Everyone knows Bobby Fischer, and everyone knows how he burst onto the international scene, when at the age of fourteen he played a sensational game – one replete with a daring queen sacrifice and a beautifully executed mate. We all know that Hans Kmoch, the arbiter at the event, immediately dubbed it the "Game of the Century", and that the moves have been admired and analyzed by generation after generation of chess enthusiasts ever since. So this is not a new story – but have you ever heard it described so vividly, have you ever felt so close to that historic day? Like many other sections of the book it will send shivers down your back.
ENDGAME – Bobby Fischer’s
Remarkable Rise and Fall –
The Game of the Century
From Chapter 3 of ENDGAME: Out of the Head of Zeus
With pictures from the ChessBase archive
October 1956. Scattering fallen leaves as he rushed down the tree-lined street, 13-year-old Bobby vaulted up the red-carpeted stairs of the Marshall Chess Club two steps at a time and entered the Great Hall. It was not his first visit. Indeed, he’d already begun making frequent visits to the Marshall, New York’s other major chess club, where he enjoyed a heady feeling of being where he belonged, of possibly writing his own page into chess history.
The club – which was located on Tenth Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, one of Manhattan’s most attractive neighborhoods – had been quartered in this venerable brownstone (built in 1832) since 1931, when a group of wealthy patrons, including one of the Roosevelts, bought the building so that their beloved Frank J. Marshall, the reigning U.S. Champion, who would hold the title for 27 years, would always have a place to live with his family, and to play, teach, and conduct tournaments. Walking down the street with its rows of stately brownstones festooned with window boxes of flowers, and a private boarding stable on the same block, Bobby could have easily felt he was transported back to the Gas Light or Silk Stocking era of the 19th century.
Most of the world’s most renowned masters had visited the Club – it was steeped in the echoes of legendary games, epic battles, hard-fought victories and heartfelt defeats. Indeed, its only peer in the United States was the Manhattan Chess Club, 49 blocks to the north. In team matches, the Manhattan usually, but not always, came out on top.
Looking somewhat like a British officer’s club, the Marshall was wood-paneled, with plush, burgundy-velvet curtains, several fireplaces, and oak tables fitted with brass lamps. It was at this Club that Cuba’s brilliant José Raúl Capablanca gave his last exhibition, where World Champion Alexander Alekhine visited and played speed chess, where many of the most gifted international grandmasters gave, and continue to give, theoretical lectures. Artist Marcel Duchamp lived directly across the street and was an active member of the Club, and became a great fan of Bobby’s. The Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis took lessons there. If a motion picture location scout were searching for an idealized chess club, the Marshall might be his pick.
Certainly, there was a sense of decorum that permeated the Club, even when it came to dress. Bobby’s habitual mufti of tee shirt, wrinkled pants, and sneakers was considered an outrage by Caroline Marshall, Frank Marshall’s widow and the longstanding manager of the Club, and on several occasions she informed him of his sartorial indiscretion, once even threatening to bar him from the premises if he didn’t dress more appropriately. Bobby ignored her.
Oh the intensity! – Bobby Fischer as a young teen
He was at the Marshall that night in October to play in the seventh round of an invitational tournament, the Rosenwald Memorial, named for its sponsor, Lessing J. Rosenwald, the former chairman of Sears Roebuck who was an important art collector and chess patron. The invitation came as a result of Bobby’s having won the U.S. Junior Championship three months earlier, and the Rosenwald was the first important invitational and adult all-masters tournament of his career. The other eleven players were considered some of the finest and highest rated in the United States, and the Club members were excited by the event. Bobby’s opponent that night was the urbane college professor Donald Byrne, an International Master, former U.S. Open Champion, and a fiercely aggressive player. Dark-haired, elegant in speech and dress, the 25-year-old Byrne invariably held a cigarette between two fingers, his hand high in the air, his elbow resting on the table, in a pose that gave him an aristocratic demeanor.
Regina accompanied Bobby to the Club, but as soon as he began to play she left to browse at the nearby Strand Bookstore, whose shelves contained millions of used books. She knew it would probably be hours before Bobby’s game would be over and she’d have to return.
