Penn State Intercom......September
Former chess coach
to Hall of Fame
By Gary Cramer
Long before the Cold War thawed and trade pacts and tourism made many formerly communist and socialist nations more familiar to Americans, the United States and Penn State had an ambassador to the far corners of the world who waged both war and diplomacy against determined opponents on the smallest of battlefields -- the chess board.
In August, in a ceremony in Cherry Hill, N.J., where the U.S. Open Championship was in progress, the life and skills of that ambassador, the late Donald Byrne, a former University faculty member, were recognized by his posthumous induction into the World Chess Hall of Fame. Newly established in Miami, the facility incorporates the earlier U.S. Chess Hall of Fame and is sanctioned by both the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF).
Byrne and his family came to State College from Indiana's Valparaiso University in 1961 at the joint invitation of then-Dean of Student Affairs Robert Bernreuter and Henry Sams, who chaired the Department of English. They planned that Byrne could both teach English and coach what is believed to be the first, and for many years, only varsity chess team in the country.
Byrne was titled a National Master by the USCF, which rated him among the top 10 players in America from the early 1950s until he went on dialysis in 1974 due to complications from lupus, the condition he died from in 1976. In 1953, he won the U.S. Open; in 1954 and 1955, he was a member of the U.S. team that played against the Soviet team; in 1962, FIDE granted him the title of International Master for his performance in a tournament in Mar del Plata; and between 1962 and 1972, he was a member of five U.S. Olympic teams as player and/or captain. He traveled extensively to Europe, South America and Cuba, among other destinations, for competition with the world's best players. Despite such far-flung exploits, however, the Brooklyn native never learned to drive. Ever the strategist, he settled in the College Heights neighborhood of State College so that he could easily walk to campus.
Perhaps his most famous single game was played in 1956 against the then-13-year-old prodigy Bobby Fischer. The game is widely remembered for Fischer's win despite his having sacrificed his queen and is ranked by numerous authorities as one of the top 10 games ever played.
But to National Master Dan Heisman, Pennsylvania delegate to the USCF and one of Byrne's former Penn State team players, of even more importance than Byrne's record as a player was his contribution to international good will. "At a time when the phrase was 'Ugly American,' Professor Byrne must have been the 'Handsome American,'" Heisman said. "I attended the Chess Olympiad in 1970, and it was obvious the affection that the world chess community had for him. His never-failing good nature, sense of humor and ability to enjoy the world around him made him one of those people that you always wanted to be around."
Byrne's wife, Madge, received the Honorary Chess Mates Award for 2002 from the USCF at the ceremony for her "contributions and unselfish support on behalf of chess." The couple met while both were graduate students at the University of Michigan, he in literature and she in philosophy. About a year before his death, she began working in Pattee Library on the University Park campus, and continued there until 1991. She was a member of the State College Choral Society for many years, and remains involved in community activities. The couple's two sons live in State College -- Jonathan, a free-lance mechanic, and Chris, a mathematician specializing in game theory with the faculty of the Applied Research Laboratory.
Madge Byrne explains that although her husband taught his whole family the rules of chess, she preferred playing with their boys after her first few games with him. "Not only was there no hope of winning against Don, but 'insult was added to injury' by his reading a book while I struggled to decide on a move, which he would respond to in a few seconds, and then return to his book." A year or two later, she admits, she was outclassed by her boys, as well. They continue to play one another casually, and benefit from tips given by "Uncle Bob," Donald Byrne's older brother, Grandmaster Robert Byrne, who is a chess analyst for The New York Times and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
In February of this year, the Donald Byrne Memorial-Penn State IM International Tournament was held on the University Park campus. Competitors from the United States, Canada, Nigeria, the Philippines and Russia participated in games that counted toward their international rankings. The Penn State Chess Club sponsored an earlier event, called the Donald Byrne Memorial-the Penn State Open, in 1980.
Gary Cramer can
be reached at gwc104@.psu.edu.