Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2011

Law & Life
The Great Leveler:
A Game of Correspondence Chess with Lawyers
By Michael J. Morris

Today, correspondence chess takes varied forms. Besides the post office, players may use email, cell phones or other electronic communication. Recently, an astronaut conducted a match with “earthlings,” sending his moves from the international space station and receiving responses based on majority vote. In the 1940s, however, the penny postcard provided the exclusive access to correspondence chess.

Back then Chess Review was the leading American chess magazine. It also sponsored correspondence chess tournaments, organizing groups of similarly rated players. These tournaments attracted chess players who did not usually play over-the-board (OTB) chess, perhaps because of geographical isolation from urban centers, perhaps because of lack of time, or perhaps because they preferred the advantages of correspondence chess over OTB. For example, the rules of correspondence chess allow using books for reference, moving the chess pieces around to examine deep variations, and taking plenty of time. Typically, a player would have three days to respond with a move.

Entering a Chess Review section, Lew Schultz found himself playing correspondence chess with two lawyers who were partners in a Minneapolis law firm and who engaged in much good-natured ribbing of each other’s playing abilities. It also turns out these lawyers became well known. William Prosser wrote the torts treatise used by generations of law students. Harry Blackmun became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the author of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Lew lost his games to Prosser and Blackmun, but he kept the postcards he received from Prosser with the moves. His son, Bill Schultz, a retired OSB member, treasures these mementoes. He says, “Chess is the great leveler, by which I mean that neither position, power nor money will give you an advantage over your opponent.” Bill relates that while Prosser and Blackmun were already noted attorneys with substantial incomes, Lew was attending Boston University while Bill’s mother worked as a cook at a South Boston army base, feeding German POWs. The young family was living in a run-down apartment.

What makes these postcards amusing are the comments from Prosser. Not only does he poke fun at Blackmun, he also continually whines about his own play, right up the point where he wins the game. Some of Prosser’s messages to Lew are included in italics.

I have converted the game notation to the “algebraic” format to make it easier to follow. Just imagine the chessboard as a grid with the letters a to h along the bottom naming the columns (or “files” in chess terminology) and the numbers 1 to 8 along the side naming the rows (or “ranks”). So, for example, the white king sits on e1 and the black queen on d8 at the start of the game.

The Game Begins

1. Pe4 Nf6

2. Pe5 Nd5

3. Pd4 Pd6 9/13/43: “Your Scotch[the Scotch Game, a common opening] has Harry Blackmun worried. He is in the same law office with me, and we landed in the same section by coincidence.”

4. Nf3 Bg4 9/20/43: “If I had seen your 968 rating and your record in the last section, as in the last CR (Chess Review), I should never have played this defense! Harry Blackmun and I are having it hot and heavy in a Sicilian [Defense].

5. Be2 Pc6 9/27/43: “I have a strong suspicion that you have read a chess book later than Cook’s Compendium, which used to be regarded as poor where I was in college (Harvard, 1918; I used to live in Newtonville). I am 45, and taught law at the University of Minnesota for a dozen years before coming back to practice. I can tell you lots of libel about Blackmun too. You can take his warnings with salt.”

6. Pc4 Nc7 10/4/43: “Your ‘innocuous continuation’ is about as harmless as a water moccasin. I see well that Rogers (the fourth man in the section) was right when he said you were insidious and never so dangerous as when offering assurance of innocence … I continue to regret the opening… Social studies and philosophy [what Lew was studying at B.U.?] — I salute a scholar! Law is mere bread and butter stuff, regarded with polite disdain by most of my ex-colleagues [law professors?]

7. 0-0 (white castles) Bf3 10/13/43: “Sorry to be so slow. I have to argue a case in the U.S. Supreme Court presently, and have had to work nights. That Court is commonly known as the Tribunal of Ultimate Conjecture.

8. Bf3 Pdxe5

9. Qb3 Pexd4 10/24/43: “My compliments on your move! I never saw it. It should beat me, so far as I can see... I should say I have about one chance in three. I shall probably go to Washington the week of November 8.”

10. Bf4 Pf6 10/31/43: “You have a won game, I think, if you play it right. But you can play it wrong. There will be a short intermission while I get licked in the Supreme Court…You can send your next [card] care of the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC. I may be able to answer it from there — I am taking a pocket board.” [Dobson v. Commissioner, 320 U.S. 489 (argued 11/8/43).]

