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The Game of the Century (chess)

The Game of the Century usually refers to a chess game played between Donald Byrne and 13-year old Bobby Fischer in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York City on October 17, 1956. It was nicknamed "The Game of the Century" by Hans Kmoch in Chess Review. (Others, such as Larry Evans, , have offered different games as candidates for this description, such as the game between Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov at the Wijk aan Zee Corus tournament in 1999.) The term "Game of the Century" is a bit hyperbolic. Byrne's play (11.Bg5?; 18.Bxb6?) was weak; had a strong grandmaster rather than a 13-year-old played Black, it would still be an outstanding game, but probably not the Game of the Century. Many players consider the game inferior to later games of Fischer's, such as his stunning win over Donald's brother Robert at the 1963 U.S. Championship.

Donald Byrne (19301976) was one of the leading American chess masters at the time of this game. He had won the 1953 U.S. Open Championship, and would later represent the United States in the 1962, 1964, and 1968 Olympiads. He became an International Master in 1962, and would likely have risen further if not for ill health. Robert "Bobby" Fischer (1943-2008) was at this time a promising young master. Following this game, he had a meteoric rise, winning the 1957 U.S. Open on tiebreaks, winning the 1957-58 U.S. (Closed) Championship (and all seven later championships he played in), qualifying for the Candidates Tournament and becoming the world's youngest grandmaster at age 15½ in 1958. He won the world championship in 1972, and is considered one of the greatest chessplayers in history.

In this game, Fischer (playing Black) demonstrates brilliance, innovation, improvisation and poetry. Byrne (playing White), after a standard opening, makes a seemingly minor mistake on move 11, losing time by moving the same piece twice. Fischer pounces, with brilliant sacrificial play, culminating in an incredible queen sacrifice on move 17. Byrne captures the queen, but Fischer gets far too much material for it – a rook, two bishops, and a pawn. At the end, Fischer's pieces coordinate to force checkmate, while Byrne's queen sits, helpless, at the other end of the board.

Graham Burgess, John Nunn, and John Emms suggest three lessons to be learned from this game, which can be summarized as follows:

  • In general, don't waste time by moving the same piece twice in an opening; get your other pieces developed first.
  • Material sacrifices are likely to be effective if your opponent's king is still in the middle and a central file is open.
  • Even at 13, Fischer was a player to be reckoned with.

The game

1. Nf3
A noncommittal move by Byrne. From here, the game can develop into a number of different openings.

1. ... Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7
Fischer defends based on "hypermodern" principles, inviting Byrne to establish a classical pawn stronghold in the center, which Fischer intends to target and undermine with his fianchettoed bishop and other pieces.

4. d4 0-0
Fischer castles, bringing his king to safety. 4...d5 would have reached the Grünfeld Defence immediately. After Fischer's 4...0-0, Byrne could have played 5.e4, whereupon 5...d6 6.Be2 e5 reaches the main line of the King's Indian Defense.

5. Bf4 d5 (Grünfeld Defence, 5.Bf4, D92)
The game has now transposed to the Grünfeld Defence, usually initiated by 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5.

6. Qb3
A form of the so-called Russian System (the usual move order is 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3), putting pressure on Fischer's central d5 pawn.

6. ... dxc4
Fischer relinquishes his center, but draws Byrne's queen to a square where it is a little exposed and can be attacked.

7. Qxc4 c6
Also possible is the more aggressive 7...Na6 (the Prins Variation), preparing ...c5 to challenge White's center.

8. e4 Nbd7
In later games, Black played the more active 8...b5 followed by 9...Qa5. An example is Bisguier-Benko, U.S. Championship 1963-64. Fischer's choice is a little slow, although one would not guess that from the subsequent play.

9. Rd1 Nb6 10. Qc5
An awkward square for the queen, which leaves it exposed to a possible ...Na4 or ...Ne4, as Fischer brilliantly demonstrates. Since both of those squares are protected by Byrne's knight on c3, he understandably did not appreciate the danger. 10.Qb3 would have left the queen better placed, although it would have invited further harassment with 10...Be6.

