19 April 2017

Byrne -- Fischer, New York 1956

"Game of the Century"
It was quite an experience to watch [Bobby Fischer] during the critical stage of the game. There he sat like a little Buddha, showing his moves with the calm regularity of an automaton.
Hans Kmoch, "Game of the Century," Chess Review (December 1956)
Hans Kmoch, as manager for the Manhattan Chess Club, directed tournaments there. The Third Lessing J. Rosenwald Trophy Tournament took place 7-24 October 1956 at the Manhattan Chess Club and the Marshall Chess Club. Fischer was invited because he had won the U.S. Junior Championship in July, the youngest player ever to do so. The Rosenwald tournament was the first time that he played against the top masters in the United States. His round 8 win against Donald Byrne won the tournament's brilliancy prize and was dubbed the "game of the century" by Kmoch.*

Kmoch wrote that the game, "matches the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies" (Kmoch, Chess Review, rpt. in Bruce Pandolfini, The Best of Chess Life and Review, vol. 1, 1933-1960 [1988], 525).

This game has been annotated many times. For my annotations, I went through the game several times. At several critical positions, I wrote my anticipated variations without moving the pieces. After recording these lines, I checked mine against Garry Kasparov, My Great Predecessors, part IV Fischer (2004). I then checked some of my lines with Stockfish 7.

This game strikes me as a good one for honing a player's calculation skills. It is among my candidates for "best game ever played."

Byrne,Donald -- Fischer,Robert James [D97]
New York Rosenwald New York, 1956

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.d4 0–0 5.Bf4 d5 6.Qb3 dxc4 7.Qxc4 c6 8.e4 Nbd7 9.Rd1 Nb6 10.Qc5?! 

10.Qb3 seems better.

10...Bg4 11.Bg5?

11.Be2 seems necessary.


This move stunned me when I was playing through the game on a chess board last week. On the one hand, it is a simple deflection combined with a threat to remove the guard of the e4 pawn. On the other hand, Black cannot win a pawn, but rather offers an exchange sacrifice. Fischer had to calculate several lines. In all of these, the vulnerability of White's king proved decisive.

White to move

This position was on my board at the dining room table for most of the weekend. I returned to it several times to study and record possible variations.


Alternatives begin with 12.Nxa4 Nxe4 and then:

a) 13.Bxe7 was the first line I recorded in my notes. 13...Re8 is the computer's second choice (The engine prefers 13...Qc7 14.Bd6 Nxd6) 14.Bxd8 Nxc5+ (Kmoch has this line, but revereses the order of the previous two moves) 15.Be2 Nxa4 16.Bh4 Nxb2 and Black is clearly better.

b) 13.Qxe7 was my second line. 13...Qxe7

My analysis falls short here. The engine prefers 13...Qa5+ 14.b4 Qxa4 15.Qxe4 Rfe8 16.Be7 Bxf3 17.gxf3 Bf8 Garry Kasparov credits Sergei Shipov with this line. Clearly Black is winning.

Continuing my line: 14.Bxe7 Rfe8 15.Be2 (The engine prefers 15.Bd3 ) 15...Rxe7 16.0–0 (The engine prefers 16.h3 ) 16...b5 17.Nc3 Nxc3 18.bxc3 Rxe2 Black is ahead a piece.

c) 13.Qc1 Qa5+ 14.Nc3 Bxf3 15.gxf3 Nxg5 is offered by Kasparov. I did not look at this line.

d) 13.Qb4 Nxg5 14.Nxg5 Bxd1 15.Kxd1 Bxd4–+ Kasparov. Another line that I failed to examine.

My third line continued:

e) 13.Qa3 Nxg5 14.Be2 Nxf3+ (Stockfish prefers 14...Bxf3 15.Bxf3 Qa5+ 16.Nc3 Qxa3 17.bxa3 Nxf3+ 18.gxf3) 15.Bxf3 Bxf3 16.Qxf3 and Black is winning.

12...Nxc3 13.bxc3 Nxe4 14.Bxe7 Qb6

White to move


What if White accepts the exchange sacrifice?

