Bobby Fischer has now won the U.S. chess championship for the fourth consecutive year, and since he will not be 18 until March, this means he has been sole possessor of the title ever since he was 14 years old. What made his most recent triumph particularly meaningful, however, was the fact that the players who pressed him hardest are not much older than he is. Second place in the tournament went to William Lombardy, a seasoned veteran of 23, and third to Raymond Weinstein, a 19-year-old college junior.
These three had met before, playing together rather than against each other. Last fall they were members of the American team at the Chess Olympics in Leipzig. On the Russian team were: the present world champion, Mikhail Tal; the former world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik; another former world champion, Vassily Smyslov; and Paul Keres, an Estonian master who ranks with the major chess figures of the 20th century. The Russians were perhaps the most formidable aggregation of chess power ever assembled on any team. Bobby Fischer and his youthful colleagues nevertheless finished a close second to them—which, of course, raised a pertinent question: Will they be able to beat the Russians when they get a little older and more experienced? "We can't beat the Russians this year," Bobby said, "and probably not next year. But we can give them the hardest fight they have ever been in."
If such a match were held right now, the important matter would not be who won. Whatever the outcome, a contest between these old Russian stalwarts and a group of newcomers would be a visible demonstration that the vital figures in chess are currently coming from the U.S., not from Russia. "We aren't producing young players!" exclaimed Vassily Smyslov recently. Chess in Russia is subsidized in a fashion that would have shocked the Tweed Ring—even a minor chess master gets a car and one or two houses—and if good young players are not forthcoming, it is evident that some Dostoevskian soul-searching is overdue. On the other hand, no sport, with the possible exception of tossing the caber, has ever been so little supported as chess in the U.S. Yet the young players are nevertheless emerging here, and the national championship tournament that Bobby Fischer just won was dominated by them.
Bobby's first opponent in the nationals was Raymond Weinstein, who was a junior at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn when Bobby was a freshman there. In those days Bobby occasionally dropped in to play chess at the Weinstein home, always beating Raymond with ease. Bobby hasn't been in a classroom since he quit high school in the middle of his junior year; Raymond is well on his way through college. Despite Bobby's repeated victories, there is a quenchless rivalry between them, intensified because Raymond just had a big year, playing on the American college team that beat the Russian college students in a stunning upset in Leningrad.
January 23, 1961
Thus, when with Weinstein and 10 other contenders for his title, Bobby entered the ballroom of Manhattan's Hotel Empire on a wintry Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, he faced a familiar situation. But in chess, and especially in Bobby Fischer's brand of chess, nothing is ever the same. The 12 took their places at tables before big boards on the wall that duplicated their moves and set the chess clocks that timed their games. Each had to make a minimum of 40 moves in the 2½ hours allotted to them. At 2:22 Bobby shook hands with Raymond, moved pawn to king four and pressed the lever that stopped the clock on his side and started the one on Weinstein's side. He was pale, but surprisingly relaxed. Usually the most fidgety and restless of chess players, always walking about during his games, he now leaned over the board with folded hands, or barely rocked back and forth in his chair, or at most nodded his head from side to side, as if following the beat of a metronome, while he mentally played out moves ahead.
The game progressed in profound concentration. Then, at 2:44, Bobby jumped to his feet for the first time, blinked his eyes rapidly, stuck his hands deep in his trouser pockets and began a long-striding pace around the tables to glance at the progress of the other games. He returned to his place almost at once, however; neither he nor Weinstein pondered long over their moves. At 2:50 he was on his feet again for another brief walk. At 2:56 he again jumped up. At 3:01, after he castled, he arose, yawned, looked owlishly at the audience and walked once around his chair. Raymond, who had castled on his queen side, played knight to bishop four, whereupon Bobby sat motionless for 11 minutes. Then, looking not too pleased, he moved his king rook over one space to the king square. Raymond removed his glasses. He moistened the tips of his fingers in a glass of water, touched his eyes, put his glasses on and, after deliberating 16 minutes, moved his bishop back one space to his king square.
