Six moves toward a world championship
Bobby Fischer transformed a routine elimination match into high
drama with an astonishing string of victories that alarmed his
rivals and forced Soviet experts to revise their assessments of his
Robert James Fischer, in a match in Vancouver, British Columbia to
determine the challenger of Boris Spassky for the world chess
- Demanded that no spectators be allowed to watch him play (demand refused).
- Demanded that no spectators be allowed to bring chess sets to the games (granted).
- Changed his hotel room four. times, seeking peace and quiet.
- Won six games in a row, an achievement unparalleled in modern chess history.
His opponent, Mark Taimanov of the Soviet Union, was less demanding.
He merely refused to play in the Graduate Centre of the University
of British Columbia because the windows could not be opened in the
air-conditioned room, agreed to play in the Student Union Building,
which has no windows at all, and refused to stop pacing the floor
during games as Fischer demanded.
Ordinarily Taimanov is one of the most genial and easygoing of the
formidable Soviet chess masters. He is 45 years old, a veteran of 19
years of international competition, a theoretician of the openings
who even has one named for him-the Taimanov Variation of the
Sicilian Defense. Once a top-ranking Soviet star but long relatively
inactive, Taimanov made a strong comeback to qualify for the current
world championship elimination matches. He is a concert pianist when
he is not playing chess, and says that he leads a double life. When
he is on the concert stage he thinks how pleasant it would be to be
playing chess, and "when I devote myself to chess I think of
returning to music."
There were many occasions in Vancouver when he must have wished he
was pounding out Bach or Beethoven. It began when Fischer arrived
late for their first game. Fischer has taken up tennis, and had
tarried a half hour at the court before going to the hall. In
deference to Fischer's complaints about lights and spectators, the
auditorium was dark, the stage indirectly lighted and the first four
rows of seats kept vacant. Taimanov, with the white men, began
boldly with a venturesome knight foray on his 12th move. It cost him
a pawn, but Fischer faltered in turn on his 20th move, giving
Taimanov another offensive opportunity, which the Russian failed to
profit from. The game was adjourned on the 40th move, after nearly
five hours of play, with Taimanov in a hopeless position. He
resigned that game without resuming play.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, three other quarterfinal
elimination matches were being fought out. The procedure for
determining the player who is to challenge Spassky, the world
champion, is excessively complex. The world is divided into chess
zones, and the winners in the various zones meet in an interzonal
tournament. The six top finishers in the interzonal, together with
the former world champion and the former runner-up, meet in four
separate matches. A win counts for one point, a drawn game gives
each player one-half point, and the first player to score 51/z wins
While Fischer and Taimanov were meeting in Vancouver, the ex-world
champion, Tigran Petrosian, played a young newcomer, Robert Hubner
of West Germany, in Seville, Spain; Viktor Korchnoi of Russia played
his countryman Yefim Geller in Moscow; Bent Larsen of Denmark met
Wolfgang Uhlmann of East Germany in Las Palmas in the Canary
None of these matches had results remotely comparable to the
Taimanov-Fischer struggle. In Seville, for example, Petrosian and
Hubner drew their first six games. A frail, 22-year-old college
student, Hubner said before the match, "My chances are absolutely
nil." They were not. The games were played in a ground-level,
windowless room; the crowds were large, the air conditioning failed
and Hubner was bothered by street noises that failed to disturb
Petrosian, who is nearly deaf. Nevertheless Hubner held the former
champion, a masterly defensive player, to six draws in succession.
In the seventh game Hubner overlooked a winning move, became
demoralized after he saw his mistake, lost, burst into tears,
withdrew from the match and flew home to Germany.
Before his first game with Uhlmann, Bent Larsen said, "I will be the
next world champion." It hardly looked that way at the start. The
games were played in the casual confines of Club Nautico, a Canary
Island yacht club, but both players found the struggle so exhausting
they agreed to rest before going on to a decision. The recess
evidently aided Larsen more than Uhlmann, for he won the ninth game,
and with it the match, by a score of 5 1/2 to 3 1/2. It was much the
same story in Moscow, where Korchnoi won from Geller in eight games
5 1/2 to 2 1/2. Korchnoi's and Larsen's victories were impressive
under ordinary circumstances, but did not come close to matching
Fischer's 60 defeat of Taimanov.
