Frank Kim Berry (1945-2016) Tribute to a ‘Chess Conservationist’

FRANK BERRY RRSO XIV 2016 04 16b 4 Website by Rebecca Rutledge

Frank Berry

Frank Kim Berry passed away on June 6th of a heart attack, in his home in Oklahoma. Best known nationally as sponsor of two recent U.S. Championships (2007-8) and as one of few American FIDE International Arbiters, Frank was one of those unique chess characters who have kept tournament chess alive in the heartland, organizing and directing events of all sizes for more than 50 years. His kind is a vanishing breed, but one that U.S. Chess would do well to remember.

Frank’s life was diverse and complex. He had careers in the army (a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne) and in banking (a major stockholder in Southwest Bancorp, a large regional bank that began in his native Stillwater). Magic was one of his many occupations and he performed regularly at the Magic Castle when he lived in Los Angeles. He was also a historian with a specialized interest in the Old West, and editor for the county historical society.

A Chess Conservationist

But chess was his most beloved avocation, and, to try to describe it in one phrase, I would like to suggest he could be called a “chess conservationist.” I’m sure he would ridicule such a pretentious term, but his actions align with the literal definition — one who endeavors to preserve and protect things of value — chess in this case — conserving its past, present, and future in the heartland of the country. He believed traditional tournament chess was a legitimate and worthy amateur sport, but not one that would ever be commercially viable in the U.S. (He scoffed at that idea as a dream.) Therefore it always would require grass-roots organization by devoted volunteers to thrive, and among these he proved to be one of our most prolific examples. He played this conservationist role three ways:

Past memories of chess in the Oklahoma region he preserved by researching historical sources for long-forgotten info. He spent much time in local libraries combing through old newspapers to piece together the history of tournament and club chess, living memory of which had been lost prior to the 1950s but which is more extensive than one might think. He was able to construct a nearly complete list of state champions going back over 100 years, for instance. Along the way he dug up some interesting stories and published them in the prolific Oklahoma Chess Quarterly, which he edited with admirable regularity for many years. He carefully archived a lot of this research in large binders for others to use.

Preserving regional chess games in a dedicated state database was another of his projects that I think each state would do well to emulate. His Okie Database (a ChessBase file) contains over 16,000 games played in this state (or by Okie players out of state) dating back to 1914 – including little-known games by Reshevsky, Fine, Steiner, Horowitz, and even the young Bobby Fischer (who played in the 1956 U.S. Open in OKC). New additions included many annotations by masters and even GMs from his Quarterly. He was fanatical about collecting all new game scores from current tournaments. If I held a tournament he would hound me unmercifully if I didn’t send him all the game scores within a few days. He would often pay young players to enter them into this database, updating it every year and making it freely available.

Of course current chess activity he also conserved by organizing and directing events, of all kinds, large or small, local or national or international. He was the most active organizer in this part of the country. Some of his notable events include the original North American Open, several U.S. Women’s Championships (and the first U.S. Girls Invitational Championship in 2015), a U.S. Senior Open, a U.S. Junior Invitational Championship, Two U.S. Championships, the “Dream Team Challenge” (in financial support of the successful U.S. Women’s Olympiad team in 2004), several international norm events, even an 8-game match between GMs Yury Shulman and Alex Wojtkiewicz in 2005, etc.


Future chess tournaments he tried to conserve by encouraging and mentoring new volunteerism from players, in particular recruiting new directors. He believed chess needed all avid players to find ways to “give back” by directing or organizing events of their own, in whatever ways they could. Those who would take but never give back in chess are like the guy who is always going to other people’s parties but never hosting one himself — what Frank would sometimes call, if he was in a surly mood, a “freeloader.” Anyone interested in trying to organize an event would find tons of support from Frank, who often drove far and wide to direct or assist. A small town with a new little six-member chess club wants to try a tournament? FKB would be there – but always with his main goal to teach them how to do it themselves. If they were still reliant on him after a couple of events he would simply say, “Do it yourselves”, since he had shown them how.

Frank was often demanding of directors he was mentoring or collaborating with, which sometimes could cause hurt feelings. His approach to the technical and practical aspects of directing/organizing was rather professional, and his experience was deep. If he felt a director was doing things poorly, he would say so, and he didn’t have a diplomatic bone in his body.

