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Kenneth Ray Smith (1930-1999)

In Memoriam Kenneth Ray Smith Sept. 13, 1930 – Feb. 4, 1999

by Lou Hays

FIDE Master Ken Smith, 68, owner of Chess Digest and a Texas chess legend died February 4, 1999 in Dallas. Smith was the dominant chess master of the southwest United States during the 1950s and 60s, earning him the nickname “Capablanca of the cattle country.”

His chess career began by accident in the late 1940’s. Ken was on a full football scholarship at Southern Methodist University in Dallas when a leg injury landed him in the hospital. He was bored in his hospital bed and decided to take up chess. He acquired some chess books and immediately became fascinated with the game. As soon as he was out of the hospital, Smith quickly made friendships with several strong players and began playing chess constantly. He joined the Dallas Chess Club and became a regular weekend Swiss player. He was indefatigable in his passion for the game, and the stories have it that within six months, he was already a master strength player. This was an amazing feat for a player learning chess at the age of nineteen. Over the next few years, he played in numerous Texas weekend tournaments, almost always winning or sharing first prize. He won more than 200 chess tournaments in his life, including eight times Texas Champion, seven times Southwest Open champion, four times Southern Open champion, and one time each winner of the British Major Open and the Mexican championship. Ken played in the great 1972 Church’s International tournament in San Antonio against some of the world's strongest players. Although he fared poorly overall against these elites, he did score a win (vs. Kaplan) and draws against Campos-Lopez and the legendary super grandmaster, Paul Keres. Smith was a titled FIDE Master with a FIDE rating of 2360. He was a USCF Senior Master for many years.

In 1960 Ken and his father founded S&S construction company in Dallas and in 1962 Ken started Chess Digest. Both companies prospered, and soon Ken was flying to New York to play in Manhattan Chess club weekend blitz tournaments.

Smith was a benevolent teacher and player. As the years went by and he began publishing chess books, he provided employment as writers, proofreaders and editors to many strong Dallas-Fort Worth players. As late as the early 1980’s he still willingly played in many Saturday Swiss tournaments at the Dallas Chess Club, even though it occasionally meant drawing or losing to lower rated players. Everybody had a chance at the big guy, and those game scores were very meaningful to the average players. In those days Ken kept the Dallas Chess Club supplied with books and study materials even though he probably lost money on this consignment arrangement. Ken was a great believer in gambit play, and the Smith-Morra Gambit, (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3) bears his name. Over thirty years Ken wrote nine books and forty-nine articles on this gambit. He advocated the Danish and Goring gambits as White, the Sicilian Scheveningen against 1.e4 and the Tarrasch Henning-Schara gambit as Black. Smith claimed he had never lost a tournament game on the Black side of the Scheveningen until his game with Karpov at San Antonio, 1972. Ken was also a very strong endgame player. His “Improving your Chess” course always stressed the importance of endgame study, even though most players found it boring. He wrote basic endgame books with a diagram every move, so players could study without a board.

Ken always said that chess players well versed in gambit play make good poker players. “Both are a calculated risk. As you play your gambit, you are projecting all the confidence in the world. You move all your poker chips to the middle of the table when you think you have the best hand.”

Ken was a world-class poker player and during the 1980’s finished third one year and fourth another year in the World Championship of Poker. His poker skills earned him an interview with Ted Koppel and mention in Newsweek magazine. In addition to the World Championship of Poker tournaments, Ken has won the “Stairway to Stars” poker tournament in Las Vegas, Amarillo Slim’s “Omaha” tournament, “Eight or Better High-Low Split” tournament, and came in second in the “Low-Ball Draw” tournament, also sponsored by Amarillo Slim. He always played poker in a black silk top hat which came from Ford’s theater in Washington, D.C.

In 1972 Ken was employed by Bobby Fischer as an assistant in the World Championship match with Boris Spassky. Ken went to Iceland and Chess Digest provided Fischer all the materials Bobby requested for his match preparation.

The last eleven years of Ken’s life were marred by health problems. In 1988 his kidneys failed and he was forced to undergo dialysis three times a week. Despite this, he continued to work four and five day weeks at Chess Digest until late in January this year.

Ken was a brilliant man who could do virtually anything he set his mind to, whether it be chess, poker or simply living as normal a life as possible despite severe health problems. Ken Smith was certainly one of the most unforgettable and interesting persons one could know. He will be greatly missed by the chess community.