15.Bxf8 Bxf8 16.Qc1

I also considered 16.Qb3 Qxb3 (Kasparov gives 16...Nxc3, attributing the suggestion to Yuri Averbakh) 17.axb3 Nxc3 18.Rd2 Re8+ 19.Be2 Bb4-+

16...Re8 17.Be2 Nxc3

Analysis diagram after 17...Nxc3
I spent a lot of time trying to find a defense for White here. Instead, I found only lines leading to checkmate or to an overwhelming material advantage for Black.


(Stockfish prefers 18.Qxc3 Bb4 and there was no doubt in my mind that Black was winning here)

18...Rxe2+ 19.Rxe2 Nxe2 20.Kxe2 Qb5+ 21.Ke1

(21.Kd1 seems best 21...Qd3+ 22.Qd2 Bxf3+ 23.gxf3 Qxf3+ 24.Kc2 Qxh1-+)

21...Bb4+ 22.Kd1

(22.Qd2 Bxd2+ 23.Kxd2 [23.Nxd2 Qe2#])

22...Qd3+ 23.Qd2 Qxd2#

15...Nxc3 16.Bc5

I considered 16.Qxc3 Rfe8 17.0–0 is Stockfish's choice, as it was mine (I did not look at Kasparov's line 17.Bxf7+ Kxf7 18.Ng5+ Kxe7 19.0–0 Bxd1 20.Rxd1) 17...Rxe7 and Black has a clear edge.

16...Rfe8+ 17.Kf1 Be6!!

White to move


After the possible 18.Bxe6, I spent a lot of time looking at complex and unclear lines before I saw Fischer's plan: 18...Qb5+ 19.Bc4 Qxc4+ 20.Kg1 Ne2+ 21.Kf1 Ng3+ 22.Kg1 Qf1+ 23.Rxf1 Ne2#.

I also saw 18.Qxc3 Qxc5 19.dxc5 Bxc3 20.Bxe6 Rxe6.

After Fischer's queen sacrifice, the moves seemed rather forcing and I did not look at variations again for many moves.

18...Bxc4+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Nxd4+ 21.Kg1

I did not examine 21.Rd3 axb6.

21...Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1 axb6 24.Qb4 Ra4 25.Qxb6 Nxd1

White to move


I did not examine 26.Qxb7 Bd5 27.Qd7 Re2.

26...Rxa2 27.Kh2 Nxf2 28.Re1 Rxe1 29.Qd8+ Bf8 30.Nxe1 Bd5 31.Nf3 Ne4

Here it seems to me that White is running out of moves. He has not been in the game since capturing Fischer's queen. In fact, he was lost before that. His role is to make the moves that permit the young Fischer to demonstrate his skill.

32.Qb8 b5

Kasparov mentions 32...Kg7.

33.h4 h5 34.Ne5 Kg7 35.Kg1 Bc5+

White to move


I knew that 36.Kh2 would lose quickly, but my Ra1 is inferior to 36...Nd2!

I saw 37.Qc7 (37.Nf3 Bd6+) 37...Bg1+ 38.Kh1 Nf2#.


36...Bc4+? 37.Nxc4.

I found another checkmate as fast as Fischer's: 36...Rf2+ 37.Ke1

37.Kg1 loses faster 37...Rf4+ 38.Kh2 Rxh4#.

37...Bb4+ 38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Rc2+ 40.Kd1 (40.Kb1 Nc3+ 41.Ka1 Ra2#) 40...Nf2#.

37.Ke1 Bb4+

Kasparov points out a faster checkmate: 37...Re2+ 38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Ba3+ 40.Kb1 Re1#.

38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Ne2+ 40.Kb1 Nc3+ 41.Kc1 Rc2# 0–1

After this game, the world noticed Bobby Fischer. Within a few years, he became a leading candidate for a future World Championship match. When he finally reached the summit, he gave up on chess. Of course, there were reasons. He set conditions that were not met wholly.

*For some of the historical details concerning this tournament, I am indebted to John Donaldson, and Eric Tangborn, Bobby Fischer: The Early Years: 1943-1962 (Amazon Digital Services, 2017).

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