Bill Lombardy: My chess friend


Last year I wrote a blog article on William Lombardy, one of America’s biggest stars from the 20th century.  I have added new material since then (and William has a website now), some new photos and games, and I am certain that the reader will enjoy reading about the life and career of this remarkable individual.

One of the fondest memories of the time I was a highschool student at Rosemount High in Montreal was hiding away in the library stacks, pouring over the back issues of Chess Review, at that time the most popular chess magazine in North America. For someone who was new to chess, like me, it was like discovering a long hidden treasure trove: the chess world right in my hands! All sorts of great articles by famous chess masters and grandmasters, pictures, chess studies, humour and tournament announcements filled the slim magazine, which came out every month like clockwork(as it had for decade after decade), kept me occupied for hours at a time, often until closing hours. Sometimes I had to be chased out!

In particular, the articles written by Grandmaster William Lombardy (who was also at that time a Roman Catholic Priest) were among my favourites. There was something unpretentious about the GM’s style of writing that made it seem as though he was speaking directly to the reader, one on one as it were. His interesting articles were not about ego, not about controversy, not about personalities, but simply about the game of chess. At the end of each article I always came away with a feeling that I had actually learned something useful. That I had broadened my understanding of chess.

An extraordinary ability to communicate his thoughts

William Lombardy (Bill, to his friends) was born in the Bronx on December 4, 1937. He learned chess from a neighbour at the age of 9, and quickly demonstrated remarkable talent. In those days, New York was the place to be if you wanted to learn chess–it was the hub of American chess having both the Marshall Chess Club and the Manhattan Chess Club, amongst others– and Bill absorbed as much as he could from a chess community that had historically been enriched by immigration from Europe. He and Larry Evans (b.1932, in Manhattan) seemed destined to transform the face of American chess. By his late teens Bill was already of strong grandmaster strength, possessing a profound understanding of strategy.

The young Lombardy against GM Rossolimo, an immigrant who worked as a taxi driver in NYC
Bill soon achieved some amazing results. He won the Canadian Open in Montreal in 1956 (tied with Larry Evans) and in Toronto in 1957 he won the World Junior Chess Championship with an unheard of perfect score (11-0). With this remarkable success, Bill became the first American to win a world title in chess since Morphy. (In Morphy’s time, a ‘world title’ did not yet officially exist).

Lombardy narrowly lost a match with Reshevsky in 1957 (5 draws, 1 loss), who was still one of the very best players in the world. In 1960,in Leningrad, he played first board at the World Student Team Championship, scoring a brilliant 12 points from 13 possible, leading the US team to a stunning victory over the highly rated USSR team and giving America yet one more world title. Enroute to this feat, he defeated Boris Spassky with the black pieces in the critical encounter! At the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad, Bill scored 11.5 points from 17 possible (including a win against Portisch and a draw with Botvinnik) and FIDE decided to honour him with a GM title!

Lombardy’s first steps in international competition were brilliant successes
Here he is playing Spassky in Leningrad 1960, world student team championship.

Such an impressive list of achievements might lead any spectator to assume that a great champion was being groomed, possibly for the World Title itself. But this was not to be the case: Lombardy’s meteoric rise was abruptly cut short. Cruel fate had it that at about the same time, in the same country, in the same city and frequenting the same small chess circle, a lad just 6 years younger than Bill ( b.1943 Bobby Fischer,Brooklyn) had exploded upon the scene, and Lombardy found himself having to be content to play second fiddle.

Lombardy was the closest boyhood friend that Bobby ever had. Fischer, when 11 years old, told Bill that he would become World Champion one day, and he was right on !

There can not be two champions at the same time. Lombardy had the misfortune that while his extraordinary natural chess talent was enormous, he was not a genius like Bobby. Nor was his more cautious boa-constrictor style of play able to impress the fans like Bobby’s dynamic, more aggressive style of play. Perhaps more importantly, what little (private) financial support there existed in American chess at the time went to Fischer; Bill had to do everything on his own.

It must have been very frustrating for a young, aspiring artiste to find himself having to compete in the shadow of a Mozart. A talent like Lombardy takes time to mature and bear fruit, it requires care and nursing. It was unreasonable to demand everything of him immediately. Fischer, on the otherhand, delivered : he won every US Championship that he played in; the best Bill could do is come runner up (1960-61). Fischer played first board at the Leipzig Olympiad. Bill played first board at the World Student Team Championship only because Fischer was not a student. While Bill had indeed won the World Junior Chess Championship, Fischer never wanted to play in a World Junior championship, considering it a waste of his time…

A golden generation of American chess; just too much talent all at once

The following game was undoubtedly the most published game in 1960, and is probably Lombardy’s best known effort.