Smith is survived by his parents, his wife Elaine, four children, four stepchildren and three grandchildren. n

Shortly after the notice of Ken’s death went out by e-mail, several people shared their reminiscences:

Robert Canright: I remember when I was a teenager living in New Orleans, 26 years ago, that I had a Chess Digest catalog (small then) that I used to buy chess trophies for our big high school tournament. For a long time, his Chess Digest provided resources for chess players when no one else was interested. Just a couple of years ago I had a very minor quibble with an order at Chess Digest and he personally took care of it. I think he contributed to U.S. chess, and I’m very sorry to hear of his departure. I wanted to share my thoughts on Ken with everyone. I don’t think I have ever replied-to-all before on this email list.

Don Maddox: I bought my first chess book from Ken Smith in 1972. Today, my shelves hold literally hundreds of books I purchased from Ken. Mark Twain once wrote, “Show me a good billiards player and I'll show you a misspent youth.” From Ken’s resume, I suspect he misspent several youths, and I’d like to thank him for helping me misspend mine. My condolences to his family and to the chess community. We will miss him.

Michael Simpson: I remember getting a BHB clock from Chess Digest at the 1990 Southwest Open, and one of the clocks quit working about four months later. I didn’t have my receipt, and the 90 day guarantee was over, so I figured I was stuck. I sent it back to Chess Digest with a note saying I bought it at the Southwest Open and to”please fix and let me know how much it cost.” Three days later I received a new BHB, no questions asked, not even a bill for shipping. It’s rare to have that kind of service in any kind of business, and we were blessed for having a chess bookseller who took care of his customers that way.

© © ©

I was playing with the great players in these days . . . guys like Bob Hooks, Kenny Smith, Dicky Carson, Bill Bond and Bill Smith.

Kenny (Ken Smith) was a big chess player in Texas and he just loved to play poker . . . played poker for years. He always wore a silk top hat that was supposed to have been from the theater where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; he had certification on it, too. Kenny would wear that hat in all the big tournaments, and everytime he won a pot he would stand up on the table and yell, “What a player!” And that's how he got his nickname.

We were playing in a hand at the Am Vet one time when Bob Hooks limped in and Ken Smith raised the pot up a pretty good amount of money. It came back to Hooks and he moved in his whole stack with two kings. Ken put the stall on Hooks for about three minutes . . . he didn’t look like was ever going to act on his hand. So Hooks looks over and grabs Ken’s cards out of his hand and sees two aces in his hand . . . and he moved Ken’s chips into the pot himself! So Ken never had to put his own money in – Hooks put it in for him. I’ll bet that was the only time that Hooks ever lost a hand when he put the money in for both players.

(T.J. Cloutier with Tom McElvoy, Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em, Cardsmith Publishing, 4535 W. Sahara #105, Las Vegas, NV 89102)

Notes by FM John Jacobs

Ken was especially proud of this game, as it featured a TN in his beloved Smith-Morra Gambit. Like so many of Ken’s games, it featured a flurry of piece activity and tactics – and it ended quickly.

Smith-Morra Gambit B21
Ken Smith
Gil Ramirez
San Francisco 1972

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 Ken was a risk-taker, and this gambit suited his style like no other. I still recall his invaluable advice to me as an aspiring teenage chessplayer, “John, learn the open games first because all closed games finally become open.” 3...dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6. Bc4 e6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Qe2 Nf6 9.Rd1 e5 At the time, this was considered one of the most formidable defenses to the Smith-Morra Gambit. Black prevents e5, but use of the d5 square and his superior mobility give White good compensation for the pawn. 10.Be3!? It was thought by some that 10. h3 was a necessary preventative to the annoying ...Bg4 pin. However, for his 1972 book Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted, Ken had commissioned some original analysis by GM Matulovic to help demonstrate that White need not waste a tempo on 10.h3. 10...0-0 10...Bg4 at once transposes after 11h3 Bh5 12Rac1 0-0. 11.Rac1 Bg4 12.h3 Bh5 Matulovic had analysed 12... Bxf3 13.Qxf3 Rac8 14.a3 Na5 15. Ba2 Nc4 16.Bxc4 Rxc4 17.Bg5! h6 18.Bxf6 Bxf6 19.Nd5 as giving White more than sufficent compensation, but this retreat went unmentioned in the 1972 publication. Ken now unleashes his TN. . 13.g4! Bg6 14.Bc5! Sustaining the initiative by threatening 15.Bxd6 followed by 16.Nb5. 14...Nxg4?! Interesting but unsound. 14...a6 was better as in a 1978 Conroy-Arkell game: 15.a4 Rc8 16.Ba3 h6 17.b4 Qb6 18.b5 axb5 19.axb5 Na5 20.Ba2 and White stood better. 15.hxg4 Qc8 The point - White's bishop and g-pawn are threatened. 16.Nxe5!? An excellent counter-sacrifice. If 16.Bxd6? Qxg4+ 17.Kf1 (or 17. Kh1 Bxd6 18.Rxd6 Nd4! 19.Nxd4 Qh4+ 20.Kg1) 17...Qh3+! 18.Ke1 Bxd6 19.Rxd6 Bh5 and the pin wins. However, subsequent analysis indicated that after 16.Be3! White has nothing to fear: 16...Qxg4+ 17. Kh1! Bh5 18.Nh2 Qh3 19.f3. 16...dxc5 White owns a nearly decisive mobility advantage after both 16... Nxe5 17.Nd5 and 16...dxe5 17.Bxe7 Nxe7 18.Nd5 Nxd5 19.Bxd5. 17.Nd5 Bg5 18.Nxg6 hxg6 19.f4 Bd8 With every White piece more active than its counterpart, White has a sizeable advantage in mobility. If White can double heavy pieces on the h-file, his attack will be unstoppable. 20.Qg2 Re8 21.Rd2 21Rc3 with Rh3 to follow was more efficient. 21...Nd4 22.Rc3 b5 23.Bf1 Qb7 24. e5! Threatening 25Nf6+. 24...Rb8 25.Bd3! Maneuvering the bishop to an aggressive post at e4. 25...Ba5 26.Be4 Qd7 27.Qh3 With the game-ending threat of 28Rh2. 27...f5 28.gxf5 gxf5 29.Nf6+ gxf6 30.Rg3+ Kf7 30...Kf8 31.Qh6+ yields a similar result. 31.Qh7+ After 31...Ke6 32.Bxf5+ Black loses his queen and is soon mated.
1-0

