20th US Championship and World Championship Zonal; 1969
November 30 - December 17
New York, NY

                1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2
 1. Reshevsky   x   1  1    1 1 1  8 -3
 2. Addison      x  1 0 0 1  1 1 1 1  7-3
 3. Benko         x 0 1  1   1  1  7 -4
 4. Lombardy    0 0 1 x  1      1  6 -5
 5. Byrne, D.    1 0  x   1 0     5-5
 6. Evans       0 1  0  x   1     5-5
 7. Mednis       0 0    x    1 1  5-5
 8. Zuckerman       0   x 1     5-5
 9. Bisguier     0   1 0  0 x  0 1  4-6
10. Byrne, R.   0 0 0       x 1   4-6
11. Saidy       0 0     0  1 0 x 1  4-6
12. Burger      0 0 0 0   0  0  0 x  2 -9

  • This was a Zonal tournament, in which the top three finishers, Sammy Reshevsky, William Addison and Pal Benko qualified for the 1970 Interzonal in Palma de Mallorca. By failing to play in this US Championship, Bobby Fischer apparently gave up all hope of playing in the 1972 World Championship, to which the Interzonal was the first stepping stone. Why Fischer refused to play and how he got in anyway is therefore, a tale worth recounting.

  • As can be seen by the crosstables on this very site, Bobby Fischer had both played for, and won the US Championship 8 times, usually by hefty margins, and along the way had racked up an eye-popping record of +61-3=26 (by an amazing coincidence, Sammy Reshevsky had an identical +61-3=26 record after 90 US Championship tournament games, not counting his match with Horowitz or his playoff vs. Kashdan. Pretty spooky, huh? Kind of like that Kennedy/Lincoln thing, huh?)

  • Nevertheless, despite the successes, the road was not entirely bump-free for Bobby. There had been a few close calls. In the 1962/3 tournament, Fischer opened up with a loss with White to Edmar Mednis, and despite going a very respectable 7-2 in the next 9 rounds found himself no better than tied for first going into the last round. If he hadn't been tied with his favorite customer, Arthur Bisguier, a man who routinely achieved good middle-game positions against Fischer only to throw them away, and had the good luck to be playing Bisguier in that last round, and if Bisguier hadn't come through in the clutch again, pitching away a perfectly good position for no reason, Bobby might have actually had to (gasp!) ... share the title! Or worse!

  • Another close-call came in the 1965 Championship. Cruising along with a 6- score, Fischer suddenly lost two games to his closest rivals, Reshevsky and Byrne. He still managed to win the tournament, but had to scramble to do it.

  • After these two incidents, Fischer became very gun-shy about the US Championship. He had no doubts about his abilities, but he was fearful that in such a short tournament (11 rounds), there was no time to recover from "accidents". A bad game or two, or a temporary crisis of form could cost a player the title. A longer tournament was needed, to help increase the odds that the best man would win, he decided. Either that, or he wouldn't play.

  • The problem, of course is that THIS was the Zonal. Playing in this tournament was the only way to get to the Interzonal, which was the only way to get to the Candidates, which was the only way to get to the World Championship. If Fischer didn't qualify from this tournament, another opportunity at the World Championship was gone.

  • Fischer's supporters were starting to get a bit antsy about the World Championship by this time. As a result of his smashing victory in the 1962 Interzonal, Fischer had gone into the 1962 Candidates as a heavy favorite, at least in the US. So much so that Chess Life magazine had written an article explaining why none of the other 7 Candidates could win, why it had to be Fischer, and practically annointed him as the conqueror of Botvinnik in 1963. A good lesson about counting chickens, since Fischer barely ended up breaking even.

  • As a result of this setback, Fischer demanded an overhaul of the entire Candidates system. FIDE granted this request for the 1965 Candidates, but Fischer refused to play anyway. In the next cycle, Fischer began playing in the 1967 Interzonal, but withdrew while leading over a fairly minor scheduling dispute. Three entire cycles lost, two of them virtually without even trying, and here was a fourth about to go slipping by. Naturally, the US Chess Federation, and the US Chess Public were very anxious to get Fischer to play in this tournament. Fischer was queried as to his willingness to play:

    October 24, 1969
    Grandmaster Robert J. Fischer
    Box 596
    New York, NY 10011

    Dear Bobby:

    On behalf of the US Championship Committee, I have the honor of inquiring whether you are available to participate in the 1969 United States Chess Championship. The event, a single round robin among the top twelve Masters from the attached list who indicate their intention of playing, will be held in the Group Health Insurance Building, 230 West 41st Street, New York City, November 30 through December 17, 1969. The total prize fund remains at its record high of $6,500.

    Please address your reply to reach me not later than November 7, the date by which we must confirm the final list of entries.

