Bobby Fischer: Showdown in Reykjavik - Rolling Stone
Home Culture Culture News

Bobby Fischer: Showdown in Reykjavik

The World Chess Champion prepares for his most important match

Bobby Fischer, ChessBobby Fischer, Chess

American chess champion and prodigy the controversial and tempermental Bobby Fischer plays Soviet chess player Tigran Petrosian,Buenos Aires, Argentina, September 1971

Express Newspapers/Getty

When Masters play chess it is very, very rare for a game to end in checkmate. It probably does not happen once in a thousand games. Long before that moment the loser will resign, usually with a gesture. He may stand up or reach across the board to shake his opponent’s hand or simply snort in disgust and lean back in his chair. He may resign when he is only a pawn down, or when he loses a maneuver for position. He may resign so early in the game that inexperienced players can’t understand what he was worried about. The reason for resignation is always the same: if the game continues, he will lose. Losing is so painful to a serious player it must be masked and disguised. By resigning the loser ritually indicates that he accepts the outcome, thereby retaining a measure of dignity. Nevertheless, he is a beaten man, if only until the next game.

When Bobby Fischer appeared on the Dick Cavett show last winter he was asked what part of the game he liked best. Sweetest, he said, was the moment when it became clear his opponent would lose, “and I feel I can crush his ego.”

This has been the theme of his life. In 1958, after winning the US championship when he was only 14, he said the same thing another way: “I like to see ’em squirm.”

Losing players do squirm and after the game will blame anything for the loss: a cold, a bad night’s sleep, an opponent’s cigarette smoke or heavy breathing. Fischer himself, perhaps the world’s greatest player, also has a reputation as the world’s worst loser. He used to complain about the lighting, the temperature, the audience. Losers’ excuses are shameless because losing is so bitter.

Back in the Fifties, when Fischer was first beginning to play chess seriously at the Manhattan Chess Club, his reaction to losing was almost epic. “He took it very seriously,” said one strong player who beat him at rapid chess during that period.

How seriously?

“Very seriously.” But what did he do? “Well. . .once he cried for half an hour.” This was not an exaggeration; he meant 30 minutes of uncontrolled weeping. At times half the club gathered around and tried to convince Fischer there was more to life than chess, it was only a game, nobody can win all the time. It had no effect whatever.

If Fischer is the world’s greatest player, it is precisely this quality which makes him so. Emmanuel Lasker (1868-1941), a world champion known for still playing strong chess when he was in his 60s, once called chess “a bloodless combat.” His point was that in chess everything is at stake; it is far from just a game. A decisive loss can break a man. Fischer’s bitter shame when he lost as a kid is equalled now by a fierce, absolutely single-minded will to win.

When Fischer sits down to play he is out to destroy his opponent, whether it’s a grandmaster or just an acquaintance. “The only time I ever played with Bobby we were on a plane together,” said a man who handled Fischer’s business affairs at one time. “I’m not a good player. I play.

“The change was immediate. Suddenly this diffident kid becomes strong and masterful. There is a seriousness, an intensity.” The man set up a board to show what happened. “I played a Queen’s pawn opening. Bobby responded with a knight, I protected with a pawn, then he brought out his Queen’s pawn and I started to think. First I thought maybe the knight [here he touched his knight as if about to move it], changed my mind and brought out my bishop to King’s Bishop four.

“Bobby said, ‘Wait.’ He reached over and put my bishop back. He tapped my knight. He was not smiling. ‘You touched the knight,’ he said.

“Touch move! You touch it, you move it! This is like a little friendly sparring with Sonny Liston and suddenly he takes off the gloves and says, ‘OK, from here on it’s bare knuckles.’

“When Bobby sits down across the table you feel the hostility. He compresses himself like into a bullet. You sense this man is dangerous. This man can really hurt you. He can destroy you.”

