Thursday, June 6, 2013

An afternoon chat with Yasser - Part I

Quote of the day: "Lkhamsürengiin Myagmarsüren", he said. Not quite able to understand what he just heard, Bobby looked up and asked once more. "Lkhamsürengiin Myagmarsüren," his opponent repeated. This went on for a third time after which Bobby just shook his head and wrote A. Mongolian on his score sheet.

Chess Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan and Frank Niro at 2012 US Open in Vancouver, WA. Photo courtesy of Al Lawrence.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with American Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, originally from Seattle. Yasser currently splits his time between the Netherlands and St. Louis, where he spends about a third of the year as temporary Grandmaster-in-residence at the St. Louis Chess Center and coach of the Lindenwood University chess team. Following is part one of my interview with him on May 21, 2013 in St. Louis.


Thank you, Yasser, for taking the time to meet with me here in St. Louis. I enjoyed the tennis court photo of you and Robert very much. Tell me, please, about your relationship over the years with Grandmaster Robert Byrne.


I met Robert for the first time I believe around 1980 when we played in a U.S. Championship together. And then I knew him very well during the 80s and 90s period. For example, the tennis picture you asked about was taken by Lars Grahn. They were published originally in the Swedish magazine, Schacknytt, which Lars published for about 20 years. Robert and I were playing tennis during the 1981 Karpov-Korchnoi match in Merano, Italy. Lars took a lot of photos and also added some things. There is one where my racket is fully extended, Byrne is close to the net, and the ball is landing behind me. And Lars has drawn these dots where the ball hits my racket and goes over my head. He did it very nicely.

Robert in those days, of course, was a columnist for The New York Times. He took his job extremely seriously. When he was on a deadline, he really focused. And when you think about his column and what he achieved, it is remarkable consistency. Take a thousand of these articles, from the first to the thousandth, just fantastic! I think today folks really don’t know how good he was at what he did. The Times, beyond the column that he had, would periodically give him space to write about the world championships that he was covering. So he wrote massive articles about Korchnoi-Karpov, Kasparov-Karpov, and all of those matches that he attended. It was a remarkable effort on his part for a very long period of time.

We had a really good relationship. I thought of him, in a way, as a very classical man, a man of great dignity, a cultured man. He was extremely well mannered. I remember, in 1995, we were at the Kasparov-Anand match in New York City in the twin towers, where the match was held. We were staying at the hotel at the very bottom of the towers, as were he and his wife. We had gone out to dinner. Our table was prepared, everything was really nice. But before we sat down, he went to his wife’s seat and pulled back her chair. It’s just nice, old world manners, nothing to do with sexism or political correctness or any of that nonsense. It was just the way he was raised and what he did, how gentlemen behaved. It made an impression so much so that I’m telling you about it now.

He was, as you know from your own experience with Robert, a great raconteur. It was very surprising because, in his column, he shied away from that. He wrote matter-of-factly: "this is what happened, and… white lost on time." But how white lost on time, and all the stories and the politics, he never got into that. When the gloves were off and he could tell stories, however, we would laugh so hard and have such good times! It’s a shame that the general public didn’t often get to see that side of him.

He told me lots of stories about Bobby Fischer, which I just loved. One, in particular, I really liked he was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the Petrosian match. It is game seven of the match, and Fischer has a slight 3.5-2.5 lead. The winner will play Boris Spassky for the world championship in 1972. At move 22 he surprised many GMs by forsaking his strong knight outpost to take an underperforming bishop.

Robert J Fischer – Tigran Petrosian [B42]

Candidates Match Buenos Aires ARG (round 7), October 19, 1971
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.0–0 d5 8.c4 Nf6 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.exd5 exd5 11.Nc3 Be7 12.Qa4+ Qd7 13.Re1 Qxa4 14.Nxa4 Be6 15.Be3 0–0 16.Bc5 Rfe8 17.Bxe7 Rxe7 18.b4 Kf8 19.Nc5 Bc8 20.f3 Rea7 21.Re5 Bd7

Robert Bryne described the scene as follows: “White had a dominating knight on c5, and Petrosian had this stupid looking bishop on d7. And Bobby took the bishop.”


“In the media center, there was pandemonium,” Robert said. Grandmaster Miguel Najdorf was holding court, and he just started shouting: “My God, what an idiot! How could he give up this fantastic knight for the stupid bishop? He knows nothing, nothing about chess.” “The Soviets,” Byrne recalled, “were all smiling because they understood that Bobby had made an egregious strategic error.”