    Sincerely yours,

    E. B. Edmondson
    Executive Director

  • Bobby shot back this reply:

    October 29, 1969

    The following is an open letter from International Grandmaster of Chess Bobby Fischer to Mr. Ed Edmondson, Executive Director of the United States Chess Federation, publisher of CHESS LIFE magazine, explaining why he will not play in the 1969 U.S. Chess Championship

    Mr. Ed Edmondson
    U.S. Chess Federation
    479 Broadway
    Newburgh, NY 12550

    Dear Ed

    Thank you for your inquiry as to my availability to participate in the 1969 U.S.A. Chess Championship. I am not available. Also I would like to take this opportunity to make a correction of fact. It was stated in last year's CHESS LIFE magazine that I never answered my 1968 invitation to the 1968 U.S.A. Chess Championship. This, as you know Ed, is a lie. I answered and declined in writing to you well over a month before the championship began. The reason I did not play last year and will not play again this year is the same - the tournament is too short. I feel the tournament should be 22 rounds as it is in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania, and other East European countries where chess is taken seriously, rather than 11 rounds that the present U.S. Championship is. As you know, Ed, this year's Championship is also the Zonal tournament for the U.S., which is the first step leading to the coveted World Championship. By my not participating in this U.S. Championship, I am not only giving up my chance to regain the U.S. Chess Championship which I have won eight times (every year I participated) but far more importantly I will lose my possibility of becoming official World Chess Champion in 1972, the next time a World Championship Match will be held. So the next opportunity for me to become World Chess Champion won't be until 1975. I want very much to play in the U.S. Championship this year - but not in a tournament where if a player has a bad start and loses a game or two at the beginning, he is practically eliminated from first place. I consider tis to be too chancy an affair and it puts an undue burden on the favorite, who does not have enough time to make up for a bad start because the tournament is so short. Our U.S. is the shortest of any major chess country. It is an affront to any professional chess player - such as I am.

    In all probability the U.S. will lose its chance to have an American World Chess Champion for many years as a result of my not playing. You at the Chess Federation have an opportunity to see that this does not happen. You are supposedly dedicated to developing American chess - here is your chance to prove it, by lengthening the 1969 U.S. Championship scheduled to begin November 30 from 11 to 22 rounds.

    Bobby Fischer
    Box 596
    New York, NY 10011

    Information copies sent to major news sources

  • It isn't clear what he hoped to achieve by this. The major media, who he sent copies to are interested in a winner, not a non-competitor. If he hoped for support, even Bobby's staunchest supporters largely felt that he should play in the Zonal. One such supporter was Saul Rubin, former President of the Marshall Chess Club, and one of Fischer's biggest defenders when he walked out of his 1961 Match with Reshevsky. Mr. Rubin wrote:

    November 13, 1969

    Dear Bobby

    Thank you for sending me a copy of your letter addressed to Colonel Edmondson, Executive Director of USCF, in which you decline the invitation to enter the 1969 US Chess Championship Tournament. You state as your principal reason that an eleven-round event with twelve players is inadequate, imposing excessive hazards on a player who happens to get off to a poor start. I endorse your point of view completely. Yet I would urge you to reconsider your withdrawal for other reasons.

    As you state, the 1969 U.S. Champinship Tournament is the Zonal, leading to the match for the World's Championship in 1972. Placing yourself out of the running now means that the World's Championship, to which you aspire, will not be available to you until 1975, and you can have no assurance that the next Zonal in 1972 will be enlarged to 22 rounds. [In fact, it was enlarged, but only to 13 rounds -- GC] Thus, in upholding your position you may be closing the door to your achieving the top spot in world chess for an indefinite period. The cost to you in disappointment and frustration is too high a price for you to pay for a principle which, I believe affects you less than any other player.

    You state with pride, which many of us share, that in eight U.S. Championship Tournaments in which you played, you won all eight. I cannot believe that you are now seriously worried about your ability to win again, even in an eleven-round event. Are you then sacrificing for a principle that will benefit other players more than you? If so, why? I am informed that last year the question of enlarging the tournament to 22 rounds was put up to the players and that they voted overwhelmingly to leave it at 11 rounds.

    You point out approvingly that Eastern European countries take chess seriously and that their important tournaments are longer than our championship event. Those governments sponsor chess and talented chess players. Good players are relieved of tasks and responsibilities which may interfere with their development as players. The system under which we live grants no aid or subsidy to chess players. As a result, most of our best players must find some occupation to meet their daily needs. They cannot take the time to play in lengthy tournaments. It is regrettable that our system does not favor young people with extraordinary talent such as you possess; yet, upon reflection, I am sure you would not want to change our system for one that supports chess players but stifles individual freedom. Accept the restrictions of our society. With your great skill, you can achieve your goal even in this imperfect setup for chess players. By all means, continue to fight for better tournaments and conditions for chess professionals, but don't let the fight divert you from your proper ambition - the World's Chess Championship.

