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John Charles "J.C." Thompson (1910-1999)

provided by Selby Anderson

(This obituary is from Texas Knights, Sept.-Oct. 1999)

It is with sadness that we report Texas has lost another of its chess giants, just five months after the passing of Ken Smith.

John Charles “J.C.” Thompson, founder of the Texas Chess Association and a USCF Master Emeritus, died at 8 p.m. July 5 in Billings, Montana. He was 88, and had been in declining health since a stroke in 1996. Along with George Koltanowski he was responsible for successfully introducing the Swiss system at events he organized, starting with the Southwest Open in 1942 and most notably the U.S. Open in 1947.

Thompson was born on July 20, 1910 near Whitney in Hill County, Texas. He took up chess at the Dallas YMCA in the 1920’s, and won his first Dallas championship in 1930. Two years later the first Southwest Open was held in Dallas, and he finished in second place. In 1935 he founded the Texas Chess Association and won the second Southwest Open, which became an annual event from that time forward. He established himself as the dominant player in Texas though the end of the 1940’s.

In 1939 he started a chess column in The Dallas Times-Herald, combining stories of local and regional interest with national and international news. A key feature was the involvement of readers through a problem solving ladder. In that year he reportedly gave a blindfold simul against fourteen opponents, with the result +10, -1, =3. Reportedly he worked his way up to 23 opponents.

Thompson won the Southwest Open seven times, and placed second in that event five times. When the Texas State Championship was introduced after World War II he won the first four titles in succession. Perhaps his greatest victory was at the 1949 Southwest Open in Tulsa, where he defeated pre-tournament favorite Robert Steinmeyer of St. Louis, and held off a challenge from his star pupil Ken Smith. He won six straight games, losing in the final round to Lee Magee of Nebraska, but he came out first in tiebreaks.

Thompson’s greatest contribution to the game was the introduction of the Swiss system to American tournaments. The Swiss had been tried in Europe as early as 1895, but it did not take root and thrive until Thompson took the advice of George Koltanowski and used it in the 1942 Southwest Open.

In Thompson’s words:

George Koltanowski came to Dallas in the early forties to give a simultaneous. I was president of the Texas Chess Association and told George about our troubles in managing the Southwest Open. In those days we used the so-called Holland system, in which we divided the entrants into groups and a round-robin was played in each group, the winners graduating to the championship flight, second players to Class A, and so on. It meant playing about fifteen games in three days.

So, George explained the Swiss system and we used in the 1942 Southwest Open, played in Corpus Christi, making TCA the first organization to do so. [Later Thompson commented, “Seven games in three days! It was like heaven.”] TCA has used it in every tournament since.

The big break came in 1947 when the USCF Open was brought to Corpus Christi. I was a USCF vice-president at the time and George was the tournament director. We had 87 players, the largest tournament up to that time. I was in charge of the tournament and told George we were going to use the Swiss. He readily agreed.

Isaac Kashdan won first place and received $1,000 as first prize which had been donated by a local oil man, lots of money for a chess tournament in those days.

Several months later I read a comment by the Australian master, C.J.S. Purdy: “When I read that they had played a tournament in Texas with 87 players in 14 days, I wondered if it was a misprint or if the Texans were supermen after all.”

Thompson had a rich family and professional life, and was active in the Episcopal church for over 50 years. After graduating from high school he took a job as office boy with Magnolia Petroleum Company, eventually working his way to the accounting department. In 1932 he married Frances Van Slyke of Dallas, and they had six sons. He earned his CPA accreditation through night school study and moved up the ranks of his company, which after a merger became Mobil Oil. In 1952 he was transferred to Calgary in Canada, and the following year he became controller for Mobil Producing Company in Billngs, Montana. In 1957 he was again transferred abroad, becoming controller and vice-president for finance at various regional and international branches of Mobil (Caracas, Istanbul and Singapore) before retiring in 1971. In 1962 while in Venezuela he met his second wife, Spanish-born Carmen Lopez, and in 1970 they married. In 1971 he retired from Mobil, and worked for Occidental Petroleum in Tripoli, Libya.

In 1973 Thompson moved back to Dallas, where he won a city championship and resumed playing in the Southwest Open. (He scored 4.5 out of 7, and had a provisional rating of 1950 in the crosstable. He had evidently not played in a USCF tournament since the rating system was established.) Not content to retire in his sixties, he returned to work in Venezuela as a director for International Executive Service Corps, and was later a consultant for a Venezuelan oil company. He then worked in Dallas for Bishop International, and practiced public accounting.

He was over 70 when he retired from professional life in 1982 and settled in Billings, Montana. There he was active as a chess teacher in the YMCA and various elementary schools. Always active in the Episcopal church, he chaired the fundraising campaign to establish St. Stephen’s and became one of its first members.

