When Sammy Met Bobby

Former child prodigies Samuel Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer had one of the fiercest rivalries in chess history — and not only on the board

Dominic Lawson

It is one of the curious facts of chess history that the most notable child prodigies have emerged from the Americas. First there was the Louisianan Paul Morphy; then the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca; and of course, Brooklyn’s Bobby Fischer.

Samuel Reshevsky is, among the general public, less well-known than any of the above: yet he too was a coast-to-coast sensation in America as a performing prodigy, a fact we should recall in this, the year of the 100th anniversary of his birth. 

Although he became America’s best hope for a world chess champion, and remained so until the emergence of Bobby Fischer, he was born Szmul Rzeszewski on November 21, 1911, in the Polish town of Ozorków, one of six sons in a highly religious Hasidic family. Having astonished all the locals with his apparently god-given skills at chess, the eight-year-old was taken by his parents to the New World, where he became a sensation by taking on up to 80 opponents simultaneously and crushing almost all of them. He toured Hollywood, where, for the benefit of the cameras, he demolished Charlie  Chaplin. Among other bizarre photo opportunities, he posed in boxing gloves with the five-year-old actor Jackie Coogan — who promptly punched the eight-year-old chess prodigy in the eye.

Eventually the US child protection authorities pounced, and ordered Reshevsky’s parents — for whom young Szmul, now known as Sammy, was a meal ticket — to enrol him in a school. By then 12, he could neither read nor write, which made him an even more perplexing phenomenon. As he wrote in the introduction to his best games collection, “People stared at me, poked me; professors measured my cranium and psychoanalysed me[…]I was constantly being asked how I was able to play such strong chess as a child, but of course I did not know the answer. I sang because I liked to sing and I played chess because I liked to play chess. That was all I knew.”

Despite his love for the game, Reshevsky managed to abandon it throughout his somewhat delayed formal education. As an adult he became the Western world’s strongest chess grandmaster, but sadly, his earning powers as a mature human being were nothing compared to what he had made for his family as a prodigy. In the 1940s he decided that he could not provide properly for his own wife and children — this was not the Soviet Union, where grandmasters were paid salaries by the state — and so he declared that he was abandoning the game for good in order to pursue a career as a Certified Public Accountant. He noted that “I found the CPA examinations far more difficult than most of the chess games I’ve played.”

It was only through private sponsorships that Reshevsky could be persuaded to take part in the 1948 tournament to decide the world chess championship. He came third, and it was Mikhail Botvinnik who won, to become the first Soviet world champion. In 1955 Reshevsky gained a small measure of revenge, beating Botvinnik over four games in a remarkable Cold War match between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Perhaps that was the high point of his career. In 1958 his star was utterly eclipsed when the 15-year-old Bobby Fischer won the US championship — ahead of Reshevsky. Now it was Fischer’s turn for coast-to-coast mass media attention; and unlike Reshevsky, he was able — although not until 1972 — to wrest the world title from the apparently invincible Soviet school of chess.

Not surprisingly, there had been considerable commercial interest in a match between Fischer and Reshevsky, and one was finally arranged in 1961. Although scheduled for 16 games, after 11 of them, with the score tied at 5.5 points each, Fischer walked out, leaving Reshevsky the unsatisfied victor by default. In a rare interview to mark his 80th birthday, Reshevsky claimed that he had “broken Fischer’s confidence”. That might be true. Fischer’s refusal to put his world title on the line after 1972, and his subsequent abandonment of the game, suggested that he lacked the psychological self-assurance which his extraordinary natural talent should have guaranteed.

Fischer and Reshevsky were divided on another issue. Both came from Jewish backgrounds, but while Fischer became rabidly anti-Semitic, Reshevsky remained devoted to his family’s faith. Indeed, it was said that the only thing one could confidently predict about Reshevsky was that he would never play a chess game, or even study it, for the 24 hours following Friday sunset.

In that 80th birthday interview — also the year of his death — Reshevsky was asked if he had ever discussed such matters with his bitter rival. Once, in a world championship tournament in Palma de Mallorca in 1970, the two had arrived before all the other competitors and so, said Reshevsky: “We walked together, talked together…he has his views, I have my views. It didn’t bother me. I tried to make him see the light. I didn’t succeed, but I tried.”

In the circumstances, it seems more than appropriate to mark Reshevsky’s centenary with his most crushing victory from that abandoned yet ferociously hard-fought match against the 18-year-old Bobby Fischer back in 1961. This was the seventh game of the match, with Reshevsky playing White.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.e3 0-0 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Na5 9.Nd2 c5 10.0-0 b6 11.cxd5 exd5 12.f3 Re8 13.Re1 Be6 14.Ra2 Rac8 15.Nf1 cxd4 16.cxd4 h5 17.h3 h4 18.Rf2 Qd7 19.e4! (The central push that Reshevsky’s 12th move was designed to enforce.) fxe4 20.fxe4 Bb3 (Reshevsky’s idea was 20…Qxd4 21.e5 and if Fischer moves his Knight then 22.Bh7+ wins Black’s Queen. However, on 20…Qxd4 21.e5 Fischer could have continued 21…Rxc1! 22.Qxc1 Ng4! 23.hxg4 Qxd3 after which he has big compensation for the lost exchange. The game continuation is not a mistake, however.) 21.Qd2 Bc4 22.Bc2 Nb3 23.Bxb3 Bxb3 24.e5 Nd5 25.Qg5 Qe7 26.Qg4 Rc6 27.Bg5 Qxa3?? (Here is Fischer’s big blunder. If he had any weakness, it was for grabbing pawns too hot to handle.) 28.Qd7! (Fischer must have expected Reshevsky to play 28.Qxh4 and completely missed this devastating plunge into the innards of his position. He now resigned on the spot, since the threats to both rooks and the critical f7 square are too much to handle: after 28…Rec8 29.Qxf7+ Kh8 30.Re4 mate is coming up fast.)

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