The Man Behind Fischer's Crown


Chess, the church and the Cold War: The life of Fr Bill Lombardy
Former New York priest played a huge role in Bobby Fischer’s rise to world champion
by Dave Hannigan

For the most seismic showdown in chess history, the Soviet authorities assembled an extensive support network of 35 grandmasters to travel to Iceland.

The brains trust was tasked with analysing every game, parsing each move, and providing wise counsel to Boris Spassky during breaks in play. At the height of the Cold War in July, 1972, with the whole world watching on, the Moscow regime wanted to afford their man every possible advantage.

His opponent, America’s Bobby Fischer, arrived in Keflavik accompanied by a single second, a burly Catholic priest from the Bronx named Bill Lombardy.

When Fischer wanted to leave in a huff after losing the first of the scheduled 24 games, exasperated outrage traditionally being his default setting, Lombardy ripped the wiring from his car so he had no transport to the airport, then feigned ignorance of why it wouldn’t start.

As a man of the cloth, he wasn’t proud of the little white lie but he knew it served a higher purpose.

“He passeth the piece that passeth all understanding,” warned the padre before, with others, persuading the irascible challenger to stay and battle for the title.

Later, as Fischer gained the upper hand in the contest, Lombardy left the Laugardalsholl Arena in the middle of one particular game to go and say mass at a Reykjavik church.

There is no suggestion that this divine intervention helped his man at the table although by then the Soviets had become so paranoid they were convinced the Americans used microwave signals and all sorts of nefarious tactics to put Spassky off. When the champion finally conceded defeat in a phone call, it fell to the priest to break the news of his triumph to Fischer.

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