Last year Fischer decisively defeated two Russians and a Dane for the right to challenge the current world champion, a 34-year-old Russian named Boris Spassky. Fischer, 29, had seemed close to the championship twice before, once when he was only 18, but each time something went wrong. In 1962, he said, the Russians cheated. Five years later he walked out of the Interzonals in Tunisia over a procedural point. Last year, however, Fischer seemed to have his temper under rigid control, his game had never seemed stronger, he even seemed ready to compromise on the site and circumstances of the match.

Early this year the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) scheduled the 24-game match to begin on June 22nd in Belgrade, Yugslavia, Fischer’s first choice. After 12 games it would move to Reykjavik, Iceland, a condition Fischer had resisted and then, surprising friends who know his capacity for stubborn inflexibility, finally accepted.

“One of the reasons Bobby didn’t want to play in Reykjavik,” said a man who helped arrange the match, “was he wanted a big hall and a big crowd to watch the expression on Spassky’s face when he crushed him.”

Fischer had also protested that television facilities in Iceland were inadequate; Americans wouldn’t be able to watch him win. FIDE insisted, however, and Fischer gave in. He had been preparing for this moment all his life, after all. For 10 years he had claimed he was the world’s greatest player and now he was about to prove it. It would be an exhausting ordeal of three games a week for at least a month, perhaps two. In such a match no excuses are possible. If Fischer did not win he would be the lesser man.

It is difficult to describe the excitement this match aroused in world chess circles. Americans are generally indifferent to chess. The recent US championships were held in the cafeteria of the old Herald Tribune building in New York City, and even in that small, low-ceilinged room the 14 players often outnumbered the spectators. Outside the United States, however, the Fischer-Spassky match was considered perhaps the most important ever played. The Russians have dominated world chess since its reorganization in 1948; no American has ever been champion. Fischer claims to be, and is widely regarded as, the world’s greatest player and yet always, inexplicably, he lost or refused to play when the critical moment arrived.

With everything seemingly settled Fischer went into seclusion at Grossinger’s in upstate New York, a 1000-acre resort where fighters have often trained but never before a chess champion. Fischer, tall and broad-shouldered, with a long face and powerful jaw muscles, was an unobtrusive presence. He slept until noon, ate alone at a well-lighted table in the dining room and studied Spassky’s games, which he carried around in a red loose-leaf notebook. He played occasional tennis, sometimes swam in the pool and every night at ten past ten he listened to Church of the Air, a religious program vague on theology and precise on questions of right and wrong. When newsmen came to see him he refused to open the door. “Shove off,” he told one reporter from the New York Times. “I’ve got a right to my privacy.” When this reporter called him for the nth time, he picked up the phone, said, “Yes?” listened a moment and hung up.

The first hint that things were about to fall apart came early in March when old friends couldn’t get him, either. Then word spread that Fischer had broken with Col. Edmund B. Edmundson, president of the US Chess Federation, a longtime friend and advisor who had probably done more to arrange the Fischer-Spassky match than any other individual. “Edmundson had carried Fischer along like a premature baby,” said one man who knew both. Fischer was said to be unhappy with arrangements for the match. Who was going to own rights to all the film? Who was going to get television rights? “You sold me out to the Russians,” he yelled at Edmundson and then refused to see or even speak to him. Finally, late in March, Fischer sent a telegram to FIDE demanding more money. FIDE responded with an insulting ultimatum and the dispute quickly began to slip out of control.

“The match is off,” said one old friend of Fischer’s when Belgrade withdrew its offer to sponsor the first half of the match. “They’ll never play. Fischer’s been right in the past but this time he’s gone too far. Maybe he’s chicken, I don’t know. There are a lot of people around here getting damned tired of that sonuvabitchin’ kid.”

The Bobby Fischer Chess Wallets

Fischer is about as easy to reach as Richard Nixon. In the summer of 1961, Fischer, then 17, gave a long, candid interview to Ralph Ginzburg, who used it. Fischer was perhaps the most callow kid to come out of Brooklyn in this century. Ginzburg’s article in the January, 1962, issue of Harper’s revealed Fischer, accurately but not fairly, as a vulgar, boastful kid with pathetic pretensions to being a sharp dresser and nifty guy. He dismissed the Russians as “patzers” (the ultimate insult in chess circles), said he could give knight odds to any woman in the world and win, ridiculed his high school teachers and talked a good deal about what he was going to do with all the money he was going to make. Since then Fischer has been decidedly hard to reach.

