Jacqueline and Sammy

From time to time the bloggers here have described their meetings with famous people of the chess world. Since I have no games this week, I’ll take this opportunity to do the same.

In the 1960’s there were two super-grandmaster tournaments sponsored by Jacqueline Piatigorsky and her husband, renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Not surprisingly, these were called the First Piatigorsky Cup (1963) and Second Piatgorsky Cup (1966).  The prize funds were at record levels. Participants included many of the strongest players in the world – Spassky, Petrosian, Keres, Fischer, Larsen, Najdorf, Portisch, Benko, other elite grandmasters and, of course, Reshevsky.

At some time around the 1966 tournament, an announcement appeared in the Los Angeles Times for a simul to be given by Sammy Reshevsky. Back then I rarely read the newspapers and was too young to drive, but my mother spotted it and chauffeured me to the event, held at the Herman Steiner Chess Club. By the way, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and many other Hollywood celebrities frequented the Steiner Club, but they weren’t in sight that day, or perhaps they were all in disguise.

As I entered the club, I was greeted with a warm smile by Jacqueline Piatgorsky. I was stunned. Without exaggeration, she was one of the nicest people I ever met. I would have immediately agreed to adoption, but the subject didn’t come up. Although I had no idea at the time that Mrs. Piatgorsky knew much about chess, in fact, she competed regularly at the highest levels and nearly won the 1965 US Women’s Championship!

The chess sets were all lined up for the simul, something close to thirty boards. The pieces were the largest I’d ever seen – in stark contrast to my small set at home. Soon Reshevsky appeared in suit and tie, dressed far better than anyone there, with the exception of Mrs. Piatigorsky. As a bit of trivia, it seems that Reshevsky and Mrs. Piatigorsky were born in the same year 1911 – the year of the sharp dressers.

Although not a tall man, Reshevsky had a “presence” and seemed tall in stature. He was very serious. Without much fanfare, he got down to business, making a move with White at each board, moving down the line towards my board, where he firmly played 1.d4. When he came back around, I played 1…Nf6 and soon we were in a NimzoIndian. Little did he know that he was playing into my favorite variation, as I had been reading Nimzovitch’s My System during lunch breaks at the school library … To my everlasting regret, I did not keep score of the game. The following “reconstruction” is based on key features of the game that I do remember.

Samuel Reshevsky

Samuel Reshevsky

I believe that it was the Rubinstein variation of the NimzoIndian. Before too long Reshevsky planted a bishop on d6, right in the heart of my position. I didn’t know enough to be afraid. After all, the bishop didn’t seem to threaten anything, although its presence did make things a bit inconvenient for my queen and rooks. They couldn’t use very many of the dark squares. Well, I reasoned, that’s why they invented the light squares! I tried just “working around” the dark-squared intruder.

Some time after my opponent played f2-f3, I nervously responded …Qb6, setting a “trap” involving pawn advances and a discovered check. For the first time, he actually stopped at my board, and I thought: “Will he see it? Soon, Reshevsky said in measured words that I will never forget, “And so, ….you want to trade queens, eh?” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I smiled, knowingly.

So he played Qf2, seeing through my little swindle, and we did trade queens. Suddenly, without apparent reason, my King’s Rook went by itself on a fishing expedition, and got trapped on h5. Nowhere to go! I was losing the exchange. Only one honorable thing to do. When Reshevsky returned to the board I quietly announced, “I resign.” But to my great surprise, he then started studying the position! The seconds went by. Seconds turned to minutes. It seemed like an eternity. I began to wonder, “What if he refuses my resignation? I’ll look like a complete idiot, resigning a non-resignable position!” But at last he started to nod in affirmation – indeed, I was lost. Resigning was the correct decision. I breathed a sign of relief. I’ll never forget the feeling of that moment, forty-six years ago, as Mr. Reshevsky moved to the next board. He took me seriously; he treated a kid with respect.