Bill Lombardy: My chess friend
My chess friend
William Lombardy (Bill, to his friends) was born in the Bronx on December 4, 1937. He learned chess from a neighbour at the age of 9, and quickly demonstrated remarkable talent. In those days, New York was the place to be if you wanted to learn chess–it was the hub of American chess having both the Marshall Chess Club and the Manhattan Chess Club, amongst others– and Bill absorbed as much as he could from a chess community that had historically been enriched by immigration from Europe.
He and Larry Evans (b.1932, in Manhattan) seemed destined to transform the face of American chess. By his late teens Bill was already of strong grandmaster strength, possessing a profound understanding of strategy.
Bill soon achieved some amazing results. He won the Canadian Open in Montreal in 1956 (tied with Larry Evans) and in Toronto in 1957 he won the World Junior Chess Championship with an unheard of perfect score (11-0). With this remarkable success, Bill became the first American to win a world title in chess since Morphy. (In Morphy’s time, a ‘world title’ did not yet officially exist).
Here he is playing Spassky in Leningrad 1960, world student team championship.
Such an impressive list of achievements might lead any spectator to assume that a great champion was being groomed, possibly for the World Title itself. But this was not to be the case: Lombardy’s meteoric rise was abruptly cut short. Cruel fate had it that at about the same time, in the same country, in the same city and frequenting the same small chess circle, a lad just 6 years younger than Bill ( b.1943 Bobby Fischer,Brooklyn) had exploded upon the scene, and Lombardy found himself having to be content to play second fiddle.
There can not be two champions at the same time. Lombardy had the misfortune that while his extraordinary natural chess talent was enormous, he was not a genius like Bobby. Nor was his more cautious boa-constrictor style of play able to impress the fans like Bobby’s dynamic, more aggressive style of play. Perhaps more importantly, what little (private) financial support there existed in American chess at the time went to Fischer; Bill had to do everything on his own.
It must have been very frustrating for a young, aspiring artiste to find himself having to compete in the shadow of a Mozart. A talent like Lombardy takes time to mature and bear fruit, it requires care and nursing. It was unreasonable to demand everything of him immediately. Fischer, on the otherhand, delivered : he won every US Championship that he played in; the best Bill could do is come runner up (1960-61).
Fischer played first board at the Leipzig Olympiad. Bill played first board at the World Student Team Championship only because Fischer was not a student. While Bill had indeed won the World Junior Chess Championship, Fischer never wanted to play in a World Junior championship, considering it a waste of his time…
The following game was undoubtedly the most published game in 1960, and is probably Lombardy’s best known effort.
Leningrad 1960.1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5
Spassky’s games did very much to popularize this sharp move. He won many games with it, and used it frequently in his 1972 match with Fischer.
6… Nbd7!? Lombardy plays a less popular variation, probably hoping to catch Spassky a bit unprepared.
This is Tal’s favourite move. Some prefer castling long (000), but praxis has shown that is very effective tucking the white king over into the other corner.
9… Be7 10. a3!? This move never caught on, and probably with good reason. The simple 10.Rad1 has done very well in practice and is considered the strongest move here.
10… h6 11. Be3 Ne5 12. Ba2 Qc7 Interesting is 12… Neg4!? 13. f4 Qh5 14. h3 Nxe3 15. Qxe3 g5
13. Qe2 Arriving at the following position.
13…b5!? A natural move.
14. f4 Neg4 15. h3 Nxe3 16. Qxe3 O-O Lombardy has a satisfactory position
17… e5! 18. Nf5 Bxf5 19. exf5 d5! Lombardy must have been enjoying himself here. Anyone who plays the Sicilian Defence dreams of playing this move. Here black threatens to win the white Queen
Taking control of the centre thanks to tactical threats
20. Qxe5? From a player who will eventually become World Champion, this error seems very much out of place. Correct was 20. Kh2 (Lombardy’s suggestion after the game) and if 20… d4 21. Qxe5 Qxe5 22. fxe5 (22. Rxe5!? might be better) 22… dxc3 23. exf6 Bxf6 and black will have difficulties winning because of the presence of opposite coloured bishops
23.Qf3?! Horrible! White had to try to hang on with 23. Qd2! Bc5 24. Kh2 Rxe1 25. Qxe1, even though he is clearly suffering. 23… Bc5 24. Kh1 Rxe1 25. Rxe1 Qa5!
Spassky must have simply overlooked this strong move ! All the more amazing since it is obvious. White now wins a piece
This important game gave the Americans the gold medal! Andrew Soltis, in his authoritive work Soviet Chess 1917-1991 wrote: ”After Spassky lost a highly publicized 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…a typical Sports Committee humiliation… ”My nervous energy was completely destroyed for three years.” Spassky said of this period.”
Taken from Lombardy’s own website (http://www.williamlombardy.com/), this photo shows medals awarded to William from the Leningrad 1960 World Student Team Championship. Real history!
