The Man in the Middle

Lothar Schmid was a great referee and a remarkable man: a former lawyer and grandmaster himself, he had the respect of even the respect of even the most temperamental of players

Dominic Lawson

There is a vital figure in every world chess championship, yet his name is usually as obscure as the players are famous. This is the referee, whose job it is to ensure that the clash is conducted according to all the rules, and if there is a dispute, to bring the warring sides to an agreement.

Never were those skills of diplomacy more essential than when Bobby Fischer was mounting his challenge for the world title; and the chess world was fortunate that Lothar Schmid was around to carry out that task. The German died in May at the age of 85; we should mark his passing — because he was in his own way a remarkable man.

Schmid was extremely wealthy by inheritance: his father passed on to him the ownership of Karl May Verlag, a publisher of cowboy and Indian books which captivated generations of Germans. Lothar combined the running of this firm with great success as an amateur chessplayer. He became a grandmaster and, although his business career limited his play, he turned out for West Germany in no fewer than 11 chess Olympiads, where he won four individual silver medals.

But perhaps his greatest pleasure was combining his financial firepower with his interest in the ancient game: Schmid became the owner of the world’s largest private collection of chess books, among them one of only a handful of surviving copies of the first printed chess volume, Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess with 150 Endings, published in 1497.

Yet he left his own biggest imprint on history as a referee of chess matches between the great players of his own day, a task for which he was uniquely suited. It was not just that, as a strong grandmaster himself, he would have the players’ respect. Nor that he had trained as a lawyer, and was therefore comfortable in situations demanding arbitration. As the English grandmaster Ray Keene recalls, “Lothar would never react crossly or even irritably, no matter how dreadful or rude the behaviour of the people he was dealing with. He would just smile at everyone and keep the situation on an even keel.”

Yet dealing with the mercurial and indeed impossible Bobby Fischer tested even Schmid’s composure and tact to the limits. The American had first of all failed to turn up in Reykjavik in time for the scheduled first game of his 1972 match against the world champion Boris Spassky. Then, the Soviets having been persuaded not to claim the match by default, Fischer refused to turn up for the second game in a protest against the television cameras in the playing hall (the noise of which he said disturbed him). Fischer was now two games down. If he didn’t emerge for the third game, the match would be abandoned, with Spassky declared the winner. Somehow Schmid managed to persuade the Russian to agree to play the third game of the match in a private room backstage, while the legal issue with the owner of the film rights was being settled. In agreeing to this, Spassky was flouting the wishes of his Communist Party minders, but Schmid could play on the fact that the proud reigning champion wanted to win the match over the board (and in fact had never lost a game against Fischer up to that point).

Yet almost as soon as Spassky made his first move of the third game, Fischer noticed that there was a CCTV camera in the room (which was just relaying footage to the spectators in the main hall) and began shouting. At this, Spassky finally lost his patience and declared to Fischer and Schmid that he was leaving for the playing hall, and if the American wanted to continue the game, he would have to follow. Schmid of course understood there was no way Fischer would do that, and that the “match of the century” would immediately be over before it had properly begun.

He recalled later: “For a second I didn’t know what to do. Then I stopped the clock, breaking the rules. But somehow I had to get that incredible situation under control.” Schmid put his arms around Spassky’s shoulders and said: “Boris, you promised me you would play this game here. Are you breaking that promise?” Then the German turned to Fischer and simply said: “Bobby, please be kind.” Somehow this seemed to calm both men down and they sat down to play. Fischer won that third game and never looked back, winning the match convincingly and thus breaking the Soviet Union’s grip on the world chess championship.

As we now know, he failed to defend that title and disappeared completely from view. Yet 18 years later Schmid acted for a few weeks as host to Fischer in Germany — he was one of the very few humans the paranoiac genius trusted; and two years after that, Schmid refereed Fischer’s 1992 private rematch against Spassky. This time, there were no arguments — other than Fischer’s with the US federal authorities, who said that by playing on Serbian territory he was sanctions-busting and therefore a criminal in US law. With that, unfortunately, even Lothar Schmid could not help. 

Schmid’s own chess style was not a reflection of his pacific character: or perhaps it could be said that the game allowed him an outlet for the aggression which he completely abjured in his human relations. Here is a remarkably violent encounter he won with the Black pieces against the great Efim Bogoljubow in the West German championship of 1949 (which Bogoljubow won): 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Nxe4!? (Bold in the extreme. Schmid’s main idea is that after 6.Nxe4 Qe7 7.f3 d5 regains the sacrificed Knight. But Bogoljubow will regret not taking Schmid’s King’s Knight when he had the chance.) 6.Nxc6 Nxc3 7.Nxd8 Nxd1 8.Nxf7 Nxf2 9.Nxh8 Nxh1 10.Bd3? (After an amazing series of desperado Knight moves Boguljubow misses his chance to bottle up Schmid’s steed with 10.Be3) Bc5 11.Bxh7 Nf2 12.Bf4 d6 13.Bg6+ Kf8 14.Bg3 Ng4 15.Nf7? (Again Boguljubow underestimates the potential of Schmid’s rampaging Knight: 15.Kd2 immediately was best) Ne3 16.Kd2 Bf5 17. Ng5? (The final error: his best chance was the ingenious 17.Nh8! though after 17…Kg8 18.Bxf5 Nxf5 19.Ng6 Nxg3 20.hxg3 Re8 Black would be much better) Bxg6 18.Ne6+ Ke7 19.Nxc5 Nxc2 20.Bh4+ Ke8 21.Ne6 Kd7 22.Nf4 Nxa1 23.Nxg6 Re8 24.Bf2 Nc2 25.Nf4 Nb4 and after this 14th move by Schmid’s wooden Red Rum, Bogoljubow resigned. One of the most extraordinary games ever played.

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