The story of a picture

by André Schulz
10/12/2023 – In 1971 Bobby Fischer was on his way to the World Championship, but agreed to take part in a blitz tournament in New York, organised by the Manhattan Chess Club. Fischer won the tournament 25.5 - 0.5. But in round 1, Fischer came close to losing against the well-known and popular author GM Andrew Soltis, but managed to turn the tables. On Twitter/X Davide Nastasio shared a picture of this encounter - and here is the story behind the picture.

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The Manhattan Blitz Tournament 1971

The years 1970 to 1972 were the height of Bobby Fischer's career.  In November-December 1970 he won the Interzonal Tournament in Palma de Mallorca with 18.5 points from 21 games, winning the last seven games. In May 1971 he then defeated Mark Taimanov 6-0 in the quarter-finals of the Candidates' Matches. A few weeks later, in the semi-finals of the Candidates, Fischer defeated Bent Larsen by the same 6-0 score, extending his winning streak to 19 games against some of the world's best players.

Chess fans in the USA followed the action with great excitement and with each success of Fischer chess became more and more popular in the USA.

14 E. 60 St. today

In New York, Fischer's chess club, the Manhattan Chess Club, had moved into new premises at 14 E. 60 St. and was considering how best to inaugurate the club's beautiful new home. Bobby Fischer, who was still in Denver after his victory over Larsen, was consulted by telephone. Fischer suggested a double-round blitz tournament, in which he himself would play. Fischer was not a great fan of blitz tournaments, but when he did take part it was with success, as in the famous Herceg Novi blitz tournament in 1970, which took place after the "Match of the Century USSR vs The Rest of the World". Fischer won the blitz tournament with 19.0/22, finishing 4.5 points ahead of Mikhail Tal, who was second with 14.5/22. Viktor Kortschnoi finished third with 14.0/22, half a point ahead of Tigran Petrosian, who scored 13.5/22.

The blitz tournament at the Manhattan Chess Club was scheduled for 8 August, which was not a particularly happy date as it clashed with the start of the well-funded U.S. Open in Ventura, California. A number of strong players preferred to start there.

Nevertheless, the field for the blitz tournament at the Manhattan Chess Club was impressive, with Grandmaster Robert Byrne, Marshall Chess Club Champion Andy Soltis, Manhattan Chess Club Champion Arthur Feuerstein, Edmar Mednis, Walter Shipman, George Kramer, Louis Levy, Dr Neil McKelvie, Alexander Kevitz, James Gore and Paul Brandts. And Bobby Fischer, of course, as the star of the show.

There was no doubt that Fischer would win the tournament. The only question was whether Fischer would deliver a "Fischer result", i.e. win all his games.

Before the tournament began, club president Rosser Reeves said a few words to the players and spectators and then opened the boards. As expected, Fischer ploughed through the field, picking up point after point. Fischer did not always stand well, but was always able to get out of awkward positions.

Sometimes the clock helped. Against Soltis and later against Shipman, however, Fischer was clearly losing. Unfortunately, the notation of Fischer's game against Soltis has not survived. In the course of the game Fischer, who was playing with Black, had to give his queen for a rook and a pawn, but when both sides were in severe time trouble Fischer managed to turn the tables.

Andrew Soltis later remembered:

I was invited and paired with him in the first round. I got a bad position out of the opening and wondered how I was going to avoid humiliation. But he overlooked a tactic and I won his queen for a rook. Nevertheless, I knew I was going to lose. Fischer had an aura that overwhelmed me. I took longer and longer to make simple moves. With seconds left -- this was before increments -- I began making illegal moves. This was worse than humiliating: Dozens of fans were watching me play illegal moves and losing. I resigned when he was about to queen a pawn."

Thanks to Soltis, the beginning of the game is known: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Lc4 e6 7. Bb3 b5 8.O-O Be7 9. Bf3 Qd7!? 10. a4 b4 11. Na2 Bb7! with good play for Black (A.Soltis: "Confessions of a Grandmaster", p.73)

Against Shipman, Fischer had a won rook endgame, but then blundered his rook. The game was now clearly lost, but somehow Fischer managed to achieve a draw with his connected passed pawns. Due to the speed play in time trouble, the spectators were unable to record the end of the game.

This was in fact the only half-point Fischer surrendered in the tournament, spoiling his "Fischer score" of 100% - all the other games were won by the future World Champion. Andrew Soltis came second with the equally outstanding score of 18:4. Third place went to Robert Byrne with 17.5:4.5. There was a big gap behind the first three. Arthur Feuerstein needed only 11 points, or 50%, to finish fourth.

After the tournament Fischer recorded some of his games, which were published by Chess Life in October 1971.

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The Manhattan Chess Club, founded in 1877, was the second oldest chess club in the USA and, among other things, organised the famous 1924 tournament in New York. For some time the club was based in a building at 353 West 46th Street, which belonged to the American Chess Foundation. After the building was sold in 2000, the club was evicted. It stayed in a hotel for another two years, but then disbanded in 2002 for financial and organisational reasons.

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André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.