Tag Archives: Understanding Chess: My System

Lombardy–In Memoriam

This column has been printed in the January 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Introducing his 1924 lecture course on Aristotle, Martin Heidegger famously said:

Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died. The character of the philosopher, and issues of that sort, will not be addressed here.[1]

Building this month’s column, I thought about, and dwelt with, this passage for many days. I consider Heidegger to be one of the most important, if personally flawed, philosophers in the whole of the Western tradition. Here, however, I cannot help but disagree with the “Hidden King” of Marburg.

Any interpretation of a thinker or writer’s legacy must focus on the written word, but not exclusively and rigidly so. Biography can often help explain the influences and shifts outside of the text that, all the same, weave themselves invisibly within it.

This is certainly true of Heidegger himself, and it is just as true of Grandmaster William (“Bill”) Lombardy, whose life and books are under our lens in this month’s issue. Lombardy was a brilliant chess player who, for better or worse, became best known for his supporting role in Bobby Fischer’s ascension to the World Championship. This fact, this constant and perhaps chafing association, may help to explain the advent of his productive authorial career and its tragic, final chapter.

To my knowledge Lombardy wrote or co-wrote seven books, six of which will be discussed here. (The seventh – a tournament book for the 6th Interpolis Chess Tournament, released in 1983 – is only available in Dutch.) Modern Chess Opening Traps was the first, published in 1972 right before the Iceland match and appearing in England as Snatched Opportunities on the Chessboard: Quick Victories in 200 Recent Master Games.

Both titles are slightly misleading. The book is largely, as the latter suggests, a collection of miniatures from the late 60s and early 70s, although only the English edition attributes the games’ players, and then only in an index. But Lombardy also includes a number of opening ‘traps’ or typical blunders in standard openings systems.

Of particular contemporary interest is game #193, where we see how quickly Black can lose in the London if White gets a free hand on the kingside. The evaluations and quotes are Lombardy’s, and I have translated his Descriptive Notation into Algebraic.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4!

Lombardy curiously labels this a “Modern Colle” due to the placement of the bishop outside of the c3–d4–e3 pawn chain.

3…e6 4.Nbd2 Nbd7 5.e3 Be7

Current practice shows Black’s move order and setup to be somewhat suspect. Today’s theory prefers 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 (the ‘Modern’ London) Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 (more popular than …Be7) 7.Bg3 0–0.

6.Bd3 c5 7.c3 0–0?! “Better is …b6 and …Bb7.” 8.h4! b6 9.g4 Nxg4? 10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ Kg8 12.Qxg4 Nf6?

Lombardy: “Carelessness is a great extravagance in a tight game. …f7–f5 helps close the gaps.” Still, White seems much better here. After 12…f5 13.Qg2 Nf6 (defending e6) 14.Rg1 White’s attack is hard to meet without major concession.

The computer thinks Black can hold after 12. …cxd4! 13.cxd4 (13.Be5 Nxe5 14.Qh5 Bxg5 15.hxg5 f5 16.g6 Nxg6 17.Qxg6 and Black should survive this.) 13…e5! (13. …Nf6!? is unclear) 14.Rg1 Nc5 (14. …exf4? 15.Ne6) 15.Qh5 and now a typical silicon drawing variation follows: 15. …Bf5 16.Bxe5 f6 17.Ne6 Bxe6 18.Rxg7+ Kxg7 19.Qg5+ Kf7 20.Qh5+ Kg7 21.Qg5+ Kh8 22.Qh5+=.

13.Qe2 g6 “Helpmate!” If 13. …Bd6 14.Be5! and Black cannot take the bishop: after 14. …Bxe5 15.dxe5 Black must lose the knight or abandon h5 to the Queen.

14.h5! Nxh5 15.Rxh5! gxh5 16.Qxh5 Bxg5 17.Bxg5 f6 18.Qg6+ Kh8 19.0–0–0 “Black resigns before mate.”

