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  • All the World's a Pawn


    His gangling body rocked gently back end forth in the black swivel chair, an unconscious, almost metronomic motion that somehow heightened and intensified the drama. At times he leaned back languorously or rose and walked away from the chessboard to seek momentary release from the enormous tension. Next he would spring back to the attack, hunching forward, his elbows propped on the table, his big head cradled in his hands. Then, peering out between his long and bony fingers, Bobby Fischer took control of his chessmen as surely as he had hitherto controlled the mood and atmosphere of the world championship match itself. Deftly he avoided pitfalls and seized advantages; his moves came each with a staccato flourish and his massive self confidence radiated throughout Reykjavík's silent tournament hall.

    Across the table, Boris Spassky was perched on the edge of his seat, his handsome, tanned face expressionless and his green eyes riveted on the developing situation. Spassky's moves came more slowly than Fischer's, and soon they began to betray an uncharacteristic caution. Playing white last week in the fifth game of the match, Spassky executed one brilliant early move, hoping to suck Fischer into a dangerous position. But when Fischer declined the gambit, Spassky grew tentative and lost the initiative that normally accompanies the white pieces. To some, the Russian's subsequent tactics came as the first faint signs that the strain of this extraordinary event was finally taking its toll.

    For weeks, Spassky had been an unwilling performer in a flamboyant scenario written entirely by Fischer. Spassky was the dignified world champion, but it was challenger Fischer who had made one outrageous demand after another, who held up the match for days--and even forfeited a game. Spassky was everything a champion should be--patient, cheerful and thoroughly engaging. But it was the petulant, self-indulgent, mercurial Fischer who had orchestrated the emotions and captured the attention of fans throughout the world. From one day to the next, no one could predict what new tactic or tantrum would erupt from Fischer's mind; and these psychological games within games built up to create a human drama of almost unbearable intensity. And finally, on the 27th move of the fifth game, Spassky cracked.

    A Shocking Move
    In an attempt to escape a clever Fischer maneuver to his king side, the Soviet champion pushed his queen one diagonal space--and an astonished stir swept through the crowd. A player making the same move in a New York chess parlor would have been derided as a " patzer"--rank amateur; Spassky had exposed his king's pawn and insured his own defeat. Moments later he resigned, and shook hands across the table with Fischer as the crowd cheered. Now the score stood at 2˝ to 2˝ in a match that may extend for 24 games and two more mouths. But some experts thought that Fischer's smashing fifth-game triumph last week may have sealed Spassky's doom already. Others thought the turning point may have come even earlier, in the third game (See board). However this debate may be resolved, the fact remained drat after arrogantly spotting Spassky a two-game lead, Fischer had proceeded to catch up to his opponent with almost insolent ease--and he now seems on the way toward what could be one of the most remarkable victories in all chess history.

    But win or lose, Bobby Fischer has already done something no one else ever dreamed of. Almost overnight, he has single-handedly turned the sedate and ancient game of chess into a national craze of the first rank.

    Just a few short months ago, chess ponders--and rises to accept ritual congratulations from Spassky on another victory was still viewed for the most part as a recondite pastime of an exotic elite, a haughty game reserved in the popular imagination for mathematical wizards, cerebral Jews, archbishops, commissars, saturnine Serbs and members of the German general staff. No longer. Now chess clubs from New York to Los Angeles are as busy as supermarkets, and as each successive game unfolds in chilly Reykjavík, the fans seem to increase by the thousands.

    The chess craze has already touched off an economic boomlet all its own."Business is fantastic," reported one chess-set manufacturer last week. In a leading Manhattan book store, a salesman said:"Our chess books just sat on the shelves before the Fischer-Spassky tournament. Then everything took off. They went from the slowest to the fastest-moving items in the store in a matter of days." Jerry Kayle, president of the Pacific Game Co., which produces one of the biggest lines of chess sets in the country, reports that the firm's sales have risen 125 per cent in just the past few months. And at Macy's in New York, farsighted buyers spent the months preceding the Reykjavík match buying up sets from all over the world. The gamble paid off. In the past month alone, Macy's chess-set sales have quintupled.

    On to the Front Pages
    Already, entertainment entrepreneurs have gone into action. In San Francisco, promoter Cyrus Weiss envisions a major league of chess, with five teams playing a schedule of televised games. And what about the long, empty spells between moves? An unrepentantly sexist Weiss is ready with an answer:"We could fill an entire TV screen," he says,"by using pretty girls in symbolic hats to represent the pieces."

    In the two weeks since the match began, press coverage, galvanized first by Bobby's pre-play shenanigans, then by the drama of the match itself, has increased steadily. This phenomenon is particularly striking in the U.S., where chess matches in the past have been regularly relegated to the back pages. But since the match in Reykjavík began, Fischer and Spassky have been making the front pages not only of the more prestigious big-city dailies, but also of the most determinedly lowbrow tabloids in the land--and in both instances, the readers seem to be fascinated.

    Abroad, Bobby Fischer and the U.S. chess boom are either viewed with tolerant amusement, as seems to be the case in France and Germany, or zealously shared, as it is in Britain and Italy."Fischer's driving us all mad," screamed a headline in London's Daily Mail. The rabidly anti-Communist Daily Mirror celebrated Bobby's triumphs with a gloating headline:"Spassky Smashki!" In Italy, Turin's La Stampa enlisted a doctor to discuss the brains of the competitors, a poet to search for more sublime truths beneath the surface of chess. And the Chicago Daily News went so far as to call the chess championship"a public spectacle rivaling the World Series or even the Olympics."

    Already, many an enthusiastic novice has managed to decipher some of the arcane jargon, as well as the tricks, of the chess experts; thousands of brand-new fans, for example, learned that a Sicilian defense was not a phase of a Mafia gang war but an opening favored by Fischer--and borrowed by Spassky in the exciting fourth game. In fact, portentous phrases from chess jargon could be heard in bars, barbershops and other unlikely places around the world last week--and it didn't require a grand master to ascertain the reason. As Los Angeles Times chess editor Isaac Kashdan put it, "It's not the Iceland games that are causing the new interest in chess. It's Bobby Fischer."

    By any standard, the 29-year-old at the vortex of the chess craze is probably the most elusive and intriguing of all modem folk heroes. Perhaps the only definitive statement anyone dares to make about Fischer is that he is one of the very greatest chess masters of all time--and perhaps the most brilliant of them all.

    In the first of the elimination matches leading up to the current world-championship challenge, Fischer routed Mark Taimanov of the Soviet Union, 6 to 0, for the first shutout in the history of grandmaster chess, and roughly equivalent to pitching a perfect game in the World Series. In his next match, Fischer faced Bent Larsen of Denmark, who was generally ranked along with Bobby as one of the best players outside Russia; almost incredibly, Fischer scored another 6-0 shutout. Then, in the final preliminary at Buenos Aires last fall, Fischer shook off a bad cold and went on to overwhelm Russia's tenacious, defense minded former world champion, Tigran Petrosian, 6˝-2˝.

     

    Sabotage and Soup
    His awesome successes, however, have done little to change or modify Fischer's bizarre personality. He remains a turbulent mix of arrogance, immaturity, paranoia and hypersensitivity--a genuine bundle of nerves whose equilibrium can be hopelessly upset by the slightest threat, real or imagined, to his tightly enclosed, single-purposed little world. Away from the endless complexities of the chess board, he likes his food spicy, his exercise vigorous, his ideas simple and direct. Though he was born a Jew, his religion now is strict fundamentalist: he is a member of a California sect called the Church of God. Bobby's politics are vintage cold war; he believes that the Russians will stop at nothing, including cheating and sabotage, in their determination to rob him of the title. ("I'd bet on him to beat Spassky," one acquaintance said last week."But if he loses, I'd bet on him to claim that the Russians poisoned his soup.") When someone suggests a more sophisticated interpretation of events, Bobby becomes impatient; thoughts that don't concern his game aren't worth such time or trouble. His habitual reply to offhand remarks about almost anything:"What's that got to do with chess?"

    Robert James Fischer's obsession was. born in a small apartment above a candy store in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. His parents had been divorced when he was 2, and he was never to see his father again. His mother had worked as a teacher in several Western cities before settling in Brooklyn, and to keep Bobby entertained while their mother taught, his older sister, Joan, brought games upstairs from the candy store--Monopoly, Parcheesi and then chess. The chessmen captivated him quickly, giving order to his disheveled life and goals to his shy and hesitant personality. Within a matter of weeks, Bobby was solving the game's problems and poring over all the chess books he could find. He was 6 years old.

