Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Check Mate Birthday

It’s not often that when someone asks you how you spent your 34th birthday, you can say: smoking Cuban cigars and drinking Cabernet Sauvignon with an American Chess Grandmaster.

Yet that’s exactly what I did tonight.

While sitting at one of New York City’s ubiquitous chess tables in Stuyvesant Town in the East Village with my priest and friend, Justin Moffatt, we were joined by ex-NYC homicide detective Jeremiah Johnson and William James Lombardy, a writer, teacher, one time Roman Catholic priest and American Grandmaster of chess.

Lombardy became the first American to win the World Junior Chess Championship in 1957 and, in so doing, became the first American World Chess champion of any kind with a perfect score of 11-0, the only time such a result has ever been achieved. Later, he drew a two-game match with World Chess Champion Mikhail Botvinnik, a feat that garnered him the title of Grandmaster without ever receiving the International Master title first.

Lombardy played for the U.S. team that won the 1960 World Student Team Championship in the Soviet Union, the first time the U.S. won that event. He personally defeated the legendary future World Chess Champion, Boris Spassky in their individual game to seize the gold medal. (See the image above—Lombardy is on the right, Spassky the left).

Lombardy represented his country in several Chess Olympiads and finished second in the 1960-61 U.S. Chess Championship, just behind his reclusive friend Bobby Fischer, with whom he is still in contact. Soon after, he decided to retire and become a Roman Catholic priest. However, he returned to the game in 1972, while still in training for the priesthood, to be Fischer’s second at the now legendary World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, Iceland, dubbed The Match of the Century, where Fischer would go on to beat Lombardy’s old nemesis Boris Spassky and become the World Chess Champion.

Disheveled, clad in old, stained clothes, and ranting about the foibles of the Catholic Church, the state of the U.S. Constitution, and New York City real estate prices, Lombardy certainly didn’t strike any oblivious passers by, let alone those sitting at the table next to him, as a famous celebrity. In some ways, Lombardy appears to have more in common with the now infamous Fischer than ever. Retired, his only monetary sustenance now comes from playing chess in the park against all would-be challengers.

Oh for a rook and a few pawns instead of my Romeo y Julieta (yes, the Cuban was the real thing; I smuggled it back—mostly inadvertently—through U.S. Customs after a visit to Mexico last month. But that, as they say, is another story…).
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus