The 1962 California Junior Chess Championship

by NM Andy Sacks

The 1962 Cal Junior was remarkable in a number of ways, despite absence of the participation of a notable future chess star. The very venue provides a start.

At 8801 Cashio St. in what Angelinos call the "Westside" of L.A., budding chess patrons and longtime philanthropists Jacqueline and her husband, Gregor, Piatigorsky had the previous year debuted a new location for the venerable Herman Steiner Chess Club. The building was commissioned to and designed by well-known architect Lloyd Wright (son of the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright), who had only several years before been commissioned to design their Los Angeles private residence on S. Bundy Drive.

The Cashio St. site proved an instant success, finally providing the club with enough space, in a brand new and modern building dedicated solely to chess activities, to host large open tournaments, exhibitions, and other chess functions that had not been possible in the club's previous venues. Only months after its opening in '61, for example, the aborted West Coast half of the Fischer-Reshevsky match was held there and attendance was impressive. The 1962 Cal Junior was to be the first of many state- or even nationwide events to follow-and in high style: lodgings were provided for most out-of-town junior players, refreshments were plentiful, and prizes were both numerous and generous.

As for the players (all under 20 years old) the strong favorite was defending champion Walter Cunningham, a Southern California Master. But his route to repeat was not thought to be without danger. There was high-rated Expert and up-and-coming Master John Blackstone, as well as the likes of Experts Ronald Larsen, Tom Lux, and Ron Freeman. And, of course, as junior players, all were developing quickly and more than one had already won an open tournament.

Jerry Hanken directed. Hy Rogosin and John Guilaroff assisted. Mrs. Piatigorsky and her husband as well as Los Angeles Times Chess Columnist GM Isaac Kashdan were frequent presences. The full weekend seven-round event was very ably run and high on the local chess radar.

But way beneath that radar was the eventual winner. It was to be a great surprise, and, in fact, something of a continuing mystery and subject of wonder.

One of the 46 participants was a quite unheralded 1900 player from the Santa Monica area. That he hailed from that locale was, in fact, no surprise. He appeared to be the archetypal "surfer dude": rather tall, slim though athletic of build, with longish, rather unkempt bleached-blond hair, and an easy, informal, happy-go-lucky manner. It certainly seemed that he was more cut out for a lazy day at the beach than a serious chess contest.

This was Ken Pfeiffer. Looked to be in the neighborhood of 18 years old, but was actually only 15 and an unknown to all at Cashio St that weekend. He had played in several rated tournaments somewhere or other, apparently enough to have an established, rather than provisional rating. But he was new to all of us. Between rounds, he kept to himself, seemed very decidedly a loner, though not unapproachable-and kept busy engrossed in a book. Apparently reading it most carefully and deliberately indeed.

During one of the breaks, my close friend and fellow unrated competitor, Erik Tarloff, and I walked up to Pfeiffer, introduced ourselves, made a little small talk, then asked about that book, which he seemed to be bound to. "Oh, just memorizin' the dictsh, babe," was his unforgettable reply. We stood a little dumbfounded. "Up to L," he added. His manner could not have been more friendly or nonchalant.

By this time, around the middle of the tournament, though, our scruffy pre-hippie pal was becoming a subject of great interest-although you would not have known it to look at him. He had defeated Walter Cunningham in the second round and was following it up with continued evidence of his vastly underestimated playing strength. One after another Expert fell at his hands, defeated in games featuring openings the likes of the King's Gambit, the Albin Counter-Gambit, and others of that romantic--if not wholly sound--ilk.

The upshot was a 6 - first place victory for Pfeiffer, with Cunningham recovering to secure second at 6 - 1, a score that had been good enough for him to take clear first the previous year.

But that was not the start of something big. That was the beginning and the end, pretty much. Pfeiffer played in only a few more tournaments, over the next 12 or 14 months-and that's apparently it. In that period, his results were good but certainly not spectacular, his rating fluctuating between about 2000 and 2050, and not steadily increasing. And then he dropped off the charts: no rated tournaments (as far as fairly extensive research has been able to determine) and no appearances, "sightings" of any sort in the chess world, as far as reliable sources can ascertain.

However, if it was not the start of something big, it was certainly the start of a lot of conjecture. How talented was he? What if he had continued playing, started actually studying the game, and tamed and domesticated that wild 19th century style?

Or was the '62 Cal Junior result just a species of fluke for a terminal Expert?

No one, I think, will ever be able to say with certainty. Still, speculation is irresistible.

Andy Sacks July, 2009

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