To that point Bobby hadn’t won a game in the tournament, but he’d drawn three, and he seemed to be getting stronger each round, learning from the other Masters as he played each game. In chess tournaments, contestants are not only assigned opponents, they’re also given, for each round, a color: black or white. Where possible, the tournament director alternates the colors, so that a player will play with the white pieces in one game and with the black in the next. Since White always moves first, having that color can provide a player with a distinct advantage in that he can make immediate headway on a preferred strategy. Alas, against Byrne, Bobby was assigned the black pieces.
Having studied Byrne’s past games in chess books and magazines, Bobby knew something of his opponent’s style and the strategies he frequently used. So Bobby decided to use an atypical approach – one unusual for Byrne to face, and for Bobby to try. He played what was known as the Gruenfeld Defense.
Bobby knew the basics of the opening but hadn’t yet mastered all of its intricacies. The point was to allow White, his opponent, to occupy the center squares, making the pieces a clear target that would be vulnerable to Bobby’s attack. It wasn’t a classical way to approach the game, and it leads to a very different configuration as the game progresses; but Bobby took the chance.
Because he hadn’t memorized the sequence of moves, Bobby had to figure out what to do each time it was his turn, and he became time-troubled early on. Increasingly nervous, he bit his nails, toyed with his hair, sat on his folded legs, then kneeled on the chair, put his elbow on the table and rested his chin first on one hand and then on the other. Byrne had just defeated Samuel Reshevsky, the strongest American grandmaster in the tournament, and his chess ability was not to be disrespected. Bobby wasn’t panicked, but he was decidedly uneasy.
The 15-year-old Bobby Fischer with fans
Kibitzers began gathering around his board, and each time Bobby had to get up to visit the tiny rest room in the back of the Club, he almost had to fight his way through the scrum. It interfered with his concentration: normally, an ongoing game resonated within him even if he left the table. “The onlookers were invited to sit right next to you and if you asked them to leave or be quiet they were highly insulted,” Bobby recalled. He also noted that the warm Indian summer weather and the press of a large number of people made the room stifling. Bobby’s complaints were heard by the club’s organizers, but too late to do anything about it that night. The next summer the Marshall put in its first air conditioner.
Despite his discomfort, Bobby plunged ahead with the game. Surprisingly, after only eleven moves, he’d almost magically built a positional advantage. Then, suddenly, he moved his knight to a square where it could be snapped off by his opponent. “What is he doing?” said someone to no one in particular. “Is this a blunder or a sacrifice?” As the onlookers scrutinized the position, Bobby’s ploy became obvious to all: although not profound, it was cunning, perhaps ingenious, and even brilliant. Byrne dare not take the knight. The tournament referee described the electricity that Fischer’s audacious choice created: “A murmur went through the tournament room after this move, and the kibitzers thronged to Fischer’s table as fish to a hole in the ice.”
It was exactly the madding crowd that Bobby wished would stay afar. “I was aware of the importance of the game,” recalled Allen Kaufman, a master who was studying the game as Bobby played it. “It was a sensational game and everyone was riveted on it. It was extraordinary: the game and Bobby’s youth were an unbeatable combination.”
As the game progressed, Bobby had only twenty minutes remaining on his clock to make the required 40 moves, and he’d so far completed just 16 of them. And then he saw it: using a deeper insight, he realized that there was an extraordinary possibility that would change the composition of the position and give a whole new meaning to the game. What if he allowed Byrne to capture his queen, the most powerful piece on the board? Normally, playing without a queen is crippling. But what if Byrne, in capturing Bobby’s queen, wound up in a weakened position that left him less able to attack the rest of Bobby’s forces, and less able to protect his own?
Above is the only picture showing Fischer during the Game of the Century. Incredibly it was taken while he was pondering the position just before the queen sacrifice. The picture appeared on page 11 of the Lima News, Feb. 12, 1957, and also appeared in the Hammond Times of Feb. 24, 1957.
The idea for the move grew on Bobby slowly, instinctually at first, without any conscious rationale. It was as though he’d been peering through a narrow lens and the aperture began to widen to take in the entire landscape in a kind of efflorescent illumination. He wasn’t absolutely certain he could see the full consequences of allowing Byrne to take his queen, but he plunged ahead, nevertheless.
If the sacrifice was not accepted, Bobby conjectured, Byrne would be lost; but if he did accept it, he’d also be lost. Whatever Byrne did, he was theoretically defeated, although the game was far from over. A whisper of spectators could be heard: “Impossible! Byrne is losing to a 13-year old nobody.”
