Pawn Sacrifice. How the Bobby Fischer phenomenon inspired future grandmasters, Michael Rodhe, John Fedorowicz (The Fed), Joel Benjamin & their non-grandmaster teammate, My Three Years of Chess Bliss, 1973-1975

Bobby Fischer

The movie Pawn Sacrifice brought back a flood of chess memories… including a queen sack of mine that appeared in a syndicated chess column published in 200 papers, my Woody Allenesque piece in Chess Life magazine, “Losing is Everything,” and several future grandmasters (one of whom was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame) against whom I competed, and also teamed up with (to come in 1st in the U.S. Amateur Team East Championship).

1972 was the year of years for U.S. Chess. The 1972 Fischer (USA)-Spassky (USSR) match for the world chess championship was broadcast on U.S. television, move by agonizing move, and millions watched.

They watched in bars, played hooky from work, shut off the baseball game and tuned into Shelby Lyman on WNET (the local PBS affiliate in New York) as he rushed around the set, explaining the Gruenfeld Defense to viewers who might not have known the difference between check and checkmate. TV stations in Philadelphia, Boston and a half dozen other cities picked up the show, while Channel 13 got as many as 300 phone calls a day and thousands of dollars in donations. Midway through the match, a New York paper surveyed two dozen bars and restaurants in Manhattan. Seventeen had TV sets and of those, 15 were showing chess. The stationʼs ratings soared, as did interest in the game. Membership in the U.S. Chess Federation doubled during what was called the “Fischer Boom,” reaching 60,000.

Even before the championship match the Fischer Bubble began expanding, and I got caught up in it a year or two before the championship match began. Fischer played in eight U.S. Chess Championships starting at age 14 and won them all by a clear margin. At age 15 Fischer became both the worldʼs youngest grandmaster (though others would later beat his record) and the youngest to compete in candidate matches to determine who would play the World Champion though he didnʼt win all the matches at that time. By age 20, Fischer won the 1963—64 U.S. Championship with a perfect score. No one had ever seen anything like Fischer before.

I joined the high school chess team then learned about the U.S. Chess Federation. I begged my mother to take me on what one might call a pilgrimage to visit the famous Manhattan Chess Club. When we arrived everyone else was busy playing their usual partners but a chuckling giant in a priestʼs collar offered to play me. The priest gave me rook odds and won. Only later would I realize who the priest was. It was Fischerʼs own coach from the time Fischer was 11 1/2 through the World Chess Championship in 1973, Father William Lombardy, chess grandmaster, who was also one of the few Americans who had ever defeated Boris Spassky. See photo of Lombardy below from that time period:

I learned at that time to analyze each loss like an indefatigable medical examiner, because chess is a game in which he who makes the last mistake loses. Even games between two grandmasters are not a matter of inevitable victories via the steady accumulation of minor advantages, instead, analysis shows how the outcomes of even grandmaster games flipflop between win, lose or draw depending on a few mistakes made at critical junctures. Lombardyʼs kingʼs gambit may have also influenced me to favor that opening including the time I sacked my queen in a kingʼs gambit, a game that appeared in chess columns nationwide (thanks to a friend whose interest in chess blossomed the same years as mine, yet never fatigued, the inimitable prize-wining chess journalist, Pete Tamburro).

After months of study and unrated high school chess club play I itched to get into official tournament play, and my dad began driving me to tournaments and clubs in the metropolitan area. He became a “Chess Dad”—like a “Soccer Mom” but without the need to keep gator aide and band-aids in the glove compartment.

Photo of me analyzing a game in a skittles room at a NY tourney with my dad beside me.

Photo of my dadʼs insurance office window where he stored my chess trophies, and also offered a prize for answers to his chess puzzle of the week.

My entrance into rated tournament play began interestingly, with me playing a young future grandmaster, Michael Rodhe. I was 15 and Michael was three years my junior but had a head start when it came to tournament play. Our two “Chess Dads” talked in another room as we played. My dad mentioned I was unrated and this was my first tournament, while Michaelʼs dad let mine know that his son had already gotten his feet wet in serious tournament competition, and probably wished to soften what he saw as the coming the blow, i.e., me losing to another young boy three years my junior.