     

    Prodigy's Progress
    From that point on, Fischer's life was marked by the blazing progress of the child prodigy--and tinged with the prodigy's intensity, obsessiveness and aura of impending tragedy. He ventured into chess clubs, lost and went home crying; he returned to avenge himself, first against other youngsters and later against accomplished players. He was the national junior champion at 13, the youngest U.S. champion in history at 14. He was also a high-school dropout at 16--an arrogant kid who showed his special brand of hubris by proclaiming,"Teachers are jerks." At the same time he grew apart from his mother, who displeased him by joining peace demonstrations and, on one occasion, by chaining herself to the White House gate to protest Administration foreign policy. His mother is now remarried and pursuing a career as a physician in London, but Fischer never sees her and coldly refuses to discuss her."He fired her," one friend says,"like he fires everyone else he can't get along with."

    Living alone amid comic books and chess publications, Fischer developed so rapidly that he was favored by many to become world champion when he was only 19. Instead, he finished fourth behind Petrosian and two other Russians and promptly accused them of cheating. Fischer insisted that the Soviets were manipulating the round-robin format to their advantage, playing easy intentional draws against one another and saving themselves for all-out efforts to beat him. Most observers scoffed, and the incident solidified Fischer's reputation as a poor loser. But the International Chess Federation apparently saw some merit in his argument; in 1965 the round-robin format was dropped in favor of the type of head-to-head challenge round that the world is watching now.

    Fischer's stature as a chess genius continued to grow, but by the late 1960s it seemed that he might never win the coveted world championship. He abstained from tournaments because they were round-robin, then walked away from another when officials demanded that he play on a Saturday, the Church of God Sabbath. For several years he sank into moody semi-retirement, embellishing his record as a prima donna. In 1987, for example, Prince Rainier of Monaco requested two American grand masters for a tournament; his only stipulation was that one of them had to be Fischer. Bobby behaved so rudely and childishly that, two years later, Rainier made a similar request--this time the Prince's only stipulation was that neither of his American guests should be Fischer.

    Through all the angry years, Fischer has compiled an impressive list of his pet dislikes--and his outright hatreds. The Soviets and the media vie for top billing, closely followed by women, hippies and anyone who doesn't play chess at a level remotely approaching his own. At the slightest provocation he will launch into a tirade about how the Russians twist the rules and avoid confrontations with him; he depicts himself as a solitary force for righteousness, battling alone against massive squadrons of highly subsidized Soviet grand masters, all of them scheming to advise and assist Spassky or whomever else Bobby happens to be playing. In fact, his feelings toward the Russians are probably the only reason he ever deigns to speak to newsmen."For years," he snaps,"the only ones talking were the Russians, and they were telling lies. Now I realize that the only way to make people understand is by making public my complaints."

    As for women, Fischer finds them weak, overemotional and lacking in the concentration necessary for topflight chess. He has rarely bothered with girls on a social level."He's just not interested," says one friend. Others recall the evening some years ago when friends sent a girl to call on Bobby in his room. Later he was asked how he had enjoyed the lady's company. He answered quickly:"I'd rather play chess."

     

    Music or Mathematics?
    Obviously, Fischer finds all the gratification he needs with chess. It challenges his restless mind, supports his nomadic existence in a series of hotel rooms and--most important--it gives him a sense of power and accomplishment that sends his spirit soaring. Throughout the 1,200year history of chess, men have likened the game to various aspects of life. Its military connotations are most obvious, but many insist that the game is best understood in terms of mathematics. Still others relate chess to music. In his novel"The Defense," Vladimir Nabokov describes his equivalent of a Fischer-Spassky confrontation in haunting, symphonic terms:"At first it went softly, softly, like muted violins. The players occupied their positions cautiously .
    Then, without the least warning, a chord sang out tenderly. This was one of Turati's forces occupying a diagonal line. But forthwith a trace of melody very softly manifested itself on Luzhin's side also . . . Immediately a kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note he needed in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony."

    If Fischer were to construct such a conceit, however, he would undoubtedly build it around nuclear science. He doesn't want to outflank his foe or befuddle him with computerized mathematics; and while his moves may have a balanced symphonic quality, his goal is anything but musical. He wants to overpower his man with skill and daring, to humiliate and destroy him--to figuratively blow him right off the 64-quare map that is Fischer's world. In one celebrated television interview, Dick Cavett asked Fischer what he enjoyed most about chess. Bobby's reply was quick. "I like the moment," he said,"when I break a man's ego."

