Meeting Walter Harris, Chess Pioneer

Finally meeting the legendary Walter Harris at 2014 World Open!

Walter Harris is someone that the chess world may not know of, but those who have followed stories of The Chess Drum realize his importance in the annals of chess history. Harris, 72, is the first player of African descent to earn the title of U.S. National Master in a time when racial intolerance was part of American law.

In a 26-minute interview the native New Yorker talked about the challenges he faced as a young man, but also the fortunes that blessed him as a player in the New York’s Marshall and Hawthorne chess clubs. He witnessed the evolution of Bobby Fischer as a confident boy who once gave Harris encouragement that he had the talent to get better. Ironically, he said Fischer would give him blitz odds of 2:00-0:30! Thirty seconds?

I interviewed Mr. Harris back in 2005 after receiving his number from Charles Covington. The hour-long conversation opened the door to historic footnotes that only existed in his mind. I contacted Mr. Harris via e-mail and told him I was going to be in Arlington, Virginia for the World Open and he stated that he would meet me there.

A few days later, I received a voicemail that he had arrived in the hotel and I spotted him walking in the common area and introduced myself. We immediately posed for a photo. It was an honor for me to introduce him to other chess players. In fact, he appeared to be impressed at the reception by players of the Black community.

Harris had not visited a tournament in 30-40 years, so it was also surprising to him the participation of Blacks in chess (which included a strong contingent of Nigerians). Another historic moment was made when a call was put into GM Maurice Ashley to speak with him. They chatted for several minutes.


(clockwise starting left): Walter Harris with Daaim Shabazz; National Master Walter Harris, Dr. Kimani Stancil, Shabazz, National Master Frank Street; Harris speaking with contemporaries NM Philip Collier and Fischer biographer Dr. Frank Brady; Shabazz, Adia Onyango, Harris; Beejay Hicks, Abdullah Abdulbashir, Adia Onyango, Harris, Ken Moody; Walter Harris sharing a moment with fellow New Yorkers.

The weekend must have been a whirlwind for the erudite Virginia resident. He has lived a full life, served America with honor. He stands as more than a footnote in history, but is a legendary figure. His 5th place showing in the 1959 U.S. Junior Open was perhaps a breakthrough in chess, but his attaining the master title would have destroyed many of the stereotypes in that day. Here is one story he told back in 2005.

During our conversation about the 1959 U.S. Open, Harris mentioned a story about not being able to rent a room at a hotel because he was Black. He could not remember if this incident occurred at the same hotel where the tournament was being held (Sheraton- Fontenelle Hotel). In those days, segregation ruled the day and Blacks were not allowed access to public facilities. The managers had pulled Anthony Saidy (now an IM) aside and told him that Harris was not welcome. Saidy protested, but the hotel managers were adamant. They went to another hotel where they were able to find accommodations.

His success wasn’t enough to avoid brushes with racism, but he was able to succeed as a UCLA graduate and a long career as a physicist. He has become a trailblazer for many and he, Frank Street and Kenneth Clayton are three on whose shoulders current Black masters stand on.

IM Kassa Korley chatting with Walter Harris.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz.

Games
GM Bobby Fischer – Walter Harris (New York), 1958, ½½
GM Pal Benko – Walter Harris, American Open (Santa Monica), 1967, 1-0
Peter Cleghorn – Walter Harris (Las Vegas), 1965, 0-1

Interview
Audio interview with NM Walter Harris26:10 minutes
Saturday, July 5th 2014

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

10 Comments

  1. Long ago I knew Walter Harris in Berkeley. I would like to email him . I have lived in California a long time, but I was borne in New York. By the way, I am Black American, and I used to be a USCF master. My telephone number is (510) 666-7122

    1. Walt and I served in the USAF in Sacramento during the 60’s, we worked in the same office together until he was discharged and started college at Berkley. I sure would like to connect with him again, we became good friends back then.

    1. I new walter Harris from UC Berkeley, from the Physics Department.
      and from Caffe Expresso, an italian coffee shop where I was a manager and I introduced Chess, I brought a chess set and a clock for the customers. I used to spend a lot of time playing chess there especially during the summer. We later found out that Walter was a Chess Master. We learned from him. He was a good friend and a good example, as a Physicist, as a Chess Player and as a human being.
      I graduated, then I got married and then moved to San Diego, to Stanford and then to Los Angeles and I haven’t heard from him for more than 35 years, until I read your article.

      Would you send me his e-mail?

      Thank you
      Miguel A. Moreno, MS, Ph.D.
      Atomic and Space Physicist
      Fr. NASA Senior Scientist, Hubble Space Telescope
      drmiguelmoreno@sbcglobal.net

  2. Daaim, he is a true pioneer! We are eternally indebted to him.

    Is he an inductee in the US Chess Hall of Fame ? If not, why not ?

    1. Ian,

      He certainly is and has quite a number of stories to tell such as the time when he was denied a hotel room at a chess tournament during segregation.

      I’m not sure of the criteria, but I’m sure there is a nomination process. One would have to come up with a strong case based on his playing career. He may not have had a long resume as some of the other inductees, but it is worth investigating.

  3. Hello. May I please have Walter Harris’s email? I’ve known Walter from years ago, and I’d like to congratulate him, thank you.

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