Everybody turned to Robert Byrne and asked his opinion. “I’m working on my story for the match and can’t answer right now,” he said. Later, when telling Yasser this story, he explained, “I knew Bobby Fischer very well and I knew how he played chess. Bobby loved his bishops and by capturing that bishop, in Bobby’s mind, he was just putting the nail into Tigran’s coffin. While I wasn’t sure it was a good move, I knew that Bobby was happy making that move and would do it 100 times out of 100.”

“Well, the game progressed and, as it progressed, everything was like a dream, a boa constrictor. Move after move after move Bobby’s position improved and Tigran’s got worse. The next thing you know, Bobby had two rooks doubled on the seventh, a dominating bishop, excellent king and Petrosian had to resign.”

22…Rxd7 23.Rc1 Rd6 24.Rc7 Nd7 25.Re2 g6 26.Kf2 h5 27.f4 h4 28.Kf3 f5 29.Ke3 d4+ 30.Kd2 Nb6 31.Ree7 Nd5 32.Rf7+ Ke8 33.Rb7 Nxf4 34.Bc4 1–0

“Grandmaster Suetin, who had been smiling, now had his jaw on the table,” Byrne said.

Suetin whispered, “Fischer just plays so simply!”

In 1966, at the Havana Olympiad, Bobby Fischer had a large and beautiful suite where all of the team members assembled after each round and Bobby would show his game. The U.S. team, which won the Silver medal, consisted of Fischer, Byrne, Benko, Evans, Addison and Rossolimo. Byrne said, “This was an incredible highlight. It was like watching a Mozart. He had these very big hands and the pieces just danced as they moved about the board. At one moment, Bobby showed a position he had reached against Svein Johannessen of Norway on Board 1 of their match. Bobby had the black pieces and his opponent had just moved his knight from d5 to f4 uncovering his protected bishop on g2 against Bobby’s queen.”

Johannessen, S - Fischer, R [A57]
Havana ol (Men) (round 7), 1966 {Inf. 2/51}
Position after 26.Nf4

Bobby said, “And now, and now, and now the pizza, (Bobby’s variation for the term patzer, referring to his opponent), the pizza played this move!” The next thing you know,” Byrne said, “Bobby is in a laughing fit and just can’t stop. Bobby starts laughing so hard that he falls of the chair and is back on the carpet hugging his midsection and laughing hilariously. In the meantime, the other guys on the team were scouring the board trying to understand what was wrong with the guy’s move. It looked on the surface like a reasonable move.”

Byrne said, “Yasser, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever been a part of. I’m analyzing with this chess genius and I don’t want him to think that I’m a pizza as well. But I can’t find what’s wrong with the move. Bobby is still laughing hilariously when I saw it…I got it…and, I made a move, then I started laughing with Bobby. Then the other guys saw why and, in turn, five guys started laughing in tandem. Bobby got up from the carpet and wiped his eyes and showed us the refutation.”

26…Rxf4! 27.Bxc6 Bd4+ 28.Kh2 Rf2+ 29.Kg1 Rxb2+

Byrne said, “There was a moment there that I was absolutely petrified, the dark side of analyzing a chess game with a genius.”

Once he realized that he was essentially forced to take Bobby's queen, after which he would be quickly checkmated, Johannessen resigned after 26…Rxf4!.

OK, one more quick Fischer story from Robert Byrne and we can move on. At one of the chess Olympiads, I'm not sure which, the United States was paired with the team from Mongolia. Bobby sat down and shook the hand of his opponent and politely asked his name.

"Lkhamsürengiin Myagmarsüren", he said. Not quite able to understand what he just heard, Bobby looked up and asked once more. "Lkhamsürengiin Myagmarsüren," his opponent repeated. This went on for a third time after which Bobby just shook his head and wrote A. Mongolian on his score sheet.

Byrne had a whole repertoire of stories. He was a candidates’ player and lost his candidates’ finals match to Spassky famously.

To be continued...

Yasser Seirawan, age 21 at the time, with Robert Byrne at the 1981 World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in Merano, Italy. Yasser was Korchnoi's second and Robert covered the match for The New York Times. Photo courtesy of Lars Grahn.