Bobby Fischer, the Holy Grail - A Balkan Odyssey
Once upon a time, in
1975, a little English girl called Cathy Forbes leaned to play
chess. She had heard wonderful tales of a great American champion,
Bobby Fischer, who had captured the world chess crown from the
mighty Russians. She decided she was going to be world champion too
one day, just like Bobby. Then she lost five games in her first
competition, and she cried and cried. Clearly it was not so easy to
become world champion, and chess was a rather more difficult game
than she had imagined.
As I and a new generation
of inspired Western players grew up, so did the paradoxical legend
of the mysterious Fischer. As time went by, comeback rumors began to
sound as apocryphal as sightings of a resurrected Elvis Presley.
In 1992, ambitions long
buried and reincarnated as a chess journalist, I saw Bobby on News
at Ten, spitting chess back onto the front pages. I couldn't believe
my eyes. Was it really him? The Second Coming of the chess Messiah?
This I had to see! The BBC loaned me a video camera, taught me to
use it, and I was all set for the biggest adventure of my life.
Somehow I survived the
horrendous thirty-hour journey to Montenegro, despite being arrested
for attempting to film it.
THE SCENE IN SVETI STEFAN
The banners read "The
World Chess Championship 1992: Fischer-Spassky Revenge Match of the
Twentieth Century" and similar slogans. Very soon one became house
trained into the chess politics of the match: of course Bobby
Fischer is the undefeated World Champion, so his insistence on
referring to the match as the World Championship is quite logical
when you look at things from his point of view. Yasser Seirawan
adopted the most elegant diplomatic position: "I have no problem
recognizing Kasparov as FIDE Champion and Bobby Fischer as the World
Champion. . ."
It's remarkable what a
close friend everyone is of Fischer, how "I talk to him all the
time." If Bobby really socializes on such a generous scale with the
multitudes claiming him for their intimate friend, one wonders when
he gets time to prepare, swim, shower, sleep.
seized the few authenticated episodes in Bobby's social life.
Seirawan, having spent a day as a guest in Bobby's island villa, was
soon discussing his experience on Yugoslav TV. I too would soon
receive similar media attention.
Sveti Stefan (the island,
and the mainland resort) must be one of the most beautiful places in
the world. You cannot imagine a more idyllic setting for a chess
match - provided you bring some earplugs to muffle the gunfire. I
don't mean the actual war 40 kilometers away in Bosnia - I am
referring to the incident when a feud between locals and sponsor
Jezdimir Vasiljevic's security guards erupted into "Gunfight at the
Hotel Maestral." Just when I was lounging smugly in my deck chair
marvelling at how the lovely unpolluted aquamarine waters and palm
fringed coastline put St. Tropez to shame, a series of loud bangs
made me and several hundred sun worshippers jump like frightened
The Hotel Maestral (the
playing venue) takes its name from the gentle sub-tropical breeze
(mistral) that tempers the sun's rays. The tax-free status of the
resort makes everything pleasantly cheap. Its remoteness meant few
spectators, and although a small crowd of devotees gathered to see
the protagonists arrive and depart, the atmosphere was so charmed
that everyone - even Bobby - could relax.
The local Montenegrin
security men, however, were somewhat over-zealous. When one Dagobert
Kohlmeyer accidently strayed too close to the beach where Bobby was
taking his daily dip, the unfortunate journalist was manhandled,
imprisoned and put in fear of his life for several hours. An apology
for this "inhuman treatment" later appeared in the bulletin.
As far as filming was
concerned, frustration was routine. Despite being officially told it
was possible to film the first three minutes of play, the musclemen
were seemingly a law unto themselves.
After awhile I gave up to
some extent, and accepted an invitation to the local water skiing
school, with disastrous results. Sveti Stefan is very much the
playground of wealthy Serbs, and there were instances of hostility
to visiting Britons and Americans - we were, of course, blamed for
the embargo on Serbia and Montenegro.
I stayed up most of
Sunday night planning my questions for Monday's closing press
conference - questions to Mr. Robert Fischer were written on a form.
I was agonizing over my third question - originally conceived as a
joke - when Grandmaster (Problem Solving) Marjan Kovacevic insisted,
"Keep it. I like it. It's a brave question, one we would all like to
"These questions are from
Woman International Master Cathy Forbes... No. 3: May I play a
game of chess with you?" Fischer looked down from the podium at me.
"What's your rating?" Trying not to shake too visibly, I caught his
eye and replied, "2125." Bobby smiled - "Well, we'll think about
it." Everyone laughed.
With the score at 5-2,
Bobby was in a good mood. At the convivial closing party, he was
even persuaded to dance to the stirring strains of local folk
melodies. Unexpectedly, but happily fortified by several powerful
brandies, I was summoned to his table by a "Bobby-guard."
