The Little General of Chess
by NM Andy Sacks
He had played in Southern California before and would again, but for those of us who were growing up chess players in the Los Angeles area of the 1960s there were repeated opportunities to see a true legend in action, and a personality and character not to be forgotten. He was the Napoleon of chess, a man of small physical stature but the rarest of gifts. As "The Little Corporal" changed European history, Samuel Reshevsky left an indelible mark on the Royal Game.
That he cut that wide swath in the history of world chess is not news, but that he was such a frequent presence in L.A. during that period is little noted. First there were the games of the second half of the aborted Fischer-Reshevsky match of 1961, then the First Piatigorsky Cup in 1963 (along with his early arrival, late departure, and various simultaneous exhibitions), and then the Second Cup of 1966. Much attention was paid to the lamentable absence of Bobby Fischer in the first Cup tourney, and much more to his participation and spectacular comeback in the final rounds of the Second; much more media glare was also fixed on the Soviet contingent in both Cups, and Jacqueline and Gregor Piatigorsky's personal diplomatic triumph (during the Cold War) of securing the great Keres and Petrosian, then the great Spassky and Petrosian once again-but there was also a comparable chess dignitary at both Cups.
However, physical height and easy puns aside, Reshevsky has proven to be one of the most natural candidates in chess annals to be overlooked and underappreciated. We all know of Sammy the wonder boy, the youngest and strongest of all chess prodigies, playing simuls in Europe from the age of six. And we know that, despite periods of chess inactivity to pursue traditional professional, domestic, and religious goals, he fulfilled his early promise to become a top-ten player through several decades. But I would argue that through a number of unfortunate cases of poor timing and lack of opportunity, Reshevsky's strength and achievements have been somewhat obscured.
At Nottingham 1936 his exceptional plus 5 score was narrowly exceeded by both Botvinnik and Capablanca; he played in the 1948 World Championship match-tournament without any serious preparation, having hardly played a serious tournament game in two years, without a second or assistance team, and still shared third place with Keres; while at the height of his powers in1950, the U.S. State Department refused, for political reasons, to allow him to play in the Candidates tournament in Budapest; in the great Candidates tournament of 1953 (immortalized in the greatest of all tournament books by Bronstein) he came equal second, after Smyslov; in the broken-off match with Fischer in 1961 he stood equal after 11 games. And this list could easily be supplemented.
Overshadowed? Just choose your time period. By Alekhine and Capablanca. Then by Botvinnik and Smyslov. Then by Tal and later Fischer.
So, then, what am I suggesting? Was Samuel Reshevsky ever the world's greatest player? No, I don't think so. Did he ever deserve a World Championship match? Perhaps and perhaps not. Then what?
That, like Dr. Milan Vidmar, like Paul Keres to some extent, and like one or two others, Reshevsky is not credited sufficiently with either the extent of accolades or pride of place he in fact earned at the chessboard. Like Vidmar, for decades he was successful in virtually every tournament in which he participated, rarely placing lower than third, regardless of the very strongest of opposition. Like Keres, repeated misfortune (not to mention occasional political pressures) haunted him in the specter of players just one-quarter level higher when it counted most. We might with justice add the Akiba Rubinstein of 1912, who certainly had earned a shot at Emanuel Lasker; the Reshevsky of the early 1950s was perhaps worthy of challenging Botvinnik.
Another factor, in all likelihood, contributing to his undervaluation was the style of play he adopted. He chose a stodgy positional methodology, tactically capable though he was. Can you think offhand of any famous Reshevsky games? Any "brilliancies"? That's just it. His wins came through slow positional victories, battles of attrition, opportunistic tactical ploys, and the like. He was far from a crowd pleaser.
It was this yet towering historical figure that was virtually overlooked in both Piatigorsky Cups. His even scores in both were typical: many hard-fought draws, and relatively few decisive games, but holding his own against the very top players. In fact, in the first Cup his record against the tournament co-winners, Keres and Petrosian, was two wins and two draws, respectively.
But the oversight was not committed by those of us who gazed attentively and studiously at him time and again, day after day. He was an exemplar of aristocratic, even royal characteristics. He stood alone, aloof, rarely passing even a greeting word to his comrades. He was self-containment and self-assurance personified both away from and at the board. And he had plenty of reason for it. Perhaps none but Capablanca had been natively blessed with more chess talent. Reshevsky, from childhood, had been nourished on the mother's milk of chess, although that metaphor is usually reserved for only the great Cuban.
Further, as with Capablanca, one can argue that his great blessings came at a psychological price. Reshevsky also rarely studied chess, did not follow the most recent opening theory, did not prepare for tournaments as did his fellow competitors, but instead relied on his considerable innate gifts. Can one even begin to imagine the strength of Capablanca had he been a Botvinnik in chess work habits? Such a Samuel Reshevsky would similarly have been a very colossus.
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