OUR CHESS HERITAGE
(Send us your stories of chess play in the Centre region. In particular, those with memories of Donald Byrne are encouraged to submit their recollections for posting to this web page.)
State College was the home of one of the most admired personalities in the history of chess, Donald Byrne. From 1961 to his passing in 1976, Mr. Byrne walked from his home on N. Allen Street to the Penn State campus to enlighten the students in his English classes and inspire those students fortunate enough to play on the Penn State Chess Team.
Penn State was the first American university to accord varsity status to its chess team. Dr. Robert Bernreuter, a psychologist who designed one of the first scientific measurements of personality, became the Dean of Admissions in 1958 and Vice President of Student Affairs in 1964, and he loved the royal game. He recruited Donald Byrne with the understanding that he could teach English and still coach the team.
What an honor it was to play on that team! And what a great experience it was to be associated with Donald Byrne. When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1964, I resolved to focus on more serious endeavors than playing the game that had given me so much pleasure through high school. However, encouragement from friends at the Pittsburgh Chess Club led me to appear one evening at the regular weekly meeting of the team on the top floor of the HUB. I met Professor Byrne and I was hooked! Shortly after, we drove to Cornell for the Eastern Intercollegiate Championship. By December we flew to Los Angeles to compete in the U.S. Intercollegiate Team Championship, and for me chess had become the most enjoyable part of a very happy undergraduate experience.
The weekend tournaments were fun, but the laughter made the weekly team meetings a joy, and it was usually invoked by Donald Byrne. The stream of puns, the teasing and the stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers interrupted the focus on the five-minute games, but it was all worthwhile. Coach Byrne was an encouraging mentor who never lost his sense of humor despite a lengthy battle with the effects of lupus.
Known internationally for his likable personality as much as his success against the Russian players who dominated the chess world, Donald Byrne was a model of diplomacy. Following my return to Penn State for graduate work after service in the Navy, I was fortunate to attend a testimonial dinner hosted, among others, by grandmaster William Lombardy. Lombardy read a telegram sent by Bobby Fischer in which Fischer described Byrne as “the chess player's chess player and a friend's friend,” and that his "contributions to the game of chess, to goodwill among chess players, and to the prestige of the United States are inestimable."
In a 1967 interview, Fischer was asked to identify the game that he remembered most vividly. He replied, “Without doubt it was my victory in the game against Donald Byrne in the Rosenwald Tournament when I was only 13 and when I won a prize for my brilliant play.” Byrne's demonstration of good sportsmanship in this loss to Fischer (“The Game of the Century”) marked the beginning of a relationship in which Byrne often was called upon to sooth the mercurial nature of the future world champion. The last time Fischer and Byrne were matched in tournament play was in 1968 and the result was a draw, and a hard fought one, as both players were known for always going for the win, in the interest of the most exciting chess.
Taken from us all too soon, Donald Byrne was a very good man with a brilliant mind. It was an honor to know him.
~ Jerry Bergman
Donald Byrne's brother, Robert, was a grandmaster who won the U.S. Championship in 1972. He competed internationally and was a candidate for the world championship in 1974. From 1972 to 2006 he wrote the chess column in the New York Times. Following is a column that Robert Byrne wrote following the passing of his brother. Read more
National master Dan Heisman, a noted chess author and instructor, was a member of the Penn State Chess Team from 1969 to 1971. Here are excerpts from his blog at www.chess.com. Read more
13-year-old Bobby Fischer rose to chess prominence with his upset of Donald Byrne. The game can be reviewed at the-game-that-shook-the-world . Following is an account of this memorable event in chess history. Read more