Vaughn Bennett once put out flames as a District of Columbia firefighter, but the chess organizer has certainly created a firestorm with his last missive, a 49-page lawsuit against the United States Chess Federation (USCF) and 24 other defendants. The defendants include current and past USCF officials, chess organizations, tournament directors, a university and a number of private businesses. The amount of the lawsuit… a staggering US$150,000,000 (one hundred and fifty million American dollars).
He states in the legal brief that the defendants committed "retaliatory acts that defamed him and violated the rights granted by the common law of the District of Columbia." He further stated that the acts were "intentional, malicious, and gross; taken in conscious disregard of Plaintiff's constitutional and civil rights." These charges by Bennett are serious, but his legal charges may raise more questions than can be answered. His emotional appeal has a history that he says has extended over two decades, but reached a boiling point in the last four years.
Racism in U.S. Scholastic Chess? (2001-2002)
The Chess Drum first reported on this case when the problem had become acute in 2001. Bennett, founder of the Olympic Chess Foundation, released a document providing examples of a discriminatory selection process for the Denker Tournament of Champion. In an official response, David Mehler, who serves as the Director of the U.S. Chess Center, maintained that it is DC Chess League serving as the authority and that the decision was made within the acceptable and stated guidelines. Bennett came back and made additional claims of collusion and accusations that Denker representative Johnny Sadoff may have been chosen in an unfair process involving his mother's influence. Ralph Mikell, the President of the DC Chess League and who is Black, told The Chess Drum that he indeed certified Johnny Sadoff as the District's representative.
The Bennett-Mehler imbroglio came to a climax some eight months later when Bennett was confronted at the U.S. Chess Center and arrested for "unlawful entry." Bennett survived two eventful nights (including an assault) in jail before the charges were dropped. The incident was reported by David McKenna in the April 2002 issue of the Washington City Paper in an article titled, "In Chess, White Always Goes First." Bennett was reported to have entered the chess venue in a bullying manner and spreading innuendo about both Mehler and Sadoff. Bennett denied these charges and is quoted in the article as saying, "All I did was speak out about race and D.C. chess and for that, I lost my freedom." Rebukes were swift as statements were written by board member Gladys Cooley and Johnny Sadoff, now a student at Kenyon College. Bennett followed up by writing an open letter to the Washington City Paper after which Mehler made additional comments about the incident.
$150 Million Dollar Lawsuit (2005)
Approximately four years later on November 16th, Bennett filed a 49-page legal document with the U.S. District Court detailing his $150 million lawsuit. Apparently, the tension in DC chess has been allowed to heighten and there has been no détente. In the brief, Bennett detailed his claims which included the contents of a deposition which claims that Mehler organized a plot to undermine and defame him. This tactic, Bennett claims, prevented him from securing tournament directors and from entering business relationships to teach chess to DC youth. David Mehler responded to inquiries from The Chess Drum by calling the accusations in the brief "shameful lies" and is seeking legal representation. Past and present USCF officials have declined to comment on the legal brief and advised journalists to contact USCF attorneys for comments.
Also in the brief, Bennett makes a list of other claims pertaining to different aspects of discrimination. One of them had to do with an incident where he was asked to leave the tournament hall during the 2004 National Youth Action Championships (554 participants). The tournament director approached Bennett and stated that he was a distraction as he stood watching the game behind the roped-off area. Bennett, whose student was the opponent of the distracted player, was ordered to leave the hall. When he refused, his entire scholastic team (starting with standout Kaleem Washington) was disqualified in what was described as an ugly scene. The brief gives a blow-by-blow account including what was said and the reactions of the spectators in the hall. Another case in the brief highlights the 2003 East Coast Amateur Championships tournament in which Bennett's team had won first place, but it was awarded to another team because his team was declared a club team and not eligible for a scholastic prize.
Reactions from the Chess World
Initial reactions from chess journalists have been a mixture of disbelief and befuddlement. Thus far, no media outlet has picked up the story. Those who have learned of the brief have independently expressed some degree of support in selected issues. One player stated that the issues are indeed "newsworthy," while another well-known player stated, "It sounds like something better left to the courts." Others regard it as displaced anger amidst an unresolved personal battle between Bennett and Mehler.
One thing is certain… a $150 million lawsuit is not seen very often despite America's reputation as a litigious society. Several questions can be raised and could be the subject of fierce debate that is likely to follow. Is the DC selection process fair, consistent and equitable? Does the USCF have controls in place to ensure fairness in the selection process for the Denker/Polgar tournaments? On a more general level, do any of the charges in Bennett's 49-page brief bear any merit? Is Bennett merely a disgruntled organizer?
Bennett, who is representing himself, can expect a strong response from the chess community. The issues stated will either serve as a catalyst for introspection to some legitimate concerns or further highlight the dysfunction in the American chess community. Bennett, whose USCF membership has been suspended, today told The Chess Drum that he brought about the lawsuit to bring attention to long-standing systemic problems that have prevented equal access to chess opportunities. He stated that it was his duty to fight for the future generations of aspiring chess players to ensure that they have an equal chance at competing for and/or winning chess scholarships and chess titles.
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Update: Vaughn Bennett filed a 49-page lawsuit against the United States Chess Federation (USCF) and 24 other defendants in December 2005 charging that racism plagued a number of USCF-sponsored events. The defendants include current and past USCF officials, chess organizations, tournament directors, a university and a number of private businesses. The above case of Vaughn Bennett vs. the United States Chess Federation was dismissed after Judge Richard Leon stated his conclusion:
"Plaintiff, in his complaint, has outlined in detail what appears to be a long and tempestuous history between himself and defendant Mehler and the other defendants concerning the promotion of the game of chess in the District of Columbia. Notwithstanding, his frustration with the disagreements between the parties, plaintiff either lacks standing to bring the current action against the defendants, is barred from bringing the action against the defendants, or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.* Therefore, for all the above stated reasons, defendants' Motions to Dismiss are GRANTED. An appropriate order will issue with this memorandum opinion."
*This Memorandum Opinion does not reach the merits of defendants' claims that this action should be dismissed on statute of limitation grounds, lack of personal jurisdiction, or because the action is barred by Illinois statute. The plaintiff will be ordered to show cause as to why the current action should not be dismissed as to those defendants claiming lack of service of process through various defendants' motions.
This judgment was filed on July 7, 2006. Read judgment here.