"We'll play a game - just
quickly," he said. I looked around uncertainly, and realized with
horror that he was indicating a pocket set. Without, of course,
wishing to make excuses, I can truthfully say that I almost 'never'
play on a pocket set. Not if I can help it, anyway. Overuse,
moreover, had eroded the flat representations of this set,
particularly the bishops, down to barely intelligible squiggles.
"I'm at a disadvantage
here," I complained. "Yeah, I'm used to this set," he agreed. On the
other hand, he did let me have White...but perhaps I should have
taken a leaf from Bobby's own book and insisted on perfect playing
conditions for this important game?
PIRC DEFENSE [B08]
W: WIM Cathy Forbes
B: GM Robert J. Fischer
Offhand game, Closing Party, Sveti Stefan, 1992
1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. Bf4 Bg7 4. Nc3 d6 5. e4 O-O 6. h3 c5 7.
dxc5 Qa5 8. Bd2 Qxc5 9. Bd3 a6 10. a4 b6 11. O-O Bb7 12. Re1 Nbd7
13. Be3 Qc7 14. Qe2 e6 15. Bf4 e5 16. Bg3 Nc5 17. Nd2 Nh5 18. Bh2
Nf4 19. Bxf4 exf4 20. Nb3 Nd7 21. Qd2 f3 22. g3 Ne5 23. Bf1 h5 24.
Rad1 Rad8 25. Nd5 Bxd5 26. exd5 Nc4 27. Qd3?
"What is this?" demanded
Bobby, looking surprised. Mortified, I realized I had blundered.
After trying so hard to give him a good fight...
27... Nxb2, White
Later I was informed that
Bobby had complained about me taking too long over my moves. He of
course moved instantly throughout.
Inevitably, after these
marvellous happenings, everything - to me at least - seemed
anticlimactic. In the depressing urban ambience of Belgrade,
disillusion began to dawn.
further away from the scene of the conflict, in Belgrade you know
there's a war on. Prices climb crazily every day. Items taken for
granted by Western civilization (e.g. mouthwash and dental floss)
are unobtainable. Tragic-looking beggars line the streets. Refugee
children stare at you with haunted eyes.
The streets crawl with
armed police. The hotels are full of profiteering gangsters - only
they can afford the prices. Virtually every adult male seems to
carry a gun.
THE SCENE IN BELGRADE
As in Sveti Stefan, you
got a better view of the action from the TV monitors than from the
playing hall, where the noisy rabble were separated from the kings
not only by glass screens but by meters in double figures. For the
first game at Belgrade's enormous Sava Business Center, the
atmosphere was electric. The modest (c. 1000) but enthusiastic crowd
rose to its feet and erupted in a crescendo of cheers as Bobby
emerged from behind the glass panel to acknowledge the applause.
Meanwhile, altercations were in progress between aggrieved
photographers and the security cordon who were preventing them from
getting within 15 yards of their quarry.
Despite being told we
could film the first three minutes of play, we were chased out of
the hall as soon as the two Bs sat down. As I backed up the steps,
at least 50 meters away from the show, a security man was trying to
wrest a camera from a protesting journalist. I filmed this until the
power-crazed attacker shot an ominous glance in my direction, when I
made a prompt dive for the exit.
Fischer reportedly asked
for guarantees that at least 2,000 spectators would turn out for
each game. He must have been disappointed, especially since entrance
was free of charge, but I am sure the low turnout was not due to any
lack of interest in chess (Belgrade has always been a chess Mecca,
especially for Bobby) but to the shortage of gasoline resulting from
the embargo. Since it was virtually impossible to get to the venue
on foot, the only alternative to coming by car was to take the
usually congested bus.
The ever-resourceful Mr.
Vasiljevic, however, swiftly addressed this little problem by
bussing fans in from Nis, Paracin, Novi Sad, and Subotica.
THE JOURNALIST EXPERIENCE
Attempting to "cover"
Bobby Fischer's comeback was no picnic. Whilst guns are normal
fashion accessories in this psychotic country, camera excite
pathological paranoia in all public places. Explanations cut little
ice, even when they were understood. "The BBC tells lies about
Bosnia," was a typical challenge.
It seems strangely ironic
that Fischer, with his legendary loathing of cameras, should have
chosen this tormented land as the arena for his return to
competitive chess. His regard for journalists is scarcely any
warmer, but he just about tolerated the home-grown propaganda of the
fawning Yugoslav chess media.
The original $1,000
asking price for press accreditation deterred many foreign chess
journalists from making the trip. By the time I showed up three
weeks into the match, however, the tariff had been reduced by 85%,
since most of the media had long since departed. They came to the
opening press conference, lapped up Bobby's saliva and after that
only two questions remained: 1) Will he really sit down and play?,
and 2) Is he any good?
A few legal chess moves
sufficed for answer and a mass exodus of hard currency followed.
Thus, my first impression of Sveti Stefan was that as an incoming
journalist I was a welcome sight. Match public relations supremo.