    In light of his consuming drives and psychic needs, Fischer's behavior before the Spassky match should have been somewhat understandable. Yet he issued his demands and carried out his strange machinations with such mystery and flair that he managed to sweep even the coolest chess observers onto his emotional roller coaster. A month ago, most of the world seemed only dimly aware that two men were preparing for the world championship of chess. Then Fischer brazenly called for and got a vastly increased purse--and chess drew notice as a major financial contest. Within days, Fischer was attracting attention in his own right. Depending on one's point of view, he was a rugged individualist, an eccentric genius, an Ugly American or a spoiled brat--but whatever he was, he had millions hanging on his every word, wondering if he would show up in Reykjavík.

    He did, of course, then lost the first game and stunned most observers by giving up the second in the first forfeit in the history of championship chess--thus spotting champion Spassky a 2-to-0 lead in the match.

    Throughout, there was the furor over the movie cameras filming the event for television. Chester Fox, the producer who holds the contract to make films of the match, maintained that Bobby could neither see nor hear the cameras and was disturbed simply by the knowledge of their presence. But associates of Fischer recalled many examples of his painfully sensitive hearing. Traffic noise can upset him completely, and he often calls attention to very slight sounds that companions can discern only after several minutes of concentration. In addition, as one grand master said,"I know and you know he couldn't hear them, but that's not the point. The point is that he really thought he could hear them. It's psychological."

     

    'A College of Cardinals'
    As negotiations proceeded and skeptics wondered if anything could compel Fischer to behave, a new character stepped into the bizarre scene--a Los Angeles woman named Lena Grumette, in whose home Bobby had spent eighteen months during his puzzling late 1960s semi-retirement. No one was certain whether Mrs. Grumette had come specifically to talk him into resuming play, but the day after she arrived, Fischer agreed to play--on his own strange terms. The third game was held in a tiny back room near the stage, while the spectators watched on closed-circuit television. Cynics wondered why the obsessively camera-shy Fischer had allowed even the closed-circuit camera to continue functioning--but by that time, almost everyone in Reykjavík had ceased trying to understand or analyze the volatile American. Most observers simply sat back and watched the back-room game unfold in an atmosphere of awe mixed with considerable amusement."The match," commented The Guardian in London,"has assumed the mystery of the College of Cardinals choosing a new Pope."

    For the most part Spassky held up admirably amid the turmoil engendered by Fischer. In sharp contrast to Bobby, Spassky, 35, is a relaxed family man who enjoys fast cars, good cuisine and other pleasures of life--many of which are bestowed on him by the government in recognition of his chess prowess. Of the 6 million organized chess players in the world, half live in the Soviet Union. The state allocates huge sums of money to chess, and its grand masters have held the world title since 1945. As the best of the 36 international grand masters in that nation of brilliant players, Spassky carries himself with a quiet pride; but he feels no urge to emulate Fischer's prodigious histrionics."By nature I do not have a combative urge," says Spassky."I am a contemplative person. But in chess you have to be a fighter, and of necessity I became one."

    Despite his outward calm, however, Spassky could hardly avoid being troubled by Fischer's antics. Twice in the first week of play, the Russian had reason to believe that Fischer was not going to play--only to see his lanky rival swoop into action at the last minute. In a cerebral exercise as meticulously tuned as chess, those abrupt reversals had to have telling cumulative effect in the long run. And in the games played last week, Spassky finally appeared to come unglued.

    After Fischer won the third game with his devastating N-R4 gambit, Spassky lodged a protest of his own against the back-room setting. The combatants paraded back to the stage for the fourth game and Fischer, apparently mollified by his one victory, expressed no objection. At that point Spassky regrouped and launched a brilliant attack from his Sicilian defense; but, significantly, Fischer managed to salvage a draw, setting the stage for his decisive victory in the fifth encounter.