Spassky B. – Lombardy W.
World Student Team Championship
Leningrad 1960.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5

Spassky’s games did very much to popularize this sharp move. He won many games with it, and used it frequently in his 1972 match with Fischer.

6… Nbd7!? Lombardy plays a less popular variation, probably hoping to catch Spassky a bit unprepared.

7. Bc4 Qa5 8. Qd2 e6 9. O-O!

This is Tal’s favourite move. Some prefer castling long (000), but praxis has shown that is very effective tucking the white king over into the other corner.

9… Be7 10. a3!? This move never caught on, and probably with good reason. The simple 10.Rad1 has done very well in practice and is considered the strongest move here.

10… h6 11. Be3 Ne5 12. Ba2 Qc7 Interesting is 12… Neg4!? 13. f4 Qh5 14. h3 Nxe3 15. Qxe3 g5

13. Qe2 Arriving at the following position.

13…b5!? A natural move.

A year later, the great Polugaevsky, possibly fearing an improvement, varied with 13… Bd7 and the game continued 14. f4 Neg4 15. Kh1 Nxe3 16. Qxe3 O-O 17. Rae1 Rac8 18. e5 dxe5 19. fxe5 Nh7 20. Nce2 Qb6 21. b4 Bb5 22. c3 Bh4 23. Nf4 Bxf1 24. Rxf1 Bg5 25. Bb1 Bxf4 26. Rxf4 Qc7 27. Rf3 Rfd8 28. h4 Rd5 29. Qe4 Nf8 30. Re3 Qc4 31. Kh2 Ng6 32. Rg3 Qc7 33. Nf3 Rd1 34. Ba2 Qb6 35. h5 Ne7 36. c4 Qf2 37. Bb1 Qf1 38. Kh3 Qh1 39. Nh2 Nf5 40. Rg4 Rcd8 41. Rf4 Qe1 42. Rxf5 Qxe4 43. Bxe4 exf5 44. Bxb7 R8d3 45. Nf3 Rxa3 46. c5 Rc1 47. c6 Rb3 48. Bxa6 Rxc6 0-1, Lutikov Anatoly S 2515 – Polugaevsky Lev A 2585 , Moscow 1961 Ch URS
Now back to the game:

14. f4 Neg4 15. h3 Nxe3 16. Qxe3 O-O Lombardy has a satisfactory position

17. Rae1!? Spassky always had a penchant for this move in similar positions, but here it seems ineffective.
I don’t like this. Rad1 seems more natural. Lombardy in his notes wrote ”17. e5?! dxe5 18. fxe5 Nd7 19. Rxf7? Rxf7 20. Bxe6 Qxe5 21. Bxf7 Kxf7 22. Qf3 Nf6 23. Qxa8 Qxd4 with a winning advantage” Or if 17. f5 e5 18. Nf3 d5!; again, if 17. Kh1 Bb7 18. f5 e5 19. Nde2 a5! Kmoch with the better game for black
17… e5! 18. Nf5 Bxf5 19. exf5 d5! Lombardy must have been enjoying himself here. Anyone who plays the Sicilian Defence dreams of playing this move. Here black threatens to win the white Queen

Taking control of the centre thanks to tactical threats

20. Qxe5? From a player who will eventually become World Champion, this error seems very much out of place. Correct was 20. Kh2 (Lombardy’s suggestion after the game) and if 20… d4 21. Qxe5 Qxe5 22. fxe5 (22. Rxe5!? might be better) 22… dxc3 23. exf6 Bxf6 and black will have difficulties winning because of the presence of opposite coloured bishops

20… Bd6 21. Qe2 Bxa3! Very well played!
22. Nd1?! This leads to serious difficulties. Spassky had to try 22. Nxd5! Qc5 (22… Nxd5 23. Bxd5 Qc5 24. Qf2 Qxd5 25. bxa3 Qxf5) 23. Kh1 (23. Qf2!?) 23… Bxb2 and while black is better, the game is still very much undecided.
22… Rae8! Lombardy plays with great energy and precision

23.Qf3?! Horrible! White had to try to hang on with 23. Qd2! Bc5 24. Kh2 Rxe1 25. Qxe1, even though he is clearly suffering. 23… Bc5 24. Kh1 Rxe1 25. Rxe1 Qa5!

Spassky must have simply overlooked this strong move ! All the more amazing since it is obvious. White now wins a piece

26. Nc3 b4 [26… d4 27. Ra1] 27. Nxd5 Qxa2 28. Nxf6 gxf6 29. Qc6 Qc4

Spassky is just a piece down for nothing, and so resigned immediately.

