Samuel Reshevsky would have turned 100 today

by ChessBase
11/26/2011 – On November 26, 1911, in a town near Lódz, Poland, little Sammy was born. He learnt chess at four and at eight was supporting the family, which had moved to the USA, with simuls and games against masters. Samuel Herman Reshevsky went on to a professional chess career spanning seventy years, and was considered by his arch rival Bobby Fischer one of the greatest of all time.

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Samuel Reshevsky, 1911–1992

Samuel Herman Reshevsky, born Szmul Rzeszewski on November 26, 1911, Ozorków near Lódz, (today Poland), died in April 1992 in New York City (see his New York Times obituary). "Sammy", as was always simply known, was possibly the greatest child prodigy in the game. He learned chess at the age of four, and at eight was giving simultaneous exhibitions and beating masters with ease. When he was eight his parents took him to the U.S. to make a living exhibiting their child.

An early picture of Samuel Reshevsky, a photograph, taken in the Netherlands in February or March 1920.
It comes from the collection of Michael Clapham, who presented it to Edward Winter in Chess Notes 4791.

Sammy Reshevsky at the age of eight (in 1920), giving a simultaneous exhibition

Sammy at ten, playing Charles Chaplin in 1921, during the filming of The Kid

Playing Charles Jaffe at 11. Sammy tied for third with Janowski, Bigelow and Bernstein

Reshevsky played thousands of games in exhibitions all over the U.S. At eleven he played in the New York Masters, the youngest player to compete in a strong tournament. He did not attend regular school as a child, but from the age of 13 gave up competitive chess for seven years to complete his secondary education. In 1934 he graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in accounting and from then on supported himself and his family by working as an accountant. He married Norma Mindick and the couple had three children. Reshevsky was a devout Orthodox Jew and did not play on the Jewish Sabbath – his games always had to be scheduled accordingly.

Chess career

Sammy Reshevsky won the U.S. Championship for the first time in 1931 at Tulsa, at the age of nineteen. He shared the 1934 title with Reuben Fine at Chicago, and then went on to win the U.S. Championship in 1936, 1938, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946, and 1969. He competed in a record 21 U.S. Championships, and also holds records for most finishes in the top three places (15), most games played (269), and most games won (127).

Reshevsky's international career began in 1935 with a trip to England, where he won at Great Yarmouth with 10/11. He then won first place at the Margate tournament where he beat, among others, former world champion José Raúl Capablanca, and in 1938 shared fourth in the famous AVRO tournament in the Netherlands, which featured arguably the eight strongest players in the world. Reshevsky won his third U.S. Open title at Boston 1944.

Samuel Reshevsky was a serious contender for the World Championship from roughly 1935 to the mid 1960s. He finished joint third (with Keres, behind Botvinnik and Smyslov) in the World Championship match tournament in The Hague/Moscow 1948, a tournament organized because World Champion Alexander Alekhine had died while holding the title. In the Zurich 1953 Candidates he finished in joint second place with David Bronstein and Keres, two points behind Smyslov. Bronstein wrote in his last book, Secret Notes (2007) that the nine Soviet grandmasters (out of 15 players) were under orders from both their chess leadership and the KGB to not let Reshevsky win the tournament under any circumstances, with Smyslov being the preferred victor. When Reshevsky maintained his strong contention late into the two-month event, Bronstein claims that the Soviets prearranged several results in games amongst themselves to successfully prevent Reshevsky's overall victory, while also ensuring that Reshevsky faced the maximum test in his own games against the Soviet players. Reshevsky qualified for one more Candidates' in 1967, but lost the subsequent quarterfinal match to Viktor Korchnoi the following year.

Rivalry with Fischer

After his debut at age 14 in the US Championship in 1957–58, Bobby Fischer began to dominate, winning on each of his seven attempts, leaving Reshevsky, the seven-time former champion, in the chasing pack. There was little love lost between the two players. Ahead of the Buenos Aires 1960 tournament, Reshevsky reportedly said, "I would settle for 19th place – if Fischer placed 20th." In the 1967 Sousse Interzonal, Fischer turned up 53 minutes late (only seven minutes short of an automatic time forfeiture) for his game with Reshevsky, and made his opening move without a word of apology. Reshevsky, who had been convinced that Fischer had withdrawn from the tournament, lost the game badly and complained furiously to the organizers. He refused to play for the U.S. team in the Chess Olympiads of 1960, 1962 and 1966 because Fischer was chosen ahead of him for the top board. He did, however, finally consent to play on a lower board in 1970, the only time the two men appeared in the same team.