My dad may have seemed overly enthused about my chances and Michaelʼs dad was probably confident since his son was continually defeating players rated higher than himself. What chance did an unrated newbie like myself have in my first tournament? Dads are of course always their sonʼs biggest cheerleaders. But things did not go as planned for team Rohde after Michael gambited a pawn and I hung on to it tenaciously to victory. Michael and I would face each other in a club match weeks or months later at I think the Bellville Chess Club, and the difference of a single pawn would once again decide the outcome in my favor. But donʼt cry for Michael because he would go on to defeat me in two of my most important games, i.e., in the final deciding round of the N.J. Junior Championship in 1973 (where he finished 1st and I finished 2nd on tiebreaks), and in the next to last round of the National High School Championship in 1974, which also turned out to be the deciding game. See if you can spot my name in the bottom left hand column in the first clipping and the bottom right hand column in the second (source: Atlantic Chess News):

Michael and I also worked together as part of a team of younger players, The GSCA Four, a team that was put together by Tony Cottell. I was partly chosen because of this…

And here was the piece written up about our team before the U.S. Team tournament began:

Ah youth indeed, we took 2nd place in the U.S. Amateur Team East Championship 1974. 1st place went to a team of university students. But we didnʼt let that happen the following year. Michael was not on the team the following year, but Tony did manage to assemble a team that featured not one but two future grandmasters, namely, John Fedorowicz and Joel Benjamin, who, along with myself swept to victory. In the final round I even dared to unholster another of my beloved gambits and beat my opponent to the draw after which my someone showed me that each move I wrote down had bled through my scoresheet onto the tablecloth, and told me they were going to save the tablecloth as a memento, apparently a gambit lover and someone who hoped it might turn into an object of future value should I sprout a chess career. That game also appeared in an article written about the tournament below:

1974 U.S. Amateur Team East Championship, 2nd Place!

Note future grandmaster Michael Rodhe in the foreground and at the far end of the table a very young future grandmaster Joel Benjamin. Next to Joel is me with my fist pressed against my temple, nothing to do with the fact that the Temple university team came in 1st that year.

1975 U.S. Amateur Team East Champions! 1st Place!

Winning in 1975 and pictured left to right are future grandmaster and U.S. Chess Hall of famer, John Fedorowicz (16), Ken Regan (14), Tony Cottell [our team sponser], Edward Babinski, Jr. (18, I was the “old man” of the team) and Tyler Cowen (13).

More clippings & my Wing Gambit game.

After I went off to college Tony Cottell put together two more teams of youngsters who continued to win that same team tournament for the next two years! It was a brilliant gambit of Tonyʼs, sponsoring nothing but high school aged players, yet it paid off!

I also had the honor of playing a contender for The World Chess Championship, Victor Korchnoi, when he visited New York City. I was one of 50 opponents he played simultaneously at an exhibition at Chess City. And I was one of the few who drew! (I used a gambit. I couldnʼt help myself.) My position grew so dangerous he dared not play on but found a way to force a draw via perpetual check. And of course my chess journalist friend Pete Tamburro was also there, playing Korchnoi. See pics:

Here I am at the Canadian Open in 1975 (where I won a game against Paul Brandts, a 2300-rated player), and pointed out a smothered mate in three to grandmaster Bent Larsen, which altered Larsenʼs post-game analysis. Someone took this action shot as I was pointing out the mate to Larsen:

Queen sack game (thanks to Pete Tamburro for the nice write up):

A Woody Allenesque humor piece that was published in Chess Life magazine. No need to know much about the game to enjoy it.

Also of interest is that my former teammate, Kenneth Regan, became an international master and Ph.D. computer scientist who has developed anti-cheating codes to discourage cheating in chess via the use of computer software. He has also remained a Christian his whole life. And I recall talking to him on the boardwalk between games in the Team Championship about the necessity of being born again since I was enthusiastic about my new found devotion and well, happy teenaged Jesus addiction as I see it now, and wanted to share it with others, even in the midst of a chess tournament. Kenneth also shared with me in an email dated 12/21/14 some recollections from a lunch we shared during the Team Championship:

I have fairly vivid memories of my interaction with Ed which he also recounts. It was in a diner off the Boardwalk, I would guess Sunday lunch. Ed had two comic-book style tracts, one on creationism [I think it was by Duane T. Gish of the Institute for Creation Research-Ed] and the other on the Rapture, 30-40 or so half-height pages each. I semi-skimmed them through fairly attentively. Iʼve been a theistic evolutionist since age 10 so [I was too, until one of my school teachers offered me some “scientific creationist” books to read, and at that time there were no books that directly rebutted creationist arguments, so I got suckered into creationism for a while.-Ed] I probably passed over the former quickly. On the latter my recollection is I said something like, “Thatʼs not how I read the Bible.” The memory stayed alive because I had similar discussions with a lifelong friend from Oxford who remains a Christian. Edʼs publisher Prometheus Books [that published Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists] is HQ-ed in my town near my university. Ed and I found ourselves by coincidence(?) in July 2012 the same comment threads of a doubting blog by a friend of one of my other close Oxford friends; I referenced the GSCA 4 team in my comment there too :-).

Rohde, Fedorowicz, Benjamin, Regan, and Cowen, went on to take some very high rated scalps in the world of rated chess. And it was my great pleasure to have faced all of them over the board for at least one rated game, sometimes more than one, as well as to have shared their camaraderie as teammates.

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