Similarly, just getting to know Frank was a bit of a minefield for people because of his odd sense of humor. He had an army-style, trash-talking panache. He liked to prod people, sometimes literally, in order to “get a rise” out of them. “He rolled you up like a burrito!” he might blurt out to someone who had just lost a game, for example. He took some joy in deliberately saying things that were not politically correct, or that he knew would rile somebody up, even his friends. Once you understood this aspect of his personality, it was easy enough to roll with it, and he was a great friend. But some people never understood it.

Generosity was another way Frank supported the future of chess. He put a lot of money into the game, in large and small ways, sometimes under-the-table to help support many talented players who were in need.

On a larger scale, when US Chess suddenly lost its corporate sponsorship for the annual U.S. Invitational Championship in late 2006, Frank stepped up and helped save this tradition with money out of his own pocket for two years, to the tune of six-figure payouts each year. Frank was wealthy, but not really a rich man and this was a considerable outlay for him. I was saddened when some of the top U.S. players turned up their noses at these events, since the prize money was a step down from the previous years, and since Frank’s no-frills approach was different from the luxury venues of the corporate years that they had become used to. I understand they were mainly angry at US Chess for dropping the ball, but still it resulted in some insults hurled Frank’s way when there would have been no event at all without him. Now that the Championship has a lucrative home in St. Louis, few people remember that FKB kept it alive for two years; long enough for the new patron to be found.

Traditional chess in the heartland of the country has always been different than in the major metropolitan centers of New York and Chicago. The scattered chess population and long distances involved make it more difficult and expensive for players to congregate for events. And yet it still has muddled along thanks mainly to enthusiasts like Frank. He held that chess was a sport foremost, and only secondarily a social tool. He lamented what he believed was the recent takeover of U.S. Chess by scholastic chess enthusiasts who changed the organization’s mission to primarily focus efforts on using chess to empower people — as the new mission statement now says — and the subsequent diminishing emphasis in the past three decades upon the vigor of the traditional sport itself. He had seen the sport dwindle due to the aging player base and lack of new blood. He railed against this trend. Like many of the Fischer-Boom era player/organizers, who are now retiring, he thought it was anathema when top national chess politicians stated outright that “traditional sport chess is dead” and that the future of chess was in scholastics, social programs, and online play. It must have seemed to him that his long efforts to conserve the sport were being undercut in the new national paradigm, and that his work might prove futile. Surely, he believed, tournament chess itself was the main thing that badly needs more empowerment.

Frank Kim Berry spent his entire chess career making things happen for traditional chess. He was dedicated to its conservation. This is worth remembering.

And yet all this is really only one slice of his chess life. His twin brother Jim Berry (former US Chess president) is perhaps the only one who could tell it in proper detail and include the many funny stories they both experienced over the years.  I didn’t even mention Frank ran a chess center in Los Angeles where he was personal assistant to GM Eduard Gufeld, that he was friends with many international grandmasters and had a huge collection of autographed chess books in many languages, plus what has been described as the world’s largest collection of chess posters (from chess matches and tournaments), many in Russian. He was also a fine Class A player, and once beat Fabiano Caruana in a U.S. Open tournament game. Of course, the kid was only about 9 years old at the time, but Frank was always happy to add, “Still, I rolled him up like a burrito!”

Services have been entrusted to Palmer Marler Funeral Home of Stillwater.  Visitation will be  1 pm to 8 pm Sunday, June 12, 2016 in the funeral home chapel.  Family will receive guests from 6 pm-8 pm.  Funeral services are scheduled for 11 am Monday June13, 2016 at Palmer Marler Funeral Home. Find more details on arrangements here.



  1. Though he was one of the Twin Towers of Oklahoma Chess, he was still one of a kind. He will be remembered, and appreciated.

