Walter Shipman (1929-2017)

Walter Shipman at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club of San Francisco in 2009. (Photo Richard Shorman)

American chess has suffered a great loss with the death of International Master Walter Shipman at the age of 87. Shipman, who died on February 28th in San Francisco, had been ill for some time.

Walter Shipman was born in New York on April 18, 1929, and first received national attention when he finished near the top of the field in the 1946 U.S. Open. This was the debut not only for him, but a golden generation of players including Robert and Donald Byrne, Larry Evans and Arthur Bisguier, who would soon transform American chess.

Unlike most of them Shipman never played professionally, despite being one of the top dozen players in the United States for most of the 1950s. He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and worked as a lawyer his entire professional life.

Shipman was quite active as a player throughout the late 1940s and 1950s and competed in two strong events during that time, performing creditably in both. He scored 4-6 in the 1955-56 Rosenwald, a six-player double round robin that was a defacto U.S. Championship.

His win, on the Black side of the Budapest Defense against Sammy Reshevsky, was one of the key games of the tournament. Shipman was 4-5 in the 1959 Log Cabin Invitational (Lombardy, Benko, Evans, Bisguier, R. Byrne, etc.) that had many of the same players who competed in the U.S. Championship later that year.

The Manhattan Chess Club was Shipman’s home base from the beginning of his career until he moved with his wife Mary to San Francisco in the mid-1990s. He first made a name for himself in the weekly blitz tournaments, and not long after became a fixture in its lineup in the Metropolitan team league, an important competition before the rise of weekend tournaments. Shipman also competed regularly in the championship of America’s strongest club winning it six times (1972, =1974, 1984, 1985, = 1994, 1995).

Walter Shipman will be remembered as more than a player. His intelligence, wit, friendliness and sense of fair play will not be forgotten. Nor will his contributions away from the board. During the 1950s, before family life (his son Joe and daughter Judy are both accomplished tournament players) and career stepped in, Shipman was active as an administrator for the U.S. Chess Federation and the Manhattan Chess Club. It was in the latter capacity that he persuaded his fellow directors to make an exception and waive the age requirement to allow 12-year-old Bobby Fischer to join the M.C.C. in August 1955.

Almost exactly two years later Fischer and Shipman would draw in the last round of the 1957 U.S. Open in Cleveland, the scene of Bobby’s first great triumph. Shipman would finish equal fourth, one of many high placings over the years in U.S. Opens – equal third in 1950 and tied for second forty-five years later!

Walter Shipman and Louis Levy about to start play. James Sherwin and Paul Brandts are in the background with the black pieces. Circa 1966.

The two would meet again in an invitational blitz tournament held in August 1971 at the Manhattan Chess Club to honor the club’s new quarters and Fischer’s 6-0 victories over Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen. Bobby ran away with the event, scoring 21 ½ out of 22, drawing only Walter Shipman. The latter was winning that game but simply ran out of time against the super speedy Fischer. It was Shipman who perhaps best expressed what it was like to play Fischer as he got stronger and stronger; “It began to feel as though you were playing against chess itself.”

One American record that Shipman set that will be hard to beat, is that of the oldest player to become an International Master. Despite being of that strength for three prior decades, he did not formally receive the title until 1982 – there were simply no prior opportunities for earning the title for American players who weren’t willing to travel abroad.

Few could match Shipman’s knowledge of American chess history, particularly that of the Manhattan Chess Club. Thanks to him a complete list of winners of the club’s annual championship dating back to 1883 is available, as is a record of the Manhattan’s many locations in its over one hundred year existence.

Shipman was unfailingly generous in sharing information. Noted American chess historian John Hilbert, author of Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker Chess Master, wrote that when he approached Walter about his remembrances of Whitaker, Shipman not only provided it, but also asked many questions about the work in progress, helping to stimulate further research.

Fair and objective were two words that accurately described Walter. When asking about a player from the past that Shipman personally knew, one could be sure they were getting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A case in point is the late Abe Kupchik, who was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2014. The chapter on Kupchik in Arnold Denker and Larry Parr’s The Bobby Fischer I Knew is titled The Frightened, Little Rabbit and the conclusion of the former is that “Kupie” had a passive style and played as if he was afraid. Certainly Denker, who was known for his love of attacking play would not have found the games of Kupchik, generally remembered as a grinder par excellence, to be particularly interesting, but was he fair in his assessment? Shipman (who knew both men well) did not think so, believing “solid” a much accurate description of Kupchik’s playing style. He added that “Kupie”, in his opinion the second best American player after Marshall from roughly 1915 to the late 1920s, beat Denker in a very nice game in the 1936 US Championship and had a lifetime plus score against him.

Walter Shipman circa 1965., (Photo Beth Cassidy)

This was not the only piece of unwritten American chess history that Shipman had tucked away. Everyone remembers the U.S. team did not attend Buenos Aires 1939 after winning the previous four Olympiads, but why not? The answer is not to be found in the pages of Chess Review or the American Chess Bulletin.