A preliminary attempt last August got nowhere. “Send him a letter,” said Fran Goldfarb, who works at the Manhattan Chess Club. “He’ll come by eventually and get it, but. . .”


“There’s generally a question of, ah, money.”

Requests for an interview never got far enough for the question of money to come up. Letters were sent and messages were left but none of them provoked an answer. Last fall Fischer was in Argentina for his match with Tigran Petrosian and then he spent a number of weeks in Brazil giving exhibition matches. When he got back to New York he moved into the Park Sheraton Hotel (a room without a view) and finally answered his phone late one night in January. “If I get some time I’ll call you, OK? I’m very busy right now, you know? Lot to do. Busy, busy.”

He did not get any time. He flew to Iceland with Edmundson, then went out to the West Coast, played some exhibition matches and finally retreated to Grossinger’s where he became even harder to reach as the match with Spassky approached. Eventually he stopped answering his phone altogether.

Fischer used to be secretive about his theories of chess, fearing a rival might steal his ideas, and he is still secretive about his personal life. This tends to obscure the fact that, in the usual sense, he has almost no personal life. His parents were divorced when Fischer was two and he has never met his father, who is said to live in Germany. His mother was an adolescent’s nightmare who once tried to sell “Bobby Fischer Chess Wallets,” would rise with shrill questions at meetings of the US Chess Federation and in the summer of 1960 chained herself to the White House gate to protest the government’s refusal to send a chess team to a tournament in East Germany.

The government ignored her, but Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker Movement recruited her for a San Francisco-to-Moscow peace march held that fall. She left Fischer, then 17, alone in Brooklyn, married a man she met on the march and now lives in England. Fischer has not seen her since.

“Playing chess is all I want to do, ever,” Fischer once said. His only other interests are passing enthusiasms for custom-made clothes, pure food, and portable radios, which fascinate him because they go on instantly. When he was still in his early teens he went through a period of intense religious preoccupation. He carried a Bible wherever he went, studied it obsessively and eventually joined the fundamentalist Church of God, which observes Jewish holidays. He used to refuse to answer his phone between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday and still won’t compete on the Sabbath.

Fischer worries constantly about money but is often careless in spending it. He has few friends and all of them are chess players. When he is in New York he often kills a long evening analyzing games with Bernard Zuckerman, who makes a meager living as a chess professional but has a solid reputation for his knowledge of the openings. Fischer’s two closest friends are said to be Jim Gore, a once-strong player who abruptly stopped competing years ago and now works as a bank teller, and Jackie Beers, a mediocre player who has been banned from most New York clubs because of his foul temper when losing. The thing for which Fischer’s friends most value him is an elusive purity of spirit, an integrity of purpose which springs from his respect for chess not just as a game or an intellectual discipline, but something eternal, beautiful and true. This unbending dedication does not make him easy to be with, however.

“I do not exactly look forward to an evening with Bobby,” said one world-class player who has known him for years. “I get tired of talking about those fabulous shoes some Argentine makes, or how television will make you sterile, or all the things they put in food. You can’t discuss politics with him because this is the greatest country in the world, and I’m not interested in radios. “It’s just as bad when you go somewhere with him. I remember one time a few years ago when I was going to the gym for a workout and Bobby said, ‘Can I come?’ I said sure. My God what a production! First he had to do this and then he had to wait for that and then he couldn’t find something else.

“If you want to have dinner with him you eat at midnight, and if you go for a walk that long loping stride wears you out. When you’re playing chess or analyzing games he’s fantastic, but otherwise he’s a very difficult companion. He tries to be friendly but it just doesn’t work.”