10. ... Bg4
Byrne's pawns control the center squares. However, Fischer is ahead in piece development and has castled, while Byrne's king is still in the center. These factors would not have been very significant had Byrne attended to his development on his next move.
11. Bg5?
Byrne errs, moving the bishop a second time instead of completing his development. Burgess, Nunn and Emms, as well as Wade and O'Connell, suggest 11. Be2, protecting the King and preparing kingside castling. Flear-Morris, Dublin 1991, continued 11. Be2 Nfd7 12. Qa3 Bxf3 13. Bxf3 e5 14. dxe5 Qe8 15. Be2 Nxe5 16. O-O and White was slightly better. Byrne doubtless thought that Black's slight lead in development would be transitory, not anticipating the maelstrom that his young opponent now initiates.

11. ... Na4!!
Fischer offers an ingenious knight sacrifice. If Byrne plays 12.Nxa4, Fischer will play Nxe4, leaving Byrne with some terrible choices:
13. Qxe7 Qa5+ 14. b4 Qxa4 15. Qxe4 Rfe8 16. Be7 Bxf3 17. gxf3 Bf8 produces a deadly pin.
13. Bxe7 Nxc5 14. Bxd8 Nxa4 15. Bg5 Bxf3 16. gxf3 Nxb2 gives Fischer an extra pawn and ruins Byrne's pawn structure.
13. Qc1 Qa5+ 14. Nc3 Bxf3 15.gxf3 Nxg5 regains the sacrificed piece with a better position.
13. Qb4 Nxg5 14.Nxg5 Bxd1 15.Kxd1 Bxd4 16.Qd2 Bxf2 with a winning material advantage (Fischer)

12. Qa3 Nxc3 13. bxc3 Nxe4!
Fischer again offers material in order to open the e-file and get at White's uncastled king.

14. Bxe7 Qb6 15. Bc4
Byrne wisely declines the offered material. If 15. Bxf8, Bxf8 16.Qb3, Fischer analyzes 16...Nxc3! 17.Qxb6 (17.Qxc3?? Bb4 wins the queen) axb6 18.Ra1 Re8+ 19.Kd2 Ne4+ 20.Kc2 Nxf2 21.Rg1 Bf5+, which he considers winning for Black. Also strong is 16...Re8 17.Qxb6 (17.Be2 Nxc3!) 17...axb6 18.Be2 Nxc3 19.Rd2 Bb4 20.Kf1 Ne4 21.Rb2 Bc3 22.Rc2 Nd2+! 23.Kg1 (23.Nxd2 Bxe2+ 24.Kg1 Bd3! 25.Rc1 Bxd2 leaves Black with a winning material advantage) Rxe2 24.Rxc3 Nxf3+ 25.gxf3 Bh3 26.Rc1 Rxa2 leaving White absolutely paralyzed.

15. ... Nxc3! Now if 16.Qxc3, Rfe8 pins the bishop to White's king, thus regaining the sacrificed piece with an extra pawn.

16. Bc5 Rfe8+ 17. Kf1
Byrne threatens Fischer's queen; Fischer brings his rook into play, misplacing Byrne's king. Now Fischer's pyrotechnics seem to be at an end. Surely he must save his queen, whereupon White can play 18.Qxc3, with a winning material advantage.

17. ... Be6!!
This stunning resource is the move that made this game famous. Instead of saving his queen, Fischer offers to sacrifice it. Fischer pointed out that 17...Nb5? loses to 18.Bxf7+ Kxf7 19.Qb3+ Be6 20.Ng5+ Kg8 21.Nxe6 Nxd4 22.Nxd4+ Qxb3 23.Nxb3.