Admittedly Taimanov was off form, but he played steady chess and
offered far stouter resistance than the final astonishing score
would indicate. When the Russian had the white pieces he played
dynamically, and tried consistently to force the issue and maintain
the offensive. Fischer had no opportunity to display the flashy
style he prefers and his games ran much longer than usual, for
Taimanov would not let him attack.
The main weakness Fischer displayed was a tendency to relax when he
had the advantage. In the second game, with the white pieces,
Fischer was a pawn up with a winning advantage when the action was
adjourned at move 44. When play was resumed he advanced a passed
pawn too rapidly, lost it, and came down to the second adjournment
with what now should have been an easy draw for Taimanov. In the
end, after 9 1/2 hours of play, Taimanov blundered out of sheer
fatigue and resigned on the 88th move. So Fischer won anyway, but he
would not have against a Boris Spassky.
There were few such flukes in Fischer's victories. Age, however, was
a factor, for Fischer grew stronger as the match progressed and
Taimanov, obviously tiring, requested a delay for reasons of health.
In the third game Taimanov mounted a strong offensive but wasted 72
minutes on his faulty 20th move-which left him with about two
minutes per move before adjournment on move 40. He was forced on the
defensive, lost his queen and resigned. The fourth game was a
masterly work of art by Fischer, a hammer-and-tongs affair that
lasted 71 moves. It was climaxed by Fischer's stunning sacrifice of
a bishop that left Taimanov tied in knots. In the fifth game, with
an almost certain draw, Taimanov suffered one of the most
humiliating defeats of his career. On his 46th move he chose to take
a poisoned pawn with his rook-poisoned because Fischer had merely to
move his queen to put Taimanov's king in check and simultaneously
bear on the rook. It was a child's error, for Taimanov had simply
thrown away the rook. The Soviet observers sat in stony silence.
Fischer left the auditorium like a man fleeing the scene of a crime.
Fischer's string of victories cast new light on an old question: Can
he become the world champion? Before the match he said modestly that
he hoped he or Larsen would play for the title against Spassky. But
afterward he said he would be the next champion. "The Soviets have
been putting up roadblocks for me for years," he said. "I am tired
of being the unofficial champion. I should have been world champion
10 years ago."
Next month Fischer plays Bent Larsen, while Viktor Korchnoi takes on
Petrosian. In Vancouver Alexander Kotov, the chief of the Soviet
experts, said, "Fischer will not be the next world champion. I
expected him to beat Taimanov and I expect him to beat Larsen."
Kotov also expects that Korchnoi will beat Petrosian and that
Fischer and Korchnoi will then meet in the semifinal. "If Fischer
beats Korchnoi," Kotov went on, "a 50-50 proposition, there will be
a great struggle between Fischer and Spassky. Spassky has all the
qualities of a true champion: youth, stamina, versatility in all
phases of the game and a capacity for deep study. He has steadier
nerves and a good plus score against Fischer."
All this would be more convincing if the Russian chess experts had
not made the same points so often before. Spassky and Fischer have
met in five games. Two were drawn, and Spassky won three. But the
three games that Fischer lost to Spassky were in tournaments where
his anxiety for a quick win led to his downfall, a situation that
would not necessarily exist in a 24-game match for the world
championship. Moreover, from the start of Fischer's career the
Soviet authorities have depicted him almost universally as an
unoriginal and uncreative player. They are almost obsessed with
Fischer's defects, and it is possible that their emphasis on his
flaws is a measure of their fear of Fischer.
performance against Taimanov was not a new development; it was
merely another indication that Fischer is the most gifted player in
the world today. One Soviet grandmaster who recognizes this is
Viktor Korchnoi. After Fischer's victory over Taimanov, he said,
"There has been a regrettable tendency to underestimate Fischer. I
By Larry Evans
Sports Illustrated - June 21, 1971