The central fact in Fischer’s life is isolation. For a while he had an apartment in Brooklyn and later one in Los Angeles, but since 1969 he has lived in hotel rooms. When he was younger he was an enthusiastic collector of chess books, but several years ago he sold his collection to Walter Goldwater, president of the Marshall Chess Club, for $500, a bargain. (One dealer had offered him $650 but Fischer said no, and having said no, refused to go back to him when he found no one willing to pay more.) Fischer carries most of what he owns with him and leaves the rest with friends. He rarely sees his sister, his friendships are all professional and he is awkward with girls. One who dated him on a single occasion reported succinctly, “Never again.” If Fischer did not have chess he would be utterly alone.

A Sacrificial Queen

Chess is an ancient game played on a board of 64 alternating black and white spaces. Two players each have 16 pieces of six different types. Each type can move in a certain way: one unobstructed space forward, any number of unobstructed spaces in a straight line, any number of unobstructed spaces in a diagonal line, and so on. The object is to capture the enemy’s King. The number of possible moves is, of course, huge. Luck is not involved, except in the sense you can’t play well with a fever of 102. In any given game it is not mortal men who compete, Fischer and Sapssky, say, but black and white. The strongest play (not player) wins. This gives chess an absolute, even Platonic quality. There is no attack which cannot be defeated if only it is forseen early enough in the game, and there is no defense which cannot be overcome. The moves exist; one has only to discover them.

The open and yet absolute quality of chess gives it a fascination which can lead to obsession. Lenin once warned a friend, “Do not forget that chess, after all, is only a recreation and not an occupation.” Most players come around to this point of view in time (perhaps reluctantly, like poets who teach), but for young players first immersing themselves in the game, chess is everything.

There are about 75 chess bums in New York who live by giving chess lessons, playing in the rapid chess tournament held every Friday night at the Manhattan Chess Club and winning five and ten dollar games from players with more enthusiasm than talent. The Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs have the best facilities but are relatively expensive. Cheaper are the Chess House on West 72nd Street, which never closes; the Chess and Checkers Club near Times Square, known as the Fleahouse, and half a dozen Village coffee houses where boards and tables are available for the price of an espresso. When the weather is good the regulars also play at the tables in the southwest corner of Washington Square Park.

A Lives of the Chess Players would read much like Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Young men of passion and a certain talent emerge from obscure backgrounds. For a year or two they are seen everywhere, they are considered to have promise, they dream of beating the masters whose play they analyze with such quick confidence. A lucky few find patrons or chess sinecures. The rest live in bleak rooms, eat badly, spend all their time with men and sleep by day. For almost all, there is a bitter moment when the limits of their talent become clear. Unlike Johnson’s poets they do not hang themselves or die in debtors’ prison, but rather disappear into minor lives as bank tellers, public accountants or high school teachers. It is not unusual for such failed masters never to play again.

It has been a long time since Fischer played with the passionate amateurs in Washington Square, but it was in New York that he learned to play the game. In the late Fifties he used to give knight-odds to second-rate players for a dollar a game. He never liked coffee house chess (the lighting is always bad), but he still drops in at the Chess House from time to time. “We’ve missed you,” Charles Hidalgo says whenever he comes in. “Where’ve you been?” Fischer’s answer is always the same: “Busy, busy.”

Like the other New York players Fischer has done his share of hustling. It’s a question of eating. Prize money is notoriously low and no one can win all the tournaments. In July 1963, Fischer played in the Western Open in Bay City, Michigan. One night during the tournament he was challenged to a private game at high stakes by a rich Chicago amateur named Norbert Leopoldi. They played all night and Fischer won close to $1,000. Leopoldi balked at paying. Fischer argued but finally settled for half. By that time it was dawn. During the tournament later in the day, while his opponent was brooding over a move, Fischer dozed off. “Hey!” said his opponent. “Bobby! We’re playing a game of chess!” Fischer woke up and won.

Fischer was recognized as a prodigy of sorts from the beginning, of course, but he did not attract serious attention until the US Open championship held in 1956, when he was 13. One of his opponents was Donald Byrne, now a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Byrne was (and still is) a very strong player. He had the benefit of years of experience and of the first move, with the white pieces.