French Rubinstein C10
Jason Doss 2341
Alexey Root 2077
TexOhma Open 1999 (4)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bd7 5.Bd3 Bc6 6.Nf3 Nd7 7.Qe2 Ngf6 8.Ng3 Be7 (8...Bd5 9. 0-0 c5 10.Be3 Qb6 11.c3 ± Parma-Forintos, Maribor 1977) 9.Bd2 0-0 10.0-0-0 b6 11.Rhe1 a5 12.Ne5 Bb7 13.f4 g6 14.f5! gxf5 15.Nxd7 Qxd7 16.Nxf5 exf5 17.Qxe7 Qxe7 18.Rxe7 Nd5 19.Re5 Nb4 20.Bxf5 Nxa2+ 21.Kb1 Nb4 22.c3 Nc6 23. Re4 Bc8 24.Rf1 Bxf5 25.Rxf5 f6 26.Re6 Nd8 27.Rexf6 Ne6 28. Rxf8+ Rxf8 29.Rxf8+ Kxf8 30.d5 Nc5 31.Bf4 Na6 32.Kc2 b5 33. Kd3 Ke7 34.Kd4 Kd7 35.g4 c5+ 36.dxc6+ Kxc6 37.h4 Nc5 38.g5 Ne6+ 39.Ke5 Ng7 40.Be3 b4 41. cxb4 axb4 42.Bd4 b3 43.Bc3 Kc5 44.Ke4 Ne6 45.Kf5 Nc7 46.h5 Nd5 47.Be5 Kc4 48.g6 hxg6+ 49. hxg6 Kd3 50.g7 Kc2 51.Ke6
1-0

From Dallas Morning News obits,
http://classifieds.dallasnews.com/6_friday/A01.html

SMITH KENNETH RAY, was born September 13th, 1930 in Olney, Texas. Raised in Ft. Worth Ken resided in Dallas most of his life. Ken briefly attended SMU as quarterback, due to injury he took up the game of chess. His hobby soon became his profession and he founded Chess Digest, the world's largest chess book publisher and retailer. He went on to become an International Chess Master and won numerous domestic and international championships, including the U.S., British, and Mexico Opens. In 1972 he prepared Bobby Fischer for the World championship with IGM Spassky. He utilized his prodigious memory to play more than 25 simultaneous games while blindfolded, and to become the winner of multiple poker championships. In the early 80's he was ranked by Newsweek magazine as the World's 4th Best Amateur Poker Player. Ken will always be loved and survived by his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Ray F. Smith, brother Jerry Smith, his loving wife, Elaine, his previous wife Linda Griffin and their four children, Dr. Jane Witten, Robert Ray Smith, Lori Kay Weldon, Kenneth Bradley Smith, his three grandchildren, Will, Neal, and Amanda, furthermore, by his Stepchildren, Steve Salsbury, Theresa Walker, Lisa Foss, Melissa Marshall and their nine children. In life Ken was always a winner, famous for donning his top hat and tuxedo. Now is the time for us to tip our hats and say, 'What a Player' Visitation will take place at Sparkman/Hillcrest, Friday the 5th, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Memorial services will be held Saturday 12:00 Noon at Sparkman /Hillcrest, Northwest Hwy Chapel, Interment, Hillcrest Memorial Park. Rev. John Delgado, Officiating, Pallbearers, Will Witten, Jim Griffin, Gary Walker, Edward Escobedo, Steve Foss. Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, Cemetery Mausoleum, 7405 W. Northwest Highway, Dallas 214-363-5401.

