The Game of the Century

Sep 30, 2009, 6:32 AM |

The Game of the Century refers to a chess game played between Donald Byrne and 13-year old Bobby Fischer in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York City on October 17, 1956. It was nicknamed "The Game of the Century" by Hans Kmoch in Chess Review. Kmoch wrote, "The following game, a stunning masterpiece of combination play performed by a boy of 13 against a formidable opponent, matches the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies. (Others, such as Larry Evans, have offered different games as candidates for the "Game of the Century" sobriquet, such as the game between Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov at the Wijk aan Zee Corus tournament in 1999.) The term "Game of the Century" is a bit hyperbolic. Byrne's play (11.Bg5?; 18.Bxb6?) was weak; had a strong grandmaster rather than a 13-year-old played Black, it would still be an outstanding game, but probably not the Game of the Century. Many players consider the game inferior to later games of Fischer's, such as his stunning win over Donald's brother Robert at the 1963 U.S. Championship.

In this game, Fischer (playing Black) demonstrates noteworthy innovation and improvisation. Byrne (playing White), after a standard opening, makes a seemingly minor mistake on move 11, losing tempo by moving the same piece twice. Fischer pounces, with brilliant sacrificial play, culminating in an incredible queen sacrifice on move 17. Byrne captures the queen, but Fischer gets far too much material for it – a rook, two bishops, and a pawn. At the end, Fischer's pieces coordinate to force checkmate, while Byrne's queen sits, helpless, at the other end of the board.

Let's look at the puzzle below first:

Graham Burgess, John Nunn, and John Emms suggest three lessons to be learned from this game, which can be summarized as follows:

  • In general, don't waste time by moving the same piece twice in an opening; get your other pieces developed first.
  • Material sacrifices are likely to be effective if your opponent's king is still in the middle and a central file is open.
  • Even at 13, Fischer was a player to be reckoned with.
One of Byrne's chess students later recounted Byrne's explanation (scroll down to No. 241 at the end) why he played on: "First of all, you have to remember that in 1956 no one knew that Bobby Fischer was going to become Bobby Fischer! He was just a very promising 13-year-old kid who played a great game against me. When it got to the position where I was lost, I asked some of the other competitors if it might be a nice thing to let the kid mate me, as a kind of tribute to the fine game he played. They said, 'Sure, why not?’ and so I did."