James Harkins (1929-2017)

Today strong players are produced all over the United States, but it wasn’t long ago that New York City was by far the number one chess center in the country with a huge gap between the Big Apple and the next city. One contender for number two from roughly 1946 to the late 1990s was Cleveland.

Why Cleveland you might ask? Consider that in the 1990s Grandmasters Alex Yermolinsky, Gregory Serper and Anatoly Lein, International Masters Calvin Blocker and IM Dmitri Berkovich, Women Grandmaster Camilla Baginskaite, US Chess Hall of Famer Milan Vukcevich, and Senior Master Boris Men all made their home in the city on Lake Erie.

While this might have been the period when Cleveland had its strongest players, the city was also a hub of chess activity in the 1970s when it hosted a 16-player Grandmaster Invitational (The Plain Dealer International) in 1975 and nearby cities (Oberlin and Mentor) hosted two U.S. Championships – in 1975 and 1977 respectively. Adopted son Milan Vukcevich, a Grandmaster of Chess Problem Composition who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, took third in the earlier Championship.

Cleveland chess shined even earlier. It hosted the 1947 U.S. Junior Open won by Clevelander Larry Friedman over Jim Cross and future U.S. Champion Larry Evans and hosted well-established chess clubs for kids and women in the 1940s. When the U.S. Open was held in Cleveland in 1957 (Bobby Fischer’s first big victory), many out-of-towners were surprised to discover that Cleveland had a full-time chess center.

Giants of Cleveland chess (left to right): Andy Wishnek, Richard Kause, James Harkins, Richard Noel and Tom Wozney

One man lived through all of this: James Harkins Jr.  Affectionately known as “The Hawk”, Jim was a native of Cleveland who made the city his home his entire life. His death on July 27 at the age of 87 is deeply felt by his many friends there.

A graduate of Case Western Reserve Law School and The Hague Netherlands Academy of International Law, Jim worked most of his life for the City of Cleveland, but chess, bridge, and opera were his passions.

Jim developed into a strong player at the Pawns Chess Club held in the Treasure Room at the John G. White Collection, part of the Cleveland Public Library. This club for junior players also produced Larry Friedman (U.S. Junior Champion in 1946 and 1947), twin brothers George and Harald Miller – the latter Ohio state champion in 1951. William Granger, one of the first strong African-American players in the Midwest and one of Ohio’s best in the late 1940s and early 1950s, also played there.

Larry Friedman (left) and James Harkins engage in a blindfold game while onlookers struggle to follow the action. This photo, taken during a session of the Pawns Chess Club at the John G. White Library, was published in Chess Review in July 1948 (p. 5)

Harkins would go on to become a National Master and win the Ohio Championship in 1964, 1968, and 1973 (he tied for 1st in 1954 but lost on tiebreak). Of his many fine achievements in chess, perhaps the most impressive was his draw in 1958 with Pal Benko (then living in Cleveland), who qualified for the Candidates a few months later. Jim played quite well into his eighties and was rated 2088 a few months shy of his 85th birthday.

Jim Harkins recaptures city chess crown is the headline from this 1966 issue of the long-running Cleveland Chess Bulletin.

Fellow National Master David Presser, a good friend of Jim’s, reflects on Jim’s character:

Jim was an extremely generous person! He seemed to genuinely enjoy treating people to dinner. He also shared his skills as an attorney and helped me on several occasions, always adamantly refusing compensation. A Cleveland tournament organizer, James Schroeder, sometimes had low turnouts and lost money … Mr. Schroeder told me that Jim Harkins was the only person who gave him some money to help defray the deficit.

Jim had a soft heart. I heart this story: during a big tournament in Milwaukee, Jim defeated a young player who cried after the game. Jim then reported the game as a win for the youngster!

The Hawk will be missed.

Comments

  1. Grew up playing in the Cleveland area but never really met Jim. Knew the name, of course!

    Finally had the pleasure when he came out to Illinois for the US Senior a couple years back. We shared some fond memories of mutual acquaintances over a lunch/dinner. Upstanding gentleman. Remember him resigning a game during the tournament by extending his hand and saying something like “well played!” I resolved to emulate his courtesy.

    Wish I had known ya earlier. RIP, my friend.

  2. When I settled in Cleveland over 20 years ago Mr. Harkins was already a local legend. If I remember correctly he hosted an annual chess party every summer. People always mentioned Mr.Harkins’ name with utmost respect. This is a huge loss for Cleveland’s chess community.

  3. The “Hawk” will be missed in Cleveland.

    The very first time I saw him was at a small local tournament in the late 1970’s. I was new to tournament chess and as I wandered around the room I saw these two guys playing in the first round. One was an avid young player who was tensely fixated on the board with his head in his hands and his legs twitching nervously. The other was a slightly pudgy middle-aged guy sitting “side-saddle” in his chair, turned away from the board, reading a newspaper and loudly crunching on a bag of potato chips. If not for the fact that he was seated at the same table he would have appeared to be a bystander not involved in the game. This would be “The Hawk”. After a considerably long and anxious think, the young guy made a move and nervously punched his clock. Harkins, whose view of the board was blocked by his newspaper, heard the clock and briefly put down the broadsheet. He glanced at the board for a few seconds, made a move, punched his clock and went right back to reading his newspaper and crunching chips. The young player immediately leapt into cogitative action once again as if his life depended on it.

    This routine repeated itself over and over until the young man finally resigned. As I was awestruck by this display, my first thoughts were “Who is this arrogant bastard!”

    Well, first impressions are not always correct, as in this case. True, from the time I knew him, Jim did not take any game too seriously and seemed to play for pure enjoyment and relaxation. He may have been more “serious” about the game in his younger days, but I was not there to see it. He meant no disrespect by reading the paper and eating. It was a small informal tournament well before the days of serious prize money. Jim did have a couple of emotional buttons that could be activated, but he dutifully kept them under control and comported himself like a true gentleman.

    A highlight of every year was in August when Jim would invite hosts of chessplayers and opera fans to his house for a backyard birthday party. He and his brother Bill happened to share the same birthday, but they ostensibly held the party in honor of Jim’s dog “Patty,” for whom the only presents were accepted. The brothers catered with lavish food and hired opera singers and popular bands to provide music.

    I shared Jim’s enjoyment of opera and classical music, and I have many fond memories of playing 5-minute chess at his house with a group of players that included the above pictured Dick Noel and Tom Wozney, as well as Ross Sprague, Jim Burns, and Don Collins. We played loud music into the wee hours of the night and often sang along like drunken German Tavern buddies. All this for the high-stakes of 50 cents a game!

    Jim was a good friend and is a representative of an important era of Cleveland Chess and will be missed by me and many others.

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