  2. I got along with Frank from the first moment we met after his move to the Los Angeles area. It helped that he remembered me playing in the North American Open when I was just a kid (not too many kids played back then). The next time I saw him, he gave me a copy of the cross-table from that event, including hand-written notes next to my opponents and others in the event (like “former OK State Champ” or “future IM”).
    Frank also collected chess t-shirts, and I was able to give him a couple from our chess clubs.
    Two weeks ago, I wanted to remind my students about a chess player named Garry Kasparov. We watched the Alta Vista commercial, and I got to point out my friend, Frank in the gold jacket.
    As far as Frank’s feeling about scholastics taking over US Chess, I would have argued to him that yes, chess can certainly empower people. It empowers us to be critical thinkers, to use all of our resources, to be patient, and more. But also, chess allows us to meet new friends. Good people. Like Frank. Rest in peace, Frank.
    Jay Stallings, Southern California

  3. I was very saddened to learn about Frank’s death. I visited Stillwater many times and always enjoyed his company. We met in Las Vegas 4 years ago. He was doing well… Chess world is much poorer without him. My thoughts are with Jim Sergey Kudrin

  4. Captivating piece – beautifully written, Tom. I’m very sad to hear about Frank’s passing… Frank was a powerful presence in the chess world and hospitable to those he met. His humor always cracked me up, and made chess that much more enjoyable. I owe my positive tournament memories in Oklahoma to Mr. Frank Berry. Rest in Peace Frank, and stay strong Jim.

  5. Frank brought me out to one of his Stillwater tournaments back in 2005! Since then we’ve
    traded Emails on a regular basis. I recently sent him a win of mine with Fabiano Caruana
    to match his (both from 2002)! I’m sure Frank intended to use them in some humorous fashion
    like “get ’em when they’re young”, in his beloved Oklahoma Quarterly. I’m sure going to miss Frank!

  6. Frank will be sorely missed by many, … , many people. His tournaments were always special to play in. He helped many people obtain FIDE ratings that would otherwise never had them. He often threw pizza parties for the players at his events, invited GMs and IMs to his events to give the lucky (Or unlucky, depends on your point of view!) a chance to play against a titled player under slow chess time controls, sometimes had GM chess lectures, etc. He almost always had display boards up at his larger tournaments with humorous chess cartoons, chess articles of historical interest, photographs, etc.

    And he was always willing to help. For instance, he allowed me into his home, so that I could pore through his collection of bound Chess Life magazines and look up information from my chess youth. I have always greatly appreciated that gesture.

    I will greatly miss him!

    boB Stepp

  7. I met Frank in 2004 as I got active after an 8 year hiatus. Needless to say, Okie tournament chess under FKB was light years ahead from what I had experienced in the 90s. Tournaments barely attended by Class A players back then now were regularly seeing IMs and GMs. Although this new level of competition was intimidating, the increased competition lead to large rating gains by all of our serious club players.

    Frank was always good for a laugh. He ribbed me one time by insinuating that I had violated tournament rules by wearing a tie without a jacket (“you can go no tie, but when you do, the rules state you gotta do it with class. That requires a jacket.”)

    RIP my friend. You were gone too soon.

    P.S. Thanks for the FIDE rating

  8. Sad to hear about Frank. Thanks to Tom for an excellent write up. I always enjoyed Frank, and he would always share interesting tidbits of history, plus discuss church history and theology with me at times. His tournaments were well run, and gave me opportunities to improve my game against strong players. Frank will be missed.

  9. I only just saw this. Very sad to learn of Frank’s sudden passing. Only recently did I have the chance to become acquainted with Frank. The fascinating details that Tom Braunlich so eloquently presented here, have made me painfully aware that I in fact blew my opportunity to get to know Frank better and perhaps discover some viewpoints we shared — which might have occurred had I communicated with him more than I did. (For instance, US chess authorities’ strategic decision to focus branding, promotional and funding efforts primarily on scholastic chess while withdrawing from adult, face-to-face tournament chess, is something I too have voiced frustration with in several chess forums over the years. I never knew that Frank had advocated a view similar to my own. Coincidentally, the turning point in helping me formulate and articulate my own view toward the kids’ chess vs. adult chess conflict came when I read a deeply researched essay on that topic by none other than Tom Braunlich, approximately 10 years ago.)

    Last autumn, Frank submitted 8 or 9 upset games won by himself or his brother, to be considered for my forthcoming upsets book, The Fish That Roared. Frank’s upset of Caruana was among them, and is a solid candidate for publication in my book. We corresponded for a time after that, mostly about the games he had sent and his and Jim’s experiences as players (rather than their far more prominent roles as organizers and sponsors, which of course I was aware of). But I allowed the correspondence to peter out. He had mentioned that he would peruse the Oklahoma Chess database and send me suitable upset games by peoole other than himself, but I don’t think that happened.

