Jerry Hanken on Reshevsky vs Fischer

by admin on April 17, 2010

A couple years ago, when Bobby Fischer died, I had the bright idea of writing an article about the aborted match between Sammy Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer from 1961. I think I may have even mentioned the idea on this blog. The thing that interested me about this match was that it is relatively little known (by me, anyway!), it was one of the few setbacks in Fischer’s stellar career, and I thought the story could be told very dramatically as one about the old lion (Reshevsky, who was then 49) versus the young upstart (Fischer, who was 18).

However, I never got very far on writing the article. I contacted a few people who were around back then, some who were interested in talking about the match and some who were not. Three things eventually soured me on the project.

  1. The feeling that everything that Fischer did in his life turned acrimonious, and who wants to stir up ancient resentments?
  2. I was not sure that I could find anybody to give Reshevsky’s point of view on the match.
  3. The editor whom I pitched it to said that he was not interested.

However, one great thing did come out of the brief fling that I had with this idea — namely, it gave me a chance to get acquainted with Jerry Hanken. Of the people I contacted, Hanken was by far the most interested in telling the story of this match, and he even called me up and started telling stories about it right then and there. I jotted notes quickly on a small notepad (because I didn’t even have a regular notebook available). Jerry told me a couple of times that he would tape-record some reminiscences about the match and send them to me, but he never get around to it, and now of course he is dead.

I was cleaning up my desk today and found my hand-scribbled notes from our phone conversation, and since I’m not going to do anything else with them at this point, I might as well turn them into a blog post. Consider it a tiny glimpse into what must have been a vast trove of memories that Jerry could have passed along.

The match was divided into three parts, with games 1-4 in New York, 5-12 in Los Angeles, and 13-16 were supposed to take place in New York. Hanken was Fischer’s chauffeur for the Los Angeles part of the match, driving him from the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica (where he would later, in 1966, play in the second Piatigorsky Cup) to the Herman Steiner Chess Club in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

This match was organized by Jacqueline Piatigorsky, a strong chess player and sculptor who was married to a renowned cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. “The whole Los Angeles contingent were Reshevsky supporters,” Hanken told me. “Jacqueline herself thought of Fischer as an upstart brat.” Perhaps this contributed to the disagreement that ultimately ruined the match. After eleven games, the match was tied. The twelfth game was postponed to Sunday because of Reshevsky’s observance of the Sabbath. Unfortunately, Jacqueline’s husband was due to play a cello concert in the evening, so she insisted that the game should start at 11:00 AM, so that she could get to the concert in time. Fischer categorically refused to play at such an inhuman hour (!) and forfeited the game. Later, after the traveling carnival moved across country to New York, Fischer protested the forfeited game and ended up forfeiting the whole match. Most histories of chess, trying to redress the unfairness, call the match drawn or incomplete, but in fact Reshevsky was paid the winner’s share. Fischer had court cases going on for years challenging the result, but without any success.

Hanken felt that Fischer’s sense that this match was stolen from him was “absolutely the origin of his vicious anti-Semitism” later in life. I can’t quite fathom this; the effect seems so out of proportion to the cause. I think Fischer must have had some sort of persecution complex already. However, Hanken knew Fischer personally, so his opinion should be taken seriously!

Hanken told me one more story about a crucial game in the match, which was adjourned with Fischer in a winning bishop-versus-knight endgame. “It was obvious to everyone who was watching, 25 spectators or so, that the game was over. Reshevsky looked like a beaten man,” Hanken said. “But then Fischer didn’t play the winning move!”

“Reshevsky raised his eyebrow and played his move, after which there was no win to be had. Fischer kept looking, but once he had missed his chance, it just wasn’t going to happen. Finally, Fischer looked right at Reshevsky, and said, in a voice so soft that you could barely hear it: ‘You bastard.'”

And that’s how you offer a draw, if you’re Bobby Fischer.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ernie Hong April 18, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Much as I hate Fischer’s ruining everything with his acrimony, the personality that produces the “You bastard” moment is necessary so that you can write, “And that’s how you offer a draw, if you’re Bobby Fischer.” Priceless moments that make me smile.

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Howard Goldowsky April 21, 2010 at 9:59 am

Very well written.

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admin April 22, 2010 at 8:34 am

Howard, I appreciate the praise coming from an excellent writer! But credit should also go to Jerry for a great story.

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Jimmy May 3, 2010 at 9:45 pm

it was worth reading the long post just to get to that last sentence!

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Vince May 31, 2010 at 8:56 pm

That last line seems quite Fischer-esque from what I have read about his personality.

Talk about an insatiable will to win…

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Dierolf January 29, 2011 at 11:22 am

this is very nice info.. thanks 🙂

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Statusuri de dragoste February 27, 2011 at 4:34 am

Can i copy half of your article on my blog?I’ll link to it.

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Aben Rudy February 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Does anyone know the venue of the first four games of the match? They were held in New York, but where?

