William Lombardy
A Gifted and Difficult Man

He died on 13 October, 79 years old, in the town of Martinez in California. If it were only a matter of chess talent, he could have been one of the strongest players in the world.

In 1957, Lombardy won the junior world championship in Toronto with the unprecedented and never repeated score of 11 out of 11, and in 1960 he was the leader of the American team that won the Student Olympiad in Leningrad, a world team championship for players up to 26 years old.

On its own turf, the Soviet team had to grant victory to the Americans, which at the time was seen as a national disgrace. Lombardy scored 12 out of 13 and defeated Boris Spassky. Considering the opposition, this was was an even more impressive result than that in Toronto. Spassky, who would become world champion nine years later, was punished by the Soviet sport authorities; he was not allowed to go abroad for three years.

After Lombardy’s death, there was a photo published on several websites which had been on the cover of the August 1960 issue of the magazine Chess Review. We see three happy people boarding the Dutch KLM plane to Leningrad: Jerry Spann, president of the USCF and captain of the American team in Leningrad, and two team members, Raymond Weinstein and William Lombardy.

Spann would die eight years later at the age of 55. In 1963, in Amsterdam, Raymond Weinstein would assault his mentor, the Dutch IM and professor of psychology Johan Barendregt, and in 1964, back in the US, he would actually kill a man. He is still living in a mental institution.

The photo reminded me of the book My Seven Chess Prodigies by John Collins. The group of prodigies had consisted of the Byrne brothers, Fischer, Lombardy, Weinstein, Sal Matera and Lew Cohen. Only Weinstein, Matera and Cohen are still alive. Nowadays Matera and Cohen are not well known to the chess world, because they dropped out of it early and seem to have prospered ever since.

At the time of the Student Olympiad of 1960, there was no international rating system yet, but on his chessmetrics site, the statistician Jeff Sonas put Lombardy as #20 of the world on his list of February 1961. Shortly after that, Lombardy’s life changed drastically. He started to study theology and was ordained as a priest in 1967.

He was still allowed to play tournaments and to act as Bobby Fischer's second during the world championship match of 1972 in Reykjavik. Later Lombardy became displeased with the Catholic Church. I have seen several reasons given for his disaffection. It may have been because he felt that he was not given enough opportunities to pursue his chess career. The avarice of the Church and the burden of celibacy have also been mentioned as possible motives.

Anyway, he left the Church, married a Dutch woman and had a son. The marriage was dissolved. His wife and son returned to the Netherlands and had little contact with him in the following years.

He was a difficult man. I played against him four times and often met him on other occasions, and he always played the role of the jovial village priest with a friendly word for everyone. In fact, I found him aloof, impossible to reach. He did not converse, he pontificated.

In 2011 he published the book Understanding Chess, with the subtitle My System, My Games, My Life. It was basically self-published in association with Russell Enterprises, the owner of this site.

Lombardy sent me the book with a nice dedication. I wrote about it in the magazine New in Chess and later I heard that he had been badly hurt by my article. “Incredible, incredible...,” he had said.

I felt a bit guilty. On the cover he had appeared on a photo which he had chosen himself, with a wild, and anguished gaze. In the book he had written that he was sick, that his eyesight was deteriorating and that he could not afford medical care. I had been critical of a great chessplayer in dire circumstances.

But what could I do? In his book Lombardy had been bitter about everything, the American government, the American Chess Foundation and other chess players who probably had no inkling that they had done him wrong. He was really bitter about the whole world.

I had been irritated by what he wrote about the game he had played against me at the Olympiad in Haifa in 1976, a game he had won. We had adjourned in a position that was inferior for me, but possibly savable.

Lombardy wrote: “I had reason to think that he had not worked very hard at adjournment analysis. The beer at the Hotel Dan was of high quality! Thinking the position an easy draw, Ree might have consumed one too many in anticipatory celebration.”

Well, well, he had reason to think that I would not care to analyze the adjourned position of my most important game of the whole tournament, but rather drink the quality beer of the Dan Hotel... This calumny is complete nonsense. Contrary to the American team, the Dutch didn’t even stay at the Dan Carmel hotel.

Often in that book, Lombardy seemed innocently aware of what readers might think of the imagined slights that he had received. An example is his description of his troubles during a tournament in Iceland in 1985.

He tells us that a participant had been so obnoxious that he had wanted to beat him up, but the fight had been prevented by intervening bystanders. Then in one of the last rounds, he was paired against Johann Hjartarson (not the obnoxious guy), who needed to play and beat him to make a grandmaster norm.

In a bad mood Lombardy took a walk outside until he knew that his flag had fallen so that Hjartarson would miss his norm. But then he changed his mind and offered to play his game against Hjartarson after all, to allow him to make the norm. The game he had already lost on time. As any man with a sense of honor would have done, Hjartarson refused.

Adding insult to injury, Lombardy wrote: “Apparently he was less interested in his Grandmaster norm than in obtaining a few more shekels as a result of the forfeited game with me.”

After the tournament, Lombardy checked into the Loftleidir Hotel in Reykjavik using the account of Thorjonsson, one of the tournament organizers, and for several days lived a life of luxury at his expense. Telling this tale to convince us how badly he was treated by the Icelanders, to me it seemed as if he had lost his grasp of reality.

Last year he was evicted from his apartment in New York because of rental arrears. He moved in with friends, first in Chicago and then in California. I saw a moving photograph taken on 24 September at the chess room of the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco, three weeks before his death. In spite of his difficulties he looked friendly and serene, quite different from the sad photo that he had chosen for the cover of his latest book.

His win against Spassky, that can be seen in the game viewer, is a good game, but not Lombardy’s best. I show it here because I think it is an important part of chess history.

Click here to play through Spassky-Lombardy, Leningrad 1960