    Saul Rubin

    GM Groucho Marx... er, Isaac Kashdan published Fischer's letter in his newspaper column, adding the following comments:

    Doubling the number of rounds would greatly increase the duration and expense of the tournament for the federation and the participants. Other than Fischer, sentiment is almost unanimous against it.

    This editor can only comment that if Fischer feels the tournament is important to his career, he should play. In order to qualify for the Interzonal Tournament, he need only finish one of the first three in the U.S. Championship. This would seem to be reasonably likely, with either 11 or 22 rounds.

    The point of Fischer's protest was hard to fathom. He obviously wasn't helping himself by reducing his chances to 0%. He wasn't helping the other players, who were all against the idea. If this were a chess game, he'd be guarding an unimportant pawn, oblivious to the fact that his King was getting mated on the other side of the board. One of Groucho's readers supported Fischer, allowing Kashdan to elaborate on his position, pointing out that Fischer's own record of unreliability made it harder, not easier to deal with him. Given Fischer's past, even giving in to him was no guarantee of his participation...

    My comments in the chess column of the Los Angeles Times regarding Fischer's letter to the U.S. Chess Federation were short, but I had thought through the matter very carefully.

    There is a long history of difficult dealings with Fischer. Perhaps you know that he dropped out of the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse, Tunisia, in 1967, and dropped out at the very last minute after promising to play for the American team in the Chess Olympics in Lugano, Switzerland last year. Earlier there was the incomplete match with Reshevsky and problems in several U.S. Championship Tournaments.

    If enlarging the tournament would assure Fischer's participation I might say go ahead with it... But what if the schedule were rearranged, quite a task at short notice, and Fischer then went to New York just in time to play, and then objected to the lights, or the size of the playing area, or the hum of the spectators, or the director's manner or some other point, major or minor. As it happens, Fischer is now in California. He was asked to come to New York, at the expense of USCF, to check out the playing conditions. This alone would indicate that USCF officials are very anxious to have Fischer in the tournament. Fischer refused to discuss any other matters until his request for 22 players was accepted.

    I have had some personal experience with Fischer. I supervised him as Captain of the U.S.A. team at the Chess Olympics in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1960, and as Director of The Piatagorsky Cup Tournament in Santa Monica, 1966. On both occasions there were no problems that came to public attention, but there were some incidents that may have added to the gray hair I have. Not that I have given up on Fischer. I would gladly assume a similar task if I thought it would help. I am only pointing out that making a concession to Fischer does not guarantee success of a venture.

    I am well aware of the tremendous advantage to American chess if the world championship could be brought here. It would be worth a great deal of effort and money on the part of the chess community, and it would be worth some sacrifices on the part of other grandmasters. But the goal is also worth a great deal to Fischer, and he must also show some accommodation.

    Sincerely yours
    Groucho Marx Isaac Kashdan [Sorry about that. -- GC]

  • Meanwhile, back at USCF, Ed Edmondson, unaware of Rubin and Kashdan's replies, came back with his own, which made many of the same points:

    November 4, 1969

    Grandmaster Robert J. Fischer
    Box 596
    New York, NY 10011

    Dear Bobby:

    I'm rushing this reply to your October 29 letter in the hope that you will receive it soon enough to reconsider your decision and to accept the Committee's invitation to play in the 1969 U.S. Championship.

    No one to my knowledge disputes your contention that 22 rounds will normally produce a truer champion than 11 rounds, so that question is not at issue. But there are two questions of importance. First, is the U.S. Championship a "normal" tournament? Second, is it necessary or practical (from the standpoint of the other contestants and with regard to financing the tournament) to have 22 rounds?

    You have already answered the first question by competing in eight U.S. Championships and by winning all eight of them - hardly a normal situation. In every instance, you topped the final score table by at least one full point. In your most recent championship (1966-1967), you didn't lose a game and you finished two points ahead of second-place Larry Evans. Pretty convincing, and no one seriously doubts that you can win again this year, 11 rounds or not.

    By the way, even in the Soviet Union there are differences of opinion regarding the merits of a long tournament. Have you noticed how many Grandmasters did not compete in their 22-round championship this year? Averbakh, Botvinnik, Bronstein, Keres, Korchnoi, Lein, and Suetin, to name some of the most prominent. I wonder how many chose not to play because they agreed with the opinion expressed in writing by one: "The tournament is too long!?"

    The fact that something is done a certain way in East European countries does not make it the best way, for them or for anyone else. For instance, you have often accused Soviet players of collusion. If your charges are true, would you accept their format of a 22-round tournament and also accept the same restrictions you claim they must endure in our own over-the-board play? Of course not-so let's keep the discussion pertinent.