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Rabassa April 20, 2011 at 9:51 am

nice 😀

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MPropp May 25, 2015 at 12:43 pm

As i recall most nyc matches were played at the hotel empire across from where lincoln center is now. Reshevsky, who was my friend (and coached me til he gave up on me because i refused to enter tournaments), was the subject of a “profile” i wrote while in high school at horace mann. The movie portrays asa hoffman as a decade older thab fischer but the two ste about the same age. I played one game against hoffman (i won) who was a few years ahead of me at h. mann.

Leading up to , during and after the match reshevsky was ENTIRE certain he would beat fischer and that bobby knew he’d lose.

The sabbath issue was a red herring. Everyone who followed chess knew reshevsky never played on the sabbath. A chain smoker to calm his nerves, reshevsky didnt smoke on the sabbath either.

Fischer and the russians spent all their time on chess; reshevsky was supporting his family as an accountant.

And that awful toupee reshevsky always wore when he competed? That “rug” was ruled to be sufficient as a skullcap so the man could eat and drink…orthodox jewish people cover their head when eating and drinking.

The upshot is that fischer never would have walked out on their match if he’d thought he could beat reshevsky. Everyone tried to arrange a rematch but fisher refused.

Of note, the int’l grandmaster, reshevsky, was the master of FISCHER’s game, and botwinik’s and capablanca’s. He loved max euwe’s game.

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admin May 25, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Thanks! I have long wished that I could find out how Reshevsky viewed Fischer’s chess, its strengths and weaknesses (if any).

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Taylor Kingston May 30, 2016 at 10:17 am

The story may be slightly off on a couple of points. Hanken is quoted as saying a crucial game “was adjourned with Fischer in a winning bishop-versus-knight endgame.” None of the games of the Fischer-Reshevsky match quite fit that description. Three, or possibly four, of the drawn games of the match would have gone to adjournment. Of these, only the 8th game has a B-vs-N situation, but there is also a rook for each side. According to GM Karsten Müller, an endgame expert, in his book on Fischer’s games, Fischer did have a chance to win at move 45, but missed it. Hanken gives the impression that the “you bastard” moment and the agreement to draw happened right after that, but in fact play went on to move 79.
Fischer-Reshevsky, 8th match game, Los Angeles, 03 August1961
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 Nxd4 7.Qxd4 d6 8.Be2 Bg7 9.Be3 0–0 10.Qd2 Be6 11.0–0 Qa5 12.Rac1 Rfc8 13.b3 a6 14.f4 Bg4 15.Bd3 Bd7 16.h3 Bc6 17.Qf2 Nd7 18.Nd5 Bxd5 19.exd5 b5 20.Rfe1 Nc5 21.Bb1 bxc4 22.Rxc4 Nd7 23.Bd2 Qb6 24.Rxc8+ Rxc8 25.Qxb6 Nxb6 26.Rxe7 Bc3 27.Bxc3 Nxd5 28.Rd7 Nxc3 29.Bd3 d5 30.Bxa6 Ra8 31.Rd6 Nxa2 32.Bb7 Rb8 33.Bxd5 Nc1 34.f5 gxf5 35.Rf6 Nxb3 36.Rxf5 Kh8 37.Rxf7 Nc5 38.Rc7 Na6 39.Rc4 Rd8 40.Be6 Rd6 41.Bf5 Rf6 42.Bd3 h6 43.Kh2 Kg7 44.Kg3 Nb8 45.Be4? — 45.Rc7+! Rf7 46.Rxf7+ Kxf7 47.Bb5 wins, says Müller — 45…Rf7 46.Bd5 Rd7 47.Bf3 Rf7 48.Bh5 Ra7 49.Rg4+ Kh8 50.Re4 Kg7 51.Re6 Na6 52.Rg6+ Kh7 53.Rd6 Nc5 54.Bg6+ Kg7 55.Bf5 Ra6 56.Rd5 Ne6 57.Re5 Ra3+ 58.Kf2 Nf4 59.Re4 Nd5 60.Rg4+ Kf6 61.Be4 Ne7 62.Rf4+ Kg7 63.Bf3 Ra5 64.Rc4 Re5 65.Kg3 Re6 66.Rc7 Kf6 67.Kg4 Re5 68.h4 Rb5 69.Rc4 Rb6 70.Be4 Kf7 71.Rc7 Kf6 72.Kh5 Rb5+ 73.Kg4 Rb4 74.Kf3 Rb3+ 75.Kf2 Rb4 76.Ke3 Rb3+ 77.Kf4 Ng6+ 78.Kg4 Rb4 79.Rc6+ Kf7 ½–½

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admin May 30, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Taylor, Thanks for the fact-checking! I’m not surprised that Jerry got a couple details not quite right, but I’m certain that this must be the game he was talking about. I appreciate your taking the trouble to go through the games and figure this out.

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Taylor Kingston May 30, 2016 at 1:19 pm

You’re welcome! I always enjoy doing historical research. I had never heard before of this story about the Fischer-Reshevsky match, and it intrigued me.

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