Nebejsa Dukelic, a Serbian TV chat show star, greeted me and
introduced me to the translator who showed me the ropes. This
charming and helpful lady, Tatiana, was the one chink in an
otherwise efficient wall of obstruction.
Match Director Janos
Kubat, a professional journalist, was quick to disown the official
press organization. "They are not professional. They are communists,
Mephistos, Teufels. I would never have hired them." Apart from
constant homilies to journalists about how grateful they should be,
the ritual response to any request for information was a weary and
not elaborated "I dooon't knooow."
One person who seemed
charming enough at first was match organizer and mysterious tycoon
Jezdimir Vasiljevic, Serbia's answer to Al Capone. Serbian
newspapers coyly describe him as "a respectable businessman." His
ghost-written bulletins reassured that "Gazda Jezda" (Boss Jezda) as
he is locally known, writes poetry in his spare time.
To protect himself and
his investment, Fischer, from the dangerous attentions of
journalists (and whoever else there is to be afraid of), Vasiljevic
surrounds himself with characters known as security men. A Yugoslav
journalist freely told me these bodyguards were killers and
criminals, ie., they had all been soldiers and probably looters and
profiteers in this dirtiest of wars. Information on these
individuals was classified, especially their names.
Apart from at least two
other journalists who were threatened, I myself was both intimidated
and sexually harassed by these charmers on numerous occasions.
Treatment of this kind,
and instances of harassment by police for the apparent offense of
carrying a camera around in Belgrade, met with scant sympathy from
locals, for whom "permission" to do anything was like a religious
rite. Local journalists recommended that I clear all filming
activity with the Orwellianly named "Ministry of Information." The
permission ritual applied to all press facilities, eg. photocopiers,
electronic typewriters, and fax machines. A charge was levied for
'incoming' fax messages.
Having enjoyed my big
moment when Bobby honored me with his first public game of chess
with a female, I was supposed to go home like a good little girl.
"You still here?" said Vasiljevic when he first saw me in Belgrade.
After his defeat in Game
20, Bobby decided that the already deferential bulletins were not
respectful enough. Certain half-complimentary references to
Kasparov, in particular, were pointed out as likely triggers. So
incensed was Bobby that he reportedly asked for the bulletin staff
to be sacked. As a compromise, match organizer Vasiljevic took over
as acting bulletin editor and censor. When I overheard Vasiljevic
announcing this new state of affairs, he advised me in no uncertain
terms not to quote him.
"Jezda" did talk to me,
when I accidently bumped into him in the lobby of the International
Hotel. He admitted that merely being President of Serbia would not
satisfy him: his real ambition was to unite the Balkans. He gave me
some advice on how to establish a genuine relationship with his
protege. "Never go near bobby with a pencil in your hand. I know him
better than you."
declined to be formally interviewed, on-or off-camera. I couldn't
understand this, but a Belgrade-based journalist explained:
"Jezdimir gave many interviews to foreign journalists at Sveti
Stefan, but they wrote things that were not correct."
developed an alarming habit of gripping me by the throat and
enquiring "what are you doing here?" when I ventured into the
Grandmaster analysis room. His loyal staff assured me that this was
an affectionate gesture. I was skeptical, especially when he
enquired "are you leaving, finally?" as I was on my way to dinner.
After six weeks in
Yugoslavia I would have been more then happy to obligingly
disappear, but Reuters had hired me to report on the match. I was
dying to get back to London, Spassky and his wife were probably
dying to get back to France with their money, and Vasiljevic himself
was said to be heartily sick of the match. As always, everyone was
just waiting for Bobby Fischer.
"IN AT THE DEATH"
"Spassky's resigned!" I
yelled, rushing for the telephone booths to get the news out for
Reuters ten minutes before AP. Camera perched precariously on my
shoulder, I waited impatiently in Booth 6 of the makeshift press
phone enclosure. "A line!" I bawled at the imperviously bored-looking
switchboard operators. "Get me a line!"
overcome with the electrifying emotion of the adoring Belgrade
crowd, discreetly wiped away a tear to cheers of "Bob-by! Bob-by!"
Sponsor Jezdimir Vasiljevic enveloped him in an enormous laurel
wreath and shook his hand. Arbiter Lothar Schmid told the
auditorium: "You see, he is the undefeated World Champion."
Journalistic supremos at Associated Press demanded hungrily of their
on-site reporter: "Did he (Fischer) do anything bizarre?" The reply
was "Well, apart from having himself proclaimed world champion -
It was over at the last.
After weeks of "Waiting for Bobbo," as two exhausted veterans
slugged out endless games of trench chess with Fischer's perpetual
Chinese Water Torture clock, the suddenness of the finale took us by
surprise. But then, perhaps it really shouldn't have.
By Cathy Forbes
Woman International Master
Chess Life Magazine, March 1993, pgs 26-27 (217-218)