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A master goof in Amsterdam
Larry Evans
July 20, 1964
Blunders of a rare sort occurred in a tournament where no Americans—and few Russians—were happy
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July 20, 1964

A Master Goof In Amsterdam

Blunders of a rare sort occurred in a tournament where no Americans—and few Russians—were happy

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One of the legends of chess is the story of the grandmaster who resigns, not realizing that he has the game won. The last time this happened was in the early '30s, in a celebrated match between Salo Flohr, then a brilliant young Czechoslovakian star, and a now-forgotten Swiss master named Henri Grob. Now it has happened again, this time in the Interzonal Chess Tournament in Amsterdam. The colossal mistake cost a grandmaster his chance to compete for the world championship, and as a misfortune it had only one thing to equal it at Amsterdam—the plight of the Americans, who for the first time in 16 years failed to place among the qualifiers and consequently will not contend for the world title, either.

The man who surrendered a battle he had already won was Klaus Darga of West Germany, who had the white men in a game against Levente Lengyel of Hungary. Pressed by the time limit, Lengyel made a major error. For his 40th move he hurriedly used his rook to capture a knight on K7, putting the white king in check. This produced the situation diagramed at right.

All Darga had to do was take the black rook with his rook: 41. R x R. Black could again check: 41. B x Pch. But White's king move—42. K-K3—would stop the attack. This Darga somehow overlooked. Convinced that his game was hopeless, he resigned. A moment later he struck his forehead and exclaimed, "My God—I have a winning position!"

There were 24 players from 14 countries competing in the five-week Interzonal tournament, including five from Russia, three from the U.S. and two each from Yugoslavia and Hungary. There would have been more from Russia if ability alone provided the standard—there were at least seven additional Russian grandmasters who deserved to play—but the rules provide that there can be no more than five players at the Interzonal from any one country. The Russian delegation which was sure to finish in five of the top six places, consisted of Vasily Smyslov, the former world champion, Mikhail Tal, another former world champion, David Bronstein, who tied with Mikhail Botvinnik 12-12 in a match for the world championship in 1951, young Leonid Stein, the Soviet champion, and Boris Spassky, a onetime child prodigy who is regarded by the U.S. prodigy, Bobby Fischer, as one of the greatest players in chess history. But the rules for the Interzonal also stipulate that only three of the top six who qualify can be from any one country.

The result was a tournament within a tournament. The five Russians engaged in a furious struggle among themselves for three berths, while the remaining 19 of the 24 contestants fought for the other three. At stake was a trip to the Candidates' Tournament, the winner of which will get to play a 25-game match against defending champion Tigran Petrosian for the world title. Perhaps because of the paradoxical situation in which they found themselves, there was a memorable spirit of friendliness among the Russian players at Amsterdam. The swarm of interpreters who used to surround the Russian players was absent, as were the grim-faced Soviet secret agents of former years. With victory all but certain, neither interpreters nor spies were needed.

The world chess title has been frozen in the U.S.S.R. since 1948, and from the looks of things at Amsterdam it may stay there until 2048. In past years the Soviet domination has been threatened only by Bobby Fischer, and then very briefly. At the Interzonal in 1962 Fischer displayed a form that placed him in a class by himself. He did not lose a game, and his score of 17�-4� was sensational—Petrosian, for example, did no better than 15-7. But in the Candidates' Tournament that followed, Fischer was clobbered. He accused the Russians of throwing their games to each other for the benefit of a predetermined winner, documented his charges (SI, Aug. 20, 1962) and vowed he would never take part in a tournament of this sort again.

Changes were subsequently made in the rules but they were not enough to satisfy Bobby, who refused to play last month. The changes were sufficient to lure 52-year-old Sammy Reshevsky, the doyen of American chess, out of an 11-year boycott of these Interzonal tournaments, and he became the one hope the Americans had at Amsterdam of placing a contender among the challengers for the world championship.

If it had not been for a remarkable dark horse—Bent Larsen, a 29-year-old Danish grandmaster, who set the pace all the way, and finished with Smyslov, Spassky and Tal in a four-way tie for first place—the Russians would have taken the first five places. But there was that rule providing there could be only three from any one country. It eliminated the two lowest-ranking Russians (Bronstein and Stein). And as the next highest from other zones moved up, Reshevsky and Lajos Portisch, the champion of Hungary, were tied for sixth place. It was very nearly a three-way tie, for Darga would have been right there with them if he had not resigned his winning position against Lengyel.

American hopes revived when Reshevsky settled down to a four-game playoff against Portisch, for he had never been beaten in match play. Then, for the first time in his 44-year chess career, he lost such a match. And he lost it badly, 2� to�. With that, the four first-place prize winners—Larsen, Smyslov, Spassky and Tal—divided the prize money, which amounted to $105 apiece, while Klaus Darga and the U.S. tried to forget all about Amsterdam.