Reshevsky, Samuel Herman

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Reshevsky, Samuel Herman

(b. 26 November 1911 in Ozorkov, Poland; d. 4 April 1992 in Suffern, New York), chess grandmaster and author who gained international fame touring Europe and the United States as a young boy and became the leading American player and a world championship contender for nearly three decades.

Reshevsky was the sixth child of Jacob Reshevsky (originally Rzeszewski), a linen merchant, and Shaindel Eibeschitz, who were Orthodox Jews. At the age of four or five, Reshevsky learned chess while watching his father play and almost immediately developed an unusual talent for the game, quickly defeating other players in his native village. Impoverished by World War I, his family moved to Ubai where Reshevsky’s chess skill was recognized. At the age of six, he toured Poland, giving small chess exhibitions. During 1919 and 1920, at the age of eight, he toured Europe giving exhibitions against twenty or more players, winning the vast majority of his games, attracting considerable publicity, and enriching his family.

Invited to the United States by American chess aficionados, Reshevsky arrived in New York City with his family on 3 November 1920, where the city’s chess-playing community had arranged a series of exhibitions. In his first public performance, Reshevsky scored nineteen wins and one draw, playing twenty opponents simultaneously at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, on 10 November 1920. This and subsequent exhibitions were widely reported in the American press.

In 1921 and 1922 Reshevsky went on a national tour of the United States that lasted nearly eighteen months. In October 1922, at age ten, he played in his first tournament. Although his results were only fair, his victory over David Janowski, once a challenger for the world championship, stunned the chess world.

Child welfare authorities had been monitoring the strain imposed on Reshevsky by his exhibitions and his lack of formal schooling. In October 1922 legal action was initiated against Reshevsky’s parents, who were charged with improper guardianship. The case was dismissed after it was proven that Reshevsky was receiving religious education at a rabbinical school. Following a court recommendation, a sponsor outside the Reshevsky family was designated to report to the court periodically on his behalf.

While on tour in Chicago, the businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald took an interest in Reshevsky and offered to finance his education, providing that he would curtail his chess exhibitions. Reshevsky’s family settled in Detroit, where six months of private tutoring enabled him to enter Northern High School. In 1925 Reshevsky became a naturalized American citizen. On graduation from high school in 1929, he entered the University of Detroit to study accounting. After two years, he transferred to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Meanwhile, Reshevsky began to play chess more frequently, after his family relocated to Chicago in the early 1930s. After several excellent results in Western Chess Association championships, Reshevsky easily won a tournament in Syracuse, New York, in 1934 that featured many of the leading American chess masters. Returning to Europe in 1935, he won two English tournaments, in one of which he defeated the Cuban player José Raoul Capablanca, a former world champion.

In 1936 Reshevsky recovered from two early losses to win the U. S. championship. He repeated that performance on five other occasions (1938, 1940, 1942, 1944, and the final time in 1969). By the end of the 1930s, Reshevsky was recognized as one of the finest players in the world. His style was characterized by a fierce will to win, technical virtuosity, uncommon tenacity in defending inferior positions, and icy calm in the face of time pressure. On 24 June 1941, Reshevsky married Norma Mindick; they had three children.

For a time during the 1940s, Reshevsky devoted more attention to his accounting profession and abstained from tournament chess. In 1946 he returned to compete in the first “over-the-board” match (that is, in person rather than by radio communication) between the United States and the Soviet Union, held in Moscow, and later that year decisively won the U.S. championship. In Reshevsky’s only opportunity to directly compete for the world’s championship, he tied for third place behind Mikhail Botvinnik in a five-man tournament in 1948.

Reshevsky conducted a national exhibition tour in 1950, after which he stated that he would concentrate on chess full-time. During the cold war in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he emerged as the leading player outside the Communist bloc and was recognized as the unofficial champion of the “Free World” by winning two matches against the Polish-born Argentine grandmaster Miguel Najdorf. The peak of his career occurred in the United States-Soviet Union team match held in Moscow between 29 June and 5 July 1955. While the United States suffered a 25-7 defeat, Reshevsky won his individual match from world champion Botvinnik, scoring one win and three draws. He was lionized in a widely publicized 4 July reception at the American Embassy, and was photographed with the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin. During this period of his chess career, Reshevsky was supported by a yearly stipend raised by a group of wealthy chess patrons. His efforts to challenge Botvinnik and other leading Soviet players to an extended match were unsuccessful, however.

Reshevsky’s preeminent position in American chess was challenged by Bobby Fischer in the late 1950s. A 1961 match between the two players ended in a contentious and controversial draw when Fischer withdrew after eleven games due to a dispute with match sponsors over the starting time for the twelfth game. Throughout the 1960s Reshevsky continued to compete internationally and in American events. One of his finest triumphs was in Buenos Aires in 1960, when he tied for first with Victor Korchnoi. Fischer was among the also-rans. Reshevsky also continued his quest for the world championship, participating in qualifying tournaments and matches during the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1960s, he became a contributor to the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times and wrote several chess books, including an account of the 1972 world championship match between Fischer and world champion Boris Spassky.

Reshevsky suffered an apparent heart attack between rounds of a tournament in 1976. Yet he continued to live the life of a chess professional, competing, giving exhibitions and chess lessons, writing books and articles, conducting correspondence games, and playing more frequently than in his heyday decades earlier. Intermittently during his chess career, he had also worked as an accountant, a life insurance salesman, and a financial analyst. In October 1983 Reshevsky was reunited with his two oldest rivals: Reuben Fine, America’s second great player in the 1930s, and Botvinnik, on the occasion of the latter’s visit to New York City. In 1986 Reshevsky was inducted into the U.S. Chess Federation Hall of Fame.

Reshevsky’s final serious chess competition took place in Moscow in June 1991, when he drew a short match against the former world champion and old rival Vassily Smyslov, whom he had first played in 1939. On 4 April 1992, while attending Sabbath services, Reshevsky suffered a fatal heart attack. He died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York.

A devoutly religious man, Reshevsky’s strict adherence to his Orthodox Jewish beliefs often created difficulties for tournament organizers and opponents, as well as selfimposed hardships. He was a diminutive man (barely over five feet tall), blunt, terse, with a rather cold personality to those outside his close friends and family, and he viewed chess pragmatically as a profession. His exploits as a child prodigy served to popularize chess and attract countless adherents to the game but also robbed him of a normal childhood.

Biographical information on Reshevsky, together with a selection of his best games to that point, can be found in his Reshevsky on Chess (1948), a book which may have been completely ghostwritten. Edward Lasker, Chess Secrets (1951), contains reminiscences of Reshevsky. A recent attempt to amass all his games, details of his chess career, and extensive biographical information is Stephen W. Gordon, Samuel Reshevsky: A Compendium of 1, 768 Games, with Diagrams, Crosstables, Some Annotations, and Indexes (1997). Reshevsky was profiled in Time (20 Oct. 1952). A Reshevsky interview, given to Hanon Russell in 1991, appears in Chess Life (Nov. 1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Apr. 1992).

Edward J. Tassinari