Chess has a reputation for being cold and stodgy. Shelby Lyman did not.
“Every once in a while he would say something like ‘It’s such a wonderful game, isn’t it?,’” said Frank Brady, a chess master, writer and friend of Lyman. “He said it with real heart.”
The celebrated chess master, who started his chess column at Newsday and narrated the 1972 World Chess Championship on New York’s Channel 13, died Sunday at UHS Wilson Medical Center in upstate Johnson, one week after he was diagnosed with cancer. He was 82.
“It’s been a shock,” Lyman’s wife, Michele Lyman said. “He was still writing the column.”
At its height, Lyman’s weekly column was published in 82 newspapers worldwide, including in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It was still being used in 45 newspapers.
He began writing the chess column in September 1972, just after the world championship concluded. The first column broke down the Cold War tournament between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky, which Fischer won.
The televised match featured Lyman rather than its players. He stood in front of a camera at a television station in Albany, narrating, analyzing and recreating the game taking place in Reykjavik, Iceland.
“He had a certain homespun way about him, it wasn’t like a professional broadcast,” Brady said. “It was very endearing and people really liked him.”
Brady, who was in Iceland watching the tournament for a book he was writing about Fischer, called Lyman at the end of every game to share details. Then, when Fischer met reigning world champion Spassky on the chess board in Iceland, Lyman, back in Albany, had his own checkered board, on which he recreated the match, move-for-move.
“Instead of just giving the chess analysis, he humanized it,” Allen Kaufman, a chess master and friend of Lyman, said. “How black was building up in attack and white was building up his pieces to defend against it. It simply changed the game of chess in the United States.”
For 21 games, over the course of two hot summer months, Channel 13 broadcast Lyman’s commentary across the state. People gathered in bars and homes to watch him illustrate the once thought to be mundane game.
Chess club memberships multiplied overnight, and eventually channels in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities began airing the coverage.
Kaufman recalled one time the broadcast was cut short to air a scheduled film.
“People called in the hundreds and asked them to change it,” he said.
Kaufman first met Lyman as a teenager at Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Together, they learned the game, played in tournaments and worked their way up to becoming chess masters.
Kaufman described Lyman as sweet and thoughtful.
He was born Shelbourne Richard Lyman, Oct. 22, 1936 in Brooklyn and grew up outside of Boston in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His uncle Harry Lyman, known as the “dean of New England chess,” taught him the game at a young age, helping his rise to become one of Boston’s best players.
He was passionate about chess, but also liked to talk politics and tell jokes, his wife said. He held a master’s degree in sociology from Harvard University.
He also loved nature — he lived on a 100-acre farm in upstate Windsor — and his dogs.
“Shelby was extremely honest and very compassionate,” Michele Lyman said. “He had empathy for everybody. He could find good in people I never could.”
Besides his wife, survivors include Michele’s sons, Chuck, Corey and Casey Goff and their families; his mother-in-law Lois Merrell; brothers-in-law Richard and Greg Merrell and their wives, Sheri and Lisa; his wife’s cousin Jan Kasten; and longtime friend Marcy May.
Services will be held for close family at Lyman’s home in Windsor. His ashes will be spread near a creek on the property, where his first dog, Chipper, was buried and the ashes of a good friend also were spread.