What has always impressed me most of the young Lombardy was his flair for clear strategic play. Different from how young players normally develop their styles (first tactical, then strategic, finally universal), Lombardy’s early play was profoundly positional. This especially was evident with how he handled the English Opening.
Lombardy W. – Portisch L.
1:0, Leipzig 1960.
I must express my gratitude for Lombardy’s games. When I first started to play the English Opening, I learned so much by playing his games over and over.
19… Nxf3 20. Bxf3 Bf7 21. Nd4 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
I think it was a mistake for Black to have allowed the exchange of both rooks, as he needed these pieces to counterattack later. As it is, white’s minor pieces are soon dominating the board.
32. Nc2! Bxb2 33. Qxb2 Nc6 34. Qb3 Bf7 35. Qc3 g5 By itself, this move only weakens the black position.
36. Nd4! Lombardy’s idea is based on pure Capablanca: the ending is better for white because the black pawns are separated and attackable. 36… Nxd4 37. Qxd4 g4 38. Be2 Qh6 39. Bf1 Qa6 40. Kf2 Kh7
Having won a pawn, Lombardy makes sure that black’s checks go no where. The rest is simple. 44… d4 45. Qe5 Kg6 46. Qd6 Kh7 47. Qf4 dxe3 48. Kxe3 Qc1 49. Kf2 Qxf4 50. gxf4 Bd5 51. b5 Kg6 52. d4 Kf6 53. b6 Bb7 54. d5 Ke7 55. Bd3 Kd6 56. Bxf5 Kxd5 57. Bxg4 Kc5 58. Bf3 [1:0]
I consider this one of the best games that I have ever seen. Not flashy, just impressively simple. Years later, in a conversation that I had with Lajos Portisch about this game, I could see that the loss still was painful to him! Without making any real mistakes, Lombardy outplayed Portisch from the beginning to the end. Quite a remarkable achievement for a player barely 22 years old at the time.
After 1960 Bill’s interest in chess and his results seemed to wane. He did not play very often. Perhaps this is because he did not get many invitations, perhaps because he did not like living in a suitcase and travel from tournament to tournament. I do not know. But I do know that it is so important for a young grandmaster to play , study and make progress in the development of his style.
Bill then started to play more often, and just for ‘fun’. He started to play in European tournaments and had some excellent results.
He became a regular on the US National Team, and even played in some open tournaments. In 1972 he was instrumental in getting Fischer to go to Iceland, and served as Bobby’s personal assistant. He continued to write for magazines.
I remember that Lombardy came to Montreal in 1973 for a big open tournament (Suttles won), and his play impressed me. So did his person. He was likeable and had an excellent rapport with amateur players. He had a sense of humour that I appreciated, though I can understand that some might mistake it for arrogance . In this tournament in Montreal he was paired one round with my brother Grant. My brother realized that he had no chance against his famous adversary, but was willing to try his very best.
Considering the difference in rating, Grant did very well! When Lombardy won the game, he generously analyzed with Grant, and I assisted. Bill was very friendly. At one point in the post mortem, Bill demonstrated his humour when Grant made the remark that at a certain position the grandmaster thought for a very long time.
The following wild position arose after the 31st white move from the Evans vs Lombardy game in the Ventura chess tournament of 1971. Black is threatening mate in one move, and seems to be winning, simply. However, the position is not so simple, and White sets a brilliant swindle. (White had just played Qc3 checking the king.)
Evans quickly plays his swindle: 32. Qxc6!?! If black takes the queen then white will gain the advantage.
33. Qxe6 Qxe6 34. Kg1 Bxg2 35. Kxg2 Qh3 [35… Qd5! is even better]36. Kf2 Qxh2 37. Kf3 Qxg3 38. Ke4 Qg2 39. Rf3 Rh3 40. Rc6 Kf7 41. Rc7 Ke8 [0:1]
Black was awarded the brilliancy prize for the beauty of the finish.
Over the following years I got to know personally Bill, meeting up with him in some American tournaments that I was playing in, and also in Palma Majorca 1989. I remember that after I had won the 1984 New York Open he told me that he had always thought that I had some talent! We developed a rapport: I would pick his brain and ask him about what he thought of certain positions, certain openings, certain players. I learned a great deal, and I owe him a debt. We talked about Fischer, about his career, about why he left the Roman Catholic Church (he lost his faith).
The last time I saw him was at the New York Open held in NYC in 1998. He did not play, but would show up occasionally just to kibitz or visit his many friends. He was no longer a player, retired and dedicated his time to teaching. At the end of the tournament a small group of us went out to an Irish Pub to eat and chat. It was very enjoyable.
I remember one episode where one of the young players who joined us was talking about how many games his database had (several million, I think he said). With typical humour, Bill asked him how many of these games he had succeeded in replaying so far!! Again, there was nothing offensive or arrogant about his remark: he was making an important point that the youngster needed to understand.
Benko, Lombardy and Hort
Lombardy signing an autgraph on his 70th celebration in NYC
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS (2009)