In the course of his career he became fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and French, and could “get along in” Italian, German and Turkish. He also studied Russian and Japanese.

In 1984 he was given the title of Master Emeritus, which USCF uses to honor the achievement of masters who made their mark before the ratings system was established. He returned to Texas each Labor Day weekend to compete in the Southwest Open, usually with respectable results. In 1994 he finished 3-3 in a strong Open section, with wins over experts Binder and Kappler. In 1995, at age 85, he played in his last Southwest Open and scored plus one, 3.5-2.5. It was 60 years since he had won the first of the annual series.

In 1997 Thompson was honored with a Meritorious Service award for his role in introducing the Swiss system to wide use, and for founding one of the major state organizations that preceded the formation of the U.S. Chess Federation.

Thompson died in his sleep, while in the loving care of his wife and the Big Sky Hospice staff. His final request was that his ashes be returned to Texas.

He is survived by his wife Carmen and his sons Charles, James, John, Robert, Richard and Allen.

(Allen Thompson contributed to this article.)


In a 1994 interview Thompson said: “I consider adoption of the Swiss and the Elo rating system to be the most important developments for the good of chess in the twentieth century.” It is fitting that two of the giants who figured in these developments played in the first U.S. Open held after the founding of the U.S. Chess Federation.

Closed Variation, Worrall Attack [C77]
White: J.C. Thompson
Black: Arpad Elo
U.S. Open, Dallas 1940

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Qe2 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d6 9.h3 Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4 Qc7 12.Rd1 Nc6 George Koltanowski suggested 12...cxd4 13.cxd4 Nc6 14.d5 (14. Nbd2!?) 14...Nb4 15.Bb3 (15.Nc3? Nxc2 16.Qxc2 b4) 15...a5 16.a3 (16. Qxb5 Ba6 17.Qa4 Nxe4) 16...Na6 17.Nc3 b4 18.axb4 Nxb4, when Black has active pieces and can follow with ...Ba6. 13.Nbd2 Bd7 14.d5 Nd8 15.Nf1 Ne8 16.g4 f6 17.Ng3 g6 18.Bh6 Ng7 19.Kh2 Nf7 20.Qe3 Nxh6 Koltanowski thought 20...g5 21. Bxg7 Kxg7 22.Nf5+ Bxf5 23.gxf5 h6 24.Rg1 Nh8 25.h4 Kf7 gave Black better chances than the text. 21.Qxh6 Rf7 22.Rg1 Raf8 22...g5! puts White’s queen in danger of being trapped. 23.Rg2 Qc8 24.Rag1 Re8 25.Nh4 Bf8 26.Qe3 Qd8 27.Ngf5! This is a standard sacrifice in the classical Spanish attack. 27...gxf5 28.gxf5 Ree7 29.Qh6 Bc8 30.Rg4 Ra7 31.Ng6 Rfb7? As Elo pointed out, 31...Rfd7! protects Black’s queen and prevents the combination that follows. 32.Rh4! hxg6 33.fxg6 Nh5 34.Qxh5 Bg7 35.Qh7+ Kf8 36.Qh8+! Bxh8 37.Rxh8+ Ke7 38.g7

Tarrasch DEFENSE [D40]
White: Robert H. Steinmeyer
Black: J.C. Thompson
Southwest Open 1949

1.c4 e6 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.b3 b6 4.Bb2 Bb7 5.e3 c5 6.Be2 Be7 7.0-0 0-0 8. d4 d5 9.dxc5 bxc5 Koltanowski observed: “Personally, I would have leaned towards 9...Bxc5, with 10... dxc4 in mind after 10.Nc3. That would have brought the game back to the “follow the leader” style, equalizing the position.” 10.Nc3 Nc6 11.cxd5 exd5 12.Rc1 Rc8 13.Na4 Ne4 14.Nd2 Nxd2 15. Qxd2 Nb4 16.a3 Na6 17.Bf3 Qd6 18.Rfd1 Rfd8 19.Qa5 Qe6 20.h3 Rd7 21.Qb5 f5!? Kolty called this move “enticing” but not best. The problem is that White wins a pawn with 22. Qxb7! Rxb7 23.Bxd5 Qxd5 24. Rxd5 Rxb3 25.Rxf5 ±. 22.Nc3 Rb8 23.Ne2 d4!! The start of a combination that trades queens and wins a pawn. 24.Nf4 Bxf3 25.Qxb8+ Nxb8 26. Nxe6 Bxd1 27.Rxd1 Kf7! 28.Nf4 dxe3 29.Rxd7 exf2+ 30.Kxf2 Nxd7 31.Nd5 Nf6 32.Nc7 Bd8 33. Nb5 Ne4+ 34.Ke3 a6 35.Na7 g6 36.Nc6 Bc7 37.Ne5+ Bxe5! 38. Bxe5 Ke6 39.Bg7 g5 40.Kd3 Kd5 41.Bf8 h5 42.Ke3 f4+ 43.Kd3 Ke5 44.Kc4 Kf5 45.Kd3 g4 46.hxg4+ hxg4 47.Ke2 Ng3+ 48.Kd3 Ne4 49.Ke2 Ke5 50.Bg7+ Nf6 51.Kd3 Kf5 52.Bf8 Nd7 53.Bd6 Ne5+ 54. Ke2 c4! 55.bxc4 Nxc4 56.Bf8 Ke4 57.Be7 g3! 58.Kf1 f3 59.gxf3+ Kxf3 60.a4 Nb2 61.a5 Nc4 62.Bb4 g2+ 63.Kg1 Kg3 64.Bc3 More challenging is 64.Be1+ Kh3 65.Bc3, with the diagrammed position except that it is Black’s move. 64...Kh3 If it were Black’s move he would still win with Nd6-e4, when White cannot prevent knight entry at e2 or f3 in two more moves. 65.Bd4 Nxa5 66.Kf2 Kh2 67.Ke2 g1(Q) 68.Bxg1+ Kxg1 69.Kd3 Nb7

