Interview with Dewain Barber

July 31, 2017

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By Pete Tamburro


It was my good fortune to be able to sit down with Dewain Barber after the Denker/Barber/National Girls Invitational tournaments and talk with the motivating force behind the hugely successful youth tournaments, one of whom bears his name. If you want to know why this man has been so determined, read his story about Sergei Sazonov below. I cannot recall meeting someone so skilled at weaving a story, so the answers I recorded on the printed page below cannot do him justice. I can accurately tell you this. He does chess out of love. He does it for free.


PT: So, tell me about a junior high teacher who up and decided to change youth chess in America.

DB: Way back in the last century my principal said he wanted all the teachers to have an activity on Friday afternoon.  I finally settled on a games club…checkers, chess, monopoly…sharing an opportunity to play different games…It became the chess club…I ended up providing time during lunch hour and the break in the morning. This was around 1972-73– Bobby Fischer time. The kids wanted to take it to the next level. I didn’t know what the next level was. In 1974, I went to a meeting at the Orange firehouse (a retired building) and met a few scholastic chess organizers. I became the rookie in the newly organized Orange County Chess Association. We hosted a free scholastic chess tournament K-12, playing only kids in your own grade. The kids enjoyed themselves. There were no championship trophies 3 ft. high.

PT: What else can you tell us about that time?

DB: We needed chess sets. Leo Cotter at Mission Viejo High School said there was a guy in Massachusetts, who sold them. So, we called Steven Dann. “Can you provide me 20 sets.” “They only come in boxes of 40. You must buy 40.” Twice the number we needed. They were a dollar a set with free shipping. “Man, that’s a lot of money. I have to check with my wife!” (in charge of finances) We would charge a dollar a set. As for the boards, that became an adventure. Leo told me, “We have thin vinyl stuff for 20 x 20 chessboards. We can make chess boards by silk screen.” My wife asked, “You have a roll 48” wide 20-30 ft. long. How will you do that?” “I’ll get my straight edge.” So here I am with my box knife…On my hands and knees I made up 50 pieces of material…got the silk screen…went to the high school…I’d never used it before nor had Leo.…We put ink on, etc., white and dark squares were solid green! We failed to ask how to do silk screening! We improved to blotches, then finally got it right.

Now our problem became 150 orders. Dollar a board, dollar a set. We had only 40 sets. Dann sent some more. We started to sell chess equipment to schools. Then people asked, “What’s a good book?” “What’s a good clock.” I didn’t know what a chess clock was in 1978. We found Jerger clocks in Germany. Our production of sets increased. My wife said we had to start a company. So, in 1982 we started American Chess Equipment.

PT: Do you still do that as well?

DB: We sold the business to Shelby Lohrman. We had $530,000 in sales that last year and never got out of our 3 car garage.

PT: How were you enjoying chess back then?

DB: I took teams to the national championship. I taught at Buena Park Jr. High School. That original tournament we started 43 years ago is still running. I make sure to return every year to direct it. There was this episode with the Supreme Court case. I was about to take our team to the national junior high championship. The principal said I couldn’t take the team as it was not authorized by the school board. We were not an official group according to a court case, and we were not curriculum based. I went through the California state curriculum for mathematics and cited line by line the deductive reasoning section. We were allowed to go…the first chess club in California to do so.

PT: Were there others that helped out in a big way?

DB: Yes, we named that tournament the Morrison Scholastic after Bernard Morrison, who was originally from New York. He was 80 years old when I met him. He would always call me up and tell me, “You’ve got to get excited.” I would drive him to and from after school programs where he taught chess as a volunteer. I always thought that if I could do 20% of what Bernie did for chess I would consider myself successful. About 50 years later, I think I’ve caught up with him.

PT: How did things go from there?

