Remembering Milan Momic, the refugee who became Alabama’s first chess master

Alabama News

Milan Momic at a chess tournament in Nashville, Tennessee in 1973. Originally from Croatia, Momic came with his family to Alabama in 1960, where he quickly established himself as a chess master. (Courtesy Momic family)

MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. (WIAT) — There was no way he could put it away.

When he wasn’t busy working as a crane operator at Reynolds Metals or raising his family in the Shoals area, Milan Momic was always playing chess. It was the game he learned growing up in Croatia. It was also the game that made him part of Alabama history as the state’s first chess master.

Milan Momic as seen in his obituary.

Players like Paul Morphy had made their mark in Alabama before Momic, but he was the first master to call the state home after arriving in 1961. Momic was a mainstay in the Alabama chess community for years, playing tournaments across the Southeast on weekends and teaching the game at the University of North Alabama.

However, an accident in 1975 changed Momic’s life forever, putting an end to a promising playing career before he died in 1997.

“Milan Momic is one of the most natural chess players I have ever met,” Chess Digest publisher Ken Smith said in an article about Momic published before his death. “His talent would have carried him to the Grandmaster level had he been able to pursue it. He, like many of us, had family and career come first. Oh, Milan, Milan! What could have been!”  

Years after his death, Momic’s family still think about how he would’ve reacted to the boom in popularity for the game over the last few of years, especially as two of the best chess players in the world–Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi — are currently playing each other in the World Chess Championship.

“He loved the game so much,” Momic’s son, Manuel, said. “He would be ecstatic.”

Coming to the game

Momic was born in Celije, Slovenia on March 26, 1935. According to Bobby Edwards’ “Milan Momic: Alabama’s First Chess Master,” Momic first learned chess when he was 17 years old by watching other people play outside a restaurant in town. He ended up going back for several days until he figured out how to play.

“No one taught me,” Momic told Edwards in the piece. “I simply watched them and watched their moves until I picked it up.”

Momic’s ability on the board took time to develop. According to Edwards, Momic competed in a chess championship at his high school in Zagreb, Croatian, but lost all of his matches. A year later, he won the Zagreb High School Championship and later became Croatian Junior Champion in 1954.

However, trouble across eastern Europe would soon force Momic to leave. At the time, Croatia was part of Yugoslavia and under Communist control. In 1955, Momic left at the height of growing tensions within the country and fled to Austria, where he met his wife, Katharina.

“I went to the movies and we saw each other,” Katharina said from her home in Muscle Shoals. “Eventually, he moved closer and we started talking.”

After a few years working as a painter, Momic and Katharina got married and their son, Manuel, was born. By 1961, the young family was eager to leave Europe, looking to either go to America or Australia.

“They told me it would take many years before I could come to the United States,” Momic told The Birmingham News in 1962. “I knew there was still a long wait for freedom.”

Milan Momic at the chessboard. (Courtesy Alabama Chess Antics)

Eventually, the Momics were sponsored by Grace Episcopal Church in Sheffield to come to Alabama. That trip almost took an unplanned detour after they first arrived in New York City in 1961.

“He wanted to stay in New York to play the big guys, but we wouldn’t allow it because the church that sponsored us were responsible for us and we had to come to Alabama,” Katharina said.

It was in Alabama where Momic came into his own as a chess player. The story goes that shortly after coming to Alabama with his family, Momic entered an open tournament to play a game. By the end of the day, he was Alabama’s first ranked chess master.

“He sat down to play and scored 7-0 and was a master at the end of the tournament and has been a master ever since,” said John Dohne, former president of the Birmingham Chess Club in an interview with the Associated Press in 1972.

At his peak, Momic’s FIDE ranking by the International Chess Federation was 2280, which is within the range of most national masters and only a couple hundred points away from achieving Grandmaster level, the highest distinction in chess.

Among his many accomplishments, he placed 12th in the U.S. Open in 1963, won the Alabama State Championship in 1962 and 1963, as well as won the Southern Open in 1971.

While not getting the chance to play some of the more famous players of the time, such as Bobby Fischer or Mikhail Tal, Momic became a regular presence on the chess circuit across the southeast. His second son, Milan Jr., remembers one time he and his brother went with him to a tournament in Nashville.

“The guy basically said ‘You’ve already won. Take the kids home,’” Milan Jr. said.

Manuel remembers how people would often come to the house to play his father. He remembers those games being over as quickly as they had begun.

“He would have them checked in four or five moves and it would be over,” he said. “That’s how quick he was.”

Milan Jr. said it was a common sight to see his father playing chess against himself at home.

“That was just weird that he could play himself like that,” he said.

While some players vividly remembered Momic’s chess skills, others remembered his heart. In John Donaldson’s book “A Legend on the Road: Bobby Fischer’s 1964 Simul Tour,” one story was mentioned about how Momic refusing to play in one tournament in Mississippi in 1962 because of another player who was not allowed to play because of his race.

William Scott III, a Black chess player and businessman from Atlanta, had been told he was not allowed to play in the tournament because he was Black. This had happened to Scott before in 1954, when he was not allowed to play in the U.S. Open chess tournament in New Orleans because he was Black.

“Behind Scott in line was Milan Momic. Formerly of Yugoslavia, Momic was an Alabama state champion. ’I’m sorry, sir, but the hotel will not admit you. Black players are not allowed in the tournament.’

“’Why can’t he play?” asked (Adrian) McAuley, still in his Pelican Plumbing Supply uniform. “If he can’t play, I’m not playing.” He turned and walked out of the hotel.

“If McAuley’s not playing, I’m not going to play.” Jude (Acers) turned to walk out.

“They no play, no me.” Momic followed.

Passage from John Donaldson’s “A Legend on the Road: Bobby Fischer’s 1964 Simul Tour.”

The end of a promising career

Everything changed in 1975 when a hook from a crane truck struck Momic on the side of the head while at work, putting him in the hospital and taking away a part of him for good.

“He was never the same after that,” Manuel said.

Milan Momic at a chess tournament in Nashville, Tennessee in 1973. Originally from Croatia, Momic came with his family to Alabama in 1961, where he quickly established himself as a chess master. (Courtesy Momic family)

After his accident, Momic’s memory suffered and he was no longer able to remember chess strategy or be able to think several moves ahead like he had before. After playing in a tournament in New York sponsored by the U.S. Chess Federation later that year, he gave up playing. He was 40 years old.

“It didn’t interest him anymore,” Katharina said. “He just got away from it.”

Momic continued working at Reynolds until he retired in 1982. His sons said that after giving up chess, Momic took up many more hobbies, like fishing, playing cards, bingo, and even bowling.

“He liked to bowl a lot,” Manuel said. “He was in a league and they even won first play several times.”

Momic’s health would soon take a turn, requiring a liver transplant. He would later develop cancer, which required required throat surgery and his larynx to be removed so he could no longer talk. He died in 1997 and his ashes were sent back to his family in Croatia.

“He would help anyone who needed help,” Manuel said. “He would give you the shirt off his back.”

Over the last few years, Momic’s children have been able to appreciate what he was able to do for chess in Alabama.

“In my younger days, it didn’t faze me a bit,” Milan Jr. said. “Now that I’m older and reading articles about him, it’s amazing.”

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