The Strange Tale of the Chess Grandmaster Who Became a Priest

May the soul of chess master William Lombardy finally rest in peace.

American chess masters Jack Collins with Bill Lombardy (L) and Bobby Fischer (R) in Jan. 1968
American chess masters Jack Collins with Bill Lombardy (L) and Bobby Fischer (R) in Jan. 1968 (photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When I first saw the 2015 film Pawn Sacrifice, which depicts the most famous chess event of the 20th century, the World Championship in 1972 vs. the USSR’s Grandmaster Boris Spassky, I thought it was another case of Hollywood taking liberties. I’m speaking of the character played by Peter Sarsgaard: Father William Lombardy, who was chess legend Bobby Fischer’s corner man.

But it was actually true: Fr. William Lombardy, of the Archdiocese of New York, did indeed function as Fischer’s—perhaps the greatest chess player of the past century, maybe of all time—“corner-man”.

After seeing the film and doing the background check that Fr. Lombardy was indeed a real person and not some fabrication of a Malibu screenwriter, I felt I had to find out what happened to this priest-Grandmaster.

Unfortunately, almost everything I learned about this man was bad news, followed by worse news.

William Lombardy, born in 1937 in New York City, wasn’t exactly the child prodigy that Bobby Fischer was, but by the time he hit his stride (age 14) he would be the best American chess player of his generation—save for the larger-than-life Brooklynite Bobby Fischer, whom he briefly tutored.

This fact has given rise to the question of “what would have William Lombardy been had Bobby Fischer not lived at the exact same time?” But the query is a moot one because Lombardy, though having become the youngest New York State Champion and the only American to achieve a perfect score in an international invitational, decided to more or less leave chess and enter the diocesan priesthood in the early 1960s. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York in 1967.

The sad irony of Fr. Lombardy’s life is that he wound up mimicking some of the worst characteristics of Bobby Fischer, who, despite his fall into madness, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, at least managed to keep his head above water financially. For when Fischer hand-picked Fr. Lombardy to accompany him to Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972 to pull off the impossible—the defeat of World Champion the USSR’s Boris Spassky—it was Fr. Lombardy who, time and again, brought a semblance of sanity back to Fischer. (Fischer barely made the flight to Iceland, and, once there, continuously threatened to cancel the match.) 

This was no mean feat. Keeping Fischer in line was a Herculean task and perhaps no one else but Fr. Lombardy could have pulled it off. However, one has to wonder if Fr. Lombardy saw a portent of his own soul in Fischer’s seemingly bottomless appetite for self-destruction and somehow found himself sucked into the vortex.

Unlike Fischer, though, who wound up disappearing completely for a long time, Fr. Lombardy kept things together, both in his chess and spiritual life, attaining his highest chess ranking in 1978. However, he “renounced” his priesthood in 1980, married a Norwegian woman and sired a son. A gaping maw of human misery loomed in front of him.  

Lombardy’s marriage fell apart. He became estranged from his son. And, like so many Grandmasters, his best years of chess would become just a fading memory.

Worse, Lombardy fell further and further behind in his rent in Stuyvesant Town in the Lower East Side of New York, to the tune of $28,000. He was evicted in 2016 at the age of 77.

Since I am an amateur at chess (and briefly taught it), in 2016 I reached out to Imad Khachan at New York City’s famed Chess Forum to see what could be done to help the destitute Lombardy. I received this email back:

I have spoken with Bill [William Lombardy]. He is desperate. Desperate people think desperate thoughts, so he is begging people to contact congress, councilmen, senators, newspapers, anyone with power who can help him get out of his prison-like sentence to a rehab facility. 

He is not an addict, and he's ambulatory, so there is no need for him to be in a rehab facility other than the fact that he's homeless and he has had a heart attack living on the rugged streets. 

He is imploring someone to come to his aid to provide him with a place where he can sleep and continue to live a normal life, schmoozing it up with chess players at Union Square, or taking in a cheap city movie. 

His golden years should not be ‘gray-bar’ years, making him feel like a prisoner of poverty, which he is. 

If anyone is able to provide Bill with a place to sleep in the NYC area, please call [Bill's Power of Attorney]. If anyone is financially able to contribute a monthly stipend to Bill so that he can pay for a room, please contact me. Bill may not have many years left, given his advanced age and the desperate straights [sic] he finds himself in, so if anyone is able to contribute to the golden years of a chess legend, now is the time to do it.

Since Lombardy was now homeless and living in subways and chess clubs, I asked around, trying to find out why he didn’t give chess lessons for money. The response was depressing: apparently Lombardy did, for a time, try to give chess lessons — at about $1,200 per lesson — for royalty from the Middle East — who would house Lombardy in some of New York’s finest hotels — but instead of actually teaching them anything about chess, the “lesson” would turn into a stream-of-consciousness diatribe about all the horrible things that had been done to him and what a mess his life had become. Word soon spread that Lombardy’s “chess lessons” weren’t worth the money.

I offered to interview Lombardy for the Catholic press in 2017, but was told that he would only “grant” an interview for a ridiculously large fee.

Then I had what I first thought was a stupid idea: Since there seemed to be no harm in pursuing what I felt was at best a lame attempt to help a once-great chess player, I asked the Archdiocese of New York if anything could be done. Much to my surprise, they were eager to help Lombardy and get him into the Terrance Cardinal Cooke Residence for long-term care due to his heart condition.

Then, one day last year, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I picked up expecting a robo-call or some telemarketer. To my surprise it was Grandmaster William Lombardy himself, who wanted to thank me for helping him find housing. I was astounded and more than a bit humbled.

I don’t know, really, what happened after that: I had hoped that Lombardy would indeed live out his golden years under the aegis of the archdiocese he’d once served as a priest. However, the next thing I knew Lombardy had left New York, moved into the house of a friend in California, and, this past October died from apparent heart failure at the age of 79.

In a way, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised: William Lombardy had developed a knack for alienating people, even (especially) those who had tried to help him. And, more generally, American chess players, from Paul Morphy to Bobby Fischer, have shown that being a genius on the chess board doesn’t mean they have any common sense.

Still, I’m glad and proud that the Church came to the aid of one of her (former) priests—despite the fact that apparently the help wasn’t wanted or much appreciated.

May William Lombardy finally rest in peace.