Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ron Thacker, Where Are You?

In my rather extensive chess book collection I have a nice hardback on the Botvinnik-Smyslov World Championship Match of 1954, by Harry Golombek. On the flyleaf is this inscription:

To Ronald Thacker, winner of the Oakland YMCA Chess Club Championship 1959

[s] George Koltanowski

How a random encounter opened a hidden part of the world to me, and added to my chess library:

In 1983 I was a 'cable guy' and aspiring tournament chess player in Reno, Nevada. I'd joined the Reno club a couple of years earlier, and after a lot of hard lessons from the experienced players there I'd progressed from an initial rating of 1198 to the 1500 range.

One crisp fall afternoon I had a cable installation at a townhouse in one of the nicer parts of the city, and I noticed a lot of chess books and related items around. I asked the man, a short and slightly rotund fellow in a pair of expensive slacks and a silk shirt whose name on the order was Ron Thacker, about the books. He brightened and said something like "Yes, not only am I a chess player, but I played Bobby Fischer in the last round of the 1957 U.S. Junior!"

He proceeded to run through the moves of that game for me on a board, stating that he'd had a good position from the unusual (to me, anyway) variation of the Sicilian he'd used as White. (The game is here at chessgames.com, the only game of Thacker's that appears there).

He also said he'd beaten Fischer, albeit in a simul during Fischer's 1964 tour--he had the score sheet to prove it. He showed me that one too, a Wilkes-Barre variation of the Two Knight's Defense where Fischer played the Bxf7+ line.

(See also this thread at CalChess.org: I'm looking for 1950's players on the Oakland City Chess Team such as Steve Joplin, Art Wang, etc. Also Ron Thacker if he's finally stopped talking about his "winnable" Game against Fischer in the 1957 Juniors.)

Overdue for my next job I finally had to leave, but I asked him if he'd like to play at the Reno Chess Club and if I could perhaps play him a few practice games for improvement. He said "sure," and after a couple of "lessons" from him and and a few calls he told me that he and his roommate were looking to rent out the third bedroom of the townhouse--perhaps I'd be interested?

Thus began a most educational period of my life. Ron was a professional gambler, mostly specializing in poker at that time, but with an interest in the horses and sports betting as well. He believed himself to be very 'scientific' in his approach to these (successful poker, of course, has an additional psychological component). Researching on the Web, I've found a few references to his work, like this board at a horse racing site:

Enter, Ron Thacker. Ron worked at the old Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas back in the '70s. He would fall today into the realm of "egghead nerd." (I am a nerd, but not an "egghead," as I do not have the math background for it. Ron had serious math skills - M.I.T. serious.)

Ron did an Oscar-craps simulation of some magnitude back in the early '80s. I believe he published it as a paper. I know I actually had a copy of it about 25 years ago.

Ron got me occasional night and weekend work with a video poker 'group' that took advantage of progressive jackpots--when they reached a certain amount on a bank of machines, the odds were actually in the player's favor, when playing a specific strategy tilted toward trying for the Royal Flush and the big jackpot. The group would move players like me into empty seats and work for hours until someone hit. We all got paid $10 cash per hour, plus a bonus for hitting the Royal Flush.

Living with a couple of professional gamblers was a trip, as sometimes they came back from the poker table with a lot of money, sometimes with nothing. I learned what really goes on in the legal poker world; there were a handful of pros working the casinos in Reno at that time, and they mainly concentrated on trimming the out-of-towners for their living. Of course they tried to win any and all money they could, but the local full-timers had an informal system of lending each other money when a string of 'bad luck' hit, and paying it back during the good times. I think Ron and the other room mate liked me for my regular paychecks, since on one or two occasions I helped them out when rent was due and they were 'short.' They paid me back promptly, as soon as they had a winning night.

I did get Ron to play a couple of games at the Reno Chess Club eventually, but curiously he was a USCF member under the nom de guerre "King Bishop Pawn." I don't know how he'd got that by the Federation, but apparently there was no rule that said you had to register under your real name. He was rated around 2100, but after playing a game or two he didn't go back; he didn't seem to have a taste for long, tough tournament fights. He still enjoyed chess, but only short, sharp swashbuckling chess. He was always gracious in looking at my games and helping me try to improve, however, and I enjoyed access to his extensive chess library.

After eight or nine months Ron decided to move back to Las Vegas, where he'd lived for many years and where his girl friend resided. We began to make preparations to go our separate ways, and one day he asked me to lend him $300. He offered to let me keep at least $400 worth of chess books as security, so I went through his library with him. He put just a handful of the books aside as especially meaningful or valuable and encouraged me to take as many of the rest as I thought fair--then urged me to take a few more when I thought I was done. I took around 60 books, some classic hardbacks like the Golombek book I spoke of above, the 1960 Peter Clarke book of Tal's best games (first edition of this one), Fine's The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings and an number of other volumes that are probably pretty hard to find, these days.

I only spoke to Ron once more after I moved out--he told me he'd get in touch soon with the $300. I presume that he moved on to Vegas.

I was looking in the library recently and was reminded of where so many of my chess books came from. So I tried a little internet research, white pages, googling and so on, but came up with no real clues about where Ron might be today. If any reader has information, or would post an inquiry on their chess blog or website that would be nice. I'd like to know what he's up to, these days.

(3/18/07) CORRECTION: My memory had it that Thacker said he played Fischer in the "last round" of the 1957 U.S. Juniors, but Edward Winter has pointed out that the game actually took place in Round 3.


Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting read... Btw, that unusual sicilian that he played, i think he got his ideas from David Bronstein. David Bronstein played a number of games with that typical move order where you play your King Bishop to d3 and back it up to c2. I also played a few games like that myself and it can really lead to interesting play.

transformation said...

very well writen, as always, and very touching.

seems the new 'old' Robert Pearson is in ascent , in large bright colours.

smiles from the land of whispering tall pines and firs.

bravo--bravo..... tripple bravo!

suzyq said...

I read your article and was amazed. Ron has been a friend of mine since around 84. I believe I have his address and phone number, (he was still in Vegas)if he is still living. He has a serious heart condition which has put him on a disability. Yes, he was a very smart guy. I didn't realize it for a long time. I often didn't believe things he told me until years passed and they were proven to be true. I think I actually met you years ago in Reno, also. Very interesting. I doubt he copied any moves from anyone. He is truly an original.

Anonymous said...

My dad beat Ron Thacker at chess all the time, games would take hours but my dad beat him several times.