The Game of the Century – New York 1956 – Donald Byrne v Robert J Fischer

Bobby Fischer - The Most Famous of them all

Chiefly, Donald Byrne will be forever immortalised as the loser of this match, which is rather unfair but it is an amazing moment for young Bobby!

Forthwith, Fischer gained momentum until eventually gaining the world championship in 1972.

Ultimately, Donald Byrne and his brother Robert Byrne continued their chess careers and reached GM level but never escalated to the same heights as the virtuoso Bobby!

An amazing game against GM Byrne - Bobby was only 13 years old!

Notably, Fischer recalls in a TV interview when he was around 11, he just "got good". The famous game of the century was in the 8th round of the 1956 Third Rosenwald Trophy in New York.

In this case, to finish 9th out of 12 in a local New York tournament doesn't sound too impressive but there are a few things to remember about this now famous tournament.

To demonstrate the calibre of the young Brooklyn lad, the event attracted a good calibre of players who at various stages in their career hovered around the 2500 ELO mark - Samuel Reshevsky, Arthur Bisguier, Edmar Mednis and Donald Byrne were all there. These were not standard US amateurs. Though Fischer would go on to record many notable wins against these giants of US chess in his adult career, facing these formidable opponents at 13 years of age shows just how good the young Bobby Fischer really was.

By 1958, Fischer was US champion - this was shown off in the gameshow "I've got a secret" where a young Bobby shows his article "Teen-ager's strategy defeats all comers!!" - amazingly the panel had no idea who he was!

Captain America

Fischer dominated US chess shortly after this for many years

The Game

Poor Donald Byrne is confined to the annals of chess history with one entry - this game which he lost.

The opening involves some solid development from both players up to move 11 where Bf4-g5 is a microscopic error moving the same piece twice in the opening. We saw the dangers of opening delays in our opening sacrifices article!

Against a lesser player, such a minute inaccuracy would scarcely raise an eyebrow.

During the annotation, it's worth keeping an eye out for 11...Na4, the famous queen sacrifice on 17...Be6 and the mating sequence is also very memorable.

Hans Kmoch - noted chess writer who'd reported on Alekhine, Botvinnik et al called this "the Game of the Century" - the name sticks to this day:

[Event "Third Rosenwald Trophy"] [Site "New York, NY USA"] [Date "1956.10.17"] [EventDate "1956.10.07"] [Round "8"] [Result "0-1"] [White "Byrne, Donald"] [Black "Fischer, Robert James"] [ECO "D92"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "82"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. d4 O-O 5. Bf4 d5 6. Qb3 dxc4 7. Qxc4 c6 8. e4 Nbd7 9. Rd1 Nb6 10. Qc5 Bg4 11. Bg5 Na4!! {Often glossed over due to the famous queen sacrifice but this is an incredibly deep move!} 12. Qa3 (12. Nxa4!? Nxe4 {and the only move to defend both pieces is} 13. Qc1 (13. Qe7 Bf3 14. Qd8 Rad8 15. Bd8 Bd1 {and white has pawn weaknesses with even material and is less developed}) {now black can wreak havoc with} 13...Bxf3 14. gxf3 Qa5) Nxc3 13. bxc3 Nxe4 {knowing white can win the exchange on f8 after} 14. Bxe7 Qb6 15. Bc4 (15. Bf8 Bf8 {and black has the open e file and very active pieces in compensation for the exchange. One sample line goes:} 16. Qb3 {even exchanging queens won't help} Re8 {this dominance of the e file is catastrophic for white} 17. Qb6 axb6 18. Be2 Nc3 19. Rd2 {where though still a pawn down, black's pieces are all active with lasting pressure - white's h1 rook is not in the game!}) Nxc3 16. Bc5 Rfe8+ {a vital Zwischenzug, in-between move, capitalising on the open e file} 17. Kf1 Be6! {whilst this is a really great move, it is a logical continuation of a theme - all black's pieces are active. The move also pretty much obliges white to take the queen!} 18. Bxb6 (18. Be6 Qb5 19. Kg1 Ne2 20. Kf1 Ng3 21. Kg1 Qf1 22. Rf1 Ne2 {is mate!})(18. Qxc3 Qxc5) Bxc4+ 19. Kg1 Ne2+ {though Fischer can now use the knight to get the rook on d1, he gobbles up everything in sight first before getting the d1 rook - note the h1 rook is also up for grabs but then the knight is harder to extract} 20. Kf1 Nxd4+ 21. Kg1 Ne2+ 22. Kf1 Nc3+ 23. Kg1 axb6 24. Qb4 Ra4 {the co-ordination of the black pieces is superb. White's h1 rook hasn't had a look in and queen is being chased here, there and everywhere!} 25. Qxb6 Nxd1 26. h3 Rxa2 27. Kh2 Nxf2 28. Re1 {the h1 rook finally gets in the game but after it's exchanged, it's queen and knight versus rook and three good minor pieces - Fischer makes the rest look effortless!} Rxe1 29. Qd8+ Bf8 30. Nxe1 Bd5 31. Nf3 Ne4 32. Qb8 b5 33. h4 h5 {killing any final hope of counter-play} 34. Ne5 Kg7 {allowing the f8 bishop to move} 35. Kg1 Bc5+ 36. Kf1 (36. Kh1 Ng3 37. Kh2 Nf1 38. Kh3 Bg2)(36. Kh2 Bd6 {is just horrible}) Ng3+ 37. Ke1 Bb4+ 38. Kd1 Bb3+ 39. Kc1 Ne2+ 40. Kb1 Nc3+ 41. Kc1 Rc2# 0-1
After the tournament and Kmoch's coverage, the game was published throughout the world. Next, as Fischer notes, the Russians (who had dominated chess since Botvinnik first became champion in 1948) started to recognise the standard of this precociously talented American.

What can we learn from this game?

  • Deep calculation will win you many games
  • Feeling the subtleties of the position is more important than material
  • Weaving a mating net can be an unstoppable route to win
Diamond performance (sadly for Byrne)

A real chess brilliancy

Deep Calculation will win many games

Despite the undoubtedly brilliant technique employed by Fischer, 17...Be6 is often cited as "the move" of the game of the century, which actually takes a lot away from the superb depth of calculation from Fischer.

Amid the sea of potential "normal moves", hardly any player would even think to look for 11...Na4!! - why would you - putting a knight en prise for no immediate material gain. In fact, it even leads to a position with dead even material but small pawn weakness - now that's GM level chess!

Understand the position, don't always worry about material

Without delay, playing 13...Nxe4 and 14...Qb6 says "go on, take f8 - I'll have a powerful bishop on the dark squares for a passive rook" - amazing insight, especially for a 13-year-old!

In short, throughout the game, Fischer uses textbook chess understanding to utilise all tactical resources to completely take the initiative in what looked at first to be a very level game.

A good mating net will catch you a king

To summarise, the final mating sequence is almost a symphony of minor pieces. After 36. Kf1, a player of Donald Byrne's standard would have known his number was up but the finish is really pleasing. The final position is so good we want to show it again:
Final Position

41...Rc2# and history is made

What do you think?

A simply superlative game of chess - this really had everything, don't you think?

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