DB: In 1985, I, living in Anaheim, got a phone call from a lady in Florida. “I want to start a chess program at my school. I’m a teacher. Tell me What do I have to do?” I replied that there were about 500-600 hours of instruction involved down the road, but her first step should be to put a note in the school bulletin to come to Room 20. She called back. “Another question. What do I do with the 80 kids?” That’s when I sat down and wrote A Guide to Scholastic Chess. It’s been revised 11 times. Tim Just is the most recent editor. It’s always been free of charge and can be found online. It’s been sent to 40,000 school teachers, administrators or districts. From the simplest initial questions: “What do I do first?” “Do I need to know chess?” It was in such a language that a non-chess player could open the door. That was the key answer: just open the door. The kids will do the rest.

PT: How did you get involved with Arnold Denker?

DB: (he pauses) I get emotional when I talk about it. A friend of mine never leaves the stage at the opening ceremonies. If I get choked up, he’ll take the spot.

Arnold called me on the phone. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t the USCF president. I was just a guy. He was direct: “I want to do something for chess.” I figured he meant a simul or a talk. He wanted to create a brand new event. Questions came up. What time of year is best? The schedule is crowded. We could do a tournament, bringing together all the state champions. Where? Arnold suggested the US Open. In my mind, a bunch of old guys would not be tolerating a bunch of kids at the tournament. Arnold replied, “I’ll take care of them. You take care of the scholastic committee.” In 1984, at the US Open, I met with the scholastic people who wanted to give it a try. The motion appeared on the floor of delegates. I got up and explained that we’ll have a championship of champions. Dead silence. You have to understand that back then that most of the delegates had no connection to scholastic chess. It was adult this adult that. Arnold got up. “This is good for chess.” Then he turned around and walked away from the mike…no rah-rah speech. The question was called and every single hand had been raised…unanimous approval. I was thunderstruck. Then Arnold told me to write the rules. One child from every single state plus parents. I wrote 13 rules. 27 Kids from 26 states came. I required that the host state provide an alternate to play any state champion who would have gotten a bye. No champion should get a bye. We needed to go from the original five rounds to six on a 1-2-2-1 schedule over four days so the kids could play in the US Open. Arnold donated $100 to every participant who completed the tournament. The Chess Trust stepped up to donate a $500 prize fund.

PT: Did it catch on right away.

DB: One player didn’t come because the participants weren’t high enough rated, but we still went from 33 to 38 states, then 40 and 46, and finally all 50 states.

PT: So, it has been a huge success.

DB: Question trivia how many persons have played Denker since 1985 to 2016 –1038!!  Plus 48 this year. Follow up question. How many became GMs–10. The first Denker winner was future grandmaster Alex Fishbein.

PT: Where did UTD come in?

DB: The University of Texas Dallas contacted us. Actually, Tim Redmond contacted us. “We like what you’re doing in the Denker. We’ll offer a 4 year all expenses paid scholarship to the Denker champion.” That’s about $140,000 in today’s money. We had a 4 way tie one year! I held my breath.  No way we would  get that. They contacted us: “Gentlemen ALL of you have scholarships to UTD.” The Denker matured with the quality of players.  IMs are entered now. 16 or 17 masters now, 24 last year. 3 IMs.

PT: That takes care of the high school tournament. How did the rest come about?

DB: As the tournament prestige built up, we started getting calls from parents of 7th and 8th graders. “My son is the best. I want my kid to play in the Denker.” No, just high school. So, Arnold and I talked it over….why don’t we have a grades 6-8 tournament (Jr. high tournament) plus K-6. All different schools had different definitions of grades. I decided to go to the delegates for a K-8 tournament. 7 years ago.  I went before the delegates with a K-8 tournament. Arnold got up once more, and once more his speech was “This is good for chess.” In the back of the room there was a motion to amend. I didn’t like the sound of that. From Minnesota David Kuhns go up and said, “I want to name it the “Dewain Barber K-8 Championship.” I was overwhelmed.

Denker & Barber-The Golden Medallions

PT: What else pops into your mind from those years?