Slav Defense [D17]
White: J.C. Thompson
Black: Leon Poliakoff
Southwest Open 1949

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 e6 7.f3 Bb4 8.Bg5 Qa5 9.Bd2 Qd8 10.Bg5 Qa5 11.Rc1 Nd5? (11...Nbd7) 12.Nxc4 Nxc3 13.bxc3 Bxc3+ 14.Kf2 Qb4 15.e4 Bg6 16.Rb1 Qf8 17.Rxb7 f6 18.Bf4 e5 19.dxe5 fxe5 20.Nd6+ Kd8 21.Bg5+ 1-0 GRUENFELD DEFENSE [D86] Exchange Variation White: John C. Thompson (2100) Black: Lee V. Williams (2000) Southwest Open,1995 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 0-0 8.Ba3!? Nd7?! 9.Nf3 c5 10.0-0 b6 11.Qe2 Bb7 12. Rad1 Qc7 13.e5 e6 14.Rfe1 Rfd8 15.Rc1 Rac8 16. Ng5! The knight development at f3 pays dividends. The threat of Bxe6 forces another weakening move; in turn, Black must then cede the bishop pair to avoid Ne4-d6. 16...h6 17.Ne4 Bxe4 18.Qxe4 Qc6 19.d5 exd5 20.Bxd5 Qc7 21.f4 21.Qxg6?! Nxe5 22.Qe4 Kh8 would afford Black’s pieces some freedom. And 21.e6?? Nf6 would be a grievous mistake. However, 21.Bxf7+ Kxf7 22. e6+ Kg8 23.exd7 Qxd7 24.Qxg6 ± is a strong alternative. 21...Nf8 22.Rcd1 Rd7 23.Bc1 Rcd8 24.c4 Ne6 At last Black’s knight is ready to play an active role, but it is too little too late. 25.Rd3 More energetic is 25.f5! gxf5 26.Qxf5: (a) 26...Nd4? 27.Qh5 Kh7 28.Be4+ and Bxh6 +-; (b) 26...b5! 27.Rd3 bxc4 28.Bxc4 Rxd3 29. Bxd3 Nf8 30.Bf4 +=. 25...Nd4 26.g4 Re7 27.Bb2 Ne6? White’s advantage evaporates after 27...g5! 28.Bxd4 cxd4 29.Qxd4 Rde8! 28.h4 Rde8 29.Rg3 Kh7 Black could still make a bid for activity with 28...g5, but it is not nearly as effective as before. There might follow 29...g5 29.hxg5 hxg5 30.Bxe6 Rxd3 31.Qxd3! (31. Bxf7+? Rxf7 32.Qxd3 Rxf4 _) fxe6 (31...Rxe6 32.f5 Re8 33.Qd2!) 32.f5! exf5 33.Qd5+ and gxf5 with a crushing pawn duo. 30.h5 Nf8 31.hxg6+ fxg6 32. Rh3 Kh8 33.Qh1 Kh7 34.Rxh6+!? More accurate is 34.g5! forcing 34...Re6 (34...h5?? 35.Rxh5+!; for 34...Ne6 35.Rxh6+! see the game) 35.Bxe6 Rxe6 (35...Ne6 36.Rxh6!) 36.gxh6 Bh8 37.Qe4 and White has an overwhelming superiority. 34...Bxh6 35.g5 Ne6? Forced is 35...Re6 36.Qxh6+ Kg8 and White has a long way to go to prove that he is winning. 36.Qxh6+ Kg8 37.Qxg6+ Kf8 38. Qh6+ Kg8 1-0 (time) 39.f5 will leave White a piece ahead. “We should all play chess like this at age 85!" – Williams.