11. Qb7 Pe5

12. Bd2 Pa5 11/15/43: “You haven’t left me much choice of moves lately. So far as I can see, this one is lost.”

13. Be4 Ra6

14. Pf4 Bc5 12/5/43: “Blackmun has been alternately jubilant and in despair since he got your last move. “

15. Qb3 O-O (black castles)

16. Qd3 Ph6 12/24/43: “This is lost. Blackmun seems to think he has you by the hair, in spite of the lightning flying about him. … This has been a lot of fun. It is a real pleasure to get acquainted with you. Happy New Year.”

17. Qh3 Qe7 1/1/44: “Harry still thinks he has a win. You can’t both be right and one of you is suffering from delusions. I am strictly neutral.”

18. Qf5 Pg5 1/10/43: “I am neutral against both you and Harry. My only regret is that you can’t both lose…. As for our game the less said the better.”

19. Rf3 Nd7 1/19/44: Your last was a fiendish conception, which goes far to destroy my faith in mankind — already, alas, feeble and flickering. However, we will endeavor to prolong the agony as long as possible, because I enjoy the correspondence.”

20. Rh3 Qg7

21. Na3 Bb4 2/13/44: “Lewis, my boy, are you not impressed with the futility of all this? Would you and I not be better occupied drowning our sorrows in any Scotch there may be left in the world, and cursing Blackmun together, than in your continued twisting of the thumbscrew you have clamped on my poor harmless King?... I feel that you are really at heart a better man than your conduct indicates. Why not mate him at once and put him out of his misery?”

22. Bxb4 Pxb4

23. Nc2 Pc5

24. Pg3 Rf7

25. Kf2 Re7 3/23/44: [After Schultz greeted, “Hello, Professor”] “It has been judicially determined by the Supreme Court of Nebraska, in Eisentraut v. Madden(1915 ) 97 Neb. 466, 150 N.W. 627, that the words ‘Hello, Professor’ do not justify battery with a shovel. The case, however, expresses no opinion as to liability where a shovel is not used.”

26. Ne1 Ne8

27. Rh5 Qh7

28. Qxh7+ Rxh7

29 Bxh7+ Kxh7

30. Pxe5 Pxe5

31. Rh3 Pe4 7/20/44: “If I should pull this out, after being corked in a bottle since move 9, it would be a terrible blow to Harry, who has been gloating over my troubles.”

32. Nc2 Ne5 7/31/44: “The more I look at this, the better it appears. Harry is disconsolate; says he is going out in the garden and eat worms.”

33. Pb3 Ng4+

34. Kg2 Pd3

35. Ne1 Pd2 9/29/44: “The pawns can’t be stopped…The incarceration of that KR [King’s rook] is amusing. At least from where I sit — no doubt the Rook does not, not enjoy it.” Regardless of the outcome, I think we should send this game to Chess Review. It is just the sort of thing they might print.”

36. Nc2 Rxa2 10/4/44: “Harry is desolate.”

Game Over
Here Lew resigned because if he captures the rook the d-pawn promotes to a queen. An interesting game. Prosser defended well against Lew’s attack. Lew’s rook was trapped on the edge of the board where it could no longer help in the defense, and that left Lew with a lost position.

After Lew conceded his game to Blackmun he received a hand-written letter, dated May 24, 1944, saying in part:

“In one way I sincerely regretted receiving your card of the 21st, for it meant that the pert, wisecracking little card for Bawston would not be making its customary ten-day orbit henceforth. I have enjoyed our struggle & our correspondence immensely & already feel its loss.

“Prosser & I both felt that you were the strong man of the section. He is, as I told you, the one that got me interested in chess last June. When he finally agreed to a draw with me in this section he was too disgusted for words. If now you can beat him, after resigning to me, I’ll have something to work on him about for two years, at least. He’s a good guy, the Perfessor is, & you would like him.”

Mike Morris is an attorney with Bennett, Hartman, Morris & Kaplan in Portland, where his practice emphasizes business, real estate and related litigation. A mathematics major in college, he went on to earn a law degree from Willamette University College of Law in 1977. He is a member of the Portland Chess Club and a former Oregon State Chess Champion.

© 2011 Michael J. Morris

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