DB: In 2009 I got the list of participants who would be coming. All of a sudden, I noticed the name Abby Marshall. There were a few girls before 2009 for Denker.  Abby was special at Orlando in 2009. We noticed the girl moving up the tables to board one in round six. For several rounds, she was a King’s Gambit player!! Had the boys bamboozled. They didn’t know how to handle it. She won the 2009 tournament. Abby graduated from an Ivy League school… The Denker medallions…one day I was watching the Olympics and their big thick and heavy medallions. Every one of these chess kids is a champion so why can’t our Denker and Barber champions get something so unique, solid metal with brilliant gold finish.  The provider made sure it was at least 2.5 inches across with the knight taken from the “Ultimate Chess Set” which I designed. The Denker got the knight…Another time I noticed that Olympic soccer players trade their t-shirts with the other team. Wouldn’t it be nice if each kid came to play bringing six souvenirs  from their city or state to give one to each opponent.  What a beautiful experience to take home. We’ve done that six years now…Once 3 kids from Hawaii showed up holding their hands behind their back and said, “We’re from Hawaii. Mr. Guy Ontai (organizer of scholastic chess), wants you to have this pineapple. This year Mr. Ontai had his kids present me with chocolate covered macadamia nuts in a beautiful box. He’s fond of saying, “Never worry. Hawaii will be there.”

PT: So, it’s more than just a tournament?

DB: Oh, yes. One year a mother called to say that they couldn’t afford airline tickets to fly the family from Mississippi to Vancouver, Washington. I encouraged them to find a way. A few weeks later, the mom called to say they were driving all the way from Mississippi. I still wear the “Mississippi” pin he gave me. Another year a young man named Matthew Parshall from Alaska called and said that they didn’t have a state championship. Are you the highest rated? Nope. After everyone was on board with Matthew representing Alaska, he showed up. I still remember him holding the state flag like a cape. It’s never been about ratings. It’s about a young person who steps forward. Awonder Liang sent me a lovely thank you note. Never got one before that.

PT: What do these tournaments teach?

DB: They’re about building character, bringing the beauty of chess forward. I usually tell this story. Imagine the following scenario: old gentlemen in a rocker. Who comes in his room but his grandson. “I learned this new game pieces move around I know you’ll like it.” “That sounds exciting.” Grandfather goes into chest of drawers…”Let me show you something, grandson.” I know it will happen. Same with grandmother. Let me tell you about chess. It’s not about a bunch of kids moving pieces.

PT: The girls finally get a tournament of their own. How did that come about?

DB: In 2002, we were in a restaurant for breakfast in Nashville, and who walks in but GM Susan Polgar with her husband, Paul. They saw us and came over: “Tell me about the Denker. Can we do this for girls?” I became a co-author again! In support, I stood up at the delegates meeting and said, “We need to do this to promote girls’ chess.” Now, we had the Denker, Polgar and Barber. I was chair of the Polgar Committee for six years. In no time, she went to 40+ states. Then, the unpleasantness with the dispute between the USCF and Polgar emerged. Susan came to Anaheim where we had a heart to heart talk about how I couldn’t continue on her committee. She understood.

PT: What happened then?

DB: We had a big void financially. Texas Tech had withdrawn its financial support as well. A new woman, Isabel Minoofar from Beverly Hills stepped up and said we needed to have a girls’ events. We didn’t want to be in competition with Polgar, so, at Maureen Grimaud’s, suggestion, changed the National Girls’ Invitational Tournament to the National Girls Tournament of Champions (NGTOC). At the delegates meeting, Arnold showed up, “It’s good for chess.” I don’t think you’ll have a problem guessing a vote. I realized I had co-authored four national invitational championships. It took an hour to do it. I just kept cloning our original Denker rules. Jennifer Shahade had friends in Pennsylvania, Robert and Barbara Schiffrin. She asked them if they would agree to a $5,000 college scholarship to a college of their choice, and they consented. UTD had also withdrawn their scholarships, since, in 14 years, only four students had opted for that school. I personally provided $5,000 and asked the Chess Trust for matching funds. I am also donating $21,000 each year for four years to establish a trust for the future of the Barber Tournament.

PT: How did you get to be so determined?

