Richard Dermer, “The Big Kahuna,” Dies at 74
By Tom Braunlich   
March 28, 2014
DermerThumbRed.jpegRichard Dermer, originator of the North American Open chess tournament as well as founder of The Hideaway pizza restaurant chain and past president of the American Kitefliers Association, passed away at age 74 on March 14 in Oklahoma City.

Dermer was one of those great characters that chess seems to generate. He approached life the way that some players approach the King's Gambit - always excited by innovative moves, and willing to try new things with a courageously playful attitude that permeated his business and hobby endeavors and influenced his many friends. He was affectionately called "The Big Kahuna" for his huge smile and swagger, and he touched so many lives that his family has decided to postpone his memorial service until June in order to give time for his many far-flung friends to arrange to attend. A few stories from his playful life may help explain why:

Dermer was well known in chess circles in the Southwest during the 1960s-70s, first as a 1700-player but particularly as a popular tournament director who would often combine chess events with a free "pizza night" at his restaurant. He had been a protégé of Jerry Spann (USCF President from 1957-60, whom Dermer met in 1962).

His biggest chess project was to start the original North American Open in 1970 in Stillwater, Oklahoma, (along with Frank and Jim Berry, who still run it). Stillwater was close to the geographic center of the continent and their idea was to attract players traveling across the country to the U.S. Opens held each summer on one of the coasts, so it was held the prior week. The inaugural N.A.O. was a Swiss with 20 (!) rounds. NM Charlie Powell of Virginia was the winner, and the story goes that after 17 rounds he was so tired, and so far ahead in score, that he took byes in the last three rounds and still won!

Subsequently it was shortened to 12 rounds, and held on the Oklahoma State University campus where players could get a dorm room for $2 a night instead of a hotel, thus making it affordably popular with young players. Among those who won these annual events were Elliott Winslow of Missouri and Joe Bradford of Texas (both before they earned the IM title).

Dermer was one of those people who made things happen. He was like a catalyst giving many others the opportunity to change their own lives for the better. The best example of this is his pizza restaurant, The Hideaway, which sits adjacent to the O.S.U. campus. Through it Dermer helped literally hundreds of student-employees work their way through college - myself among them. Dermer had bought it in 1959 while still in college, borrowing $10,000 to do so, and slowly turned it into the most famous restaurant in the state and a favorite of the O.S.U. alumni. (I remember working there on football Saturdays and having a line out the door literally from noon until well after midnight.) His philosophy was "work hard, play hard", and the student employees were expected to be devoted steadfast workers, and then invited to play games after hours well into the night. But he was always careful to make sure they were doing well in school, often insisting on checking their report cards. Combined with the fact that the employees could get food there for half price, (or free while working) he, along with his wonderful wife Marti, was like a surrogate parent to many.

When asked by a state Oral History Project researcher in 2009, "In the future, when people think back on Richard Dermer, what would you most like them to remember?" he replied, "The fact that I helped so many students get their educations. That's as good as any." The restaurant continued to grow, and has been spun off by former employees into an emergent franchise in the region.

Dermer-2010-2.jpegHis playful attitude thus extended to his business philosophy, but also was tempered by a strong practical approach that always reminded me of a chess master nursing a winning advantage - he was continually looking for incremental improvements to strengthen his restaurant position, so to speak, no matter how small. For example, once a week he would work a shift as the dishwasher (the dirtiest job in the joint) which, as he explained to me, enabled him to see directly what the customers were eating or not eating by what they left behind. I remember one night seeing him barge into the kitchen from his dishwashing station saying, "There's something off with the crust!" People were leaving more uneaten crust behind on their plates than usual, and he was concerned. The dough for the pizza was made fresh every morning. They started investigating the remaining dough and remade some of it. On other occasions he got ideas for small menu refinements from his dishwashing stints, he said.