Early in the game Fischer sacrificed his Queen, a surprising move under any circumstances, astonishing in these, and Byrne did not know quite what to make of it. This was back in Fischer’s informal period, when he showed up everywhere in a baggy sweater and scuffed shoes, a kid with a thin, serious face and a bristling crewcut. Like all players he kept his eyes on the board, with only a quick glance at his opponent from time to time. Serious chess is played poker-faced. If Fischer appeared a little nervous, Byrne was not alone in figuring it was the panic of watching a game collapse. Byrne apparently concluded the Queen sacrifice was the desperation move of an overrated wunderkind out of his depth. Still, the word went out something extraordinary was taking place, and people began to drift over to watch.

After a few moves Byrne’s position began to seem weak, then distinctly alarming. Move by move, following an inexorable pattern growing out of Fischer’s Queen sacrifice, Byrne lost control of the game and was finally forced to resign. The game was the sensation of the tournament: a sacrificial combination which took nearly 20 moves to come to fruition! Fischer still considers it his best game, and Hans Kmoch, a respected chess annotator, called it the game of the century.

Despite this dazzling victory Fischer came in eighth overall. The next year he won the open ($750 in prize money) and that winter he took the US Championship. In 1958 FIDE made him an international grandmaster, the youngest in history.

This was probably the period of Fischer’s headiest confidence. One night after playing with friends at the Manhattan Chess Club he joined a group going over to the Stage Delicatessen for something to eat. One of the group asked Fischer if he thought he was better than the Russian player Mikhail Tal. “Yes,” said Fischer. Paul Keres? “Yes.” Smyslov? “Yes.” Petrosian? “Yes,” shouted Fischer. “Don’t ask me anymore! I’m better than anybody!”

Not everybody agreed, and in the summer of 1961 the US Chess Federation arranged a 16-game match between Fischer and Samuel Reshevsky, who had been a chess prodigy, had dominated American chess for years and was still one of the strongest American players. For Reshevsky, of course, the match was far more important than it was for Fischer. He was in his 50s, a short, straight-backed, balding man unwilling to consider his strength gone. If he lost to an 18-year-old kid his whole career would be permanently shadowed.

The match began in New York, then shifted to Los Angeles, and was to have returned to New York for the final four games. The 12th game, with Fischer and Reshevsky tied at 5 1/2 points, was scheduled for 11 AM Sunday morning, August 13th.

Fischer, who sleeps until noon, refused to play at that hour. Irving Rivise, the referee, insisted. Fischer felt this was unfair, against the rules and unnecessary. He said no. What had begun as a procedural difficulty quickly developed into a contest of wills between Fischer, who already had a reputation as something of a prima donna, and the US Chess Federation, which insisted chess would be played by its rules or not at all.

Rivise made no attempt to reach a compromise (which Fischer almost certainly would have rejected anyway). If anything, he deliberately sharpened the conflict. On Saturday he called Fischer at his hotel and told him there would be no change in the hour, that Fischer’s clock would be started promptly at 11 AM, that he would forfeit the game if he did not appear by noon, and that Rivise would have a car waiting at Fischer’s hotel just in case he decided to give in. Surrender in the face of such an ultimatum was of course unthinkable. Fischer stayed in his room and the game was forfeit.

The result was a huge controversy which dominated chess magazines for months. Long after the aborted match Fischer and Reshevsky publicly shook hands, but the bitterness remained. Reshevsky, now in his 60s and wearing a toupee, his chess strength inevitably failing, still talks to friends of a rematch. After all, he says, he is the only player who has never lost a match to Fischer. If he won, his whole life might still be vindicated. Fischer’s attitude has all the cruelty of strength; he might do it for the money, but certainly not for the sport.