DB: I was never a good student—pretty much average. I went through school knowing I had to read everything three times to understand it. I had to have that determination. I couldn’t quit. I went to nine summer schools from sophomore year in high school through graduate school.  One year, in grad school, I had heard about Dr. Downum’s historical research course. There were only six of us there. An old man, 80 years of age, in a trench coat down to his ankles put an old, weathered, valise on his desk and reached down to pull out 3×5 cards. He laid them across the table and said, “Come up and pick a card.” “Your assignment is to list every book this person is in. See you in 18 weeks.” I looked at my card: Sergei Sazonov. So, I figured let’s get this out of the way and went to the library. I told the librarian I was looking for him. “You’re in Downum’s class, aren’t you?” No Sazonov, no Encyclopedia Britannica article, no card catalogue entry, no internet. I went back to the librarian. “It looks distinctly Russian. Check out the Russian books on the 2nd floor.” I found 400 books and had to check each index. I found him in one book, then six books more out of 430, but not much else. Then, I found a footnote in one of the books. He had written “My Life Story” for NYU Press in 1927. There were only two copies in existence in the US: NYU and Berkeley. I was in northern Arizona! We couldn’t get an inter-library loan. The book was too rare. I went to Berkeley. I didn’t have their student ID card, so they wouldn’t let me look at the book. I begged the librarian, “I have been through more pain than you can believe. I will sit ten feet away and you can watch me treat it carefully with white gloves.” She relented. I found 11 references. I said thank you and went back to Arizona and felt blessed with a B-. What is the significance of this story? I refused to quit. This is the same belief that drives me here in chess. Sazonov taught me never to quit. Years later, my wife and I, who do a lot of travelling, got off a cruise ship in Nice, France and went to find the cemetery where Sazonov was buried. We went to the main office and indicated the plot we wished to see. I wanted to pay homage to the man who had given me the determination to never quit. As we stood in the office, the man said, “The Russian Orthodox cemetery is not open today!”  We had come thousands of miles for this, so we walked over to the cemetery and stood at the iron gate and peered through. I knew where it was– just on left hand side 3 up 4 to the left. I couldn’t see the inscription, but knew it was there.

PT: So that’s what drove you all these years?

DB: When I look back on my chess experience and career, I am driven by a legacy called Denker, and driven by a man called Sazonov. I can’t stop I’ve got to go on. Someone asked me if I get sick will I come to the tournament. I will be the only person on a gurney pushed in to the opening ceremony. It’s all about the legacy. Maureen Grimaud,  and Jon Haskel know this about me. Other people, as I’ve mentioned, step up as well. Just to mention one more: Sunil Weermantry and Pete Nixon, who had teams to coach, came to the rescue at the 1987 national junior high tournament in Buena Park when the computer crashed and hand-paired the whole tournament! Eight rounds. 400 player tournament. How many people can pair by hand?

PT: You must like the recognition you get.

DB: Last year, I received the US Chess Lifetime Achievement award. I was  surprised…it’s a lifetime and I’m still going. You know I don’t accept money…I know there are people who make a living and I’m good with that. I’ve been blessed not to have to worry about that. I always want to pay it forward. Coming back from Sidney, Australia to L.A., I played chess with two Romanian guys and told them to keep the magnetic sets we had (and I had designed)—for a price. The price was when they went home to Romania, they had to find 100 children and teach them how to play chess.

PT: Is there anything we’ve missed?

DB: I wrote the chess part of the script for Mighty Pawns, the movie. Wonderworks program created stories. I got a call: “We’re doing a story about three kids who get in trouble and end up in detention where the teacher says if you want to get out of here you have to learn chess. Can I send you the script?” The original writer had no clue about chess, so rewrite was necessary. We used Buena Park Performing Arts Center and the kids as extras and pulled it off.  I created a tournament scene and prepped the extras how to behave as chess players. It was shown as a TV afternoon movie.

PT: What advice do you have for everyone in chess?

DB: Chess players can become very isolated. Meet and engage people about chess. If players are insular and don’t share, chess doesn’t advance. Volunteer teaching chess. Provide a tournament. Go to community centers. Each chess player is responsible to promote chess in their own way. Pay it forward, no matter your rating or skill level.

PT: And remember Sazonov research!