Walter explained that George Emlen Roosevelt (yes, one of those Roosevelts), was willing to pay the travel for the U.S. team, but balked when the players asked for a modest honoraria to cover a month’s lost wages attending the event. Roosevelt, a banker and philanthropist who was one of the most prominent railroad financiers of his day, felt the players should be honored to play for the flag. The players, who had already demonstrated their patriotism countless times that decade, but had families to feed during the Depression, felt otherwise. Sadly, with Walter’s passing, much insider knowledge has been lost.

Shipman was a player who went his own way in the opening. Long before its recent revival, he championed the Cozio Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nge7) to the Ruy Lopez and for many years opened 1.d4 Nf6 2.g3 as White. Like Kupchik, he was a fine positional player who picked up more than his share of points in the endgame, but also like “Kupie” he could attack quite vigorously when the situation called for it. A case in point is the following miniature played against fellow IM Kongliang “Ben” Deng at the 2004 American Open in Los Angeles. Walter was 75 when this game was played.

Walter Shipman will be missed by many.

Comments

  1. I played Walter 7 times between 1999 and 2005 and we had many conversations over the years. While no longer the strong master that he once was, he served as a window to the past glory days of American chess for a young player like me. We rode the train together to Reno tournaments, and Walter would entertain me with stories about Bobby Fischer and other masters of the 50s, 60s and 70s. I always enjoyed sitting next to such a legend. Really sad news.

  2. I never got to play against Walter Shipman, but got to watch him play quite a bit here in NJ and NYC, and he loved to grind out even positions or even slightly worse positions. I recalled when he first retired in 1995 and relocated to the Bay Area, he was still that grinder, and got to compete in the 1995 US Open in Concord, and Walter Shipman grinded it out to a tie of 2nd place and went undefeated in that event. The chess world will never be the same and Walter Shipman will be dearly missed.

  3. It was my honor to know Walter during his time in NY. He was a true pillar of our American Chess Heritage. He was also a gemtleman’s gentleman and one of the finest class acts in the Chess World.

    His passing leaves a huge void; American Chess has lost a connection with its legacy.

  4. A beautifully written obituary. Walter was truly one of the good guys, and a very strong, creative and fearless player.

  5. Although Walter did not play professionally, he always had the utmost respect for professional players. I once lamented that when I responded to the question “what do you do for a living?” by replying “I play chess”, I would invariably be asked “But what do you REALLY do?” Walter was horrified. “They would never ask that from Muhammad Ali,” he said.

    I recall Walter grinding me down in a gruelling rook and pawn endgame. He would dip his fingers in a glass of water, wipe his forehead and get back to work. He was quite apologetic afterwards. “I had an extra tempo so I had to keep playing, ” he explained.

    But what I will remember the most is this piece of wisdom. “There are more than a dozen qualities that go towards making a great chess player,” he told me, “and at least 10 of then have nothing to do with chess.”

    I share this advice with my students. Thank you Walter.

  6. Always a gentleman . Always took his time made the group of 1976 all better players taught us respect for the game the Manhattan chess club and life in general. One of the few people along with Neil mckelvie Moe Mitchell Jeff kastner that I can surely say shaped my life. Rip Walter

    • Gee, Eric, thanx for including me in that illustrious group. I will echo what everyone else said about Walter’s gentlemanly demeanor, and simply add this… Of the 1970’s group of MCC Championship (2300 to 2400 rated) stalwarts, which included McKelvie, Kevitz, Brandts, Kramer, Feuerstein, et. al., I always found Shipman to be my toughest opponent.

  7. Thank you all, especially John Donaldson, for sharing your wonderful thoughts about my sweet dad. I’m glad he’ll be remembered. My clearest memory of him is riding around on his back in our living room when I was three. He was my horsie!

  8. Always enjoyed seeing Walter at a tournament. You knew there would be fighting chess and lots of enjoyment of the game afterward. He was also quite the gentleman. He will be missed. RIP

  9. The things I remember about mr. Walter shipment that he was a great player modest and down-to-earth. It did not matter who you were he would talk to you as if you were a longtime friend and treat you accordingly. I played them three times that I can recall and they were three wonderful games they were all closed games and close games of course you won the mall and then we would analyze afterwards. All good chess player should be like this man. A model for us all.

  10. Add me to the Walter Shipman fans! A very civilized guy, self-effacing, always fun to talk with. I played several games with him in the 1970’s or 80’s. I would compliment him on his choice of opening, and he’d answer, “well, that line’s not much good.” I kind of thought of him as a role model for us amateur players.

  11. There are few with as long a chess playing history, as Walter. I remember a report by GM Bisguier, when he defeated Walter in the last round of the US Senior Championship, to take first.

    Arthur had to defeat Walter before in the last round for first. That was in the New York City High School Championship.

  12. Walter always displayed the qualities of a gentleman. He
    respected his opponent, the game, and most definitely
    the rules.
    When asked by another player mid game about his position,
    such as : how are you doing against …?”
    Walter would reply:
    ” In progress”.

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