Robert Byrne, Chess Grandmaster, Dies at 84
Courtesy Byrne Family
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: April 13, 2013
Robert Byrne, an international grandmaster and United States chess champion who, as the chess columnist for The New York Times, analyzed top-flight matches from 1972 through 2006, the eras of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, died on Friday at his home in Ossining, N.Y. He was 84.
Courtesy Byrne Family
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said Joyce Dopkeen, a friend.
A prodigy as a young player, Mr. Byrne was nonetheless a latecomer to the professional game. He had a career as a philosophy professor, teaching at Indiana University through most of the 1950s, and did not become a full-time chess player until he was in his 40s, by which age most top players are beyond their peak skills.
Known as a cagey, patient player who favored flank attacks and solid structural defense, avoided pawn weaknesses and was especially strong in the endgame, Mr. Byrne, as an amateur, represented the United States with distinction in international competitions. But before he turned professional in the late 1960s, perhaps his most notable game was a loss to Fischer in the 1963-64 United States Championships, an annual invitation-only gathering of the nation’s strongest players.
Fischer won the tournament that year with an 11-0 record, the only time in more than 100 years of the event that anyone finished without a loss or a draw, and his game with Mr. Byrne was his closest call. Indeed, the game was widely seen to be tilting in Mr. Byrne’s favor, and its grandmaster analysts had just suggested that Fischer resign, when Mr. Byrne discovered that Fischer had engineered a brilliantly disguised trap for him and that he had fallen into it. When Mr. Byrne, instead of Fischer, resigned, spectators were shocked.
“Fischer’s conclusion was so neat and so profound” that the analysts, great players themselves, failed to see it, said the chess teacher and writer Bruce Pandolfini, who was at the match. “Byrne, to his credit, recognized it. So one of his great losses is part of chess history.”
Mr. Byrne won his game with Fischer in the 1965-66 United States Championships, though Fischer was the eventual champion. Finally, in 1972, he earned the championship himself, tying with two other players, Samuel Reshevsky and Lubomir Kavalek, and then winning a playoff.
The victory qualified him to play in the 1973 interzonal tournament, in which he finished third, earning a slot in the eight-player tourney that would determine the next world championship challenger, rare heights for an American player. He was eliminated in the first round, however, by Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union, whom Fischer had unseated as champion in their celebrated match the previous year.
As a columnist for The Times, Mr. Byrne was one of the few conduits in general-interest publications between the high-level chess world and its fans. Indeed, before the Internet made live games accessible, his column provided up-to-date information and analysis that was often not generally available, even if the chess argot was baffling to the general reader.
In a typical introduction to a column, this one in 1984, Mr. Byrne wrote, “Three decades of the poisoned pawn variation of the Najdorf Sicilian have not dampened the ardor either of those who believe that the misplaced black queen and White’s lead in development should produce a winning attack or of those who believe that Black’s solid pawn structure should prove an impenetrable barrier.”
Robert Eugene Byrne was born in Brooklyn on April 20, 1928, and graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and Yale. He and his younger brother Donald were students of the celebrated chess teacher John W. Collins, as was Fischer. The three were among the subjects of Mr. Collins’s 1975 memoir, “My Seven Chess Prodigies.”
Donald Byrne, like his brother, lost to Fischer in a notable game, the so-called game of the century, in 1956, when Fischer, just 13, sacrificed his queen in an exchange that ended in checkmate, propelling his rapid ascent to chess royalty.
Robert Byrne gained his own fame in 1952 when he upset one of the world’s strongest players, David Bronstein, at the Chess Olympiad, a biennial international tournament, in Helsinki, Finland. But soon he turned away from chess to focus on an academic life.
He graduated from Yale and earned a master’s degree from Indiana University, where he stayed on to lecture in philosophy. His return to serious chess began in the early 1960s. He won the 1960 United States Open championship, a tournament, unlike the United States invitational championship, that attracts grandmasters and less accomplished players. He was co-champion of the event, with Pal Benko, in 1966. He earned the international grandmaster designation in 1963.
Mr. Byrne’s first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include his wife, Ursula Maria Haas von Krebs, known as Maria, whom he married in 1971; a son, Thomas; and two grandchildren.