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Friday, January 6, 2017

Donald Byrne

     Donald Byrne (June 12, 1930 – April 8, 1976) is best known for losing The Game of the Century in the 1956 Rosenwald tournament to Bobby Fischer and as being the younger brother of Grandmaster Robert Byrne.   It's a little appreciated fact that Donald was one of the strongest US players during the 1950s and 1960s. 
     Byrne won the US Open in 1953.  In the 1954 radio match against the Soviet Union, Byrne defeated Yuri Averbach 3-1 in their individual match. And, at one point, rated just below Reshevsky, he was the second highest rated player in the US, but he was not awarded the International Master title until 1962. He played for or captained five US Chess Olympiad teams between 1962 and 1972. 
     Unfortunately due to illness and lack of opportunity he was never really very active as a player, but genial and diplomatic by nature, he was well known and well liked by everybody who met him. The one exception was Samuel Reshevsky. One time a student commented that he seemed to be on good terms with everyone in the chess world. Byrne's reply was, "Yes, that is everyone except Reshevsky. But then, no one likes Reshevsky." 
     It's little known, but after Fischer's combination in The Game of the Century, Byrne consulted the other players to see if they thought he should honor Fischer's brilliant play by allowing Fischer to mate him. How unusual is that for a chess player?
     The Byrne brothers were students of the famous coach John W. Collins. Besides the Byrne brothers and Bobby Fischer, Collins also coached William Lombardy, Raymond Weinstein, Sal Matera and Lewis Cohen. When it came out, I purchased My Seven Chess Prodigies hoping to find what Collins' secret was and was very disappointed. There was no secret. He invited the kids to his apartment where he and his sister Ethel, who also served as the handicapped Collins caregiver, fed the kids cakes, cookies and soft drinks while they studied openings, analyzed games and played blitz. 
     As a player Byrne popularized the ...a5 line in the Yugoslav Attack in the Sicilian Dragon and against 1.d4 he often preferred to play the Gruenfeld. As White he preferred the English. As might be guessed from his opening preferences, Byrne preferred positional battles and it's hard to find any of his games that were tactical melees.   For the most part they seem colorless positional battles which probably explains why I don't recollect ever seeing too many of them published. 
     Byrne was a professor of English and taught at Penn State University from 1961 until his death, having been invited there to teach and to coach the varsity chess team. He was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2002. Byrne died in Philadelphia of complications arising from lupus. 
     In the following game he defeats the champion of dozens of Ohio tournaments and former US Armed Forces Champion, attorney Ross F. Sprague.

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