    An Urgent Beauty
    The Icelanders, known primarily for their beautiful women and midnight sun, showed last week that they also love a winner. After railing loudly against Fischer during his tantrums, the local fans found him much more palatable when he began winning."We are at the mercy of a genius," one man declared."Fischer has all of Iceland in the palm of his hand:" Even when Bobby enlivened things late in the week with a whole new list of demands--ranging from construction of an indoor tennis court to the decrease in the size of the chess squares by one-quarter of an inch--his hosts seemed unperturbed. (Spassky got into the act by counter demanding that the squares be increased somewhat.)"We may not like Bobby Fischer too much," reasoned a thoughtful Reykjavík merchant."But you must admit he's making Iceland famous."

    As the match continues, Fischer will continue to breathe a special kind of life into his fascinating game."The game slays boredom and exhilarates the spirit," American grand master Larry Evans wrote recently."You're always thinking, always in present time. You know you're alive. There is no social purpose, only the joy of trying to create a pocket of beauty in a noisy world." Fischer has contributed more than his share of noise to the world in recent weeks, but he has also generated precisely the tense and urgent beauty that is the essence of great chess. Long after the furor of Reykjavík has subsided, that beauty will remain with masters and novices alike, a haunting souvenir of the championship that turned a whole new audience on to chess.

      


    Those who think that Spassky will win the match and keep his title present many arguments, three of which are particularly emphasized.

    1. Bobby is said to have certain weaknesses in his arsenal when playing the black pieces. (The player with the white pieces moves first and thus has the initiative.) Much is made of his predilection for the King's Indian and the Gruenfeld defenses, in both of which white is allowed a strong pawn center and black tries for compensation in the form of counter attacking possibilities. Furthermore, Spassky has won three and drawn two of their five previous encounters. Then there is the fact that all of Bobby's losses have been with the black pieces, and that his most recent loss (in 1970) was with a Gruenfeld defense.

    2. Spassky's seven months of intensive training included cooperation from the U.S.S.R.'s 35 grand masters, who helped prepare unpleasant surprises for Fischer. These surprises would be in the form of new variations against Bobby's favorite openings and, supposedly, would rack up more points for Boris than Bobby could hope to gain as a result of his own solitary homework.

    3. These two factors, it was said, would get Spassky off to an early lead and Bobby would fold under the psychological blow of finding himself trailing for the first time ever in match play.

    For my part, I never accepted any of this thinking. For one thing, Bobby had responded with no fewer than seven different openings in winning most of the 24 games during the past two years in which he has defended against white's initial move of P-Q4--a move much favored by Spassky. For another, Bobby is the master of many defensive lines and has no absolute dependence upon the King's Indian and Gruenfeld defenses. Finally, I'll back the lonely but intensive pre-match analysis of genius anytime
    don't quite have the same spark. The fact is that Bobby is like finely honed steel at the chessboard, and any thought that an early setback would be ruinous to his quest for the championship has always seemed to me wildly improbable.
    In the first game of the match, Fischer made one of the most outright blunders of his career and Spassky scored an easy victory. Bobby stayed away from the scheduled second game in the dispute over the placement of television cameras, and the point was awarded to Spassky on a forfeit (a ruling many think was incorrect and that is still being appealed). With Boris leading by a 2-to-0 score, the third game became vitally important to both sides; for if the Russian could win, his lead would become commanding if not insurmountable.

    I believe this third encounter will prove to have been the key game of the entire match, and that Bobby's eleventh move will prove to have been the key one. His aggressive intentions were evident when, playing black, he chose to play the Benoni counter-gambit, and he pressed Spassky all the way. Here is the position after white's eleventh move.

    Blunder: Game five saw Fischer return to the attack as black with the Nimzo-Indian defense, in which pressure is exerted early on white's queen side and center. Bobby gave up a bishop (which he usually favors) for a knight on the sixth move and Spassky, his two bishops having little freedom of movement, was forced onto the defensive. He cracked on his 27th move making such a gross blunder that he resigned immediately upon seeing Bobby's reply.

    After trailing 0 to 2, Bobby came all the way back in just three additional games to tie the score at 2˝ to 2˝ (each player gets one-half point when a game is drawn). He is the consummate chess player and his antics away from the board do not alter this fact. I think Spassky is already beaten, defeated by Fischer's eleventh move in their third game. Spassky will score more points, but the end is clear. If he plays the match to a conclusion (12˝ points are needed), Bobby will become the first American ever to be a World Chess Champion. Then we may say proudly: the King is dead! Long live the King!

    Newsweek, July 31, 1972



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