About Chess Digest, Inc.

Chess Digest began as a hobby business in 1962 in Dallas, Texas. Ken's primary business was S & S Utility Contracting Company, Inc., but chess was an avid vocation. Since chess books were not readily available in the United States unless imported from Europe, Ken saw a need and filled it by starting Chess Digest Magazine in his spare bedroom. Working nights and weekends using an old typewriter and a lot of paste, he produced his original magazine once a month. Now in 1997, Chess Digest, Inc. no longer publishes a magazine - Ken started writing books instead - and has since grown into a major chess book publisher and supplier with over 2,000 different chess titles from both the U.S. and Europe. Chess Digest, Inc. is still a family owned and operated business.

Ken "Top Hat" Smith (1930--1999 From Texas) is both a Chess Master (FIDE 2360) and a World Class Poker Player (3rd one year and 4th another year in the World Championship Of Poker). He believes, practices, and teaches that chess players versed in gambits can become outstanding poker players "Both are a calculated risk. As you play your gambit, you are projecting all the confidence in the world. You move all your poker chips to the middle of the table when you think you have the best hand." -Smith.

In chess, a gambit player for 33 years, Ken Smith has written nine books and 49 articles on the Smith-Morra Gambit 1 e4, c5 2 d4, cxd 3 c3. The gambit now bares half its name from Ken Smith, Texas and Pierre Morra, France (deceased). Smith is one of the few that Bobby Fischer signed a contract with:

February 24, 1970

I appoint Ken Smith, Editor of Chess Digest Magazine, to help with tournament and match preparation - Bobby Fischer International Grandmaster

Ken has won over 200 chess tournaments including 8 times Texas Champion, 7 times Southwest Champion, 1 time British Major Open, 1 time Championship of Mexico and 4 times Southern Open Champion.

In poker Ken Smith has won in Las Vegas the "Stairway to the Stars" tournament, Amarillo Slim's "Omaha" tournament, Amarillo Slim's "Eight or Better High-Low Split" tournament, and came in second in the "Low-Ball Draw" tournament sponsored by Amarillo Slim. These are in addition to his 2nd and 3rd place finishes in the Poker World Championship.

Excerpts from Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold'em by T.J. Cloutier with Tom McElvoy :

"I was playing with the great players in these days... ...guys like Bob Hooks, Kenny (Ken) Smith, Dicky Carson, Bill Bond and Bill Smith".

"Kenny (Ken Smith of Chess Digest, Inc., Dallas, TX) was a big chess player in Texas and he just loved to play poker... ...played poker for years. He always wore a silk top hat that was supposed to have been from the theater where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; he had certification on it, too. Kenny would wear that hat in all the big tournaments, and everytime he won a pot he would stand up on the table and yell, `What a player!, And that's how he got his nickname.

“We were playing in a hand at the Am Vet one time when Bob Hooks limped in and Ken Smith raised the pot up a pretty good amount of money. It came back to Hooks and he moved in his whole stack with two kings. Ken put the stall on Hooks for about three minutes . . . he didn't look like was ever going to act on his hand. So Hooks looks over and grabs Ken's cards out of his hand and sees two aces in his hand . . . and he moved Ken’s chips into the pot himself! So Ken never had to put his own money in – Hooks put it in for him. I’ll bet that was the only time that Hooks ever lost a hand when he put the money in for both players.”

Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em available from Cardsmith Publishing, 4535 W. Sahara #105, Las Vegas, NV 89102.

Ken's Improving Your Chess course. Return to Index Last Updated: 02/14/99. You can email general questions to: chessquest@aol.com. Please send any comments regarding this site to RCKlenk. Copyright © by Chess Digest, Inc. 1997-1999. All Rights Reserved.

Ken Smith (1930-1999) Texas chess legend Kenneth Ray Smith, 68, died Feb. 4 after a protracted kidney ailment. In 1962 he founded a highly successful mail order business, Chess Digest, which became a model for other chess businesses. With an inside track on the world's opening theory, he was tapped as Bobby Fischer's theoretical supplier during the 1972 world championship match. Later that year he was the sole Texas competitor in Church's International Tournament in San Antonio. From 1951 to 1983 he won the Texas state championship and the Southwest Open each ten times. An inveterate gamesman, he was often seen at the poker table wearing a stovepipe hat and tux. As an expert on high-stakes poker competition he was once interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Ken may be best remembered in the chess world for popularizing the Morra Gambit in the Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3), which is now known as the Smith-Morra Gambit. Obituary: http://classifieds.dallasnews.com/6_friday/A01.html