Byrne took the queen. Bobby, now so focused that he could hardly hear the growing murmur from the crowd, made his next moves percussively, shooting them out like poison darts, hardly waiting for Byrne’s responses. His chess innocence gone, he could now see the denouement perhaps twenty or more moves ahead. Yet, other than the rapidity with which he was responding to Byrne’s moves, Bobby showed little emotion. Rather, he sat still, placid as a little Buddha, stabbing out one startling move after another.
On the 41st move, after five hours of play, with his heart slightly pounding, Bobby lifted his rook with his trembling right hand, quietly lowered the piece to the board, and said, “Mate!” His friendly opponent stood up, and they shook hands. Both were smiling. Byrne knew that even though he was on the wrong end of the result, he’d lost one of the greatest games ever played, and in so doing had become part of chess history. A few people applauded, much to the annoyance of the players whose games were still in progress and cared not that history had been made just a few feet away. They had their own games to worry about. “Shh! Quiet!” It was midnight.
Hans Kmoch, the arbiter, a strong player and internationally known theoretician, later appraised the meaning and importance of the game:
“A stunning masterpiece of combination play performed by a boy of 13 against a formidable opponent, matches the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies…Bobby Fischer’s [performance] sparkles with stupendous originality.”
Thus was born The Game of the Century, as it was dubbed by Hans Kmoch.
Fischer on the cover of the December 1956 issue of Chess Review
Bobby’s game appeared in newspapers throughout the country and chess magazines around the world, and International Grandmaster Yuri Averbach, among others, took notice, as did all of his colleagues in the Soviet Union: “After looking at it, I was convinced that the boy was devilishly talented.” The British magazine Chess relaxed its stiff upper lip, calling Bobby’s effort a game of “great depth and brilliancy.” Chess Life proclaimed Bobby’s victory nothing short of “fantastic.”
The Game of the Century has been talked about, analyzed and admired for over fifty years, and it will probably be a part of the canon of chess for many years to come. In the entire history of the game, in terms of its sheer brilliance, not only by a prodigy but by anyone, it might only compare to the game in Breslau in 1912 when spectators showered the board with gold when Frank Marshall – another American – also employed a brilliant sacrifice, and beat Levitsky. In reflecting on his game a while after it occurred, Bobby was refreshingly modest: “I just made the moves I thought were best. I was just lucky.”
David Lawson, a 70-year-old American whose accent betrayed his Scottish birth, was one of the spectators that night. Earlier he’d invited Regina and Bobby to dinner after the conclusion of the game, whenever it was finished, whoever won. A tiny man, Lawson was a collector of chess memorabilia and had a particular interest in the diminutive Paul Morphy, America’s first (though unofficial) world champion. Lawson saw a connection between Fischer and Morphy in their precocious rise, although Bobby had yet to prove himself the world’s – let alone America’s – greatest player. Lawson was an opportunist, and although he was soft spoken and possessed Old World manners, his invitation wasn’t proffered completely out of courtesy. He’d wanted to acquire one of Bobby’s score sheets in the boy’s own handwriting to add to his collection, and by coincidence he chose to attend the Byrne-Fischer encounter, not knowing, of course, that the game would become one of the most memorable in the fifteen hundred year history of chess.
Lawson’s preference for dinner was Luchow’s, the German restaurant that had been far beyond the Fischer family’s means when they’d lived across the street from it some seven years before. But since it was past midnight, the kitchen was closed, so the trio repaired instead to an all-night local eatery on Sixth Avenue, the Waldorf Cafeteria – a Greenwich Village hangout for artists, writers and roustabouts. It is here that the story of the score sheet becomes cloudy. Normally, in important tournaments, a score sheet is backed up with a carbon copy, the original going to the tournament organizers or referee for safekeeping should there be a subsequent dispute of any kind. The carbon is retained by the player. That night Bobby kept his copy – the carbon – which he wouldn’t part with for many years. Indeed, upon request, he’d take out of his pocket the folded and slightly worn sheet and show it to admirers. So what happened to the original?
