The iron gates of the campus of Columbia University (gift of the Class of 1929) were locked during the recent vacation period, an inconvenience causing considerable consternation to 26 high-strung chess players meeting in the biennial intercollegiate championship chess tournament. A printed sign at the outside entrance of John Jay Hall, where the tournament was held, read USE 116TH STREET ENTRANCE, and after walking two blocks to get inside the college grounds and crossing the snowy campus, passing an occasional lonely student, the chess players found, on the inside entrance of John Jay Hall itself, a handwritten note, USE EAST DOOR, and affixed to the east door with Scotch tape, another handwritten message: CHAMPIONSHIP CHESS TOURNAMENT IN DINING HALL.
Most of the cavernous expanse of the dining hall was shadowed, but one corner was brightly lit, and there, while the winter winds howled outside, the 26 contenders for the American college championship sat with bowed heads over the boards while the chess clocks ticked and the referee said "Shush" if the two or three spectators whispered loudly. Sometimes a student who had remained in his quarters during the vacation came in late, gave a startled look at the chess players, and walked away down the echoing corridors. The players themselves frequently left their games to see how their rivals were doing. A few of the entries, like Edmar Mednis of New York University, or Anthony Saidy of Fordham, or Timothy Anderson of Ohio State, were seasoned players; they sat calmly in their chairs for the most part, seemed relaxed and showed no emotion whether they were winning or losing. Mednis was the winner of the New York State championship at 16 and last summer finished second at the world junior championship tournament in Antwerp, barely beaten by the 21-year-old Russian master, Boris Spassky.
But among most of the others, agitation at unexpected moves was evident. Many were playing in their first big tournament and were obviously taken aback by the sudden appearance of two rooks on an open file, plainly dismayed by a passed pawn and thunderstruck when they were checkmated. On the other hand, their satisfaction when they got an opponent in a difficult spot was even more apparent.
Ranging from 17 to 26, these young players were almost all science majors—six engineers, three physicists, three chemistry majors and three mathematicians, compared with two English majors, one prelaw student and one future teacher. But, except for Mednis, they were alike in their wild and plunging games, whose recklessness alone would make chess masters uneasy.
January 16, 1956
OLD-FASHIONED AND CAUTIOUS
Before the tournament started, there was every expectation that Mednis would be the next American college champion. A freshman and an engineering major, Mednis is tall and light-haired, looks considerably older than his 18 years, speaks with a slight trace of an accent and carries himself with the self-conscious dignity that characterizes youthful chess prodigies. Mednis' game is old-fashioned and cautious, differing from much modern chess in the same way that classical music differs from modern atonal masterpieces. He is generally considered one of the two strongest American candidates in the younger generation, with a real chance of becoming a world chess master. (The other, William Lombardy, is still in high school.) In the first round Mednis had no trouble defeating Hal Wallach of Bridgeport University, a phlegmatic, long-featured, 20-year-old mathematician, and in the second round he disposed of Timothy Anderson of Ohio State.
But in the third round Mednis ran up against Selby Lyman of Harvard. Lyman is a brilliant but uneven player who has a disconcerting habit of jumping up after he has made a move, as though he suddenly remembered that he had to catch a train. He comes from a family of New England chess players that is famed for beating world masters. When visiting masters give simultaneous exhibitions, playing the local amateurs, the Lymans enter and win. On the night of the third round, with many of the other 24 players constituting the gallery and the atmosphere in the dining room of John Jay Hall particularly gloomy and sepulchral, Lyman beat Mednis decisively. "I underestimated the attack," Mednis said, suddenly seeming to be at most 15 years old; "I completely underestimated the attack."
Mednis' unexpected defeat gave six players a real chance for the national title. He was still in the running, of course, but the contest was now wide open. Lyman, however, knocked himself out of the championship when he lost to Arthur Freeman, a 17-year-old Harvard freshman who has only recently taken up chess. He had Freeman beaten, but dawdled away his time looking over the other boards.
The five remaining contenders, now in a dead heat, settled down to serious, deliberate chess. Charles Witte, a Columbia premedical student, played Mednis to a draw. Then in the sixth round, Anthony Saidy, playing against Mednis, left the table and studied the scoreboard for a long time to see how the other games had come out. He had a simple calculation to make. The other contenders had drawn. If Saidy drew his game with Mednis the tie would continue. If he won his game with Mednis he was almost certain to win the championship. If he exhausted himself in his game with Mednis and played to a draw anyway, he might be that much weaker for the final round the next day. Mednis' style of play decided him.
Mednis' typical games are almost transparently clear. He does not wear his opponents down, but lets them exhaust themselves. His ability is curiously negative—he wins not because of what he does, but because of what he refrains from doing. His only expression during a match is an occasional all-but-imperceptible look of disdain when his opponent sets up what he considers to be an ingenious trap, or when a delicate situation is broken by a ruthless trading of pieces. This austere expression of displeasure appeared momentarily when Saidy traded queens and the game went doggedly on. After two hours of play, Saidy looked up, exhausted, and asked, "Draw?" Mednis nodded. Saidy was safe for the final round.
In the last round, Mednis was paired against Freeman and won easily. Saidy played Anderson and won a hard game. So they were still tied. Witte, the only man left who had a chance of winning, played the unpredictable Lyman. A subdued and chastened player, Lyman held Witte to a draw. Since Mednis had defeated opponents in the tournament whose score was higher than the score of those Saidy had beaten, Mednis was awarded the title on the tie-breaking system employed. The 91 games that preceded the decision were characterized by an intensity and excitement which, if found in all chess tournaments, might conceivably make chess a popular American sport.