The ballroom had grown warm. In the somewhat faded grandeur of the Hotel Empire the yellow lights from two overhead spots gleamed on the polish of the black chessmen, on the heavy gold-flecked beige drapes, on the gold trim of the ivory walls. Beveled mirrors reflected the three chandeliers and the warm rose-shaded wall lamps. Outside it was growing dark, the cranes and half-demolished buildings of Lincoln Square looming enormous against the gray-felt sky, a few stragglers making their way over the slippery paths that had been cut through the drifts on Broadway. There was no sound except the whispered hum of kibitzers studying the moves—"Why not bishop to rook four?" or "He's going to trade his queen for two rooks and a pawn"—and similar comments that serve chess fans in place of cheers.
At 4:37 Bobby removed his coat. At 5:13 an attendant brought coffee and sandwiches to the players, Bobby absentmindedly removing the lid from the container but neglecting to drink from it and leaving his sandwich untouched. At 5:30 a certain nervous dismay gripped the spectators. "Fischer doesn't look so good," said a youthful bystander, as if announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And it was true: Bobby had launched an attack along the open knight file, bearing on Weinstein's castled king, the sort of wild, daring attack that usually brings him victory; but this time it had petered out, and Raymond was unperturbed, while Bobby was beginning to look strained. At 5:58 Bobby suddenly retreated, pulling his rook back to knight two, and for the next two or three moves seemed to be improvising, with no clear objective in mind.
There were games going on at five other tables, but as far as the audience was concerned they might just as well, have been played in the snowdrifts in the excavations for Lincoln Center. The chess addicts who follow Bobby Fischer to tournaments believe he is the greatest natural chess player in history (an opinion he readily agrees with), and they no longer merely expect to see him win. They expect to see him come up with daring, surprising, imaginative combinations while winning. For the first time since Fischer began winning championships, he was neatly groomed, wearing a suit rather than his customary sweat shirt and with his brown spiky hair neatly trimmed. All this finery disturbed his youthful admirers, many of whom could have fitted right into the cast of West Side Story without changing costume, and their concern deepened as Bobby's expression suddenly grew haggard and despairing.
At 6:03 Weinstein began a slow-paced offensive of his own. He moved his queen across the board, traded off a knight and proceeded with cautious accuracy to accomplish nothing. Then, at 6:42, Fischer struck. He leaned across the board, took a pawn with his rook and put the black king in check. He literally jammed the rook across the board with a swift, exultant gesture, as if he were driving a sword through a deadly enemy. Weinstein stared at the board, transfixed. Dazedly, he moved the king out of check and, on the third move, resigned. In the gallery elderly men shook hands with each other, each as pleased as if he had personally won, and the younger kibitzers, all merciless Fischer idolators, busied themselves with sardonic wisecracks about the beaten Weinstein.
Sixteen days, or nights, later at 10:50 p.m. Fischer's last antagonist wearily held out his hand in a perfunctory handshake to indicate that he had resigned. Bobby had won the championship again, taking seven games, drawing four and losing none. The pattern set in his first game with Weinstein had persisted through every round. Bobby was always plainly superior, always the champion and always in trouble. He narrowly won his game with William Lombardy, who finished second in the tournament. He was lucky to get a drawn game with 20-year-old Charles Kalme, a senior at Pennsylvania and a former college champion. Bobby also had trouble with the veteran Samuel Reshevsky, from whom Bobby first won the title three years ago. Reshevsky had a winning game—or what looked like a winning game until Bobby by another flash of daring got out of it with a draw.