The original scoresheet from 1956 with Bobby's handwriting
Kmoch, the arbiter, sensing that Bobby was a champion in the making, had already begun collecting the prodigy’s original score sheets as if they were early Rembrandt sketches. And somehow, most likely by paying for it, Lawson acquired from Kmoch the original Game of the Century score sheet, which bore Kmoch’s notation in large penciled-red numerals: 0-1 (indicating the loss for Byrne, the win for Fischer). Eventually, upon Lawson’s death, the score sheet was purchased by a collector, sold again, and for the last number of years it has rested with yet another collector. In today’s market, the estimated auction price for the original score sheet is $100,000.
Bobby’s remuneration from the American Chess Foundation for his “million-dollar brilliancy?” Fifty dollars.
From the ChessBase archives
Byrne,Donald - Fischer,Robert James [D97]
Rosenwald New York, 1956 [Replay link at the end of the game]
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.d4 0-0 5.Bf4. Byrne is avoiding the King's Indian (with 5.e4), probably because he had heard that the lad sitting across from him was already one of the best KI players in the country. 5...d5 6.Qb3 dxc4 7.Qxc4 c6 8.e4 Nbd7 9.Rd1 Nb6 10.Qc5 Bg4 11.Bg5?!
11...Na4!! Reuben Fine awards this move three exclamation points (in "The World's Great Chess Games") and calls it "a brilliant reply". Flohr and Botvinnik in "64" called it "a shocking and stunning move." Fred Reinfeld called it "one of the most magnificent moves ever made on a chessboard," and recently GM Jon Rowson referred to it as "one of the single most powerful chess moves of all time." 12.Qa3. This is forced, probably the only playable move in the position. The knight sacrifice cannot be accepted: 12.Nxa4 Nxe4 13.Qc1 (13.Qxe7 Qa5+ 14.b4 Qxa4 15.Qxe4 Rfe8 16.Be7 Bxf3 17.gxf3 Bf8 and Black is winning) 13...Qa5+ 14.Nc3 Bxf3 15.gxf3 Nxg5 and Black is clearly better (Shipov). 12...Nxc3. A kibitzing GM here said that Black was simply lost in this position. 13.bxc3 Nxe4! Fine and Reinfeld give two exclamation marks. 14.Bxe7 Qb6!
15.Bc4. Taking is not advisable: 15.Bxf8 Bxf8 16.Qb3 Nxc3! "and Black is clearly better here" (Gligoric). 15...Nxc3! "Black comes up with one beautiful move after another" (I. Chernev). 16.Bc5. 16.Qxc3 Rfe8 17.Bxf7+ Kxf7 18.Ng5+ Kxe7 (Interesting that 18...Kg8?? would have given the opponent a spectacular finish: 19.Qc4+ Be6 20.Qxe6+ Kh8 21.Nf7+ Kg8 22.Nh6+ Kh8 23.Qg8+ Rxg8 24.Nf7# A smothered mate for White!) 19.0-0 Bxd1 20.Rxd1 Qb5 and Black is winning. 16...Rfe8+ 17.Kf1.
17...Be6!! The move that brought the 13-year-old instant world-wide fame. Reuben Fine gave it four exclamation marks ("An astounding reply ... which wins in all variations"), Flohr gave it three. "To have foreseen this spectacular queen sacrifice several moves in advance – as Fischer must have done – is extraordinary"; writes Graham Burgess in "The World's Greatest Chess Games". Our chess engine Fritz considers only this move from the first second onwards, giving it a +2 pawns score after a 16-ply search. Actually, everything else is bad for Black, for instance 17...Nb5? 18.Bxf7+! Kxf7 (18...Kh8 19.Bxb6 Nxa3 20.Bxe8+/-) 19.Qb3+ Be6 20.Ng5+ and White is winning. This confirms what Burgess says: Fischer had seen the queen sacrifice many moves in advance.
18.Bxb6. After this move Fritz immediately shows a 4.5 pawn advantage for Black, displaying the game continuation up to move 25 in it's main line. The alternative 18.Bxe6 is even worse: 18...Qb5+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Ng3+ 21.Kg1 Qf1+! 22.Rxf1 Ne2# and this time it is Black giving a smothered mate! It is extraordinary that the threat of smothered mate occurs for both side in a single game. But one must consider 18.Qxc3 Qxc5! 19.dxc5 Bxc3 20.Bxe6 Rxe6-+ but Black is a pawn up and easily winning.; The same applies to 18.Bd3 Nb5 with a clear advantage.
