Friday, April 7, 2017

Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier: A Personal Reminiscence

Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier passed away on Wednesday at the age of 87. Bisguier was a two-time U.S. Chess Junior Champion (1948, 1949), the 1954 U.S. Chess Champion, a three-time winner of the U.S. Chess Open (1950, 1956, 1959) and a three-time U.S. Chess Senior Champion (1989, 1997, 1998).

He earned the Grandmaster title during an era when only the elite players achieved that distinction, as there were only a few dozen Grandmasters in the world in the late 1950s. The young Bisguier was a swashbuckling exemplar of attacking chess; in his later years he adopted a more conservative style and he was still a dangerous tournament player well into his 80s.

I first met Bisguier in the 1990s at the Kings Island Open near Cincinnati, Ohio. He showed up at that tournament every year for many years--not to play, but to hold court in his own skittles room, where he analyzed players' games for free. For me, having my games analyzed by a legend was one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing in this event (and I had a fair amount of success there, one year beating three 2300s when I was not even rated 2100 and other years winning various class prizes).

Bisguier never put on airs and he never talked down to anyone. He would patiently analyze a game played by a 1200 with the same seriousness and attention to detail that he would apply to a game played by a 2100 and he would subtly adjust his explanations so that they would be intelligible to each player without making that player feel self-conscious.

The only thing that would exasperate Bisguier was if a player had an inaccurate scoresheet. Bisguier would say something to the effect of, "If you don't know what happened then I can't help you."

You could tell that he loved the game and that he enjoyed helping us to improve. Some players preferred to show their wins to Bisguier but I tended to show him my losses first (and then my wins, if there was enough time to do so), because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to gain as much knowledge as possible about my weaknesses.

Bisguier would state with self-deprecation that our tactics were better than his at that point but that he could show us the correct plan for a given situation; in reality, his tactics were still quite sharp, particularly in an analysis session with no clock running.

Some of Bisguier's comments will always stick with me, especially "I want my pieces to do something!" and "Where is your sense of danger?" The former remark--which he said to many players--was an exhortation to not only develop our pieces but to develop them actively. I have often said something similar to my students, reminding them of the supreme importance of active and coordinated piece play. The latter remark, directed specifically to me on more than one occasion, reflected his astonishment at the recklessness of my play as I paid the price after disregarding some rather serious threats being made by my opponents. The ironic thing is that Bisguier, as a young man, was a very brash and bold player, though of course his play was far more accurate than mine. My sense of danger still fails me at times but I have avoided the wrong path on many occasions by remembering Bisguier's warning and thus playing a necessary prophylactic move instead of just ignoring my opponent's threats.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day of providing analysis and when everyone had shown all of the games that they wanted to show, Bisguier would regale us with one of his games from the 1950s--or the 1990s! He had an incredible memory and he was an engaging raconteur as he entertained us with slashing victories from his youth or his somewhat more subdued wins as he captured one of his three U.S. Senior titles.

One of my favorite Bisguier stories about his career (which I both read about and then heard about from him as well) is how he came to win the inaugural Church's Grand Prix; as I recall, he was between jobs in 1979, so he decided that he might as well travel the country and try to make some money playing chess. Bisguier said this so casually, as if anyone in his early 50s could just suddenly ramp up his chess tournament schedule to play almost every weekend in a different city while enjoying sustained success against younger players, many of whom were full-time chess professionals. According to an article in the March 1980 issue of Chess Life, Bisguier finished with 80.62 Grand Prix points to narrowly beat International Master Vitaly Zaltsman. In addition to the various tournament prizes that Bisguier won along the way, he received $3000 plus automatic entry into the next U.S. Chess Championship (Zaltsman won $1500 and the next 10 players on the list received between $100 and $1000 each). In that article, Bisguier noted with pride that during the year he had increased his rating to a new career-high.

I was always puzzled that players above a certain rating felt that it was beneath them to show their games to Bisguier and I thought that it was crass and foolish that some players mentioned his name while debating who was the "weakest" active Grandmaster, as if mere mortal chess players have any business trying to make such a distinction; Bisguier's rating slowly but surely dropped from 2500+ to his 2200 floor but his wisdom and understanding of the game remained undimmed--and he had forgotten more about chess than most of those who mocked him would ever know, regardless of whether or not their current ratings were 50 or 100 points higher than his. A player who peaks at 2300 has not accomplished a fraction of what Bisguier did and should speak of Bisguier with nothing but humility and respect. To paraphrase what Yoda said to Luke Skywalker, "When 80 years old you reach, play chess as well you will not."

It has been a few years since I last had the opportunity to play at Kings Island and more than a few years since Bisguier stopped coming to the event; I miss seeing him every year as fall turned to winter in Ohio but I cherish the memories of my many interactions with him and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with one of the legends of 20th century American chess.

Rest in peace, Grandmaster Bisguier, and may your family be comforted at this time.