George Leighton, a crusading civil rights lawyer and later a judge, died earlier this month at the ripe age of 105. He was given an admiring obit in the New York Times. As stirring as it is, the recap of his life left out one of his longstanding passions: chess.
Leighton was a fixture for many years in the Chicago chess scene. He was rated an “A” player—not a high flyer like a master or grandmaster, but strong enough to beat the majority of amateurs who play in occasional tournaments. I played him once in an open event. To be honest, the game was rather one-sided. Leighton defended the black side of a Stonewall formation, with black pawns on c6, d5, e6 and f5. He never got much going on the kingside, and meanwhile I infiltrated on the queenside, took over the center and won in a walk. I don’t have the score, but my memory is clear; the game was played back in my hippie days and I was a bit apprehensive playing a judge.
But I also remember Leighton himself, his calm demeanor and respectful treatment of the scruffy kid, a fraction of his age, sitting across the board. And gravitas—I don’t think I’d every experienced gravitas like that before. I thought to myself, if I ever find myself in front of a judge, I hope it’s someone like him.
This was almost 50 years ago. I can list only a handful of the hundreds of players I encountered back then, but George Leighton is on that list.