entered the room, Art and the neurosurgeon, who had also been alerted to the sudden awakening, were hunched over a chessboard. “Honest to God,” Alice said, “he didn’t even know what a toothbrush was, and he only vaguely recognized me, and didn’t know anyone else—but there he was playing a normal game of chess.” “I remembered everything about chess,” Art said, “including my openings.”

Recalling all of this so many years later, Art and Alice sat at their dining room table, with Art’s chess scrapbook open. “You know,” Alice said, “I remember, that a bit later, we heard that the neurosurgeon committed suicide by jumping off the hospital roof.” Perhaps a single heartbeat separated the end of her sad recollection from Art’s devilish response: “Well, I did win that game.” I suppose you develop a dark sense of humor getting through all that’s been put in his path. But the funny young man who won Alice’s heart is still here.

Image
Alice and Arthur Feuerstein
Alice and Arthur Feuerstein

 

After waking up for that game, Feuerstein spent another two months in the hospital and three years in rehab, relearning the basics of day-to-day life. Through every day of his comeback, Alice was there for him. To support the family, she went back to school and became a highly valued operating-room nurse. Later, she started her own business as a massage therapist, which she continues today.

The man who wasn’t supposed to talk or think well again eventually went on to finish a master of business administration at Baruch and launch a successful, 20-year career as an independent consultant. In 1983 Alice and Arthur had a son, Erik, now creative director of Engage, a political consulting firm.

As for chess, Art continued playing regularly, at the Dumont Chess Mates Club, which over time became the Ridgewood Chess Club, performing well. He remains a perennial top board at the World Team Championship every February. At 65, he was rated in the top ten players in the world in his age group.

And don’t get the idea that just because Arthur is now in his ’70s, he can’t still trade combinations with the best. As recently as the International Chess Academy’s Winter 2010 Open Championship in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, life master Feuerstein defeated both GM Sergey Kudrin and IM Mikhail Zlotnikov to score a perfect 4-0, racking up a performance rating of 2534.

And Alice assures us that he again knows what a toothbrush is.

 

 


 

Comments

iam arties sister, his older brother harrys wife.
i attended his bar mitzvah. he was always a lovely man.
did you mention his wonderful son erik &grandsons
age 4 & 7. james & liam.

RIP Arthur. I’m sure we met during Chess play in NYC in the Commercial League. I was on the Met Life Insurance teams featuring Walter Shipman/ Leslie Braun topboards
Your reputation as a fine player was well known.

THE CLASSIC WAYBACK MACHINE EPIC......BOOM YOU ARE IN THAT CAR WITH THE ROOF COMING OFF ...FROM MR. LAWERENCE.........A, Fuerstein One of hundreds of soft
fierce shadows who disappeared into the night over my eyewitness 67 year chess career.... forced out due to total absurd multi million dollar incompetence of long ago silly amatuer American chess officials who developed a real hatred of murdrous competitive master chess ..preferring instead "oh is that cutism.".. children easy bucks and once spending ONE MILLION DOLLARS in legal fees to harrass- remove a pro chess grandmaster stunningly elected president of the US chess federation (indeed laterin the Chess Hall of Fame!)......I am not making this up...only in the past 10 years has the US chess federation / its mushrooming publication, exploding website headed toward a serious real deal pro world class chess operation that actually covers savage world chess that is with soccer, the world's number one sport. More than one million people play chess daily, often on just one web site. Chess is not a joke. America is the chess future.,, a serious pro business not a joke , Already the President of the World Chess Federation (Fide) Mr. A. Dvorcovic invited one player from 170 chess nations to the FIDE World Chess Cup and will ABSOLUTELY pay for it if needed. Serious dude! Soon one player from absolutely every US state will be invited to the US chess championship qualifying pool and 3oo million Ameican people plus will overnight become chess bloodhounds with only one hour or even one half hour games likely ...the only time controls ever permitted..no more slumberfest nightmarish joke events which deny 99 per cent of American housewives , children,attorneys , doctors, teachers ,caregivers and the poor the slightest chance to play for the US chess championship or the world title ...with hybrid internet strictly monitored FIDE CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD fast time controls in 170 nations COMING...EVERYONE IN THE WORLD GETS TO PLAY IN QUALIFYING POOL EVENTS OR BE GONE... the age of chess for the rich and lucky New Yorkers is over. Sponsors and media openly laugh at events where all their local people are not even playing at all. Even in St. Louis ..a fantastic chess center WITH THE WONDERFUL REX AND JEANNE "Boy Scout merit badge to the world!"...the media has caught on big time that local home town heroes in Missouri are never involved even in a 1000 player qualifier knockout US CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP OR WORLD TITLE POOL QUALIFIER.... Entire WORLD CLASS ST LOUIS events go by with the very best international players invading ...and the media often totally ignores every single move. .millions of people play online every week..not here...
Well gee...wonder why. All Us chess rated masters shouldAUTOMATICLY be allowed to play in a murderous US chess championship pod pool knockout every year MODELED ON TH E US OPEN TENNIS KNOCkOUT or the MASTERS GOLF EVENT..(70 per cent of the chess field eliminated at round 5 with two games per round and one hour flat per game) entie event over in 8days flat.. EVERYBODY PLAYS ..No privileges for anyone save the defending champion. . And the first prize has to be at least $100,000 period.
Jude Acers/ New Orleans

Yes well remembered .. Al Lawrence's trip back via The Wayback Machine ..readers feel like ........they are in that car with the roof coming off.
A,Feurstein -one of the many great shadows in USchess history..with nowhere to go.Even now there is no automatic 1000 master US chess championship tourney with at least a 200,000 dollar first prize, 2 rounds per day /8 days flat/one hour per game flat ....EVERYBODY PLAYS.No draw offers ever allowed and every single game broadcast live worldwide. Top 50 rated US players all expenses paid...EXACT DATES ALWAYS ANNOUNCED FIVE YEARS IN ADVANCE. Like the Superbowl, Wimbledon or the The Masters golf event. ! one million (1,000,000people play chess in a day..often on one web site. Wake up crew!! "We chessplayers are getting stronger all the time!"-grandmaster A.W. Dake (USA Olympiad gold USA team medalist- best individual score winner) 90th birthday gala... Henry Ford restaurant ..Portland Oregon..2001.
Jude Acers/ New Orleans

Art was one of my favorite chess personalities as he was my captain at the 1987 and 1988 US Amateur Team Championships as we both played for the Dumont Chess Mates. We were the 1987 NJ Team Champions and that was a bit tainted when we used 2 alternates after apparently being given permission by one of the tournament directors to do that due to a teammate's family emergency. In 2006, my team which consisted of Grandmasters Sergey Kudrin and Enrico Sevillano played against the Dumont Chess Mates in the last round, and Arthur playing black. held Sergey to a draw. One thing about the story of Art that I would question is about that accident as I don't think it happened in Fort Lee but closer on Route 46 to the Pennsylvania border.

RIP Arthur, you will be missed by many.

Respectfully Submitted,

David A. Cole

I played against Arthur three times, twice shortly before the accident (I won in 72 us Champ., drew later game), once a few years after. I hadn't yet heard about the accident when we played the third game, noticed his rating had dropped a full class though still was a master rating, and I won very easily. He didn't seem to know me. When I asked him about it, he told me what happened. Given the severity of the damage, quickly regaining a master rating was pretty impressive, and it seems he continued to improve after that. He can be an inspiration for anyone recovering from serious brain trauma. RIP Arthur.

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