The controversy over the Fischer-Reshevsky match was immediately followed by another over Fischer’s failure in the candidates’ tournament for the world championship held on Curacao, a Dutch island in the Caribbean, in June, 1962. Fischer had dominated the Interzonals in Stockholm the previous fall and he expected to win the candidates’ tournament, too. When he only tied for fifth place behind the four Russian entrants, he was stunned and angry. That summer he wrote a bitter account of the tournament which appeared in the August 20th issue of Sports Illustrated. The Russians, he said, had cheated.

Cheating at chess is not like cheating at cards; it is both harder to do and harder to prove. The main form of cheating by the Russians, Fischer said, was their willingness to draw games with each other, once after only 14 moves. Chess is exhausting; a drawn game is worth half a point to the players and leaves them fresh for their next opponents. Even worse, Fischer suggested, was the possibility the Russians were actually prepared to dump games to each other, piling up points for one of their own. “I will never again play in one of these tournaments,” Fischer wrote.  

Eventually, despite indignant Russian denials, FIDE switched from the old system of round-robins to a series of head-on matches, and Fischer began to play again. In a sense he had willed the new system into being, but in the process he had come very close to excluding himself from international competition altogether. By that time it was clear Fischer was potentially his own worst enemy. Commentators began comparing him to Paul Morphy (1837-1884), an American player of such grace and strength he is still considered by some to have been the world’s greatest. Like Fischer, Morphy had a brilliant early career. On a tour of Europe in 1858 when he was only 21, he defeated all the strongest players with one exception, the aging but arrogant English champion, Howard Staunton, who rejected Morphy’s challenge with a snort of public contempt. Morphy was shattered, despite the fact he was almost universally considered the stronger player. Two years later he retired from all competition and spent the rest of his life in semi-seclusion in New Orleans, living on a tiny inheritance and sinking into an eccentricity which bordered on insanity.

In 1967 Fischer walked out of the world championship Interzonals in Tunisia over a minor dispute about playing conditions. During the following 18 months he rarely appeared and never competed, and a large section of the chess world was convinced his career was over. Fischer himself apparently feared the same thing. He later told friends he spent that year and a half trying to face and overcome the contradictions of his own character. He was only partly successful. He is far less touchy than he used to be, but he still won’t bend when he thinks he is right. He refused to compete in the 1969 US Championship, for example, and was allowed to take part in the current world Championship cycle only because another American, Paul Benko, gave up his right to do so. When FIDE gave Fischer an ultimatum in late April to accept the title match as arranged or lose his chance to play Spassky, a lot of Fischer’s friends figured his last chance was gone. They were almost right.

“Right is Right, Fair is Fair”

Paul G. Marshall is a medium-sized man, solid but not fat, with the deep, raw voice, pleasing to the ear but alarming to the mind, of a man who has been smoking four packs a day for decades. Over the phone he sounds 60; in person he looks 40. He is a lawyer who represents entertainment people, David Frost among others, and two months ago he was asked by a friend to straighten out the Fischer-FIDE dispute.

“The president of FIDE,” he said in his mahogany-paneled, high-ceilinged (the air space alone must cost $10,000 a year) office on 57th Street, “is Dr. Max Euwe, a cultured, aristocratic European of the best type. He’s a beautiful man, I have the highest regard for him, but he had never negotiated anything like this before. There had never been a match like this before.

“FIDE asked for bids but they had no standards for judging them, they just accepted the ones with the most money. Edmundson suggested to Bobby that they bring in a lawyer but Bobby said, ‘No, we’ll do this the way we always do it,’ and so Edmundson went over to Amsterdam and negotiated the contract. When Bobby found out what was in it he was furious. He hasn’t spoken to Edmundson since.

“So then Bobby sent off a lot of ill-advised telegrams to FIDE saying, ‘I’m not going to do this or that,’ when he should have said, Conditions Unclear. Please Advise. Andrew Davis is Bobby’s lawyer but he couldn’t handle this either and Bobby stopped talking to him, too. Andy called me up in Europe and said, ‘Please jump in,’ and I said, ‘What for?’ and he said, ‘For nothing.’

