John Henderson
By John Henderson

We continue our tribute to the famous chess-playing prelate William J. “Bill” Lombardy, the first American to win a world title, a leading rival of Bobby Fischer during the rise of a golden generation for US Chess, who went on to become his trusted second and confidant for his historic 1972 World Chess Championship match with Soviet title-holder Boris Spassky, who sadly died late last week in Martinez, California. He has 79.

Fischer, Spassky & Lombardy will forever be linked with each other through their friendship and rivalry at the chessboard and that famous title match in Reykjavik, where Lombardy was seen as a mediator when relationships broke-down between the two Cold War title combatants. In 2014, the trio had the Hollywood treatment in Pawn Sacrifice, with A-listers Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber in the leading roles as Fischer and Spassky, and Lombardy’s character portrayed by co-star Peter Sarsgaard.

There was a certain amount of artistic license from director Edward Zwick with Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Lombardy, as it played heavily on the perception that Fischer had solely recruited Lombardy for the match because he had garnered a reputation of being a “Spassky slayer”, as up to that time of the match – unlike Lombardy – Fischer had never been able to beat Spassky. Fanciful perhaps, but Spassky did have past psychological scars for fearing the presence of Lombardy in Reykjavik.

In 1957, Lombardy not only succeeded Spassky by winning the World Junior title, he also did so with an unheralded perfect score. Three years later, he became a grandmaster and had a decisive victory over Spassky, the future world champion, at the 1960 World Student Team Championship in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), that gave the Americans their first and only team victory over the Soviets.

This became one of the most published games of 1960, and universally recognized as Lombardy’s best-known game. But what was worse for the Soviets on their home-turf was that Lombardy, with an astonishing unbeaten score of 12/13 (92%!), also stole the limelight by winning the individual gold medal for best top-board performance in the competition – and his famous double gold-medal feat with that single win over Spassky was to have serious repercussions for the future world champion.

 

As author Andrew Soltis mentions in his book Soviet Chess: 1917-1991, “After Spassky lost a highly publicised game to the American William Lombardy on first board in the 1960 Student Olympiad he was left off the 1961 team and was eventually suspended from foreign travel three times. He was replaced at the last minute as a Soviet invitee to Hastings 1962-63 – a typical Sports Committee humiliation.”

And indeed, Spassky confirmed to Soltis during a visit to New York in the 1980s that he was the one who was singled-out and punished by the Soviet authorities for that defeat to Lombardy that deprived the Soviets of team gold: “My nervous energy was completely destroyed for three years”, confirmed Spassky of this period in his life.

(Photo) Leipzig Olympiad 1960.  Bobby Fischer watches over team-mate Bill Lombardy

GM Boris Spassky – GM William J. Lombardy
World Student Team Championship, 1960
Sicilian Najdorf
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 In his early days, Spassky cut a dashing D’Artagnan figure at the chessboard by playing the sharpest lines. And here, against the Najdorf, 6.Bg5 has always been the sharpest line. 6…Nbd7!? The main line, as favored by Fischer, runs 6…e6 7.f4 etc. – but in those sans computer pioneering days of the Najdorf, Lombardy plays a less popular continuation, perhaps hoping to catch Spassky out.  And his ploy works. 7.Bc4 Qa5 8.Qd2 e6 9.0-0 At the time this was the favored continuation of Mikhail Tal – and he was the trend-setter during this period of chess. Some might prefer queenside castling and sharp play on both sides of the board, but at the time praxis showed that Tal’s more modest option was very effective. 9…Be7 10.a3 Far too timid. Much better was simply ‘getting on with it’ and 10.Rad1 that had held up well for White in praxis. 10…h6 11.Be3 Ne5 12.Ba2 Qc7 The Najdorf can become complicated very easily and very quickly, and here Lombardy also had the double-edged option of 12…Neg4!? 13.f4 Qh5 14.h3 Nxe3 15.Qxe3 g5 with complex play. However, Lombardy had equalized from the opening – and in the Najdorf, “equalizing” often means Black is better – and goes for the solid option, leaving Spassky pondering just how he’s going to break down his opponent’s resilience in a must-win match? 13.Qe2 b5! A very natural Sicilian Najdorf move that not only claims a little real estate on the queenside but also heaps pressure on White’s e4 with a follow-up of …Bb7. 14.f4 Neg4 15.h3 Nxe3 16.Qxe3 0-0 There’s nothing much in it, but, if anything, Black has emerged from the opening with the slightly better and more solid position. 17.Rae1 Perhaps the better option was 17.Rad1 – but Spassky seemed intent on pushing forward with e5. And as Lombardy notes in his own annotations to this game, the speculative 17.e5?! backfires to 17…dxe5 18.fxe5 Nd7 19.Rxf7? Rxf7 20.Bxe6 Qxe5! 21.Bxf7+ Kxf7 22.Qf3+ Nf6 23.Qxa8 Qxd4+ with a winning advantage. Also too early is the alternative push with 17.f5 e5 18.Nf3 d5! and the game is suddenly opening up to Black’s advantage. 17…e5 18.Nf5 Bxf5 19.exf5 d5! Taking full advantage of the major threat of …Bc5 skewering queen and king. 20.Qxe5? In a critical position, Spassky uncharacteristically losses his nerve – and perhaps his judgment was clouded by the fact that the Soviets began to realize they could be in danger of losing to the USA in a match that they simply just had to win. Correct was 20.Kh2 as pointed out by Lombardy after the game. Now, if 20…d4 21.Qxe5 Qxe5 22.Rxe5 Bd6 23.Nd5! Bxe5 24.Ne7+ Kh7 25.fxe5 Nd7 26.Re1 Nb6 the game is still a little complex, but it is doubtful whether White has enough here to try to force a win. 20…Bd6 21.Qe2 Bxa3 22.Nd1? Such are the vagaries of playing in team competitions. Realising he needed to win, Spassky perhaps felt he had to ‘gamble’ here with 22.Nd1 rather than having to go down the easy line for Black of 22.Nxd5! Nxd5 23.Bxd5 Qc5+ 24.Kh2 Qxd5 25.bxa3 Qxf5 26.c4! immediately fixing the pawn structure and the resulting major piece endgame ultimately trading down to an easy draw. But the rub here is that White has nothing at all here to work with – and this probably explains Spassky’s rationale for gambling with what ultimately turns out to be a risk too far instead of playing for the draw. 22…Rae8! [see diagram] Lombardy now finishes off his illustrious opponent with great energy and precision – and an energy and precision that was lacking from Fischer before he played Spassky in 1972. 23.Qf3? Things go from bad to worse now for Spassky. His only hope of trying to hang on here was with 23.Qd2! Rxe1 24.Rxe1 Bd6, although even here he’s suffering badly. 23…Bc5+ 24.Kh1 Rxe1 25.Rxe1 Qa5! The obvious move winning a piece that Spassky likely overlooked when he opted for 23.Qf3? 26.Nc3 b4 27.Nxd5 Qxa2 28.Nxf6+ gxf6 29.Qc6 Qc4 0-1  R.I.P GM William J. Lombardy, 1937-2017

 

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