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A Parent’s Perspective: Initiation Into the Denker Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
August 5, 2011
The enduring value of Arnold Denker’s ultimate gift to youth chess was clearly evident during the opening ceremonies that kicked off the 26th Denker Tournament of High School Champions and the inauguration of the new Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions.  Dewain Barber, Barber namesake, tireless supporter and event organizer, emceed the festivities, striking a harmonious balance throughout: conveying the gravity of the proceedings and paying homage to the man whose vision started it all while keeping the mood light.

Tyler Hughes, a two-time Denker participant and now a student at University of Texas at Dallas, spoke eloquently about how the value of lessons learned over the board have translated into real-life experiences.  His speech, along with priceless moments of Dewain Barber and Mitchell Denker wearing Mickey Mouse ears and singing D-E-N-K-E-R...C-H-E-S-S to Mickey’s famous theme song, reigned among the high points of the ceremonies.  
But the true stars of the proceedings were the participants, each of whom was called up in alphabetical order by state to receive a medal, a Chess Life magazine featuring Arnold Denker, a voluntary quiz about the Denker history, a baseball-style trading card for the Denker participants and, for the Barber participants, a golden pawn commemorating its inaugural year.  

The first Barber medallion


The Denker medallion

 Naturally, for photographic purposes, during the medal presentation, I stepped into proud parent mode and state representative cheerleader:

Florida representatives and good friends: Jared Lassner for the Barber, Nicky Rosenthal for the Denker
Because Florida served as the host state for the Denker and Barber, we were asked to nominate an alternate for each tournament to be available should there be an uneven number of participants.

It was an extra-special bonus that all Florida representatives hail from our neck of the woods, South Florida, and that both alternates had the opportunity to play, with Cory Riegelhaupt for the Barber and Andy Wang for the Denker.

Most significant about the opening ceremonies, strictly on a personal level: Nicky, on his own volition, chose to dress up past the required collared shirt and slacks, even donning a last-minute tie borrowed from our Boca Raton Chess Club organizer and NTD, Jon Haskel. So even before the tournament began, prying Nicky out of his customary sports jerseys was already history-in-the-making.  It spoke to the importance of this event to him, as it was, I’m sure, to his fellow participants.

Nick Thompson, Arizona representative, friend and fellow natty dresser, poses with Nicky in his finery. Arnold Denker approves in the background.

Speaking of dress code, I’m having a mini-soapbox moment (as seems to have become customary in my posts):  In an email sent prior to the event, participants were advised to wear a collared shirt and slacks, no tie (Nicky, ever the rule-bender, wore a tie anyway).  Although the required outfit could be considered unisex, it seems geared toward males.  Based upon the strength of up-and-coming females in recent tournaments, including the concurrent US Junior Girls Open, I am positive the Denker and Barber will begin seeing more and more female participants.  Therefore, I suggest the dress code be amended slightly, perhaps couched in terms of my least-favorite word, “No”: No shorts, no t-shirts, etc.; dress appropriately for the occasion.  Such wording (or similar) would allow variation for all participants, male or female, while maintaining appropriate decorum.

Opening ceremonies ended rather abruptly when the last name was called and participants were instructed to head immediately to another room for their formal group photograph, with parents, coaches, friends and multiple blinding flash cameras in tow.

Denker representatives prepping for the money shot.

 As soon as the group photo session concluded, we were dismissed with barely enough time to scavenge for food before the 7 p.m. opening round.  The hunt for food segues nicely into a description of the venue, which ranks as perhaps our most unusual to date: an airport hotel.  I don’t mean it’s a hotel located near the airport, within walking distance to the airport, or adjacent to the airport.  No – the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport hotel is located inside the airport proper, a tiered and terraced edifice whose interior balconies overlook the always-crowded security checkpoints between Terminals A and B of the Orlando International airport.  And from our room on the 10th floor, a welcome surprise: we enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of Southwest Airlines’ planes moving on and off the runway.  

