On this very day of 17 October 1956, a sensational sacrificial game played in New York City by a 13-year-old unknown upstart from Brooklyn shot across the globe that was to literally take the chess world by storm – and exactly 60 years on, that stunning sacrificial onslaught has more than stood the test of time by universally being regarded as one of the most famous games of chess that has ever been played.
The upstart in question was, of course, Robert James “Bobby” Fischer, and the sheer brilliance of his stunning sacrificial victory over the highly-experienced Donald Byrne, at the Third Rosenwald Trophy Memorial, led to the game being billed by Hans Kmoch as the “Game of the Century” in the December 1956 issue of Chess Review (though in a curious mishap, it appeared alongside a front-cover picture of Fischer, but when you went, as instructed, to page 370 it turned out to be a misprint, as the game there was the equally impressive Smyslov-Pachman from the 1956 Moscow Olympiad) and the title stuck.
It was a breath-taking game that announced Fischer’s arrival as a potential world champion in the making. And, such was its impact, the game even featured prominently in leading Soviet chess magazines of the day, as the Russians started to compile a “Fischer file”. Before this game, Fischer was untitled and little-known outside of New York, let alone the US. But after the game, everyone knew who he was, because just a little more than two years later, he was playing in the Candidates, the world’s youngest grandmaster, and talked up as being a future world title contender.
So this game was the first blow of his trumpet. Donald Byrne, 29, was a strong amateur, a professor at Penn State University (the younger of the famous Byrne playing brothers, the eldest, Robert, who went on to become a Grandmaster and also a world title Candidate), who gained the IM title, and had won the 1953 US Open - but he never saw the depth of Fischer’s stunning sacrificial assault, believing right to the moment of truth with 17….Be6!! that he stood better.
Surprisingly, in 1969, Fischer didn’t even include this historic game in his all-time classic anthology, My 60 Memorable Games - but this was typically systematic of Fischer. His rationale was that he’d already published it with light annotations in his earlier 1959 book, Bobby Fischer’s Games of Chess, that contained 34 of his early games up to 1958, and - despite how commercially popular his Byrne brilliancy would be with deeper notes - he didn’t see the appeal (nor the need) to reproduce it again.
The rest, as they say, is history. But no matter how many times I’ve seen this game, it never fails to enthrall me - so what better excuse do we need to see it again with today being the official 60th anniversary day!
IM Donald Byrne - Bobby Fischer
3rd Rosenwald Trophy, 1956
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.d4 0-0 5.Bf4 d5 6.Qb3 dxc4 7.Qxc4 c6 8.e4 Nbd7 9.Rd1 Nb6 10.Qc5 Bg4 11.Bg5? Moving the same piece twice in the opening is never a good idea - and Byrne should really have known better than this. And indeed, in view of what happens next, he would have been better finishing his development with 11. Be2 and looking to safely castle. But hindsight is always 20/20, and this bishop sortie does allow a sudden tactical tsunami from the teenager. 11...Na4! A move that was described by three-time British champion Jonathan Rowson to be "One of the single most powerful chess moves of all time." It was to prove to be the precursor to an even more spectacular queen sacrifice with 17 …Be6!!, the move that overnight brought Fischer worldwide fame. 12.Qa3 The beauty of Fischer's concept is that the knight is taboo, as 12.Nxa4 Nxe4! and White's position is falling apart at the seams, regardless of what he does: 13.Qb4 (13.Qxe7 Qa5+ 14.b4 Qxa4 15.Qxe4 Rfe8 wins.) 13...a5 14.Qxb7 Nxg5 15.Be2 Nxf3+ 16.Bxf3 Bxf3 17.gxf3 Qd6 with a big winning advantage. 12...Nxc3 At first glance, one might think that this move only helps White create a stronger pawn centre - however, Fischer's plan is quite the reverse. By eliminating the knight on c3, it is now possible to sacrifice the exchange via Nxe4 and smash White's centre, and doing so while the king remains trapped in the middle of this mayhem. 13.bxc3 Nxe4 The natural continuation of Black's plan. 14.Bxe7 Qb6 15.Bc4 Byrne continues in the right manner by developing his pieces, believing he was better and hadn't realised it was a little too late as he was about to be hit with a thunderbolt from the heavens. But if he did cop-out now by taking the exchange, he's dead anyway: 15.Bxf8 Bxf8 16.Qb3 Nxc3! 17.Qxb6 (17.Qxc3?? Bb4 with an easy win.) 17...axb6 18.Ra1 Re8+ 19.Ne5 (19.Kd2 Ne4+ 20.Kc2 Nxf2 21.Rg1 Bf5+ comfortably winning.) 19...f6 20.f3 fxe5 21.fxg4 exd4+ 22.Kd2 b5 and with a powerful phalanx of queenside pawns swiftly marching down the board now, Black will easily win. 15...Nxc3 16.Bc5 And this was the move that Byrne believed gave him a 'won position', still blissfully unaware what was about to strike him down. 16...Rfe8+ 17.Kf1 Be6!! This was, without a doubt, one of the most stunning moves ever played, regardless of the fact that it is largely forced. But what makes it remarkable is that the then thirteen-year-old Fischer must have calculated and seen 17…Be6 on move eleven when he played ...Na4. 18.Bxb6 There's nothing else now apart from this, as 18. Bxe6 leads to a 'Philidor Mate' (smothered mate) with ...Qb5+ 19. Kg1 Ne2+ 20. Kf1 Ng3+ 21. Kg1 Qf1+ 22. Rxf1 Ne2#. Other ways to decline the queen also run into trouble: e.g., 18. Qxc3 Qxc5 with an ‘x-ray attack' on White's queen. 18...Bxc4+ A ‘windmill’ of discovered checks now follows which results in a decisive material advantage. 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Nxd4+ 21.Kg1 Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1 axb6 24.Qb4 Ra4 25.Qxb6 Nxd1 At the end of the carnage, Black has a rook and two minor pieces in return for his sacrificed queen. And in addition to the material deficit, White's king is virtually defenceless. Finishing off is now elementary, and Fischer proceeds to do so with ruthless efficiency - something that soon was to became his trademark. 26.h3 Rxa2 27.Kh2 Nxf2 28.Re1 Rxe1 29.Qd8+ Bf8 30.Nxe1 Bd5 31.Nf3 Ne4 32.Qb8 b5 Every piece and pawn of the black camp is defended. The White queen has nothing to do apart from hang around to witness the mate. 33.h4 h5 34.Ne5 Kg7 35.Kg1 Bc5+ 36.Kf1 Ng3+ Now Byrne is hopelessly entangled in Fischer's mating net. 37.Ke1 Bb4+ 38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Ne2+ 40.Kb1 Nc3+ 41.Kc1 Rc2# 0-1