Serendipity: An Unforeseen Friendship
"Do you know who that is"? whispered the tournament leader and nodded toward the door where an elderly man in jacket, black shirt and purple tie slowly with the support of his cane of copper came into the room and settled down at one of the beautiful chess tables at the Mechanics’ Institutes Chess Club in San Francisco. It was Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 and my first evening in San Francisco - the last stop on my and my friend's three-week road trip in western U.S.A.
America's oldest chess club happened to be just a couple of blocks from our hotel. The night I arrived they had a blitz tournament so I went there to sign up. The room is incredibly beautiful with genuine chess tables from 1880. They appreciated that I had sought out their club and wanted to play the Wednesday blitz tournament. I had arrived in good time and talked to the club representative to hear a little about the club's history. Then GM William Lombardy crossed the threshold and into my life.
I was told that he unexpectedly appeared at the club only six days ago. He had been homeless for a long time but since then he temporarily stayed with a helpful club member. Lombardy visited the club every day, not to attend tournaments, but just to spend the day there. Bill's renomee was the reason I started talking to him between the rounds this evening. I quickly became acquainted with his amazing character and personality. While I was playing, Lombardy was talking to my travel company when one of the younger players hushed him, obviously without knowing who he was hushing. This seemed to amuse Lombardy, who said, "Hope he is a strong player" with tongue in cheek and continued the conversation smiling.
Our conversations quickly turned increasingly personal. We discovered that we shared views on what is important in relationships, friends and our appreciation of the true, sincere and genuine. We also had a number of similar experiences both in childhood and adulthood. The last time we met was for a couple of hours on the day before my trip back to Sweden. Bill told me about his tough times lately, how he had been evicted from his New York apartment where he had lived for 40 years. He had also nearly lost his life after being knocked down and robbed of a few hundred dollars in New York's subway. It had resulted in month's in a hospital. When there, his beloved brother tragically died and Lombardy was sorry for being in the hospital and unable to attend his brother's funeral.
Inevitably, we mentioned Bobby Fischer (whom Lombardy coached for several years). 1978 was the last time Bill and Fischer met, by pure chance, in a Los Angeles supermarket. After the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik against Boris Spassky, which Lombardy contributed to get completed, they had basically no contact. Fischer had reacted negatively to an article by Lombardy in Sports Illustrated after the World Cup. Substantial parts of it had been changed by the editor. The disappointment was great over Fischer's reaction and that the latter did not understand that Lombardy was unable to betrayal after all the years he had been there for him idealistically. Despite the schism, he later helped Fischer with his Icelandic citizenship. The last conversation they had was after Fischer's move to Iceland. After this, Fischer sent him $ 5,000, the only the payment he ever received.
William Lombardy claims that Bobby Fischer was ill-treated by the United States and that both Fischer and Lombardy are completely misrepresented in the movie Pawn Sacrifice. Bill was upset by the movie and he told me he had friends who drove a case against the producers because no one had talked with him before the film was made and most of it was fabulated. That it was a fiction film and not a documentary was of no importance. It was all lies. He saw the film twice. Tongue in cheek again, he announced that he had not paid a cent for it. He knew the cinema owner.
In 1956 he had visited Uppsala, Sweden with the students’ team. He knew Ulf Andersson as he had met a few times many years ago. He expressed very warm thoughts about Ulf's personality, and I would like to send him a greeting. This was delivered and returned by me.
During one of our conversations he presented a red folder in which he had all his papers and documents. He was not just homeless but without pension, money, computer and telephone. There were phone numbers on post-it stickers to the chess club in San Francisco, as well as to his doctor and closest friends in New York, plus phone numbers to where he lived. I wrote them all down so that I could reach him when back in Sweden. That was the time to ask for an autograph. He took the phone number paper out of my hand and wrote his greeting down, a keepsake for me. There was more in the folder…
I will never forget the feeling of sitting alone at the club opposite to GM William Lombardy. The whole time he radiated - in contrast to the life situation he was now in - style and class in his brown jacket, purple tie and a jeans shirt with a razor next to the cigars in his chest pocket. It's hard to explain, but his charisma was just so cool - and sophisticated. Yes, I find no better words! He put on his turquoise reading glasses and when I complimented him on those, he said that there were only cheap ones that he had found in a supermarket. From the red folder he took out a pile of beautiful handwritten paper sheets. These were his memoirs in progress. He read some selected sections and, as expected, he also had a wonderful language and a captivating way of story telling in writing. I really hope the memoirs will be published in some form. It was a lovely moment. We agreed that I would interview him further later on so that more people could get to know his amazing life story which I got a glimpse of during the short time we saw each other. He thought it would be fun.
Before I left, he played three games of chess with me. I felt privileged but was of course crushed, though, time after time, he offered to let me retake my moves . I played white twice and black once. The first white one became a Dutch Defence. The second one he once again drew 1…f5. I complained so much that he laughed and said "what do you want me to play then?”. “Anything but f5”, I replied. The Queen’s Gambit was graciously accepted. When he played white, it turned into Exchange Slav. Who claims is a passive game? I have hardly ever been exposed to so much attack as in all these three games. Sweet memories.
When we said goodbye, I felt from the depths of my heart that I wanted to do something, something little for him, before I left. I bought him a smartphone with unlimited calls, text and data in the USA until Christmas. I prepped the phone with a mail account, a chess app and the contacts on his list. This present was handed over in the club. He was to turn 80 years on December 4th. He was so happy and grateful and said it felt like Christmas Eve. It warmed me throughout my body and heart. He called me a saint, which meant a lot considering it came from a priest.
When I got home, I e-mailed him. The agreement was that I would e-mail, and he would write regular letters. The 8th of October was our last talk over the phone. Bill was happy and proud, talking about coming to Sweden in the spring. He had two weeks earlier moved to stay with another chess friend, Ralph, who had more space, a little further from city center. There he could stay for a few months while looking for a more permanent residence. He enjoyed the phone and one of his best friend's sons, Joseph Shipman, had visited him recently.
Serendipity in its most beautiful sense. I was starstruck by being unexpectedly presented to a world famous grandmaster and a junior World Champion, but I actually found an amazingly humble man with both heart and brains. He suddenly entered into my life and sadly disappeared in the same way, like a wind. We had hardly started our correspondence. It feels so empty when he is gone. The sorrow is mixed with great gratitude.