“Bobby is an honorable guy but he’s not a nice guy. In fact he’s a bit of a sadist. At first he was terribly suspicious: ‘What are you getting out of this?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘If you’re not getting anything out of it why are you doing it?’ I told him I wanted to see him beat the Russians. After he decided he could trust me he wouldn’t speak to anyone else.

“At this point Dr. Euwe decided to leave on a seven-week vacation and while he was gone the secretary of FIDE, a petit bourgeois European who hates Bobby, was in charge of the negotiations. At first he wouldn’t give me Dr. Euwe’s number and then when he did I was calling him in places like Perth, Australia, and Suribayo. “The secretary was in effect accusing Bobby of refusing to play. My attitude was, ‘Of course we’re going to play, but what does that mean?’ The secretary said, ‘It’s all in the contract, read the contract.’ So I said, ‘I’m a lawyer. Are you a lawyer? I’ve read the contract and I still don’t know what it means.’ He said, ‘It means what it means.'”

After a lot of phone calls and trips across the Atlantic, paid for by Frost, Marshall clarified the terms of the contract, but by that time FIDE had issued a new ultimatum. If Fischer didn’t agree to play the entire match in Iceland beginning July 2nd he was out and Tigran Petrosian would take his place. The deadline was Saturday, May 6th. Marshall was on the phone with Fischer at Grossinger’s every couple of hours and finally at 8:30 Friday night Fischer said Marshall could send a telegram accepting FIDE’s arrangements.

“You’ve got to remember two things,” Marshall said. “First, Bobby never made any money in his life. Everyone who dealt with him when he was 14, 15, used him. If there was any money to be made they took it. They’d call him up and say, ‘Come on out here, we’ll pay your bills, we’ll give you a couple of bucks on the side.’ And when it was over they’d stick him with a huge hotel bill. Here’s a 15-year-old kid with no money, all alone, a huge bill, crying.

“The second thing is when Bobby hits on a point he thinks is fair, it’s not fair like it was you or me, a matter of opinion, it’s fair like it’s from Olympus. “After this was all over I told him I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the way he treated people, the way he humiliates people. Andrew had been his lawyer for five years, he refused to even talk to him. Colonel Edmundson had carried him like a baby, he wouldn’t talk to Edmundson. You don’t treat people who love you that way.

“I said, ‘You’re making the title look cheap. You’re doing all this for an extra $10,000? $15,000? You worked 15 years for this?’

“And he said, ‘Well right is right and fair is fair.'”

To the Iceland Station

The question inevitably arises, will Fischer beat Spassky?

A year ago Andrew Soltis, a reporter for the New York Post who is the Marshall Chess Club champion and author of a short book on Spassky’s games, thought Spassky would win. In their five games together, after all, Spassky had won three times and drawn twice. Soltis decided he was wrong after he saw Fischer’s record last year. He began by defeating Mark Taimanov of Russia and Bent Larsen of Denmark, both serious candidates for the world championship, in two 6-0 matches which were unprecedented in chess history. (Larsen was devastated by his humiliating loss — not even a single drawn game! — and only now is approaching a point where he can discuss the match easily.) Fischer’s 6 1/2-2 1/2 victory over Tigran Petrosian in Buenos Aires last October was almost as extraordinary. Petrosian is a master of defense and it is extremely difficult to beat a master who is determined to draw. Fischer’s success in doing so convinced Soltis that Fischer is in one of those half-magical moments of a great player’s life when he is all but unbeatable.

When Fischer began to play competitive chess 15 years ago, championship play was characterized by technical mastery and by caution. A long romantic period had ended in the last decades of the 19th century with an improvement in analytical theory and defensive technique. Attack based on brilliant intuition was replaced by an emphasis on accuracy. Instead of responding aggressively to aggressive attack, the so-called “hypermodernists” simply waited for a mistake. They read everything and remembered everything; one mistake was all they needed. Petrosian was a typical hyper-modernist in this sense. He played for the draw unless he saw a clear opportunity to win, and he was satisfied to carry a tournament by half a point. It takes skill to win this way, but the result is a style of play which appeals to the conservative, burgher element in the human soul.