In the midst of all these close shaves there was never the least suspicion that Bobby's game was falling off. He was playing up to average—usually better than his own brilliant average. But the unique quality of his chess is that he never has an easy time of it. The chess masters of the past with whom he is now ranked—men like Paul Morphy or José Capablanca—were infant prodigies who easily defeated everyone they played, even in their early years. But not Bobby Fischer. Except when he is mowing down dozens of beginners in simultaneous exhibitions, he sweats, struggles, plots, schemes, plans, calculates and gets into fearful jams where only the deepest resources of his genius can extricate him. Chess analysts playing over his games in the national championship figure that Bobby won by last-minute inspiration four games he should have lost. Bobby himself said that Anthony Saidy, a Cornell medical student who finished next to last, had virtually beaten him. "I swindled him a little," Bobby said. "I had a lost position before adjournment, but by the time we adjourned I had won."
It isn't that Bobby plays down to weaker opponents to provide these dazzling conclusions. "He is one of the greatest players who ever lived," said Lisa Lane, the new American woman champion, after Bobby beat Arthur Bisguier to wind up the tournament. "He ranks with people like Alekhine now, and if he keeps on the way he has been developing there will be nobody in a class with him." Hermann Helms, the venerable chess authority who has known all modern masters since Pillsbury, ranks Bobby's youthful games with those of the best of the great players. Hans Kmoch, less prone to enthusiasm than any chess authority, wrote of "the stupendous originality" of Bobby's chess and said his performance matched "the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies."
Why then should he have had trouble defeating inferior players? "I think Bobby puts out just the amount of energy needed to win," said Robert Byrne after his drawn game with the champion. Byrne is a 32-year-old graduate of Yale, an instructor in philosophy at the University of Indiana and as articulate and erudite as Bobby is abrupt and monosyllabic. In the past Byrne often beat Bobby. This time Byrne only managed a draw, partly, perhaps, because he has been spending so much time on his doctoral thesis, The Ontology of Paul Weiss, that he hasn't played much chess. "Also, Bobby has developed remarkably in the past year or so," Byrne said, "and he hasn't stopped developing, not by any means." Whatever the reason for Bobby's fierce struggles with players who are not as good as he is, they make chess consistently interesting for him. He seems to adjust himself subconsciously to some plateau of equal ability with whomever he is playing, so that he is always in a world of genuinely intense competition. Meanwhile, so many close shaves, narrow escapes and stunning reversals of form—coupled with the rise of a chess prodigy who is always barely managing to come out on top—have given American chess a character and a general interest it never possessed before.
Bobby was born on March 9, 1943 in Chicago, the second child of a physicist. His father's family was German. His mother was born in Switzerland but raised in the U.S. In 1945, when Bobby was two years old, his parents separated. Mrs. Fischer taught elementary school in Los Angeles and in Phoenix, Ariz., and Bobby himself first entered school in a place called Mobile, near Gila Bend in the desert of western Arizona. The town consisted of the school-house and the teacher's cottage, and the permanent population was limited to Mrs. Fischer and her children, Joan and Bobby. The seven other students came from far-scattered desert ranches. The two Fischer children had a pet ground squirrel and a pet owl, both captured in the desert. They also had a garden, in which they managed to grow some peas, but water was so scarce around Gila Bend that they had to devise a relay system to get it, a different child each day bringing a bucket of water from home. The Fischer children spent most of their time in the desert, and Joan recollects that arid world of bony rocks and gaunt cactus as the first place where they were happy—"There was something alive under every rock," she says.
Mrs. Fischer moved with her children to Brooklyn in 1949. She worked first as a teacher before she studied nursing at Prospect Heights Hospital, and much of Bobby's care fell to Joan, six years older, a tall, pretty, sensitive child with an acutely perceptive intelligence. They lived in a four-story yellowish brick apartment house, and there was a candy store where Joan bought games and puzzles to keep Bobby occupied. They played parcheesi, Monopoly and whatever other games Joan could find. When Bobby was 6 she bought a chess set at the candy store because it was about the only game they hadn't yet played. She and Bobby figured out the moves from the directions that came with the set, and both learned to play chess, but Bobby showed none of the lightning appreciation of it usually attributed to chess prodigies. "It was just a game like any other," he said, "only a little more complicated."
