RIP Robert Byrne, American chess grandmaster and columnist who gave my childhood meaning

I learned today that the American chess grandmaster and columnist Robert Byrne died last Friday, April 12, 2013.

Upon hearing this news, my mind was flooded immediately with childhood memories.

The scene

I am eight years old, walking alone on a Sunday morning through the woods. I carry some pocket change given to me by my father. My task: go to a local convenience store in town to buy a copy of the New York Times to bring back home.

I like the shortcut through the woods. When school is in session, I take that shortcut when I’m walking alone, whether stomping through crunchy autumn leaves, shivering through slushy snow, or getting shade as the school year is ending and the sun is bright.

I don’t always take the shortcut, because sometimes I walk to school with a friend or two who live in another direction, and in that case we walk over frozen ponds or run up and down the grassy hill instead (where I once fell going too fast and was lifted up by some older kids and brought back home; still have the scar on my right knee today). But the shortcut is my secret. I don’t tell my parents about the shortcut, because they might be worried. But it’s my private time to myself.

At home

I buy the newspaper, and keep it rolled up as I return home. My father likes to read about world news. But I like to read about chess. Magically, in this huge bundle of paper there is a chess column every week, by someone named Robert Byrne. In this column, he lists the moves to some recent chess game that is interesting, with his annotations and explanations of important moves in the game, places where someone made a bad move or found a great one. There are some diagrams to help out in case one does not have a chess board at hand to play out.

My job is to clip out and save the chess column so that my father can staple it into his notebook. He likes collecting these chess columns. Where else could we hear about chess news from around the country and the world?

One of those days, my father gets particularly excited, because a Chinese player beat a Westerner (a Dutchman)!

And so I keep on following the New York Times chess column, until we move to Michigan a year later, and I lost my ritual of getting the Sunday Times for the family. No longer living in the New York City area, my father buys a subscription to a local newspaper instead; there is no chess column in this paper.


Thank you, Robert Byrne, for enriching the life of a young chess fan.

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