Fischer changed all that. His Queen sacrifice against Donald Byrne in 1956 revealed the soaring, romantic streak in his nature. When an inexperienced player takes such chances, however, he often makes fatal technical errors. Since then Fischer has combined his early daring with a mastery of technique so deep that experts generally designate him the world’s most accurate player. This means that he does not make mistakes, of course, but it also means that his moves tend to be the best possible moves in a given situation. Some championship games go on forever and wander all over the board. Fischer drives for directness and simplicity. His goal is perfection, the move which is exactly right.

Fischer’s brilliance and his technical mastery are probably enough to win him the world championship. The quality which makes him possibly the greatest player in history is his will to win. The importance of will in chess is the hardest thing to comprehend for someone unfamiliar with the game. Lasker was speaking of will when he said of another player, “He lacks the passion that whips the blood.” In the literature it assumes Nietzschean proportions. The greatest respect is always reserved for the players who fought the hardest, who refused to despair, who could lose an important game and still come back to win, who could overcome sickness, age and private unhappiness to play strong games. Will in chess means concentrating all the resources of one’s mind and spirit on a single problem with a fierce lucidity. No chess player can explain how one exerts will, anymore than motorcycle riders can explain how you turn: you just. . .turn. Without will a chess player can never rise above a certain level and Fischer’s will is legendary.

Inexperienced players take a will to win for granted because they don’t really know how to play any other sort of game. They go after an opponent’s king because they don’t know how to fight for position, and they win or lose because they don’t know how to draw. Fischer has nothing but scorn for players who are quick to draw, content with half a point. Arthur Bisguier, a former US champion, once told a friend at the Manhattan Chess Club, “People don’t realize what it is to sit down against Fischer in a serious game.”

He explained that he was afraid to ask for a draw because Fischer’s answer almost invariably was a brief, humiliating “no.” If Fischer loses a maneuver for position he will go on fighting long after other players would have resigned, and he will fight for a win when other players would consider themselves lucky to draw. Bisguier has played Fischer often but the only game he ever won was the first. “He plays every game as if it’s the last thing he’s going to do on earth. Other players save themselves. Not Bobby. [Jose] Capablanca [the great Cuban champion] never won a game he didn’t have to in his life. He was lazy. Fischer is never lazy.

“The second time we played he offered me a draw and I refused and then somehow I managed to lose. And thereafter I managed to lose in many strange ways. Sometimes I have been in a strong position and I will say to myself, ‘Bisguier, how are you going to lose this game?’ And finally I find a way to make a mistake. “I think part of it is knowing that the game is going to continue until someone is beaten. You’re going to be playing for hours. You can’t help dreading the ordeal. So I try to hurry the game, bring it to a climax early, and I make mistakes. Fischer destroys the spirit.”

Behind all discussion of Fischer’s prospects in Iceland is the assumption that a Fischer defeat is not only unlikely but unthinkable. Fischer’s entire life has been a prelude to this match. Part of his strength as a player has been his willingness to make personal sacrifices for chess no one else has been ready to equal. He dedicates himself to chess the way other men dedicate themselves to philosophy, mathematics or God. He studies the game harder, he has a deeper respect for its inner beauty, he plays for the game and does not flinch from the dangerous position that winning is everything. Other players hold back some fragment of their self-respect. Faced with a defeat, they are ready to console themselves with the thought that, after all, chess is only a game. Fischer holds back nothing. For him chess is not a game but life. He risks everything — pride, identity, manhood — every time he sits down to play. If he lost to Spassky. . . Fischer’s friends hesitate to go on.

Capablanca wrote in his autobiography, “There have been times in my life when I came very near thinking that I could not lose even a single game. Then I would be beaten and the lost game would bring me back from dreamland to earth.” It is a return some great players never make. William Steinitz (1836-1900), the founder of positional theory and one of the great champions, died in poverty and delirium. At the end of his life he believed he could still play the chess of his youth, that he was in communion with God, that he played chess with God, and that he could give God pawn and move, and still win. 

In This Article: Coverwall


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.