While Lombardy did not play in the 1973 U.S. Championship, the first to be played after Fischer’s victory, he did write its tournament book. The bulk of U.S. Championship Chess: A History of the Highest American Chess Title, with the 1973 Matches Annotated (1975) features Lombardy’s fine annotations, but of greater note is the presence of the book’s co-author, David Daniels.

Daniels, who wrote the historical section of the 1973 tournament book, was a New York master who ‘pinch-hit’ for Fischer in his December 1967 Boys’ Life column, and who (according to Andy Soltis) may have been one of the ghostwriters for I.A. Horowitz’ column in the New York Times. True or not, Daniels was a chess writer and historian of some repute, and his association with Lombardy bore excellent fruit.

Two of Lombardy’s most interesting works – Chess Panorama (1975) and Guide to Tournament Chess (1978) – were co-written with Daniels. In contrast to the 1973 tournament book, where each man took clear responsibility for specific portions of the text, these two titles are largely (but not wholly) written in one voice. The effect is laudatory.

Chess Panorama is a light-hearted anecdotal look into the world of chess, touching on topics like the clock, “chess scandals,” endings and final rounds. I rather enjoyed the discussion of the opening, where the authors – in 1975, years before ChessBase! – lament the explosion of opening theory, and the chapter on blunders is of particular interest.

Guide to Tournament Chess is a comprehensive introduction to rated chess. Part I describes the logistics of the tournament circuit along with rules and etiquette. Part II, “A Guide to Better Play,” offers practical advice. Among the topics covered are playing against stronger opponents and the ‘strategy of the draw.’ The skeleton of an opening repertoire is sketched in six pages, and a thoughtful bibliography of recommended books – one comparatively heavy on endgames and game collections – rounds things out.

Daniels was not Lombardy’s only writing partner. Chess for Children: Step by Step (1977), an introduction to chess using photographs and color diagrams, was co-written with Betty Marshall, the wife of Fischer’s lawyer Paul Marshall. While the book appears dated today – the quality of both print graphics and chess primers having increased dramatically in the intervening years – its use of ‘mini-games’ to focus on specific pawn and piece play was an interesting pedagogical experiment.

Lombardy did not publish between 1983 and 2011. He returned to print with his autobiographical Understanding Chess: My System, My Games, My Life, produced by Russell Enterprises but appearing under Lombardy’s own imprimatur. The book strikes a very different tone than is found in his previous titles, and this requires some consideration.

I first met Bill Lombardy at the 2013 U.S. Open. We crossed paths a few times more, most recently at the 2017 Iowa Open mere weeks before he died. The older Lombardy was, in my experience, a deeply bitter man who felt that his genius and his tutelage of Fischer had gone unappreciated, and that he had been systematically shortchanged by the chess world. While he could be charming and cordial, particularly in one-on-one settings, Lombardy did not hesitate to vent his spleen loudly and publicly.

Whether and to what degree this bitterness was justified, I leave to the reader. But it must be said that the Janus-faced nature of Understanding Chess – a work that veers between erudite games collection and pure score-settling – only makes sense in this context. His analysis and explanation of his game against Hans Ree at the 1976 Olympiad is emblematic of the book’s dual polarity. We pick it up (with Lombardy’s notes) at move 50, where the players adjourned.

