American grandmaster Robert Byrne passed away last Friday, April 12, just over a week short of his 85th birthday. His career as a fully professional chess player wasn't all that long, but it was remarkably successful, seeing him qualify from the 1973 Interzonal into the Candidates matches (he lost to Boris Spassky in their quarterfinal match the next year) and coming within half a point of qualifying again in the next cycle, in 1976.
He enjoyed other professional successes in his heyday, winning the U.S. Championship in 1972/3 and strongly representing the U.S. team in nine Olympiads from 1952 to 1978. He is also the real founding father of what is sometimes wrongly called the "English Attack" against the Najdorf (the "English Attack" moniker applies only when Black plays the Scheveningen ...e6 setup) and developed an interesting line for Black against the Saemisch King's Indian.
Despite his competitive successes, however, his biggest contributions to the game were as an author; most notably, as the chess columnist for the New York Times from 1972 until 2006. ("Children of the Informant", to use the late Tigran Petrosian's famous phrase, will also remember him as a regular co-annotator for that publication with the late Edmar Mednis.) And in the first part of his professional life, before fulling embarking on his chess career, he was, of all things, a philosophy professor in Indiana! (There was an old joke about Reuben Fine, that when he gave up chess to become a psychoanalyst it was a loss to both professions. Byrne had a sharp analytical mind, but his choice of chess might suggest the reverse of Fine's joke - perhaps both disciplines benefited! It is certain that chess did.)
I never met him over the chessboard and in fact only saw him once in person - at the World Open in 1999, I think. I recognized him instantly, but was almost shocked to see him - I was under the impression that he had long ago given up competitive chess. My other "interaction" with him was as a victim in one of his columns. One of my losses in the mid-80s was published in the L.A. Times, and Byrne found it and published it in the New York Times. (From there it was off to the International Herald-Tribune, and, so I've heard, it went from there into both German- and Russian-language periodicals. Lucky me.)
For Byrne, of course, the problem is even worse. He was in the world's absolute elite for some years, but to the extent that he's remembered at all by most players it's for his spectacular, short loss to Bobby Fischer from the 1963 U.S. Championship. But his overall career score against Fischer in classical games was very good: one win (with Black in a Guimard French), two losses and six draws. Further, while he lost the two recorded blitz games they contested in 1971, Byrne was winning one of them - in the Byrne Attack! - almost from start to finish.
Some nice Byrne wins can be found in a couple of memorial articles on the ChessBase website. This one includes his win over Fischer, along with a couple of short videos by IM Andrew Martin featuring wins with both of the eponymous Byrne variations mentioned above. A second article, by Lubosh Kavalek, demonstrates Byrne's combinative prowess.
R.I.P. to another legend of American chess.