    You have to date overlooked or not considered sufficiently a most important fact. The U.S. Championship Committee, prior to the 1966-67 tournament, asked you to present to the assembled players your proposal for a 22-round competition in future events. The vote was 10-1 against your plan, with one abstention, and you cannot help but realize the other players had valid reasons for voting as they did. For one thing, many of them are engaged in full-time occupations other than chess - necessary (in most cases) to support their families. They simply cannot afford the five to six weeks required for a 22-round tournament. Beyond that, they look at the fiscal realities of sponsorship. The U.S. Championship now costs about $17,000 for eleven rounds. Going to 22 rounds would approximately double the expense. The prize fund, naturally, would have to be increased in proportion to time expended on the tournament - otherwise, the contestants would be recompensed to an even lesser degree than now. Payments to the tournament director and his assistants would have to be doubled, and it would cost twice as much to house and feed the contestants from out of town. Frankly, Bobby, U.S. Chess just cannot afford a $34,000 championship at this time.

    The U.S. Championship Committee and the players at your 1966-67 meeting have, with the approval of USCF's elected officers, established that the U.S. Championship shall be an 11-round tournament. I agree with this policy and have been charged with the responsibility of effecting it, even though I understand your own reasons for disagreeing. The point is, why bar yourself from the U.S. Championship and from an eventual crack at the World Championship over this almost irrelevant point of tournament length? I believe, as do many, that you are not only the strongest player in the United States, but the strongest player in the world. Why not prove it this time by winning the Zonal, the Interzonal, the Candidates, and the World Championship of chess?

  • Why not indeed? Despite having a reasonable goal in mind, public opinion, logic, and common sense were all working against Fischer by this time. But backing off of a point, even when reasonable to do, had never been one of Fischer's strong suits. Having no answer to any of these points, he simply went publicly silent, and refused to play, anyway.

  • The tournament itself though, was something of a classic, with many good games, and a remergence of the great Sammy Reshevsky, winning the championship for the 7th time, and the first time since 1946.

  • As it turns out, though, Bobby was not out in the cold, as far as the 1972 Championship was concerned. 3rd Place finisher Pal Benko, gave up his spot in the 1970 Interzonal to Fischer, who accepted it, played, and went all the way to the championship, at last. In 1974, Benko had this to say about the event:

    Incidentally, I must point out here that a misconception exists as to how Fischer came to play in the Palma Interzonal in 1970 even though he had not qualified in the previous zonal. It has been widely and erroneously reported in the foreign press that I was paid a certain sum to give up my place in his favor (I had qualified in the 1969 U.S. Championship, which was the zonal and in which Fischer did not play). The idea for me to step down and give Fischer my place was my own; it was made voluntarily and without pressure from anyone. I felt that as one of the world's strongest players he should have the right to participate in that critical Interzonal. The U.S. Chess Federation had always treated me well; by my action I hoped to show my gratitude. (The USCF had given me the opportunity to qualify for the Interzonal in Amsterdam in 1964 by arranging a match between Bisguier, who had qualified, and me, who had not. And there have been many other things for which I am grateful to the USCF.)

    The figure $2,000 is sometimes mentioned as the price I was paid for stepping down. Actually, that fee was paid, but it was for my services as second to Reshevsky and Addison at that tournament - and it is the same amount I would have received as an appearance fee had I actually played. The only condition I asked for stepping down was for Fischer to agree not to withdraw from the Interzonal or the ensuing matches should he qualify for them - and he fulfilled this condition. -- Chess Life & Review, July 1975

  • Some other GM commentary on Fischer's stand:

    If people want him to play, he feels it is their responsibility to get the ticket in his hands in good time. Bobby wants to give 100 per cent and play as close to top efficiency as possible. He cannot do this if he does not have a rest day as the other players do, and he cannot do this if the lighting imposes any strain. It can be argued that the lighting is the same for all the players, but such arguments are refuted by Fischer's rationale that this is not true because all the players are not the same. He feels he is the best and that he will win, barring a "fluke." All his conditions are aimed at preventing this "fluke," and this, by the way, is the principal reason for his refusal to play in the U.S. Championship. He thinks 22 rounds is the minimum number to prevent the possibility of an accident that might prevent him from winning. He tries to play each game with the same concentration and will to win, whether it is the first round or the last. -- GM Arthur Bisguier

    Q: What do you think about Fischer's demands in the U.S. Championship?

    A: He asked to play 22 games instead of 11 but I think he was not right. The other American players are not professional chess players and cannot get so many days away from their work. I agree with him that conditions at the Lugano Olympiad were very bad, but I think he should have played, since he was already there. It's a pity he does not play. -- GM Bent Larsen, CL&R, May, 1970

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