image

50.d4! The following rook endgame is quite instructive for any player… 50. …Rf6? … Hans in fact missed a golden opportunity to activate his rook, an opportunity which he will denied for the remainder of the ending. He should have played for the active rook, the basis of all rook endgames and which in this case seems to hold the draw: 50. …Rg7! 51.dxc5 Rg2+ 52.Kf3 Ra2 53.cxb6 Rxa3+ 54.Ke2 axb6 55.Rxb6 Rc3=. 51.Rh7+ Trading rooks leads to a quick draw, even though White achieves a protected passed pawn. 51. …Rf7 52.Rh5! In this case, the fact that White’s pawns are split is to his advantage from the perspective of creating a supported passed pawn. Again we are reminded of the active rook. 52. …cxd4 53.Kd3 Kd6 54.Kxd4 Rf6 55.Rg5 a6 56.Rh5 Ke6 57.Rh8 Kd6 58.Rd8+ Kc7 59.Rd5! White is clearly better, but this is also the critical moment for Black since his next move will define the defensive task to come… 59. …a5? This eases White’s task… 60.a4! Now Black’s queenside is fixed and White’s a-pawn, which in many lines could be captured on a3, is further out of range of the black rook. The impending simplification of pawns following c5, followed by the invasion of the white king, easily decide the game. 60…Kc6 The active rook concept is no longer enough. 61.c5! bxc5+ 62.Rxc5+ Kb6 63.Rb5+ Ka6 64.Ke5 Rc6 65.Rd5 Rc4 66.Rd6+ Kb7 67.Rd4 Rc1 68.Kxf5 Kc6 69.Ke5 Kc5 70.Re4 1–0

While there are some additional resources for Black – most notably on move 61, where Ree could have played 61. …b5! or 61. …Re6! 62.Rxf5 b5! to hold the draw – Lombardy does an excellent job of explaining the practical difficulties in Black’s defense and the underlying positional principles. He also played the ending pretty darned well.

Less savory is the introduction to the game, where Lombardy claims that Ree shirked his adjournment analysis in favor of a night at the hotel bar. This, according to Ree himself in his monthly column at the Russell Enterprises website, lacks any basis in reality. The Dutch team did not even stay at the hotel in question.

Understanding Chess is filled with similar sideswipes. In its first pages he offers a novel account of basic chess principles and ‘eidetic imagery,’ but not before he has taken shots at multiple chess personages for “thwarting” his chess teaching and denying him lucrative opportunities. Perhaps his rawest vitriol is reserved for Jack Collins, the founder of the famous Hawthorne Chess Club and lauded mentor to both Fischer and Lombardy.

Lombardy’s claim in Understanding Chess can be summed up simply: Jack Collins was never Fischer’s teacher. His lack of playing strength meant that he could only offer “trivial knowledge” to the Byrnes, Fischer, and Lombardy, all of whom were “superior masters” to Collins. It was Lombardy himself who was guided Fischer. “…I was Bobby’s only chess teacher from [age eleven] and right through Reykjavik. Some may not like hearing this surprising news, but I assume they will get over the shock… Thus Spake Zarathustra!” (14)

This is a very different tune than was sung by Lombardy in his earlier books. Chess for Children is dedicated to “John (Jack) W. Collins, the teacher of Grandmasters and World Champions, who made chess a truly happy experience for me and so many others.” Lombardy’s 1974 forward to Collins’ My Seven Chess Prodigies is effusive in its praise, and he goes so far as to write that “Jack is the chess teacher.”

Bracketing some of the factual problems in Lombardy’s claim – it’s hard to see how he could have met Fischer before 1956, when Fischer was already thirteen – what could explain this radical break? Lombardy decries his being left out of Collins’ will in Understanding Chess, but in the final analysis, I cannot help but wonder if the rift comes from somewhere deeper.

William Lombardy was a highly educated man and, by any standard, a true chess great. His perfect score in the 1957 World Junior Championship is a ridiculous feat, unequaled to this day, and his fifteen medals in twenty years of international team play are astounding. But he came of age in a time where two greater players – Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer – sucked up all of the oxygen in American chess, leaving almost no support for anyone else.

What, then, was left for a man so close and so far from the top of our game? To me, the invocation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the prophet who proclaimed the coming of the übermensch, is telling. Lombardy saw Fischer as the overman, born in part of Lombardy’s own unheralded efforts, and we – the mediocre ‘last men’ of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – were incapable of appreciating either of them. The outpouring of love and remembrance after his death is evidence that, at least in this respect, Lombardy might have been mistaken.

** My thanks to my good friend Bob Woodworth for allowing me to raid his extensive library in researching this piece.


[1] Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 4.

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