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Archive for May 28th, 2007

2 1/2 Minutes

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My father taught me how to play chess when I was about six years old. Of course, he would beat me every time. It was not in his nature to let me “win” every now and then. Worse, when he did beat me, he would sit back and laugh – he had a distinct sadistic streak which manifested itself in ways such as this. So I stopped playing, refused to take any more psychological abuse.

When I was about twelve, I stumbled on Evgeny Alexandrovich Znosko-Borowski’s The Art of the Middlegame in Chess at the Main Street Flushing branch of the Queensborough public library.  I studied it in secret and a month or two later surprised my father by challenging him to play a game. What’s more, I won! – and I sat back and laughed. That started me on a five or six year obsession with chess.

At age thirteen I started playing once a week at the Queens Chess Club, partly to avoid going to Boy Scout meetings which I detested (after a year or so I quit the scouts). There were a couple of strong teen-aged players there, George Kramer and Maurice Ginzburg and the adult players included the wonderful Partos brothers, Julius and George (in Hungarian spelling, Gyula and Gyorgy) who encouraged me in every way they could. After playing there for a year or so Julius told me that the Manhattan Chess Club, the premier club in the country, was offering free memberships to young people in order to get an early hold on the next generation of masters. In this they were very successful. Among the teen-agers at that time were the Byrne brothers, Robert and Donald, Arthur Bisguier, Walter Shipman and George Kramer (who had also moved there). (I once overheard one of the club leaders talking to another of an extraordinary kid in Brooklyn who refused to change allegiances – that would be Bobby Fischer.) For me it was a great improvement in ambience, from a basement in Jackson Heights to a ground level carpeted room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Central Park South.

I played at the Manhattan club from about 1944 to mid 1946, usually going in on Friday afternoons to play in the regular rapid-transit tournaments Friday evenings. This was a full fifteen round, round robin tournament played at ten seconds a move. Donald Byrne, who was wildly talented at fast chess was a frequent winner, even coming in ahead of Reuben Fine, who had a big reputation as rapid transit player, on at least one occasion. I believe I came in fifteenth in every tournament I participated in. I just didn’t have the ability necessary to compete in such lofty company – I was, quite literally, out of my league. There were a number of interesting or amusing episodes at the MCC which I may talk about when the opportunity presents itself.

In the summer of 1945, not long after the German surrender, plans were made to have a ten board team match between the USSR and the USA played at a distance, using MacKay Radio to transmit the moves. Several of us young also-rans were asked to help out with the logistics. The American team was housed in a large catering room at the Henry Hudson Hotel. The audience was in the Grand Ballroom and the MacKay Radio operators were on a mezzanine level balcony overlooking the ballroom. There was a back staircase from the balcony to the catering room. My job was to carry messages to and from the radio operators from and to the catering room. Each of us was given one or two boards to service. I had board number two, Reshevsky, which, as you will see, I remember very distinctly, and must have had board number one, Denker, but have no clear recollection of that.

reshevsky.jpg

The match was scheduled for four days starting September first 1945. In August, the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so VJ day fell on the second of September in the middle of the match schedule. There is an accurate account of the match, including the records of the games on this page. What is not recorded there is the politicking and backbiting that went on before and during the match. Arnold Denker was given the first board because he was the US Champion that year but the feeling was that he would not have been if either Reshevsky or Fine had been able to compete for the US Championship. Both of them had been off the scene during the war years because of their “day jobs” (Reshevsky was an accountant and Fine a psychologist – what they were doing that was essential to the war effort is not known by me). They both did very little to conceal their resentment of Denker’s assignment and Fine seemed to think he should have had the second board. As things turned out, I doubt that any of the six permutations for the top three boards would have made any difference at all – all three would still have been trounced.

Reshevsky was a devout Orthodox Jew and required a dispensation from a Rabbi to play on Saturday but still could not write his own game record (because that constitutes work, which is forbidden) so a young man from CCNY was doing that for him. As the game progressed and Reshevsky’s humiliation was becoming more evident he took out his frustration on the CCNY student – an extremely unpleasant display of prima donna petulance. The game record is available in a very nice format (interactive) here.

Reshevsky sat for 45 minutes on his sixteenth move, a sacrificial line. This sort of thing was not uncommon for him. He often used much of the allotted time for the first set of moves for the early middlegame. The common description was “Sammy has sitzfleisch”. But, still, 45 minutes at move 16 … After Smyslov’s reply very quickly came back, Reshevsky asked me to get the time on Smyslov’s clock. I sent a radiogram request and the answer came back “2 ½ minutes”. When he saw this, Sammy became very agitated (his own clock was well over an hour at this point) and demanded confirmation. I sent another request and the reply was the same. On Reshevsky’s insistence I sent another request: “We received the time as 2 ½ minutes, repeat, 2 ½ minutes – please confirm” They confirmed 2 ½ minutes.

While all of this was going on, Al Horowitz, a genuinely nice guy, publisher with Kenneth Harkness of Chess Review the most popular chess magazine in the US, came up and turned the game record so he could read it, looked thoughtful for a few seconds and then said: “Sammy, have you been keeping up with the Russian journals?” and when Reshevsky said no, he added “Smyslov published 22 pages on this line and beats it in every variation.”

A post script on this story: when I got Smyslov’s first move (e4) from the radio operator, I charged up the stairs, burst through the catering room door and ran smack into Mayor Fiorello Laguardia, nearly bowling him over. He was there with a little troop from City Hall for an opening ceremony. As an illustration of how memory works (or doesn’t), I had completely forgotten this detail of my participation. My mother, who was about 95 at the time, reminded me of it a couple of years ago. To her this was the memorable event; to me it was Smyslov v Reshevsky.

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