When Bobby spent a summer with friends of his mother at Patchogue on Long Island, he found an old book, bound like a ledger, filled with chess games. He carried it home and occupied himself by the hour with it. In the winter of 1950 Mrs. Fischer, bothered by his solitary absorption—he just didn't answer when you spoke, she said—wrote to Hermann Helms, who for 61 years conducted the chess column of the Brooklyn Eagle. She asked Helms if he knew any boys Bobby's age that he could play chess with. Helms suggested that Bobby attend an exhibition to be given at the branch library on Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza. It took place on January 17, 1951, and Max Pavey, once champion of Scotland, played simultaneously against all comers, eliminating Bobby in 15 minutes. Carmine "Nigra, the secretary of the Brooklyn Chess Club, was on hand. He was teaching his son Tommy to play and started teaching Bobby also, to provide Tommy with some competition. Bobby, however, learned so much faster that Tommy became discouraged and quit.
Players like Morphy and Capablanca could beat experts when they had to sit on books piled on chairs in order to see the board. But Bobby lost as often as he won. He had a scholarship at Community-Woodward, a private school of mildly progressive cast, where his grades were good, his chess playing was encouraged and his individuality approved of. Bobby played constantly, but he had reached the relatively old age (for chess prodigies) of 12 before he placed third in a small Brooklyn tournament. Then in May 1955 Nigro persuaded Bobby to enter the U.S. amateur at Lake Mohegan in New York state. When they got to the scene "I lost my nerve," Bobby said, "and only wanted to watch."
Nigro persuaded him to play. He lost more games than he won. But high-level competitive chess got a grip on his imagination that has never relaxed. Bobby joined the Manhattan Chess Club that summer, playing chess with anyone present. In July 1955 he played in the U.S. junior championship (for players under 21) at Lincoln, Neb., finishing 20th of 26 entries. By the time he entered Erasmus High he wasn't much interested in school. He was one of 6,500 students, and no one had time to pay attention to his idiosyncrasies. He is remembered by school officials as a thoroughly nice boy with a good potential, not easy to know, conscientious and good in languages, but so wrapped up in chess he could not think of anything else.
He was progressing slowly. He won the U.S. junior championship, and at 13 was the youngest player ever to win it, but he was 12th in the 1956 amateur and fourth from the bottom in the national championship that Reshevsky won that year.
But one result of these years of losing was that chess for Bobby came to mean the need to win—nothing else. When the English chess authority Harry Golombek interviewed Fischer and spoke of the number of Caro Kann defenses that were being played by leading Russian masters, Bobby said, "They're all chicken. They don't want to face bishop to queen bishop four against the Sicilian." "For those readers not acquainted with the transatlantic idiom," Golombek wrote soberly, "I should translate 'chicken' as cowards, presumably derived from 'chicken-hearted.' " Bobby's games were daring, concentrated solely on one end: victory. The early games of other prodigies are usually permanent additions to chess literature, but Bobby's are interesting only for their promise, with little of the art found in those of Morphy or Capablanca.
Concentrating on victory alone also made Bobby defiantly antisocial. He grew into a gangling, awkward boy, touchy and uncommunicative, often rude to the point of boorishness. He was razzed a little at Erasmus High because of newspaper stories, and he developed an animosity toward the press that made Ted Williams seem by contrast a publicity hound. The separation of his parents was a sore subject, so an innocent query about his father's interest in his chess might make Bobby the enemy of whoever asked it. After Bobby won the American championship, he was invited to play in Yugoslavia, and a television program gave him and his sister a side trip to Moscow on the way, but the Russians did not approve of Bobby Fischer either. Chess in Russia is part of the old intellectual tradition; chess masters like Tal and Botvinnik are men of the world, masters of several languages, highly educated, and Bobby's indifference to such things irritated and disturbed them.