    Tom’s thoughtful eulogy for Frank nicely complements the meditations about the difficult challenges (and the rewards) associated with developing and sustaining chess activity in areas geographically remote from the major metropolitan areas/”chess Meccas”, that Pete Karagainis so ably elaborated in his recent Chess Life cover story. As someone who grew up in the chess Mecca of New York City and has spent his entire life living in one chess Mecca or another (Boston, Berkeley, then back to NY where I’ve remained ever since), this aspect of the chess world was something I have only lately been sensitized to.

    Finally, I agree that IM Dr. Danny Kopec merits a eulogy on the US Chess site too, if one hasn’t been added since the above appeared.

    FM Jon Jacobs, New York

  10. I am very sorry to hear of his passing. I met Frank while playing chess in Oklahoma and always had some jokes for me, a great person. You will be missed.

  11. I just came across this…saddened. I met and worked with Frank when he was at 3M in Los Angeles. I went on a few hikes with him and his friends on the weekends. When we would take a break hiking the various mountains in Los Angeles, he and his friends would take out trailmix. I being a novice hiker, took out some Hostess Ding Dongs, Frank would immediately exclaim, “Steve, put those away before the Forest Ranger sees you and attempts to arrest you for impersonating a hiker!” Frank was always a lot of fun, he will truly be missed. This was a great obituary as it really shows the depth of his friendship to people. RIP my friend!

  12. TO MR. TOM BRAUNLICH Whew! The foremost item of distilled memory/ reverence I have ever encountered. What a ride. Not just as suggested by Grandmaster Kaidanov above..but the very best goodbye I have ever seem period. It contained fire, humor ,TRUTH, history, criticism, the past ,the future for all generations.It was above all never boring, really moves us all. You must have lived this work for days, really cared deeply about every punctuation amidst poured the coffee or something stronger! If what you personally wish to hear; was it READ? word for word , yes, twice and I will carefully read it one last time after saying Good winds to you always, Jude Acers/ New Orleans PS As tragedy, an echo, and possibly a kindness… you did not ruthlessly mention that the total shut down of the New York Times , Los Angeles Times , Washington Post world class century old one chess columns occurred in just the thousand days following Berry warnings to start holding THE EVENT, THE LOCAL CHESS TOURNAMENT IN ALL 50 STATES…or die. Example in the Berry mode.. A US 50 state traveling road show chess championship played every single year .. $100,000 first prize final qualifier played quickly in just 5 days WITH ONE INVITED PLAYER FROM EVERY AMERICAN STATE MUST BE GUARANTEED LIKE CLOCKWORK EVERY YEAR.THE TOP 15 AMERICAN FIDE PLAYERS JOIN THEM IN THE END FOR THE ABSOLUTE US CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYED IN ONE HOUR FLAT GAMES /KNOCKOUT TO PREVENT FRAUD. No one ever leaves the board for any reason during the game. You lose if you walk. AND THE WHOLE FINAL TOURNEY ENDS IN 5 DAYS FLAT…NO DRAWS BY AGREEMENT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES..THE ARBITER MUST BE ASKED FOR ANY DRAW. THE ILLEGAL MOVE LOSES INSTANTLY REGARDLESS OF POSITION… 3 points for a win , 1 for a draw…LOSERS GO IMMEDIATELY TO A FIDE RATED QUICK CHESS CONSOLATION GET- A-FIDE- RATING TOURNEY SO THEY WILL HAVE WONDERFUL ADDED fierce CHESS IN THEIR JOURNEY TO THE NATIONAL. STALEMATE LOSES AND SUDDEN DEATH PLAYOFF ARMAGEDDON ENDS A TIE ROUND… It really is all so simple but never done.Mr. Frank Berry was 1,000 per cent correct. Chess tournaments and in the future will be nothing but very speedy chess tournaments in time for the 5pm evening news. Period. Taxi drivers, children, teachers, ,policeman, firemen, the mayor ,PARENTS, lawyers, and all college students are all walking around New Orleans, Louisiana thinking constantly all year about the coming national championship LOCAL QUALIFIER …( ENTIRE EVENT over in 8 hours flat and long gone till next year!.ie. heartbreak, tragedy, thrills, experiences beyond words ) A Sunday qualifier they definitely are playing in as long as they live.Get ready. Here it comes… the biggie once a year one day only local event of the year THE NEW ORLEANS GRAND NATIONAL QUALIFIER like a truck! One player only goes to the national.Sudden death in all 50 states.

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