“. . . a game that contains a spectacular, deep and beautiful strategic idea.”
Wikipedia’s Glossary of Chess
Throughout human history the arc of progress has been continuous, but it has not been smooth. There have been times when a single human act suddenly opens our eyes to what is possible and jolts us into recognizing a new reality. These acts are transcendent.
For instance, in 1956 Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile. It had long been thought to be impossible, and perhaps even deadly, for anyone to run a mile in under four minutes. The feat, at the time, unlocked a door to something newly possible. Once that door to the four minute mile was finally opened it was repeated by another runner just 46 days later.
It’s interesting to note that when these events happen, the world is not physically changed in any meaningful way. If you were to wander around the globe and inspect things closely after one of these events, you would find them largely the same as the day before. What changes is our beliefs about what is possible. When these events occur our collective consciousness is altered and our concept of humanity’s potential is expanded. The horizons of the possible are pushed just a little further out.
So physically speaking, nothing of import really changed on October 17th, 1956. But it was an important day nonetheless.
On this particular Wednesday in Apartment Q of 560 Lincoln Place Brooklyn, Bobby woke up and headed to the bathroom to pee. Bobby was 13 and this was his habit. He began thinking, as he often did, about chess, even before reaching the toilet. As he stood there he thought about the day’s match and tried to ignore the noise from the cars down on the street. This was Brooklyn after all.
Bobby lived with his mother and sister. His older sister would later yell, though he would not hear, that he had, again, left the toilet seat up.
The match Bobby was thinking about was to be held at the Marshall Chess Club in Greenwich village. The club is unassuming and occupies two stories of a townhome in a building that it owns. It was less than six miles away, the fastest route would have them drive over the Manhattan bridge. Even this short distance would take some time in the traffic. They would need to make sure they left plenty of time.
The Marshall Chess Club is one of the oldest and most well-respected chess clubs in the United States. At the time, the club was hosting the prestigious Rosenwald Memorial Tournament. The event was for elite players. Bobby’s opponent would be Donald Byrne. Byrne was an American Chess Master and he was 26, twice Bobby’s age.
It’s hard to imagine anything important happening at a chess tournament. Games are played. Games are won and lost. Some end in a draw. In fact, when Bobby sat down across from Donald in his striped, buttoned up shirt he didn’t think anything much, other than the game, would happen either. Indeed, the first moves were routine, played by chess players many times. They were the “book” openings, literally they had already been written down in a book of openings. The first several moves are often played from a script of known strong combinations of moves. They are played quickly as a result.
However, things got interesting and soon slowed down. A confident but still cautious Byrne would take a slightly careful opening and begin to push aggressively toward the center of the board. He used his queen to bolster his position early in the game’s development.
Several moves in, Bobby chewed his nails as he looked at the board. His next move was so unexpected and so counterintuitive, several onlookers simply assumed it was a blunder by the young player. He later said, he did “what made sense.”
To comprehend why the move was so misunderstood you first need to know a little about chess. Chess pieces have relative values, the most important and highest valued being the king. The next most important piece is the queen. It is so highly valued it is considered three times more valuable than a bishop, which is itself quite powerful. This is because a queen can move in any direction across any distance on the board. The queen is by far the most potent weapon on a chess board. So a player’s queen is coveted. Most players use their queens judiciously early in the game and protect them at all costs.
So when Bobby forfeited his queen, simply leaving it in a vulnerable position to be taken, he and the game were quickly written off. Some thought perhaps he was too young and lacked the strategic thinking and patience to sustain a difficult game against a chess master.
What no one but Bobby yet knew was that the move was a brilliancy. The game had changed form and no one yet could imagine what he had done . . . what he was doing.
Byrne pounced on Bobby’s queen, Bobby then took the opportunity to attack Byrne’s king and he never stopped. He pressed relentlessly forward in a feat of combination play that tore Byrne’s defenses apart. The approach allowed him to windmill across the the bottom of the board leaving Byrne’s king nowhere to hide and unable to avoid a checkmate.
The staid old guard of the club, chess masters each, watched with mouths agape. Something changed that day. The horizon of the possible moved.
Byrne v. Fischer would later be called The Game of the Century.
Bobby would become a chess grand master and, for a time, was thought to be the greatest to have ever played the game. But that title would eventually go to Gary Kasparov, who would be forever known as the last human to be the greatest player.