Robert and his brother Donald belonged to a circle of New York players around John W. Collins, who was the mentor of talented players that included William Lombardy, Raymond Weinstein and Bobby Fischer.
Byrne was a university professor for many years before becoming a chess professional in the early 1970s when he was in in his forties. His transition from teaching philosophy at Indiana University to professional chess saw him playing his best chess ever.
The year 1972 was his best year in more ways than one. Byrne was a positional player and valued sound P-structures and was a stubborn defender who had mastered Nimzovich's prophylaxis method of play. But he sharpened his style, shed closed openings and became a dangerous 1.e4 player. He had an all-around understanding of the game as was evident in his writings. Here’s what he said about combinations:
“The hardest facet of chess to grasp, not only for the beginner but also for the master, is combinations. Unlike strategy, which is describable in terms of abstract principles, combinations do not generally appear in repeatable patterns. It is quite true that developing an eye for combinations is as much a visual matter as learning the moves of the pieces. Combinations are complex sequences of elementary tactics, often branching out in many directions. Because they are so concrete, so germane to the specific positions in which they occur, they must be learned by example.”
In 1972 the New York Times appointed him as chess columnist, a position he held for the next 34 years. In 1972, before the Fischer Era started, he shared first place in the US Championship with Samuel Reshevsky and Lubosh Kavalek. He also covered the historical Spassky-Fischer match for Chess Life and Review and co-authored, with the Estonian GM Ivo Nei, a book on the match, Both Sides of the Chessboard.
A playoff between Byrne, Reshevsky and Kavalek was necessary because at the 1971 FIDE Congress in Vancouver FIDE had reduced the number of players from each Zonal and the US was allowed only one player at the 1973 Interzonals in Leningrad and Petropolis.
The playoff took place in Chicago in February, 1973 and Byrne finished first with a win and a draw against both of his opponents to score 3-1. Reshevsky defeated Kavalek by scoring a win and a draw to finish second. Thus, Byrne went to Leningrad and Reshevsky to Petropolis. At the Leningrad Interzonal Byrne finished third behind Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov and so qualified for the Candidates match against Boris Spassky in San Juan.
Byrne selected Kavalek to be his second. Bent Larsen predicted the match would be competitive, but Byrne admitted he did not play well, saying, "I was unable to live up to the prediction of my friend Larsen, and even now, I fail to explain to myself how everything turned out so bad.”
Spassky was quailfied as the ex-World Champion. The three other quarterfinals matches were Petrosian – Portisch, Korchnoi - Mecking and Karpov – Polugaevsky. The winner was to be the player who first won three games, or to the player in the lead after 16 games. If tied at 8-8, the matches would be decided by the drawing of lots.
Prior to their match Spassky and Byrne had played only two games before, in the 1969 San Juan tournament which was won by Spassky and in 1971 in Moscow which was a draw.
When his match with Spassky started, Byrne at age 45 was a tall, balding, bespectacled scholar who had abandoned his academic career three years earlier to become a chess professional.
Byrne had began playing seriously in high school in Brooklyn. He had graduated from Yale, married a girl from Vassar, fathered two children and was a teaching fellow at Indiana. He and his brother Donald, an English professor at Penn State, were regular contenders for the US championship, members of the US.Olympic team and both were US Open champions.
At Yale, Byrne's philosophy mentor had been Paul Weiss and Byrne's subject for his doctorate was the ontology of Paul Weiss, but why he never completed his dissertation is unknown. His former wife (they were divorced in 1970 and Byrne later remarried) said chess interfered with the writing of his thesis and his grades were all A's except for the incomplete he got for not finishing the dissertation. Byrne was interested in the speculative side of metaphysics and taught courses in the history of philosophy and, briefly, a course in logic at Butler University.
Spassky arrived in San Juan on January 3rd accompanied by his wife, his second Igor Bondarevsky and a “technical director” named Boris Gromov. Byrne arrived a week later, accompanied by his wife, second Bernard Zuckerman and Lubomir Kavalek who served as ans unofficial second, delegation leader, and a member of the Appeals Committee of the match.
Both players were staying at the Racquet Club hotel which was near the airport and both complained about the aircraft noise and Bondarevsky feared how well Spassky would adapt to the climate in Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, they believed Spassky could whip Byrne anywhere, "be it the Sahara or Greenland."
