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Endgame Swindle

Building a Fortress

posted: January 31st, 2021


I learned to play chess in 1969 and saw my first Chess Life not much later.

The United States Chess Federation has made back issues of its monthly magazine Chess Life and Review available online. Looking over some of the pdf files, I came across an article in the December 1969 issue written by Norman T. Whitaker. I skimmed over the article, saw the diagram and read his comments. I couldn't resist learning more about the position.

After a look at the endgame, I searched the internet for Norman Whitaker. I thought I had heard that name before. My search discovered he was a criminal, notorious as a con man and swindler. Early in the 20th century he was among the strongest chess players in the United States.

Broadly speaking, this endgame falls into the categories of chess swindle and chess fortress. White is down in material and losing, but gives up more material to swindle his opponent and build a fortress. In life he swindled people and was imprisoned in fortresses, first Leavenworth then Alcatraz. I think Whitaker saw the irony in this endgame.

What did he know and when did he know it? To end the 1959 game, White claimed a draw before the fortress door was closed. I've read that one year later, in 1960, he published the ending in his book 365 Selected Endgames. In 1969, ten years after the game, he published the position in his Chess Life and Review article.

In those ten years he didn't have a chess engine or the Shredder Endgame Database, but he was a strong player. I'm sure he studied this ending and knew the final position was not a draw. Did he know that when he claimed a draw 1959? I suspect he did, which would make it a swindle on another level.

chess game diagram
From page 503, December 1969
issue of Chess Life and Review.
chess game diagram
The final position given by Whitaker.
Shredder tells us that Black still has a
winning position with Qa5-c7.
chess game diagram
If White can place his rook on f3, he has built a fortress.
Shredder proves it is a draw.

Below is the FEN for the starting position shown above, from Chess Life and Review December 1969. Import this into a chess engine, Shredder Endgame Database only works with with six or fewer pieces.

8/8/2p1R3/5n1p/P3R3/3k4/5qPK/8 b - - 0 1

Below is the FEN for the position when White claimed a draw. With only six pieces on the board, this can be imported into Shredder.

8/8/8/q4k1p/8/4R3/6PK/8 b - - 0 1

Below is the FEN for the fortress with White's Rook on f3. With only six pieces on the board, this can be imported into Shredder.

8/8/8/q4k1p/8/5R3/6PK/8 b - - 0 1


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copyright Phil W. Lowder