Arthur Bisguier, 87, brash, self-taught chess champion

NEW YORK — Arthur Bisguier, a largely self-taught chess grandmaster who brought a native Bronx brashness to his style of play in defeating some of the game’s greatest players while finding mostly frustration when he faced Bobby Fischer, died Wednesday in Framingham, Mass. He was 87.

His daughter Erica Bisguier said the death, at a care facility, was caused by respiratory failure.


Mr. Bisguier learned to play chess when he was 5 by watching games between his older sister and a cousin. He won the New York High School Championship while still in junior high school.

He was not yet 20 when he won the US Junior Championship in 1948; the next year, he successfully defended the title. He went on to win the US Open in 1950, the first of five times he would triumph or tie for first in that tournament. And in 1954, he won the US Championship, an invitation-only event.

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Mr. Bisguier might have won more US Championships — or at least one more — if not for Fischer. When Fischer came along, he was 14 years younger than Mr. Bisguier, but he began to dominate the US chess scene almost immediately, winning his first championship, in 1957-1958, before he was 15.

Mr. Bisguier’s one taste of victory against Fischer came in the first game they ever played, when Fischer was a child prodigy of 13. But he would not beat him again. Mr. Bisguier’s career record against him consisted of that one win, one draw (in their second game), and 13 consecutive losses.

Mr. Bisguier had a good opportunity to best Fischer in the 1962-1963 championship, however. The two were tied going into the last round and had to play each other head to head. But, as happened so often against Fischer, Mr. Bisguier finished second.


In Fischer’s book “My 60 Memorable Games” (1969), the grandmaster and journalist Larry Evans wrote in an introduction to a chapter, “Bisguier is the one grandmaster who consistently obtains decent positions against Fischer, only to throw them away for no apparent reason.”

There was indeed a kind of Bronx brazenness to Mr. Bisguier’s personality and style of play. He was undisciplined, rarely spending time preparing for opponents. And having spent less time studying chess than many of his chief rivals, he would often play unpopular or rare opening systems. As a result, his opponents’ preparation would often no longer give them an advantage.

Mr. Bisguier preferred socializing to studying, and he made friends readily, even among his opponents. In the midst of the Cold War, at the 1952 Helsinki Chess Olympiad, he met David Bronstein, a leading player for the Soviet Union. As Bronstein wrote of him in his autobiography, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1995), “It is difficult to believe that during this tense political climate we became friends and were openly talking to each other in the tournament hall.”

Though he could never overcome Fischer, Mr. Bisguier counted some formidable opponents among his vanquished, including former world champion Boris Spassky; Samuel Reshevsky, who, like Fischer, won the US Championship eight times; and Svetozar Gligoric, who was a candidate for the world championship three times.

Mr. Bisguier was awarded the title grandmaster, the highest in chess, in 1957 by the World Chess Federation, the game’s governing body. At the time, there were only 39 grandmasters in the world.

Though he competed abroad, Mr. Bisguier had more success on American soil, becoming a mainstay in major US tournaments for decades. He often gave lectures and exhibitions in which he would play against multiple opponents at the same time.

Among his major victories was first place in the 1973 Lone Pine International tournament in California, one of the preeminent competitions in the world in the 1970s.

Arthur Bernard Bisguier was born in New York on Oct. 8, 1929, and attended the Bronx High School of Science. As a student there, he was already one of the best players in the country, and also at the center of a spirited rivalry with its cross-city rival Brooklyn Tech, whose team was led by Robert Byrne, a future grandmaster and chess columnist for The New York Times.

After high school, Mr. Bisguier served in the Army from 1951 to 1953, though he was given time off to play for the United States at the Helsinki Chess Olympiad, where Byrne was among his teammates. He played for the United States in four more Olympiads, including in 1960 (with Fischer and Byrne as teammates), when the United States took silver, behind the Soviet Union.

After his Army service, Mr. Bisguier graduated from Pace College (now Pace University) in New York in 1955. He married Carol Collins in 1959; they honeymooned in Omaha, where Mr. Bisguier was playing in a chess tournament, his daughter Erica said. His wife died in 2014.

Besides Erica Bisguier, with whom he lived in Wellesley, Mass., he leaves another daughter, Cele Bisguier; a sister, Sylvia Prival; two granddaughters; and three step-grandchildren.

Mr. Bisguier was such a competitor that even beating a vaunted opponent did not always satisfy him. In 1961, for example, he defeated Paul Keres, who many thought was good enough to be world champion. But Mr. Bisguier was not proud of the game. He thought there had been nothing special about the way he played.

“After the game I was strangely depressed at having wasted an opportunity,” he wrote in his autobiography, “The Art of Bisguier” (with Newton Berry, 2008). “I wanted to beat him brilliantly. After all, if one has the chance to play Keres only a few times in his life, is it not better to go down in defeat in a fine game against an immortal than to win by doing ‘nothing?’ ”

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