Obituary: Robert Byrne / Chess grandmaster was late to game

April 20, 1928 - April 12, 2013

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Robert Byrne, an international grandmaster and United States chess champion who, as the chess columnist for The New York Times, analyzed top-flight matches from 1972 through 2006, the eras of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, died on Friday at his home in Ossining, N.Y. He was 84.

The cause was Parkinson's disease, said Joyce Dopkeen, a friend.

A prodigy as a young player, Mr. Byrne was nonetheless a latecomer to the professional game. He had a career as a philosophy professor, teaching at Indiana University through most of the 1950s, and did not become a full-time chess player until he was in his 40s, by which age most top players are beyond their peak skills.

Known as a cagey, patient player who favored flank attacks and solid structural defense, avoided pawn weaknesses and was especially strong in the endgame, Mr. Byrne, as an amateur, represented the United States with distinction in international competitions. But before he turned professional in the late 1960s, perhaps his most notable game was a loss to Fischer in the 1963-64 U.S. Championships, an annual invitation-only gathering of the nation's strongest players.

Fischer, who died in 2008, won the tournament that year with an 11-0 record, the only time in more than 100 years of the event that anyone finished without a loss or a draw, and his game with Mr. Byrne was his closest call. Indeed, the game was widely seen to be tilting in Mr. Byrne's favor, and its grandmaster analysts had just suggested that Fischer resign, when Mr. Byrne discovered that Fischer had engineered a brilliantly disguised trap for him and that he had fallen into it. When Mr. Byrne, instead of Fischer, resigned, spectators were shocked.

Mr. Byrne won his game with Fischer in the 1965-66 U.S. Championship, though Fischer was the eventual champion. Finally, in 1972, he earned the championship himself, tying with two other players, Samuel Reshevsky and Lubomir Kavalek, and then winning a playoff.

The victory qualified him to play in the 1973 interzonal tournament, in which he finished third, earning a slot in the eight-player tourney that would determine the next world championship challenger, rare heights for an American player. He was eliminated in the first round, however, by Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union, whom Fischer had unseated as champion in their celebrated match the previous year.

As a columnist for The Times, Mr. Byrne was one of the few conduits in general-interest publications between the high-level chess world and its fans. Indeed, before the Internet made live games accessible, his column provided up-to-date information and analysis that was often not generally available, even if the chess argot was baffling to the general reader.

Robert Eugene Byrne was born in New York City on April 20, 1928, and graduated from Yale before earning a master's degree from Indiana. He and his younger brother, Donald, were students of the celebrated chess teacher John W. Collins, as was Fischer. The three were among the subjects of Collins' 1975 memoir, "My Seven Chess Prodigies."

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