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Ice cold, rocklike in its immobility, imposing in its calm, the face on the opposite page is symbolic of one of the most concentrated minds the ancient game of chess has ever known. It is the face that stared at Russia's great world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, whenever he looked up from the board in the Soviet-American chess matches last summer (SI, July 18), unchanging, unyielding, until in a sensational upset the Russian had to concede defeat. It is the face that once drove Argentina's brilliant master, Miguel Najdorf, into such a state of jitters that he ran screaming to an attending doctor to be reassured as to his condition. It is the face of Samuel Herman Reshevsky, the greatest of living American chess players, an international Grand Master, recognized as one of the five greatest players in the world, the man of whom it was predicted when he was 5 years old that he would be world champion someday—as indeed he may.
In chess, as in art, absolute perfection is unattainable. A reasonably bright child can learn the rules in an hour but can spend the rest of his life vainly trying to learn to play chess well. No two recorded games in the history of the game, which is at least 2,500 years old, have been exactly alike. The possible combinations of the first 10 moves, for example, number hundreds of octillions. In the later stages the possibilities are infinite. To develop a winning sequence is a creative process as exciting, as satisfying and as instinctual to the chess player as composing is to the musician or painting to the artist. Of all games chess is the intellectually purest—a combat between two minds, untainted by any element of chance.
The mind of Samuel Reshevsky has been conditioned to this creative process for almost literally a lifetime. He started playing chess at the age of 5, he was a veteran at the age of 7, it has been his principal source of livelihood for most of his life; and when economic circumstances once threatened to infringe upon his game a group of chess devotees and admirers raised enough money to make sure that he could go on playing as long as he lived. To Reshevsky this seemed perfectly reasonable; from his childhood on, his self-assurance as a chess player and therefore as a man more privileged than ordinary mortals has been supreme.
Reshevsky's remarkable belief in himself, which in any other player might be termed sheer bravado, is uniquely well founded. Though he is primarily a money player who is less interested in brilliance for its own sake than in the $1,000 to $2,000 prizes that accompany important tournaments, this has in no way detracted from his extraordinary accomplishments. His official record is unsurpassed. He has never lost a match, that is, a two-man contest. He has never finished lower than third in any tournament. He is the only player ever to win the U.S. Championship four times running—he has won it five times in all. And as a performer of chess stunts, his principal means of livelihood, he has few peers.
At 43, Reshevsky, despite his smallness, is an imposing figure whose icy boardside manner is a weapon which powerfully complements his wits. Barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, with a wide, bulging brow and steely eyes, he sits un-movingly erect for hours on end, his head in his cupped hands, his mouth pursed in an expression of ineffable hauteur. Most players nibble and sip at something at intervals during a game; Reshevsky eats nothing and only seldom drinks a glass of water. He chain-smokes, but in him even this habit betrays no sign of nerves. "Sammy," a colleague once observed, "plays chess like a man eating fish. First he removes the bones, then he swallows the fish." His self-confidence is so boundless that in tournament play, where 40 moves must be made within two and a half hours, he will spend half that time pondering a single move, feeling sure of finding one that will make the next moves virtually automatic. On rare occasions only does he leave himself so little time that he blunders through sheer haste.
Reshevsky's calm, however, is external. During a tournament he sweats buckets, losing several pounds. And though his opponents might never guess it, he lies awake nights wondering how he could have played a better game.
Reshevsky is a self-taught player. He began playing chess by instinct, with no instruction whatsoever, let alone a grasp of scientific principle. At the age of 4 in the little Polish village of Ozorkow near Lodz, he watched his father, an average player, take on some of the neighbors. After watching a month or two, Sammy asked his father to play him. Sammy won. Stunned but pleased, the elder Reshevsky sent for his cronies. The infant beat them too. In the Lodz club, to which his father then rushed him, he played 12 simultaneous games and won them all. The Polish Grand Master, Akiba Rubinstein, was so impressed that he offered to play Sammy. He won, but not without a struggle, and he predicted: "You will be the world champion someday." To show him what championship chess was he reconstructed a game he had won from Emanuel Lasker at the St. Petersburg tournament of 1909. Sammy considered it a moment, then showed Rubinstein how he could have won two moves earlier.
In the years that followed, Sammy toured all Europe under his father's management and became the family's chief source of income. His earnings were a timely windfall; Reshevsky senior, a clothing manufacturer, lost everything in the war and there were five older children.
In 1920 the Reshevskys left their native Poland and landed in New York aboard the S.S. Olympic. Their first evening, by invitation, was spent at the Marshall Chess Club. "As the conversation became general," one member recalls, "with the boy's achievements as chief topic, Albert B. Hodges [a former U.S. champion] seized the opportunity to set up three problems of his own making on the table in front of Reshevsky. The first, a two-mover, was solved by the wonder child almost at sight. The second, a three-mover, took a little longer. The third, another three-mover, was somewhat more difficult and puzzled him a bit. Resting his chin on one small gloved hand and pointing with the forefinger of the other at the squares to which the king might escape, he reasoned out the steps of the solution so completely, albeit uttering not a word, that one felt sure he was on the right track. And indeed he was, for the coming move was foreseen soon after. Someone in the group announced that it had taken him three and a quarter minutes to solve it."
Such stunts as these became, in later years, as much a part of Sammy Reshevsky's stock in trade as his tournament play. After a rather unhappy but necessary period during which he foreswore serious chess at the instigation of the late Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears, Roebuck & Co., who financed his sadly neglected education, Reshevsky settled down to a scientific study of the game. He decided to devote himself completely to it in 1950 when he relinquished a budding career in accountancy, and since then the game has had no serious competition in his life, save from religion, to which Reshevsky, grandson of two rabbis, devotes almost as much time as chess. When the economic necessities of maintaining a family of four (he has a daughter, Sylvia, aged 11, and a son, Joel, of 6) threatened to overwhelm him, a fund was raised among chess lovers by the late Maurice Wertheim, a wealthy broker, which gave Reshevsky some $3,000 a year to supplement the $6,000 to $7,000 a year he makes in tournaments and exhibitions.