Samuel Reshevsky

26 Nov 1911
4 Apr 1992
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Samuel “Sammy” Herman Reshevsky (born Szmul Rzeszewski; November 26, 1911 – April 4, 1992) was a Polish chess prodigy and later a leading American chess grandmaster. He was never a full-time chess professional.

He was a strong contender for the World Chess Championship from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s: he came equal third in the 1948 World Chess Championship tournament, and equal second in the 1953 Candidates Tournament. He was an eight-time winner of the U.S. Chess Championship.

An outstanding match player throughout his career, Reshevsky excelled at positional play, and could be a brilliant tactician when required.

He took a long time over his opening moves, and often found himself under time pressure, but this sometimes unsettled his opponent more than it did Reshevsky.

He was an accountant by profession, and a well-regarded chess writer.

Reshevsky was born at Ozorków near Łódź (in Poland). He learned to play chess at age four and was soon acclaimed as a child prodigy. At age eight, he was beating many accomplished players with ease and giving simultaneous exhibitions.

In November 1920, his parents moved to the U.S. to make a living by publicly exhibiting their child’s talent. Reshevsky played thousands of games in exhibitions all over the U.S. He played in the 1922 New York Masters tournament; at that stage, he was likely the youngest-ever player to have competed in a strong tournament.

For a period in his youth, Reshevsky did not attend school, for which his parents appeared in District Court in Manhattan facing a charge of improper guardianship. However, Julius Rosenwald, wealthy co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago, soon afterwards became Reshevsky’s benefactor, and he guaranteed Reshevsky’s future on the condition that he would complete his education.

Reshevsky never became a truly professional chess player. He gave up most competitive chess matches for seven years, from 1924 to 1931, to complete his secondary education while successfully competing in occasional events during this period.

Reshevsky graduated from the University of Chicago in 1934 with a degree in accounting and supported himself and his family by working as an accountant. He moved to New York City and lived there or in its suburbs for the remainder of his life. His 1941 marriage to Norma Mindick produced three children.

Reshevsky was a devout Orthodox Jew and would not play on the Jewish Sabbath; his games were scheduled accordingly.

Reshevsky won the U.S. Open Chess Championship in 1931 at Tulsa; this event was known as the Western Open at the time. He shared the 1934 U.S. Open title with Reuben Fine at Chicago.

Reshevsky won the U.S. Chess Championship in 1936, 1938, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946, and 1969. He also tied for first in 1972, but lost the playoff in 1973 to Robert Byrne.

He competed in a record 21 U.S. Championships, and achieved a plus score every time except for 1966–67, when he scored just 4½/11. He also holds U.S. Championship records for most finishes in the top three places (15), most games played (269), and most games won (127).

Once Bobby Fischer made his debut at age 14 in the U.S. Championship with the 1957–58 event, he dominated completely, winning on each of his eight attempts, leaving Reshevsky, the seven-time former champion, back in the chasing pack. There was little love lost between the two players, separated by a generation in age.

Ahead of the Buenos Aires 1960 tournament, Reshevsky reportedly said, “I would settle for 19th place – if Fischer placed 20th.” Reshevsky in fact won the Buenos Aires 1960 tournament, with Fischer well back; this was the only time Reshevsky finished ahead of Fischer in an international tournament.

In 1961 Reshevsky began a 16-game match with the then-current U.S. Champion Fischer; it was jointly staged in New York and Los Angeles. Despite Fischer’s recent meteoric rise, consensus opinion favored Reshevsky.

After eleven games and a tie score (two wins apiece with seven draws), the match ended due to a scheduling dispute between Fischer and match organizer Jacqueline Piatigorsky, with Reshevsky receiving the winner’s share of the prize fund.

In the 1967 Sousse Interzonal, Fischer turned up 53 minutes late (only seven minutes short of an automatic time forfeiture) for his game with Reshevsky, and made his opening move without a word of apology. Reshevsky, who had been convinced that Fischer had withdrawn from the tournament, lost the game badly and complained furiously to the organizers.

Despite losing that game, Reshevsky advanced to the next stage. Reshevsky also refused to play for the U.S. team in the Chess Olympiads of 1960, 1962 and 1966 because Fischer, as U.S. champion, was chosen ahead of him for the top board. He did, however, finally consent to play on a lower board in 1970, the only time the two men appeared in the same team.

Although Reshevsky and Fischer had one of the fiercest rivalries in chess history, Fischer greatly respected the older champion, stating in the late 1960s that he thought Reshevsky was the strongest player in the world in the mid-1950s, around the time when he defeated world champion Mikhail Botvinnik in their four-game mini-match, which was the top board of the USA vs USSR team match held in Moscow.

It was only in 1968, in his 57th year, that he finally lost a match where he had time for extensive preparation. This was against Viktor Korchnoi in Amsterdam in the first round of the Candidates. The match was scheduled for ten games but the younger Grandmaster proved too much for Reshevsky, who didn’t win a game and lost by the final score of 5½–2½.

During his long chess career, Reshevsky played eleven of the first twelve World Champions, from Emanuel Lasker to Anatoly Karpov, the only player to do so (he met Garry Kasparov but never played him). He defeated seven World Champions: Lasker, José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, and Bobby Fischer.

Aside from U.S. Championships, Reshevsky’s important tournament titles included: Syracuse 1934, Hastings 1937–38, Leningrad/Moscow 1939, Hollywood 1945 (Pan American Championship), New York 1951 (Maurice Wertheim Memorial), Havana 1952, New York 1956 (Lessing Rosenwald Trophy), Dallas 1957, Haifa/Tel Aviv 1958, Buenos Aires 1960, Netanya 1969, Reykjavík Open 1984, at age 72.

Reshevsky competed seriously at least semi-regularly, virtually until his death in New York City in 1992. He defeated old rival Vasily Smyslov in a tournament game in 1991.

Reshevsky’s books include Reshevsky on Chess (1948), How Chess Games Are Won (1962), Great Chess Upsets (1976), and The Art of Positional Play (1978), as well as an account of the 1972 World Championship match between his great rival Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. He was also a columnist in chess magazines, and wrote about chess for The New York Times.

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