Although Reshevsky and Fischer had one of the fiercest rivalries in chess history, Fischer greatly respected the older champion, choosing in a 1964 article as the "ten greatest masters in history" Paul Morphy, Howard Staunton, Wilhelm Steinitz, Siegbert Tarrasch, Mikhail Tchigorin, Alexander Alekhine, Jose Capablanca, Boris Spassky, Mikhail Tal and Samuel Reshevsky. Note that Fischer left out Lasker, Rubinstein and Petrosian, the reigning world champion at the time, in favour of his rival.

Here are some lesser-know facts about Samuel Reshevsky [compiled by ChessWindows]:

  • The six highest-rated octogenarians in history are Samuel Reshevsky, Vassily Smyslov, Svetozar Gligoric, Antonio Medina, Stuart Wagman and Viktor Korchnoi.

  • Samuel Reshevsky had a terrible memory, according to some of the New York players, who would show him games that he would not remember, even if he had played them just a few months earlier. There is a story about someone showing Reshevsky a game, and Reshevsky said that the players "weren’t very good" and that the game was uninteresting. It was one of Reshevsky’s own games!

  • He admitted that he never studied middle or end games, just calculated over the board. He spent all his time trying to memorize openings, without great success.

  • When a Russian official asked him "How are you?" right before the 1948 World Championship Tournament, Reshevsky answered: "Fine," throwing the entire Russian delegation into a panic. The explanation: the official's command of English was limited and he had meant to ask "Who are you?" The panic was caused by a rumor that Reuben Fine, his great American rival who was had declined to contend for the world championship, had arrived and was going to play after all!

  • In the 1942 US Championship Reshevsky's clock ran out in his game against Denker. Tournament director Walter Stephens came up from behind the clock, turned it around, and forfeited the wrong player! Despite violent protestations Stephens refused to change his decision, which ultimately gave Reshevsky the title (instead of GM Isaac Kashdan).

  • Grandmasters Samuel Reshevsky and Miguel Najdorf exchanged punches on at least two occasions in two different tournaments. Reshevsky and Reuben Fine nearly got into a fistfight in Nottingham 1936, one of the greatest tournaments of all time, when Fine became increasingly upset at Reshevsky’s attempts to win a dead-drawn endgame.

  • During a Fischer-Reshevsky match in 1961, on a particular hot day, Fischer demanded a fan, but Reshevsky declared that the sound of a fan prevented him from concentrating. The arbiter decided to turn the fan on during Fischer’s move, and then switch it off during Reshevsky’s.


In an article on Chess Prodigies the historian Edward Winter showed us the above cutting, which comes from the front page of the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde of 13 November 1988. "It is a good photograph," writes Winter, "but, contrary to the claim in the caption, it shows not Capablanca but Reshevsky."

Another picture of the latter, similarly attired, was presented by Richard Benjamin in C.N. 4212.

There is a wonderful narrative entitled "Remembering Reshevsky" in the March 2011 issue of Chess Magazine. It is part of a series on "Chess After the War" by John Saunders and can be read in full here. The magazine can be ordered in hard copy here (from North America here).

There is a twelve-page work-of-love article on Samuel Reshevsky by Al Lawrence in the November 2011 issue of Chess Life. If you are a member of the USCF you have probably already got a copy; others can get one or read it online on the USCF Chess Life pages.

Stephen Gordon's book is by a very large margin the most comprehensive collection of Reshevsky’s games ever offered to the public. Arranged in chronological order, with mini-essays wrapping up each decade, the 1,768 games (match, tournament, exhibition, simultaneous, casual, speed, postal, blindfold and other) are given in full, many with diagrams. You can get it from the London Chess Centre.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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