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Monday, January 3, 2011

Reshevsky-Fischer Match 1961

This 16-game match was played between then U.S. Champion Bobby Fischer who had emerged as Samuel Reshevsky’s rival and I remember the excitement it generated. Like just about everybody else, I was pulling for Reshevsky.

The year before both players had participated in Buenos Aires and Reshevsky had said he would not mind finishing in 19th place if Fischer finished in 20th. In fact Reshevsky ended up tying for first with Korchnoi while Fischer finished well back finishing with 8.5-10.5. Everyone was amazed at Fischer’s poor performance in this event and it was only later that we learned what really happened. According to Larry Evans, Fischer's poor performance was due to experience with a girl Evans had introduced him to during the tournament. Pal Benko confirmed the reason for Fischer’s poor result when he said it was "because he got caught up in women and sex. ...”

Back to the match. Games 1-4 were played in New York, 5-12 were to be played in Los Angeles, and 13-16 were supposed to be played back in New York City. After eleven games the score was tied at two wins apiece with seven draws. That’s when the trouble started. The match ended due to a scheduling dispute between Fischer and match organizer Jacqueline Piatigorsky.

Jacqueline Piatigorsky, herself a chess player and sculptor, was married to renowned cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. Mrs. Piatigorsky was a Reshevsky supporter so that may help to explain the ensuing brouhaha that resulted in the aborted match.

After eleven games, the match was tied and the 12th game was supposed to be played on Saturday but was postponed to Sunday because of Reshevsky’s observance of the Sabbath. I never understood this because it had long been a well known fact that Reshevsky, as an Orthodox Jew, never played on the Sabbath. So why a game would have been scheduled on a Saturday remains a mystery.

Mrs. Piatigorsky’s husband was due to play a concert on Sunday evening so she insisted that the game should start at 11:00 am, so she could attend the concert. Fischer absolutely refused and sat in his hotel deliberately forfeiting the game much as he was to do a couple of times later in his career.

The twelfth game had originally been scheduled to be played at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 13, at 1:30 in the afternoon. At ten that morning, Fischer received a phone call from the referee saying that playing time had been moved up to eleven. This, he said, was to accommodate the wishes of Mrs. Piatigorsky, who wanted to be sure the game would be over in time for her to attend the concert. Fischer refused to play at that early hour and cited a clause in his contract which stated that playing time had to be acceptable to him.

To my knowledge Reshevsky never objected to the time change, but then why should he in the light of Fischer’s behavior? The only thing I ever heard Reshevsky say concerning the match was after it was over. He commented, “I never expected this!” It was also reported that in the ensuing argument and just before he walked out, Fischer’s language was “fit for the gutter.” Listening to some of his later radio interviews, I can believe it. Fischer sued several people over the incident, but nothing ever came of his lawsuits.

The next game (13) was to be played in New York four days later but Fischer refused to continue unless the forfeit was overruled. Nobody in New York was in favor of the Los Angeles ruling but everyone was angry at Fischer and resented his actions and his threat to quit. One match official, Walter Fried, complained, "Fischer is holding a gun to our heads."

When time for the thirteenth game arrived, no decision had been made on the forfeiture and Fischer did not show up. That’s when Reshevsky was declared the winner and awarded the trophy and prize money. Fried commented, "There was no other course we could take consistent with our responsibility and our self respect," The whole incident reminds one of a future incident in the world championship match against Spassky. The only difference was in that match, Fischer showed some better sense and decided to continue playing and quit only after the match was over.

Reshevsky...1 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 7½
Fischer........0 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 0 5½


  1. I though his "mental issues" came later in his career. Even in 1961 wow

  2. As bad as Fischer’s conduct may have been, you can’t blame him for being angry. I can’t understand why a game would have been scheduled for Saturday because it was long known Reshevsky did not play on the Sabbath. It was presumptuous of Mrs. Piatagorsky to change the playing time on such short notice for her personal benefit with no consideration for either player. As for the New York committee, it was equally presumptuous for them to insist the match continue while the decision on the forfeit was in abeyance. To ask both players to continue when they didn’t know what the match score was, it seems to me, irresponsible. I never heard any criticism of Reshevsky’s conduct in the whole fiasco and one can only imagine him sitting back in amusement waiting for Fischer to self-destruct.

  3. Fischer has a clause in his contract stating that the playing time must be acceptable to the players. But from the narrative here, it seems as though that fact has a negliable effect for the tournment organizers; as Mrs Piatigorsky's influence as the match's organizer is prime. Reshevsky's acceptance of the trophy is an obvious breach of the contract, however; he says, "I never expected this," and that much I believe is true; he never expected that the broken clause in Fischer's contract would be completely (and may I add, successfully) ignored by the match organizers, Mrs and Mr piatigorsky. Once again, the affluent few are not held to the same standards as everyone else. If Reshevsky was honorable in my opinion, he should have asked Fischer himself if he would have not mind to play the game earlier than it was scheduled on Sunday. Instead, he just acts as though he is just an innocent bystander, by accepting the 2 unearned points for round 11 and 12, by accepting the subsequent trophy and money which he didn't ever have the merit to claim. Thus Fischer manages to be insulted twice, once by what the tournment organizers did to him, and again by Reshevskys's acting oblivious to Fischer's contention not wanting to continue playing the match.
    Actually, Fischer is now insulted a third time by people derrogating him as mentally unstable for his actions, when he was well within his right to object to the breach of his contract. In conclusion, Champion chess players need to place more value on mutual respect and professionalisim for one another instead of "selling themselves out" in favor of monitary gains. But i'm affraid its too late for that, and chessplayers in the last 50yrs since this game has been played, have opted for greed to rear its ugly face, and thus their is no ethics in toounment play, and even cheating by convertly using computers so as to secure prize money. Would you like to blame Fischer for that too???

  4. Thanks for your comments. Years ago when Reshevsky's name came up in a conversation with Norman Whitaker he commented, "Reshevsky wouldn't help anybody." I met Reshevsky a few times and found him pleasant enough as long as chess wasn't involved.