The main organizer was Narciso Rabell-Mendez, Deputy-President of the FIDE. The official opening was 12 January12eth and was attended by FIDE President Max Euwe, and by members of the FIDE Bureau which at the time was holding a meeting. After the ceremony, the players visited the match venue, the Salon Theater of the Society of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors where they tried the chairs, checked out the chessset and table and tested the lights. Spassky found everything ideal and commented that the size of the Brazilian rosewood table was good and it had plenty of leg room, adding that he thought even Bobby Fischer would be glad to play on it. Byrne thought the pieces were a little shiny and the overhead lighting a little too dim.
The arbiter was Wilfried Dorazil. Dr. Dorazil was a leading chess organizer in Vienna who organized the first post-war tournament in Vienna in 1947. He later organized the World Team Championships, Student Team Championships and the 1969 Zonal and many other major events.. He also served FIDE as an Arbiter, Qualification Committee president and member of the Central Committee. He was assisted by Dr. Manuel Paniaguas who was also medical officer of the match. The winner would receive $3,500 (around $18,000 today) and the loser $1,500 (around $8,000 today).
Spassky was almost inconspicuous. He wore a white sport shirt, dark trousers, rough scuffed shoes and was deliberately casual as he peeled the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes before starting play and he took his time recording his moves. For him, unlike Fischer, chess was nothing to get excited about. In San Juan, he seemed less nervous than when he lost his title to Fischer, but at 8:30 each evening, after five hours of play, Byrne was chatty and relaxed while Spassky was quiet and looked pale.
Nobody had expected Byrne to be Spassky's opponent and in the first two games Byrne played well and the shock to Spassky was obvious. Even so, he adapted and proved to be as resourceful as ever.
The first game began at 3:30 pm with more than 75 people watching in the auditorium and another 200 jammed a nearby room who viewed the game over closed-circuit television. Plus, another 50 could watch a monitor in the bar. IM Julio Kaplan analyzed the game for the spectators.
The results of the games:
Game 1: Byrne had white at the game was a Najdorf Sicilian. After ten minutes and on his sixth move Byrne played for a K-side attack, traded Qs on move 13, made a risky Q-side castle two moves later, and won a pawn on move 17. There was no question Byrne's attack was dangerous and that he had made careful pre-game preparations in the variation. The attack was a little risky and Spassky had counterplay by sacrificing the exchange on c3. Byrne got tied up trying to hang on to the extra P and ended up returning the exchange and the result was a draw.
Game 2: As white, Spassky opened with 1.e4 and the opening was another Najdorf Sicilian. Spassky played patiently and at 8:05 p.m., after four hours and 35 minutes of play, on his 38th move, Byrne made what the experts called his worst blunder, a P-move that Spassky took immediate advantage of to launch a K-side attack. At adjournment everybody agreed the Byrne's position in the R and P ending was hopeless. After 32 more moves the next day, Spassky offered a draw and made a quick exit out a side door.
Game 3: The most interesting of the match. Spassky had stopped smoking; his last cigarette was on move 60 of the adjourned game the day before. As a result, he was restless. At 4:12, after beginning a breakthrough on his 16th move, he ate a candy bar and while waiting for Byrne to play, he paced back and forth in front of the stage then sat on a sofa looking very forlorn. From the sofa he moved to a chair by the judge's table then resumed his pacing. Meanwhile, Byrne, who was smoking almost continuously, remained seated and periodically removed his glasses to polish them. Then on his 22nd move Spassky sacrificed his Q for two Bs and two Ps. After that his pacing was over as he sat at the board with his head in his hands. After a long series of neutral moves and meaningless checks the game was adjourned at move 40. At adjournment Spassky stopped his clock before sealing his move and their was a brief discussion of the rule violation, but it was easily resolved. After resumption the next day it took only 16 moves for Byrne to resign.
Game 4: Byrne lost without offering much resistance.
Game 5: Byrne complained he hadn't been sleeping and requested a time out. Dr. Paniaguas certified that the chain-smoking Byrne suffered from insomnia and granted him a two-day delay. It was expected that Byrne was going to be defeated anyway and before the game Byrne stated that while his chances were poor, he wasn't giving up. He played the Sicilian Keres Attack and the game was a hard-fought draw.
Game 6: This marked the end. Spassky went for a Bishop ending in which Byrne had a bad B. The game was adjourned in a blocked position and Spassky a P up. He scored the point when the game was resumed the next day. The final score: Spassky 4.5 - Byrne 1.5.
The match caused Euwe to comment that it was unfortunate Byrne had met Spassky in the first round because he might have been able to handle some of the other qualifiers. Spassky went on to lose to Karpov in the Semifinals. In the next Interzonal in Biel in 1976, Byrne missed the qualifying spot by a half point.