18. Bxb6?
Byrne takes the offered queen, hoping to outplay his 13-year-old opponent in the ensuing complications. However, Fischer gets far too much for his queen, leaving Byrne with a hopeless game. 18.Bxe6 would have been even worse, leading to a smothered mate with 18...Qb5+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Ng3+ 21.Kg1 Qf1+! 22.Rxf1 Ne2#. 18.Qxc3 would have been met by 18...Qxc5! and if 19.dxc5, Bxc3. White's best chance may have been 18.Bd3 Nb5!, which Kmoch wrote would also result in "a win for Black in the long run".

18. ... Bxc4+
Fischer now begins a 'windmill' series of discovered checks, picking up material.

19. Kg1 Ne2+ 20. Kf1 Nxd4+ 21. Kg1 Ne2+ 22. Kf1 (21.Rd3? axb6 22.Qc3 Nxf3 23.Qxc4 Re1# Fischer) 22...Nc3+ 23. Kg1 axb6
Fischer captures a piece, simultaneously attacking Byrne's queen.

24. Qb4 Ra4!
Fischer's pieces cooperate nicely: the bishop on g7 protects the knight on c3, which protects the rook on a4, which in turn protects the bishop on c4 and forces Byrne's queen away. Perhaps Byrne overlooked this move when analyzing 18.Bb6, expecting instead 24...Nxd1? 25.Qxc4, which is much less clear. Otherwise, it is hard to explain why Byrne played 18.Bxb6, since Black now has a clearly winning position.

25. Qxb6
Unfortunately for Byrne, he has nothing better than this pawn-grab, since he has no queen move available that would protect his threatened rook on d1.

25. ... Nxd1
Fischer has gained a rook, two bishops, and a pawn for his sacrificed queen, leaving him ahead the equivalent, roughly, of one minor piece – an easily winning advantage in master play. White's queen is far outmatched by Black's pieces, which dominate the board and will soon overrun White's position. Moreover, Byrne's remaining rook is stuck on h1 and it will take precious time (and the loss of the pawn on f2) to free it. Byrne could resign here, but gamely plays on until checkmate.

One of Byrne's chess students later recounted Byrne's explanation (scroll down to No. 241 at the end) why he played on: "First of all, you have to remember that in 1956 no one knew that Bobby Fischer was going to become Bobby Fischer! He was just a very promising 13-year-old kid who played a great game against me. When it got to the position where I was lost, I asked some of the other competitors if it might be a nice thing to let the kid mate me, as a kind of tribute to the fine game he played. They said, 'Sure, why not?’ and so I did."

26. h3 Rxa2 27. Kh2 Nxf2 28. Re1 Rxe1 29. Qd8+ Bf8 30. Nxe1 Bd5 31. Nf3 Ne4 32. Qb8 b5
Note that every piece and pawn of Black is defended, leaving White's "extra" queen with nothing to do.

33. h4 h5 34. Ne5 Kg7
Fischer breaks the pin, allowing the bishop to attack as well.

35. Kg1 Bc5+
Now Fischer "peels away" the white king from his last defender, and uses his pieces in concert to force checkmate.

36. Kf1 Ng3+ 37. Ke1 Bb4+
Kmoch notes that 37...Re2+ would have mated a move sooner.
38. Kd1 Bb3+ 39. Kc1 Ne2+ 40. Kb1 Nc3+ 41. Kc1 Rc2# 0-1

Footnotes

References

  • Burgess, Graham, John Nunn, and John Emms. The Mammoth Book of The World's Greatest Chess Games. 1998. ISBN 0-7867-0587-6. pp. 213-216.
  • Eade, James. Chess for Dummies. NY, NY: IDG Books. 1996. ISBN 0-7645-5003-9.
  • Fischer, Bobby. Bobby Fischer's Games of Chess. Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1959, pp. 63-67.
  • Wade, Robert G. and Kevin J. O'Connell. Bobby Fischer's Chess Games. 1972. ISBN 0-385-08627-X. pp. 110-113 (game 179).

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