Bobby returned the sentiments. He loafed around the Moscow chess clubs for two weeks, playing chess against everybody except the reigning masters. "You have to go through channels to get matches with them," he explains now. Because Bobby and Joan were guests of the sports section, rather than tourists, they were given a car and chauffeur and their personal translator, an engaging history teacher named Miss Kira. However, Miss Kira did not know much English and was usually studying the dictionary before she brought in various champion weight lifters, gymnasts, rowers, soccer stars and other sporting celebrities to shake hands with Bobby, all of which bored him. Who cares about stuff like that?
In Yugoslavia, Bobby drew 12 games (including his game with Tal), won six (including a sensational victory over the great Paul Keres) and lost two. Under the complicated procedures of international chess he qualified for the finals that would determine who would play Botvinnik for the world title. Bobby was also made an International Grand Master, one of 40 such in the world, at 15 the youngest player ever to join those hallowed ranks.
Thus honored, he returned to Brooklyn; but there matters steamed to a crisis. Erasmus Hall could hardly put up with Bobby's disdain for learning and still remain in business, so he and the school parted company. Some of Bobby's earliest and most enthusiastic backers became annoyed at his tendency to dismiss most of the human race as potzers while reserving his regard for only a handful of great chess masters, including himself. He antagonized others by insisting on the letter of his rights as U.S. champion, refusing to play in the 1958 Chess Olympics unless he, rather than Reshevsky, played first board. In an international tournament in Zurich he played reasonably well, but in the eight-man final to determine Botvinnik's opponent he lost to Tal and wound up tied for fifth. When Mrs. Fischer picketed the White House last summer to call attention to the need for funds to send the team to the next Olympics Bobby's feelings were so exacerbated that his friends spent much of their time warning each other of subjects not to be mentioned in his presence.
At present Bobby is more relaxed than he has ever been. The salient difference is that he has stopped playing chess 24 hours a day. Last fall, when he was midway through a dull tournament in Buenos Aires, the chess world was electrified to learn that he had discovered romance. The name of the Argentine siren who succeeded in getting Bobby's eyes off the chess board is not known, but the immediate result was that Bobby lost three games in a row, bought three suits of clothes, got a haircut and finished in a tie for 16th among the 20 contestants. The news of the girl friend was flashed to Moscow. "Fischer did not keep in training," wrote Victor Korchoni of Bobby's poor showing, "and this circumstance played an important role."
"What's going to happen to Bobby," asked Larry Evans, the former U.S. champion, and an old friend, "now that he's learned there are other things in the world besides chess?" Thus far Bobby has changed mainly in the general direction of a philosophic calm. He lives in the same house in Brooklyn, which is now deserted except for him (his mother last fall joined a group of visionary idealists who intend to walk across the U.S. from Los Angeles to New York, and thence across Europe to Moscow, in the interests of peace and disarmament; his sister is married to a scientist and intends to do graduate work in biology after she leaves Brooklyn College this spring). Bobby sleeps late in the morning, plays chess, reads chess books, studies palmistry, listens to Dixieland records (or any kind of jazz), goes to the theater, plays table tennis, at which he is expert, and skis. For some reason mystifying to most of his chess-playing friends, Bobby has also lately become interested in prisons. Reverend Frank Beals, the head of the chess section of the People-to-People Sports Committee, was formerly a prison chaplain, and Bobby prevailed on him recently to arrange a chess exhibition at Rikers Island, the municipal prison for New York. Larry Evans, Raymond Weinstein and Frederick Rieber, deputy commissioner of correction, accompanied Bobby and Reverend Beals on the trip. On the way to the prison Bobby showed increasing interest in the guards who stopped them.
"Suppose you didn't stop when they told you to," he asked. "Would they shoot?"
"Don't try it," said Evans.