This important game gave the Americans the gold medal! Andrew Soltis, in his authoritive work Soviet Chess 1917-1991 wrote: ”After Spassky lost a highly publicized game to the American William Lombardy on first board in the 1960 Student Olympiad he was left off the 1961 team and was eventually suspended from foreign travel three times…a typical Sports Committee humiliation… ”My nervous energy was completely destroyed for three years.” Spassky said of this period.”

Taken from Lombardy’s own website (, this photo shows medals awarded to William from the Leningrad 1960 World Student Team Championship.  Real history!

What has always impressed me most of the young Lombardy was his flair for clear strategic play. Different from how young players normally develop their styles (first tactical, then strategic, finally universal), Lombardy’s early play was profoundly positional. This especially was evident with how he handled the English Opening.

I can think of no other player of his age having such mastery of this opening. Not Botvinnik, Karpov,not even Fischer. Even today, I enjoy playing over his games in this opening. The following game is one of my Lombardy favourites. At first appearance it seems boring and uninteresting, but a deeper study reveals profound and subtle genius. The way Lombardy is able to prevent Portisch from getting any active counterplay is Petrosian at his best!

Lombardy W. – Portisch L.
1:0, Leipzig 1960.

1. c4!

I must express my gratitude for Lombardy’s games. When I first started to play the English Opening, I learned so much by playing his games over and over.

1…c5 2. g3 Nc6 3. Bg2 g6 4. Nc3 Bg7 5. a3 a6 6. Rb1 Rb8 7. b4 cxb4 8. axb4 b5 9. cxb5 axb5 10. Nf3 Nh6 11. e3 d5 12. Ne2 O-O 13. O-O e5 14. d3 f5 15. Qb3 Nf7

At first sight black seems to have an excellent position. But appearances can be deceiving…black’s pieces are not positioned actively enough to support an advance of his pawns. Lombardy takes full advantage of this by beginning some undermining maneouvres.
16. Ne1! Ne7 17. f4! Be6 18. fxe5 Nxe5 19. Nf3 ! Now that White has won some centre concessions from Black, he seeks to occupy them

19… Nxf3 20. Bxf3 Bf7 21. Nd4 Re8 22. Bb2 Qb6 23. Kh1 h5 24. Ra1 Ra8 25. Rxa8 Rxa8 26. Rc1 h4 27. Qc3 Rc8 28. Qd2 Rxc1 29. Qxc1 hxg3 30. hxg3 Qd6 31. Kg2 Be8

I think it was a mistake for Black to have allowed the exchange of both rooks, as he needed these pieces to counterattack later. As it is, white’s minor pieces are soon dominating the board.

32. Nc2! Bxb2 33. Qxb2 Nc6 34. Qb3 Bf7 35. Qc3 g5 By itself, this move only weakens the black position.

36. Nd4! Lombardy’s idea is based on pure Capablanca: the ending is better for white because the black pawns are separated and attackable. 36… Nxd4 37. Qxd4 g4 38. Be2 Qh6 39. Bf1 Qa6 40. Kf2 Kh7

Despite reduced material, the black weaknesses are even more vulnerable than before!

41. Qc5! A quiet move that Capablanca would be proud of 41… Qa2 42. Be2 Qb1 43. Qxb5 Qh1 44. Qb8
Having won a pawn, Lombardy makes sure that black’s checks go no where. The rest is simple. 44… d4 45. Qe5 Kg6 46. Qd6 Kh7 47. Qf4 dxe3 48. Kxe3 Qc1 49. Kf2 Qxf4 50. gxf4 Bd5 51. b5 Kg6 52. d4 Kf6 53. b6 Bb7 54. d5 Ke7 55. Bd3 Kd6 56. Bxf5 Kxd5 57. Bxg4 Kc5 58. Bf3 [1:0]

I consider this one of the best games that I have ever seen. Not flashy, just impressively simple. Years later, in a conversation that I had with Lajos Portisch about this game, I could see that the loss still was painful to him! Without making any real mistakes, Lombardy outplayed Portisch from the beginning to the end. Quite a remarkable achievement for a player barely 22 years old at the time.

After 1960 Bill’s interest in chess and his results seemed to wane. He did not play very often. Perhaps this is because he did not get many invitations, perhaps because he did not like living in a suitcase and travel from tournament to tournament. I do not know. But I do know that it is so important for a young grandmaster to play , study and make progress in the development of his style.