Fortunately, because of the venue’s unusual location, inexpensive food was readily available in the terminal’s Food Court, which offered up a veritable fast food heaven including Panda Express, McDonalds, Quiznos, Chik-Fil-A, Sbarro’s, Carvel and other kid-friendly delights.  As for me, as soon as I spied the ubiquitous Starbucks, life was good: I knew my caffeine cravings would be handily dispatched with morning shots of steaming Café Americano.  Pre-round 1, Nicky settled on a bowl of pasta, topped only with marinara sauce, as I fretted about the meal’s lack of brain-boosting protein and overload of sleep-inducing carbs (while perversely and greedily scarfing down his rejected carb-laden garlic roll).  On the plus side: the meal was filling and easy, and most importantly, fast, giving Nicky a few minutes to relax in the room before Round 1 began.

Airport terminal lobby. Luckily for me, with three teenaged boys in my charge, eventually all routes led to food.

Round 1 for both the Denker and the Barber began in conjunction with Round 1 of the traditional US Open.  Adding to the noisy confusion was the US Junior Girls Open, also dovetailing with the other events and also taking place in the same hall as the other three tournaments.

The Denker, The Barber, and the US Junior Girls Open.


At the start of each round, participants picked up their state flags from the front of the hall and displayed them at their boards, which I thought was a very nice (and even somewhat educational) touch.

Jared Lassner ready for his round (photo by Gail Lassner)
It became immediately apparent that ratings mattered very little in both tournaments: strong players abounded at all rating levels, although there were few surprises at the top.  In the end, Michael Vilenchuk from Ohio stood as clear winner and 2011 Denker champion, with Nicky’s good friend, Arizona’s Nick Thompson, finishing in clear second.  

Michael Vilenchuk, Denker champion, with presenter Harold Winston



Nick Thompson, fresh from his second place finish, with his coach, Michael Fitch

The Barber championship ended in a tie, with Michael William Brown of California and Justus Williams of New York sharing top honors.  

From Left to Right: Dewain Barber, Michael William Brown, Justus Williams


And a special shout-out goes to US Junior Girls Open champion, Rachel Gologorsky, a talented fellow South Floridian.  Congratulations, Rachel!
Rachel Gologorsky, Photo courtesy Monroi

Nicky ended the tournament with one win, two losses, three draws...and fresh determination to repeat as Florida state champion within the next three years so he can return for another shot at the Denker.  It will be a tough challenge as the pool of talented Florida scholastic players constantly improves and grows stronger; impressive middle-schoolers such as Jared, Cory and Rachel will be stepping into the high school championship fray within the next year.

Nicky with Round 4 opponent, Stephen Gehly, who hails from Oklahoma, my former home state. Their match ended in a draw.

The fun and games aren’t ending with the Denker: Nicky is playing in the four-day US Open and the G/15 and blitz side events.  Already the first few days have yielded their own memorable moments:  First, Nicky tied for third in the G/15 event; and then, Round 2 of the four-day Open saw Nicky with the white pieces facing a fairly well-known opponent on Board 1:
Nicky, Hikaru Nakamura and their Kodak moment


Also keeping the week lively is the presence of two friends who are sharing our room: Sam Silberman, who has been playing in the traditional Open; and Nathan Barnavon, who just started in the six-day Open.  Although the boys are mostly self-monitoring, staying on top of their own schedules, meals and dreaded summer reading assignments, simply overseeing three teenagers in conjunction with my own various projects should keep me fully engaged for the duration.  

This tournament also offered up a special, unplanned treat: the opportunity to finally meet the multi-talented, multi-tasking CLO editor, Jennifer Shahade, whose extreme patience (without a hint of sarcasm) throughout my endless edits, corrections and temperamental writer’s angst has continually kept me grounded and sane.  She is as bubbly and infectiously enthusiastic in person as she is in the media, making our dinner together lively and enjoyable.

Finally, to commemorate the ending of a hard-fought tournament filled with extraordinary young talent, here’s a rare photo of Nicky and me together, enjoying some down time before the start of the US Open.  Our relief at successfully negotiating Nicky’s maiden Denker voyage is unmistakable.

Nicky and me, post-tournament. Note the relief on both of our faces! (photo by Mike Fitch)
The overall verdict about the Denker?  It was tough, it was inspiring, it was an experience unlike any other.  The value of Arnold Denker’s legacy to youth chess cannot be measured in words; it can only be experienced fully through the determined eyes of these exceptional state champions (and their exhausted parents and coaches).

Mr. Denker, I believe, would be proud to see what his legacy has wrought.

August - Chess Life Online 2011

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