"No, seriously," said Bobby, "suppose you just kept on going and didn't stop. Would they shoot you? I mean, would they really kill you?"
He seemed genuinely perplexed about t. He thrust out his lower lip, as if considering a move in chess, and weighed the possibilities. A man goes to visit Rikers Island. Guards stop him. He decides not to stop. The guards are armed. They draw their guns. Now what? Will they shoot? He thought a long time. Yes, presumably they would.
"But would they kill you?"
Nobody answered. His listeners were amused, but not quite sure what would happen.
At last Deputy Commissioner Rieber said gently, "They would not kill you."
Bobby played the 20 best chess players in the prison, while 2,400 inmates looked on and the prison band played. He trotted from one end of the line of boards to the other, playing cautiously, as if each convict were a potential master, and looked relieved as one after another was checkmated. The last game dragged on until after the recreation hour ended, the prisoners were returned to their cells and finally only a handful of trusties were gathered around the board, responding to the curious tension exerted by a good chess game in the world of the free or the unfree.
All Bobby's plans now hinge on winning the world championship. He cannot go to college unless he graduates from high school, and he has at least a year and a half of school work to complete. Erasmus Hall wants him to come back and finish, but the school officials are having trouble getting in touch with him. Bobby doesn't seem too concerned. "I am going to win the world championship," he said, "hold it a couple years and then take up something else and make a lot of money. I want to deal in real estate all over the world and have houses in different cities, in Paris and London and Buenos Aires and Hong Kong and places like that."
After Mikhail Tal won the world championship, he said in an interview that Bobby's chess would eventually suffer by the thinness of his education. He added, "I wish Bobby would read more, and not merely chess books. Otherwise, he may cease to be a prodigy and become just an ordinary genius." The leading Russian chess magazine said it more strongly: "Fischer is undoubtedly a talented player, possessing an immense capacity for work, but he thinks himself absolutely the strongest player in the world. This groundless self-assurance is decidedly holding back his further creative growth."
To Bobby these criticisms are specious. "Tal's a wise guy," he said. "That's what's the matter with him. He wants to be everything, a big brain...." He made a gesture indicating that Tal wished to be a philosopher or a professor just because he played chess. It was pointed out that Tal's comment about him wasn't unfriendly. "So it just looks that way," Bobby replied. "It's really glib and superficial. Anyway, Tal hasn't been playing so good and he may not even be world champion by the time the next match is held."
Chess is merely a game with Bobby, something to be won; yet somewhere in his attitude toward chess lies the key to his character, as yet so rough-hewn and unformed. He recognizes its art, and his favorite master is Capablanca, the most elegant and artistic of chess champions; but art is still secondary to victory. Bobby feels just as elated from a win in which he swindles his opponent as he does from one gained by the most imaginative planning and the most flawless play. The hard schooling in which he trained for his victories left him with his surface roughness, but he possesses an elemental integrity and an austere code of sportsmanship of his own, coupled with a jeering and sardonic attitude toward the polite conventions of good sportsmanship. He never complains at defeat, never attributes his failures to anything but his own bad play, never takes unfair advantage in the electric nervous tension of the big moments when the games are close and the time is running out. He is abnormally sensitive to sound, but he rarely takes any action about raised voices in the audience and at most merely looks with a perplexed annoyance at the source of the interruption. He is famous for his blunt assertions as to how good a chess player he is, but he does not volunteer any comments of such nature: he only says what he believes if he is asked.
When the young Mikhail Tal first became conscious of his ability as a chess player his first boyish impulse was to seek out the champion Botvinnik and challenge him to a match. When Bobby Fischer began to realize the importance of his position as a world master his first reaction was to put on a chess exhibition in a prison. Of the two indications of interest and character, the action of the 17-year-old boy appears more responsible and significant. Whatever else may happen to Bobby Fischer, he plainly is not going to develop, as Tal feared, into just another genius.