Winning without really trying

Four Russian masters evolve a devious plan to keep on top of the world's biggest chess event
June 03, 1962

Four Russian chess masters, operating on the strategic isle of Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies, have discovered a way of boosting themselves to the top of the standings of one of the world's most important chess competitions. They simply don't beat each other. These Russians are four of the eight contenders in the Candidates' Tournament, the last step before the world championship itself. It is traditionally the longest (two months), hardest and most bitterly fought-out event in chess. The four Russians are comfortably in the lead at the moment and show every intention of remaining there. Their scheme has not only kept them ahead of their foreign opposition, it is helping them defeat one of their own countrymen as well.

The Candidates' is a grueling round-robin affair, in which every contestant plays every other contestant four times. The four Russians have softened its rigors by not trying to win when they meet each other. They draw. They have been playing at Cura√ßao now for nearly a month, and every game they have played has been drawn—every game they have played against each other, that is. When they face any luckless contender who is not a member of their happy quartet they try their best.

Thus, they play to win when they meet Bobby Fischer, the 19-year-old American prodigy (and occasionally succeed), and all four experience a mighty revival of their competitive fervor when they come up against Pal Benko, the other U.S. contender, a Hungarian refugee who won an American chess championship last year. And the four Russians show just as much competitive ardor in thoroughly rooking the other member of the Russian contingent, ex-World Champion Mikhail Tal, and the remaining Iron Curtain candidate, Dr. Miroslav Filip of Czechoslovakia.

The shock of this amoral if not illegal strategy to the world of chess has been considerable. Spectators at the tournament in the big, pink Hotel Curaçao Intercontinental have taken to wandering away from the tournament scene to watch the gambling in the Casino. Correspondents following the brief newspaper accounts have been writing angry letters denouncing the Russians for collusion. "The implication is that they may not be putting forth their best efforts against each other," wrote Hermann Helms, the dean of American chess critics, adding politely, "for reasons best known to themselves."

The shock is all the greater because all previous Candidates' Tournaments—there have been four since 1950—have been bitterly contested, with a minimum of grandmaster draws. Cura√ßao was expected to be a particularly hard-fought event, because the two pretournament favorites, Tal and Fischer, had vital stakes in it. Tal, who won the 1959 Candidates' decisively—"by originality of thought, brilliance in combination, steadiness under pressure, lightning speed in calculation," said the tournament director—went on to win the world title from Mikhail Botvinnik. He was crushed by Botvinnik in their return match and played erratically thereafter. But nobody knew how badly he had been beaten, and his comeback try at Cura√ßao made the occasion dramatic.

As for Bobby Fischer, the local press reported that he arrived in Curaçao wearing a green corduroy suit, hand-tailored shirt, handmade shoes and Panama hat and "immediately went into seclusion." In the 1959 tournament that Tal won Bobby finished in fifth place. That was a spectacular achievement for a 16-year-old playing in his first Candidates'.

In the intervening three years Bobby has won most of the events that he has entered. Last fall at Bled in Yugoslavia he did not lose a game, though finishing second to Tal; in Stockholm this spring he was undefeated and decisively beat most of the contenders he now faces in Curaçao. The momentum of Fischer's victories and the superb quality of his recent games indicated that he had a real chance at the world title.

Scared Russians

In any event it was obvious that Bobby Fischer posed a threat to Russian domination of the game. "They're afraid of him," said Larry Evans, the U.S. champion, in the simplest and most logical explanation of Russian tactics and strategy.

The shape of things to come was indicated in the first round, when Ewfim Geller, a 37-year-old economist and former champion of the Soviet Union, drew his game with Victor Korchnoi, who was previously famous for playing desperately to win—"balancing on the edge of disaster," as Tal described it. In the second round Korchnoi met Tigran Petrosian, a methodical and unimpassioned Russian master. Korchnoi and Petrosian also drew. In the third round Tigran Petrosian met Ewfim Geller, while Korchnoi was playing the fourth member of the Russian quartet, Paul Keres. All four drew. In the fourth round Keres played Petrosian, and that game was quickly drawn. In the fifth round Keres and Geller just as quickly agreed to a draw. So it went, on and on, as the Russians piled up their scores by getting half points for draws. (A win is worth a full point, a loss nothing.) Geller and Petrosian drew one game in 18 moves, Petrosian and Keres drew one in 21 moves, and in the 12th round Keres and Geller shook hands and called it a draw after 18 .

Meanwhile, the other contenders were belaboring each other and trying to win every game. Fischer, for example, was losing a couple, winning a couple, drawing one and having a tough time. He beat Tal, Korchnoi, Keres, Pal Benko and Dr. Miroslav Filip. But he lost to Geller (twice), once to Korchnoi, once to Benko and once to Petrosian. On a free night he went to a prizefight in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, was recognized, and was cheered to the rafters. "He's fighting," said a U.S. chess master who is a veteran of a good many long chess battles with the Russians.

And the Russians weren't—at least four weren't fighting each other. When the tournament went into its five-day rest period after 14 of its 28 games, there were really two divisions in the standings:

[originallink:10510871:42261]

Won

Drawn

Lost

Petrosian

4

10

0

Geller

4

10

0

Keres

4

9

1

Korchnoi

4

8

2

Obviously something would happen here if one of the four ran amuck and started playing to win instead of always drawing with his colleagues. One victory in such an event could jump a man to the top. But such a display of free enterprise isn't likely. On the other hand, the lower half of the standing looked like this:

Won

Drawn

Lost

Fischer

5

4

5

Benko

3

6

5

Tal

3

3

8

Filip

2

4

8

It might be expected that some afternoon one Russian expert would be a little more, or a little less, equal than the others. But in Curaçao such is not the case. This condition of absolute equality has never been encountered in chess before. In fact, it has never been known in nature either. If it blows up in the next half, and the four top Russians begin to knock each other off instead of drawing all their games, chess players the world over will experience no emotion except relief. But the best guess is that the four Russians have already done the Red equivalent of drawing straws for the right to take on Champion Botvinnik.

PHOTOPETROSIAN PLAYS FOR TIE AFTER TIE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)