Wednesday, October 7

RIP Jerry Hanken (1934-2009)

The venerable chess master Jerry Hanken passed on to a higher chess board on October 1, succumbing to complications of diabetes. He was 74. Jerry was best known as a correspondent for Chess Life magazine and Chess Life Online, mixing in human interest stories with tournament results. He would interview not only with the Grandmasters, but also winners of the lower class sections. His byline included the title "Original Life Master," referring to the old days when masters earned a 2200 floor by playing 300 games. Everywhere he went, Jerry would spread his infectious enthusiasm for the royal game.

For more information about the life of Jerry Hanken, check out the two obituaries written by former USCF President Bill Goichberg and close friend Randy Hough. Or read Jerry's final online article about the Pacific Coast Open in July.

To close, I wish to share a funny--and true!--personal story about Jerry Hanken. As he grew older, his chess playing strength deteriorated sharply from a peak of about 2350. He would lose to 1800 and 2000 rated kids with alarming frequency, yet his rating remained stuck at 2200 because of the floor. (Aside: Jerry still showed flashes of his old brilliance. In fact, he defeated teenage FM Daniel Yeager, rated 2388, in his next to last tournament.)

Back in 2005, the Saratoga High School chess team and I traveled to play at the Western Class Championships held at a hotel near LAX airport. After seeing my round 3 pairing, white against Hanken, I boldly informed my teenage charges that, should I lose this game, I would jump out of the hotel room window. There was absolutely no way I could afford to go down against the old man without losing face before my students!

The game started out with a boring Bird's Opening (1.f4) setup. Perhaps I showed some of my overconfidence because the aggressive play on the kingside (9.h4) was not justified. The alert sacrifice 16... Nxg3 allows black to force a draw by repetition, but I had little interest in a peaceful result with an old man. Yet by move 26, I was practically mated and would have had to resign after 26... Rf2+ 27.Kg1 Ne2+. Very embarrassing indeed!

My students followed the game in the hotel room using Fritz and knew the end was near. Even Caissa saw my desperate situation. At the last possible moment, I set a subtle trap--and Jerry unwittingly walked right into it. After the seemingly reasonable 26... Nf3+, I replied with a stunning queen sacrifice to turn the tables! The Fritz evaluation changed from -6 to +7 in a single move. And with this fateful move, Jerry Hanken snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Poor guy!

Returning to the hotel room, my students immediately became quiet. One quickly moved in front of the window, just in case I was a man of my word. Expecting me to be depressed, another started to express his sympathies. The chessboard on the floor showed my hopeless position. Little did they know that, by the grace of Caissa, I had won!

Always a fan of queen sacrifices (he called them "parting with the lady"), Jerry illustrated the final combination in his magazine article. More than once since then, he told people how he saved my life. Thank you Jerry, for your infectious love of chess, your tireless efforts on behalf of the USCF and, of course, for saving my life! RIP YHR.

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