18...Bxc4+. Thus begins one of the greatest king hunts in chess history – and certainly one that gives enormous aesthetic pleasure. 19.Kg1. 19.Rd3 Bxd3+ 20.Kg1 Ne2+ 21.Kf1 Nf4+ 22.Kg1 axb6 and White loses everything. 19...Ne2+. The start of a windmill check series – the Germans call it "zwickmühle". 20.Kf1 Nxd4+. After removing the d-pawn the knight is protected on c3 by the Bg7 two moves later. 21.Kg1. 21.Rd3 axb6 22.Kg1 (after 22.Qc3 Nxf3 the queen falls) 22...Ne2+ 23.Kf1 Nf4 and White is completely lost. 21...Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1.
Black has at least a draw here, which may have been part of young Bobby's original calculations. But now he has more on his mind. 23...axb6 24.Qb4 Ra4! 25.Qxb6 Nxd1.
"Bobby has a Rook, two minor pieces, and a Pawn for the Queen – more than enough, materially speaking. Besides this, he has a mating attack against the White King. The rest is a mopping up operation, which he conducts with absolute precision" (Reuben Fine). Byrne is stubborn and plays on against the 13-year-old. 26.h3 Rxa2 27.Kh2 Nxf2. The advantage has grown to rook, two bishops and three pawns for the queen. 28.Re1 Rxe1 29.Qd8+ Bf8 30.Nxe1 Bd5. Instead of simply pushing and promoting a queenside pawn the young Fischer plays for mate. 31.Nf3 Ne4 32.Qb8 b5 33.h4 h5. Rawson notes that every black piece is defended, "a sure sign of good technique." 34.Ne5 Kg7 35.Kg1. To avoid the pin ...Bd6. But now it is a forced mate for Black.
35...Bc5+ 36.Kf1. 36.Kh2 Nd2 threatening 37...Nf1+ 38.Kh3 Bxg2# 37.Kh1 Ra1+ 38.Kh2 Nf1+ 39.Kh3 Ra2 and mate to follow. 36...Ng3+ 37.Ke1 Bb4+. There were shorter mates: 37...Re2+ 38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Ba3+ 40.Kb1 Re1#; or even 37...Bb3 38.Qh8+ Kxh8 39.Nxf7+ Kg7 40.Nd6 Re2#. 38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Ne2+ 40.Kb1 Nc3+ 41.Kc1 Rc2#
Bobby went for the elegant, systematic mate, which Byrne very gamely allowed him to deliver. 0-1.
Note that you can click the notation to follow the moves
About the author
Until recently Dr. Frank Brady (born March 15, 1934 in Brooklyn, New York) was Chairman of the Department of Mass Communications, Journalism, Television and Film at St. John's University, and he remains a full professor there.. He was an Adjunct Professor of Journalism of Barnard College of Columbia University for twenty years. He holds a B.S., SUNY; MFA Coiumbia University; and an M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University.
Dr Frank Brady in Iceland, researching for his Fischer biography
In 1960, Brady was the Founding Editor of Chess Life as a magazine. (Previously it had been a newspaper), and later Editor of Chessworld Magazine.. He has written many books on a variety of subjects, such as a biography of Orson Welles, and one of Aristotle Onassis. He has been elected to and serves as an active voting member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and PEN, the international writers' organization.
Frank Brady playes an informal game against entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Andreas Thiel,
who was instrumental in founding or promoting companies like PayPal, Facebook and LinkedIn
Frank is a writer, editor and publisher of international renown. He wrote one of the best-selling chess books in history, Profile of a Prodigy, the biography of Bobby Fischer, as well as countless other books and articles on chess and other subjects. His new biography of Fischer, Endgame: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Bobby Fischer was published in 2011. He has been involved with radio and film projects. His wife, Maxine, also writes books.
Recently Garry Kasparov visited the Marshall Chess Club, where Dr. Frank Brady showed
him the board used in the famous teletype match which Bobby played in 1965 in Havanna
Frank is an International Arbiter of FIDE, and has directed many major tournaments. He served as the arbiter of international tournaments in New York in 2001 and 2004, and was Chief International Arbiter for the New York International in 2007, 2008, 2009, and will serve as Chief Arbiter again for the New York International that starts on June 17th, 2011. Brady was elected President of the world-famous Marshall Chess Club and has served in that capacity since 2007.