Once I was working a shift in the kitchen when Dermer stuck his head in and enthusiastically said, "Hey Tom, come and look at this!!" He took me over to the storage room, flashed his famous mile-wide grin and gestured toward the ceiling with pride. "What is it?" I asked, masking the fact I had no clue what he was talking about. "I found a way to add a new shelf up there," pointing to a new shelf I now saw crammed just under the ceiling about nine feet up the wall, so high even a tall man would need a stepladder, "It can hold about 60 more boxes!" He was very excited about it, and indeed it was significant as the restaurant used hundreds of pizza boxes a night and often we had to stop work and get people to fold up more boxes if we were running out. It was a small incremental improvement in efficiency, but in Richard's mind it was a grand triumph. It reminded me of the way Karpov would play an advantageous endgame, slowly but surely improving his position until it became overwhelming - more proud of these little moves than the actual breakthrough combination - although in Richard's case it was a process that never ended. That's what Richard did with The Hideaway. It was a dive when he first bought it but, move-by-move, like a Grandmaster, he transformed it into a success. It was a pleasure to work there on busy nights and experience its smooth-running groove.

Dermer&kites.jpegThis same playful approach to business and to life also led to Dermer's obsession with kites and kite flying, which began in the 1980s. Starting out flying powerful stunt kites with friends one day as a lark, he quickly and typically became involved and eventually travelled around the world promoting kites (including in China and India), running tournaments and conventions, and serving as president of the AKA (American Kitefliers Association). This caused him to retire from chess activity, but led to a wonderful evolution of his playful career, as he was able to pioneer many new ways to promote this hobby. There is a great article about his kite career, "Love at First Kite", in Collector's Weekly magazine. He could make by hand giant Chinese dragon kites, or fly fighter kites like a raptor, or maneuver stunt kites like an acrobat. Whenever he went to a wedding, he would bring some bamboo sticks and make beautiful kites for the bride and groom out of their fancy monogrammed reception napkins. Eventually he amassed one of the best kite collections in the world, and samples from it are used to decorate the ceilings of all the Hideaway restaurants.

His love of play extended to all kinds of games besides chess, and he acted as catalyst for them too. For example in the late ‘70s one game they played at the restaurant after hours was GO, as well as its simplified cousins like Go-Moku, which Dermer would contest with one of his managers, Gary Gabrel. When Gabrel designed an "Americanized" version of the game, which he called "PENTE," Dermer encouraged him to try marketing it. By 1982 it was the best-selling adult boardgame in the country and Gabrel later sold the rights to Parker Brothers.

Dermer was also famous for his funny stories, as well as how he told them. I have to share one of my favorites because it shows the kind of guy he was. The restaurant would occasionally have trouble with "fraternity guys" who once a year or so would come in as a large group, run up a big bill, particularly with a large beer tab, and then literally run out on the check. Once a suspicious-looking group like this came in and Dermer told the employees to keep an eye on them. Sure enough, when they tried to jump the check and scampered out the front door several employees, including Dermer himself, went chasing after them down the street. The runners were obviously drunk, and Dermer spotted one of them trying to hide in some bushes from his pursuers. This guy was as big as a linebacker, and not someone to risk a fight with. Richard snuck up on him from behind, stuck his finger in the guy's back, and shouted "FREEZE!!" The guy froze, sure there was a gun poking him in the ribs. Dermer marched him all the way back to the restaurant that way - several blocks away - where they called the police.

Dermer&Marti2.jpegThe last time I saw Dermer was a few months ago when he came to spectate at a local chess tournament. He was in poor health with heart disease, having recently had heart bypass surgery and a pacemaker installed. But as always his well-known smile was plastered on his face as he was excited with a new project - he had happened to track down the original owner from whom he had bought The Hideaway (surprised to find he was still alive in his mid-eighties now). 

The guy was full of funny stories in the restaurant business, (and a few years after selling the Hideaway had become one of the earliest franchisees of a new hamburger restaurant chain called ... McDonalds). The two swapped many yarns that Richard was happy to relate to me with his usual enthusiasm. He was intending to write an article about all this for the historical society before it all became lost to time.

These are just a few of the stories I know about Dermer. Everyone who knew him can tell many more, and probably many better.

That's why I will definitely be there at his Memorial, set for June 21, where I hope to hear many more such tales at what will surely be the best wake this side of Ireland; and where I hope to see in his honor the skies filled with hundreds of kites, rather like hearts, straining for heaven.