John Henderson
By John Henderson

William J. “Bill” Lombardy, who died suddenly at the weekend aged 79, has to arguably go down in the annals of U.S. Chess as ‘the one who got away’, being a huge teenage talent who was equally as gifted as his friend and rival Bobby Fischer, but gave up the chance to become a top chess professional at the height of his career, and instead opted to pursue a personal calling to his faith by becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

Lombardy was born in the Bronx and had been a long-time native of New York City, died of natural causes – believed by many reports to be associated with the chronic heart disease that affected his health in recent years – in Martinez, California, where he had recently relocated to, and had been visiting the Mechanics’ Chess Club in San Francisco regularly over the past month for a series of lectures.

During an era that witnessed the phenomenal rise of Fischer, Lombardy’s talents were never fully recognized, as he was just as equally one of the stand-out teenagers of his generation. In 1957, in Toronto, Canada, he became the first American to win the World Junior Chess Championship title – and with more than just a dash of élan, doing so with a perfect score of 11-0, a feat that still stands today. And three years later, Lombardy led the United States to a historic gold-medal winning performance ahead of the Soviet Union, in their home turf of Leningrad – now St. Petersburg – in the 1960 World Student Team Championship, in the process beating future world champion Boris Spassky in a key game that led not only to the capture of the title but also winning him individual gold for his top board performance.

But by this time, his achievements were being largely overshadowed by Fischer, who managed to grab all the media attention by becoming the youngest person ever to qualify for the Candidates’ and the youngest-ever grandmaster. And with it, Fischer took virtually all of the available sponsorship money and support available to an American chess professional at the time.

Lombardy was gifted and obviously had the talent to become one of the world’s top players – and many have argued that if there had been no Fischer then, with proper financial support, it could well have been Lombardy instead playing Spassky for the world crown. But with no support, Lombardy instead turned to his faith and left the game behind when he was at his peak to become a priest. Yet despite his absence from the chess scene, Lombardy, along with Fischer and Spassky, all became inexorably linked with each other, and all were immortalized on the silver-screen.

 

In 1972, as Fischer went on to challenge Spassky for the world title, the American hopeful recruited Lombardy to be his second and confidant during the match. And in 2014, a mainstream movie of that epic Cold War duel in Reykjavik was released, Pawn Sacrifice, with Hollywood A-listers Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber in the leading roles as Fischer and Spassky, with Lombardy’s character portrayed by co-star Peter Sarsgaard.

Today’s game is one of my Lombardy all-time favorites – and I well remember how impressed I was with it when I first came across it as a kid, in one of my earliest serious chess books, Chess With the Masters, by Martin Beheim. At first appearance it looks boring with nothing happening; but a closer inspection reveals that Lombardy, in his pomp, had that rare ability – like the great Tigran Petrosian – to positionally squeeze even the best of opponents off the board.

(Photo) William “Bill” Lombardy at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club | © Pia Fransson.

GM William Lombardy – GM Lajos Portisch
Leipzig Olympiad, 1960
English Symmetrical
1.c4 c5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.a3 a6 6.Rb1 Rb8 7.b4 cxb4 8.axb4 b5 9.cxb5 axb5 10.Nf3 Nh6 In the English Symmetrical, Black can’t simply mirror White’s moves, as eventually, White’s opening move advantage will be a telling one, such as 10…Nf6 11.d4 d5 12.Bf4 Rb6 13.Ne5 and White already has the makings of threatening attack. 11.e3 d5 12.Ne2 0-0 13.0-0 e5 14.d3 f5 15.Qb3 Nf7 At first sight, Portisch seems to have an excellent position. But appearances can often be deceptive….Black’s pieces are not positioned actively enough to support his advanced pawns. So Lombardy now takes full advantage of this by beginning some undermining maneuvers. 16.Ne1! Ne7 17.f4! Be6 18.fxe5 Nxe5 19.Nf3! Lombardy has successfully broken-down Portisch’s once impressive pawn center, and now he’s going to heap pressure on Black pawn weaknesses on d5 and b5. 19…Nxf3+ 20.Bxf3 Bf7 21.Nd4 The knight has a powerful outpost on d4, both attacking and blockading Black’s weak pawns – and playing 21…Bxd4 is no solution, as all it will do is gift White control over the dark-squares with his Bc1 swiftly coming to f4. 21…Re8 22.Bb2 Qb6 23.Kh1 h5 24.Ra1 Ra8 25.Rxa8 Rxa8 26.Rc1 h4 27.Qc3 Rc8 28.Qd2 Rxc1+ 29.Qxc1 hxg3 30.hxg3 Qd6 31.Kg2 Be8 If anything, the reason Portisch gets outplayed in this game is allowing the exchange of rooks, as he needed them later to counterattack. As it is, White’s minor pieces now dominate the board. 32.Nc2! The forced exchange of bishops only helps White, as his queen will eventually come to d4 to put heavy on d5. 32…Bxb2 33.Qxb2 Nc6 34.Qb3 Bf7 35.Qc3 g5 36.Nd4! Despite the reduced material, there’s no respite for Portisch, as the ending is better for White because Black’s pawns are separated and vulnerable to attack. 36…Nxd4 37.Qxd4 g4 38.Be2 Qh6 39.Bf1 Qa6 40.Kf2 Kh7 41.Qc5! [see diagram] The quiet moves are often the most lethal of killers! And here, with 41.Qc5, Lombardy’s simple queen move now simultaneously hits b5 and d5 – and Portisch can’t avoid the loss of one of the pawns. 41…Qa2+ Portisch has – rightly – worked out that he can’t defend this position, so he goes for broke by making his queen as menacing as he can, hoping he can pressurize his opponent into believing there could well be a perpetual check. But Lombardy has this all covered – however in such scenario’s, often a suddenly active queen can put pressure on your opponent that can lull them into believing there could well be something that there isn’t there! 42.Be2 Qb1 43.Qxb5 Qh1 44.Qb8 Having successfully picked off the b-pawn – and in the process, creating a powerful passed b-pawn for himself – Lombardy has double-checked that Portisch’s checks lead to nothing. The rest is simple. 44…d4 45.Qe5 Kg6 46.Qd6+ Kh7 47.Qf4 dxe3+ 48.Kxe3 Qc1+ 49.Kf2 Qxf4+ 50.gxf4 With opposite-colored bishops, this would be a draw – but not with bishops of the same color! 50…Bd5 51.b5 Kg6 52.d4 Kf6 53.b6 Bb7 54.d5! The whole point to Lombardy’s play: the pawn cannot be captured with 54…Bxd5, as 55.Ba6 wins the bishop. But not only that, the push with 54.d5 cuts Portisch’s king from easily coming across the board, giving White the winning plan of Bd3xf5xg4 and Bf3 forcing the exchange of bishops and an easily won king and pawn ending. 54…Ke7 55.Bd3 Kd6 56.Bxf5 Kxd5 57.Bxg4 Kc5 58.Bf3 1-0

 

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