Leipzig Olympiad 1960.  Fischer watching team mate Lombardy ponder over his 15th move, in his game against Radovici
Lombardy began to have other interests. He became interested in becoming a Roman Catholic Priest. After qualifying for the Stockholm (1962) Interzonal because of his excellent second place finish in the US championship (1960-61)– behind Fischer–he decided to enrol in theology instead of playing! For the next few years Bill disappeared from the chess world, and in 1967 became ordained a priest.

Bill then started to play more often, and just for ‘fun’. He started to play in European tournaments and had some excellent results.

Monaco 1967.  Lombardy and Fischer .  Fischer adjourned in a much worse position but managed to later win by disturbing his opponent’s concentration, provoking blunders.  The following year the organizers refused to invite Fischer.

Despite the incident, the two remained close friends.

He became a regular on the US National Team, and even played in some open tournaments. In 1972 he was instrumental in getting Fischer to go to Iceland, and served as Bobby’s personal assistant. He continued to write for magazines.

I remember that Lombardy came to Montreal in 1973 for a big open tournament (Suttles won), and his play impressed me. So did his person. He was likeable and had an excellent rapport with amateur players. He had a sense of humour that I appreciated, though I can understand that some might mistake it for arrogance . In this tournament in Montreal he was paired one round with my brother Grant. My brother realized that he had no chance against his famous adversary, but was willing to try his very best.

Considering the difference in rating, Grant did very well! When Lombardy won the game, he generously analyzed with Grant, and I assisted. Bill was very friendly. At one point in the post mortem, Bill demonstrated his humour when Grant made the remark that at a certain position the grandmaster thought for a very long time.

Grant was interested in knowing what he was thinking about at that moment. Lombardy jokingly replied that he thought so long because he could not believe Grant’s move!! There was nothing offensive about his reply. Rather it was all said in a spirit of teaching a young and inexperienced player.

William Lombardy with a chess admirer from chessbase.
Brilliancy Prize Game

The following wild position arose after the 31st white move from the Evans vs Lombardy game in the Ventura chess tournament of 1971. Black is threatening mate in one move, and seems to be winning, simply. However, the position is not so simple, and White sets a brilliant swindle. (White had just played Qc3 checking the king.)

Evans was part of the golden generation of chess, winning the US championship at 18years of age

31… Kg6!! A very paradoxical move! The black king moves forward instead of backwards. If instead he had played …Kg8 , white could still put up stiff resistance by exchanging on d5 (with check) and then defending on the second rank. Lombardy’s move seems to lose at first site.
Evans quickly plays his swindle: 32. Qxc6!?! If black takes the queen then white will gain the advantage.

32….Re6!!! A move of rare beauty!

White was counting on 32… Bxc6? 33. Rxc6 Re6 34. Bh3 with a clear advantage for white. Now black wins since the threat of mate on h2 forces white to part with his queen for insufficient compensation. The game continued…

33. Qxe6 Qxe6 34. Kg1 Bxg2 35. Kxg2 Qh3 [35… Qd5! is even better]36. Kf2 Qxh2 37. Kf3 Qxg3 38. Ke4 Qg2 39. Rf3 Rh3 40. Rc6 Kf7 41. Rc7 Ke8 [0:1]

Black was awarded the brilliancy prize for the beauty of the finish.

Over the following years I got to know personally Bill, meeting up with him in some American tournaments that I was playing in, and also in Palma Majorca 1989. I remember that after I had won the 1984 New York Open he told me that he had always thought that I had some talent! We developed a rapport: I would pick his brain and ask him about what he thought of certain positions, certain openings, certain players. I learned a great deal, and I owe him a debt. We talked about Fischer, about his career, about why he left the Roman Catholic Church (he lost his faith).

The last time I saw him was at the New York Open held in NYC in 1998. He did not play, but would show up occasionally just to kibitz or visit his many friends. He was no longer a player, retired and dedicated his time to teaching. At the end of the tournament a small group of us went out to an Irish Pub to eat and chat. It was very enjoyable. I remember one episode where one of the young players who joined us was talking about how many games his database had (several million, I think he said). With typical humour, Bill asked him how many of these games he had succeeded in replaying so far!! Again, there was nothing offensive or arrogant about his remark: he was making an important point that the youngster needed to understand.

I recommend the readers take a look at this link if they want to see a very interesting interview with Lombardy, Benko and Hort

Benko, Lombardy and Hort

Lombardy signing an autgraph on his 70th celebration in NYC

The readers might be able to find some more material on Lombardy on his website.  It still has to be developed, but it has the seeds of something substantial:


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