Age is against Bobby
Fischer as he seeks again to be the world champion. Chess is more than
ever a young man's game.
IN THE eyes of Bobby
Fischer, the reigning world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, is "the
lowest form of dog", who has cheated his way to way to the title. What
then about those endless Gary Kasparov-Anatoly Karpov encounters?
Every single match has been fixed, says Mr. Fischer.
So after 20 years of self-
imposed exile Mr. Fischer has returned to chess and is playing his old
adversary, Boris Spassky. Mr. Fischer's victory in the first game was
a masterpiece, simple but profound. But, as subsequent games have
shown, this fat, balding, bearded chess player is not the man of 1972.
He is 49 years old, out of practice and out of shape. Mr. Spassky is
even older. The Russian still commands respect, but on the chessboard
he is a player of yesteryear. Ranked around 100th on the official
listings, he often appears at chess games dressed for a tennis match,
a sport for which he musters far more enthusiasm. As a "gentle"
opponent for a Fischer comeback, Mr. Spassky is an ideal choice. But
he is no longer the player a legend would lose to.
Chess has also changed a
lot over the past two decades. A new era of professionalism was born
out of Mr. Fischer's own popularization of the game. The rise of the
professional chess circuit has seen the competitive aspect of the game
overtake the scientific and artistic. The sole aim of the modern
master is to win.
In international chess, a
player's nerves and stamina are as crucial as his intellect and
wisdom. The pressure of the game has always been intense: a chess
clock is used to ensure each player completes the stipulated number of
moves in the allotted time--failure to do so results in immediate loss
of the game. But now the playing sessions themselves are becoming
longer, with more moves between adjournments. Many games are played
without a break. The increased pressure swung the pendulum in youth's
favour. Over the past 30 years, each new world champion has been
younger than his predecessor (see table). It is significant, of the
world's ten highest-ranked players, eight are under 30.
Nor is it only the way the
game is played has changed. Much of modern chess is played off the
board--and not just the battle for psychological advantage Mr. Fischer
wages so well. Every professional must now take seriously his pre-
match preparation, not least because the age of computer databases has
had a profound impact on chess. A small portable computer can hold lm
chess games, and give instant access to hundreds of games of a
In the Kasparov-Karpov
matches, each of the protagonists employed large teams of assistants
to work round the clock searching for flaws in the other's repertoire.
The opening stages of a chess game are now analyzed to near
exhaustion. Simply being better prepared in a chess opening can be the
deciding factor in the game.
The chess world today
boasts more first-rate players than at any stage in its history.
Hundreds of grandmasters chase modest prize money the world over.
Success demands physical as well as mental exertion. A single game may
last up to eight hours. For the chess master this period represents a
ceaseless struggle. A lapse in concentration can mean disaster. So the
adversaries are always in a state of nervous tension.
The presence of the chess
clock adds to the tension. The climax of the game is often a furious
"time scramble". When this occurs, each player has only seconds to
make several moves or face instant forfeiture. With minds racing and
hands twitching, the masters blitz out their moves and press their
clocks with a co-ordination any athlete would admire. Such moments are
not for reflective intellectuals. The game descends into a primeval
struggle in which nerves, tenacity and an overwhelming will to win
separate victor from vanquished.
At the top level of chess,
the pain of losing is unbearable. Winning brings immense satisfaction
and a chance to recover from the nerves and exhaustion. But one
victory is not enough to win a tournament. The chess master must be
ready for the struggle the next day. Most chess competitions last for
9-11 days, with play on every day, and there is an all-year-round
tournament circuit. World championship matches are even more exacting.
The 1984 encounter between Mr. Karpov and Mr. Kasparov in Moscow had
to be aborted after several months on the grounds of mutual
exhaustion. Mr. Karpov had shed around two stone (10kg) in weight.
Even putting aside the
question of mental and physical deterioration with age, competition
demands a kind of youthful exuberance. Few chess veterans maintain
their edge beyond the age of 40; their old drive and ambition seem a
Can Mr. Fischer defy these
odds? He once declared: "All I want to do, ever, is play chess." This
sentiment made his exodus from the chess world after 1972 seem even
more inexplicable. But in some respects it was a fitting end to his
story. It immortalized Bobby Fischer.
If he has come back for the
money, he is on to a good thing. Whatever happens in his match with
Mr. Spassky, each will end up several million dollars richer. But if
Mr. Fischer has returned in the sincere belief he can show he is still
the best player in the world, the final result could be heartbreaking.
All the king's men
World chess champions since 1890
Held Age at first
title in years victory
Emanuel Lasker (Germany) 1894-1921 26
Jose Capablanca (Cuba) 1921-27 32
Alexander Alekhine (Soviet Union)* 1927-35 35
Max Euwe (Holland) 1935-37 34
Alexander Alekhine (Soviet Union) 1937-47 45
Mikhail Botvinnik (Soviet Union) 1948-57 36
Vasily Smyslov (Soviet Union) 1957-58 36
Mikhail Botvinnik 1958-60 46
Mikhail Tal (Soviet Union) 1960-61 23
Mikhail Botvinnik 1961-63 49
Tigran Petrosian (Soviet Union) 1963-69 33
Boris Spassky (Soviet Union) 1969-72 32
Robert Fischer (USA) 1972-75 29
Anatoly Karpov (Soviet Union) 1975-85 24
Gary Kasparov (Soviet Union) 1985- 22
[*Became a French citizen in 1917]
By Economist, October 3, 1992