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GM Arthur Bisguier, 1929-2017

GM Arthur Bisguier, 1929-2017

GM Arthur Bisguier, one of America's greatest chess players of the 20th century, died on Wednesday at the age of 87 while in a care facility in Framingham, Massachusetts. The cause of death was respiratory failure.

Cover photo of GM Arthur Bisguier providing game analysis at the National Open, Las Vegas, March 2000. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of Raquel Browne.

Arthur Bernard Bisguier was born in the Bronx on October 8, 1929. He was awarded the IM title in 1950 and the GM title in 1957.

He was one of the dominant tournament players in America in the 1950s. After winning several U.S. junior titles in the late 1940s, Bisguier became U.S. champion in 1954 and U.S. Open champion in 1950, 1956 and 1959. He won the Manhattan Chess Club Championship in 1948, 1949, 1957-58, 1958-59, 1967-68, and 1968-69.

He may have won even more, but served in the U.S. Army from 1951-1953.

In 2005, he was awarded the honorific "Dean of American Chess" by US Chess, supplanting GM Arnold Denker, who had passed away that same year. Bisguier held the status until his death. He was the oldest of 20 living U.S. chess champions, but not the oldest living American grandmaster (GM Pal Benko was born one year earlier).

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GM Arthur Bisguier at work in the offices of the USCF (now US Chess). Photo courtesy US Chess.

As the highest-rated player and defending champion, he also tied with a 14-year-old Bobby Fischer (rated 2298!) for the 1957 U.S. Open championship in Cleveland. They drew their personal game together, the only draw of their entire history. As chronicled by Dr. Frank Brady in "Endgame," Bisguier was initially declared the tournament winner before a tiebreaking error switched the official champion to Fischer. 

"Evidently, his mature judgement is not solely confined to the chessboard," Bisguier said of Fischer's decision to play for a last-round draw.

The switch of official winners to Fischer also portended their personal head-to-head series as never again would Bisguier even take a half-point from the future world champion.

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GM Arthur Bisguier, far right, overlooking the position of IM Hans Berliner in New York at the 1960-1961 U.S. championship. Berliner also died this year. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of Carl Ebeling.

In a case of "if you can't beat them, join them," Bisguier would go on to "second" Fischer at the 1962 Curacao Candidates' Tournament. According to Brady, his duties also included breaking up a fight between fellow competitor Pal Benko and Fischer. Brady called it the "first fistfight ever recorded between two grandmasters, both prospective world champions."

The day of Fischer's death in 2008, this reporter spoke with Bisguier, who recalled that it was during that event where he first saw signs of Fischer's paranoia. Still, Bisguier remained grateful for the good that Fischer did for him personally and for American chess.

"He changed many of our lives," Bisguier said on that day. "I would have never become a chess professional without him." Bisguier ended his quest to become a computer programmer and went to work for the USCF as a promoter, all in the wake of Fischer’s success.

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GM Arthur Bisguier c. 2000 playing Black at the U.S. Amateur Team East. Bisguier was active in tournament play into his 80s and for many was the first GM they had ever played. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of Raquel Browne.

Bisguier played in the interzonals of 1955 and 1962 and was on five U.S. Olympiad squads from 1952 to 1972. He only lost two games from 16 in helping his squad win team silver in Leipzig, 1960 (and one was to GM Vasily Smyslov on board four!).

In tournaments he finished equal second at San Juan 1969 and first at Lone Pine in 1973. Toward the end of his life, Bisguier was the world's oldest active GM, having most recently played in the MCC Memorial Swiss in Natick, Massachusetts in September 2014.

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Two "Deans of American Chess" in 2003. Arthur Bisguier, left, and Arnold Denker, right, with Susan Polgar in the middle. According to U.S. championship statistician Ed Gonsalves, these two men had the longest lives of any U.S. champions. Photo courtesy Susan Polgar.

Bisguier was a member of the Manhattan Chess Club. He beat Fischer in their first encounter, at the Third Rosenwald Trophy in New York in 1956. Fischer was 13, Bisguier 26.

 

While Bisguier surely missed out on more U.S. championships and tournament titles due to Fischer, he also enjoyed the residual rewards of the growth of chess in the U.S.

"Even Bisguier, not prolonging any resentment, proclaimed Bobby Fischer as the strongest fourteen-year-old chess player who had ever lived," Brady wrote in "Endgame."

For about two decades he worked for US Chess. One of his public roles was to go around the country giving simuls and promoting the game.

"I was delighted to do it," he said. "I was very lucky to get so much out of chess. I tried to give something back."

Here's that lone drawn game that came before Fischer's blanking of Bisguier:

After that, Fischer and Bisguier played 13 more games, all won by Fischer.

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At the 1964 U.S. Open in Boston, alongside Robert Byrne. Photo: Beth Cassidy.

Here's some other notable victories by Bisguier, several against world champions.

Svetozar Gligoric, Buenos Aires 1955:

Boris Spassky, Gothenburg 1955:

Paul Keres, Bled 1961:

About this game he wrote, in "The Art of Bisguier:"

"After the game I was strangely depressed at having wasted an opportunity. I wanted to beat him brilliantly. After all, if one has the chance to play Keres only a few times in his life, is it not better to go down in defeat in a fine game against an immortal than to win by doing nothing?"

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Bisguier's game collection from 2008.

Miguel Najdorf, Bled 1961:

Mark Taimanov, Budapest 1961:

Bent Larsen, Zagreb 1965:

Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Malaga 1971:

Jan Timman, Malaga 1971:

Later in life, Bisguier won the U.S. Senior Open in 1989, and then again twice more in the late 1990s. He became one of the few men to win the U.S. Junior, U.S. Open, U.S. Closed, and U.S. Senior Championship.

Bisguier's last FIDE Elo rating was 2170. In 1994, he was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

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GM Arthur Bisguier's plaque in the U.S. Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1994.

"While Bisguier's taste for the byways of theory and disdain for well-trodden lines in the first half of his career probably was responsible for his coming in for the occasional defeat at the hands of a much weaker player, he could also take off a stronger opponent with such an unorthodox approach.

"He was always nice to me when I was a kid," GM John Fedorowicz said. "He taught me a lot about endings. I don't drink scotch, but when I hung out with Arthur I did."

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Bisguier in the late 1980s at the "Chess Life" Christmas gift exchange, getting his "favorite present," a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Photo and recollection courtesy Al Lawrence.

"By the time I came to know Art, his tastes had shifted to fairly rock-solid stuff, he being the only GM to regularly employ the Berlin Wall for a good many years, long before Kramnik's advocacy spurred it to tremendous popularity at the very highest levels." - anonymous comment on Chessgames.com.

This report was co-written by Peter Doggers.

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