The audience in the Teatro General San Martin in Buenos Aires seemed mesmerized as Bobby Fischer took his seat in a leather desk chair and pushed his king's pawn forward two squares. P-K4. The first game of the scheduled 12-game chess match between Tigran Petrosian of the Soviet Union and Fischer of the United States had begun as expected. Fischer, playing the white pieces, made his usual, almost inevitable first move. He pressed a lever stopping his time clock and starting Petrosian's, then jotted down his move on the score sheet beside him. Two young men hurried forward from the obscurity of stage rear—one checking the move Fischer had made, the other duplicating it on a large red-and-white chessboard set against the backdrop behind the players.
Twenty-seven days later, after eight games, 42 hours on the stage and a total of nearly 350 moves each, Fischer and Petrosian had come to the brink. Or rather, Petrosian had. After a four-game lapse in which he had played listlessly or ineptly, Fischer had regained his summer form and had reduced the former world champion to a pawn, a knight and a king in the ninth and, as it turned out, last game. For all that, the scene appeared much as it had when the matches began.
One change was the chessboard: Petrosian had objected to the bright colors on the red-and-white layout, and so the red squares had been changed to a dull brown. But the audience for the ninth game was as it had been for the first: entranced with the situation and the Fischer personality. The broad panels of fluorescent lights threw the same pallid, shadowless illumination on the two immobile figures onstage—Fischer, age 28, dark blue suit, dark maroon tie, tall, thin, pale, intent, shifting hardly at all except to move his chessmen or to rest his fingers against his bony cheek or to step into the wings occasionally to take a bite of a grilled-kidney sandwich and a swig of orange juice; Petrosian, age 42, short, square-shouldered, bulky, abundant black hair over his grave Armenian features, bending over the board and peering at each of Fischer's moves like a diamond merchant appraising a possible purchase. He too was immobile except for a rare walk to the referee's table for a cup of coffee from his thermos bottle.
Between moves, Petrosian deliberated much longer than Fischer—as much as 25 minutes. At such times the audience squirmed with anticipation, but nothing happened—unless the squirming got too noisy. Then red signs went on at both sides of the proscenium: SILENCIO. The sameness, the nothingness, was all camouflage, however. These 27 days had shaken the chess world.
The Fischer-Petrosian match was the third and final round in the eliminations to determine the challenger next spring for the world championship now held by 34-year-old Boris Spassky of Russia. Under the rules the first player to score 6½ points—a victory counting for one point, a draw half a point—was the winner. But the issue was settled, for all practical purposes, by the seventh game. After that victory by Fischer, Petrosian would have had to take four of the last five games to win. Despite this air of inevitability hanging over the last days of the competition, something new and undefined charged every game. Fischer had arrived in Buenos Aires after the most sensational string of chess victories ever recorded—19 in a row over some of the world's greatest players (SI, Aug. 2). He was quite sociable—for Fischer, that is. He gave interviews, tramped the streets at night with hero-worshiping young journalists, smiled stiffly for photographers and responded amiably when President Alejandro Agustin Lanusse gave him and Petrosian exquisite chessboards of green-and-white onyx. Ordinarily, Fischer is socially evasive rather than hostile, likely to greet even an old friend as if he were expecting a subpoena. Despite his good humor, he was under a strain: he wanted to keep his unbroken string going, but he also wanted to show that it had not gone to his head.
Petrosian arrived with a record as impressive in its way as Fischer's. In 42 preceding games he had been beaten only twice—but he had won only a handful of the rest. The others were all draws, reinforcing his reputation as the most cautious, imperturbable, resourceful defensive player of all time. And so Petrosian was under no strain to uphold an impossible standard. He arrived with his wife Rhona, a friendly and motherly woman, together with a number of Russian chess officials and experts and a pair of muscular bodyguards.
Petrosian began the first game against Fischer as if bodyguards were the last thing in the world he needed. On his 11th move in a Sicilian Defense opening, Petrosian introduced a surprise variation that refuted Fischer's favorite line in such situations. The effect was to reverse roles. Petrosian was suddenly attacking with Fischer's boldness, and Fischer was defending with Petrosian's habitual caution. Fischer exchanged pieces, simplifying the game, but still appeared to be losing. Then, unexpectedly, Petrosian reverted to his usual passivity, drifting into an infirm end game in which his allotted time was woefully short. He offered Fischer a draw. Fischer refused. With only seconds remaining on his clock (Fischer had half an hour), Petrosian staggered into a hopeless position and resigned on the 40th move. Fischer's unbroken string of victories had now reached 20 games. Still, he had been outplayed. If not for his time trouble, Petrosian could easily have drawn, and possibly won.
Fischer arrived three minutes late for the second game, and with the black pieces played a reckless match. In a rare lapse of judgment he overreached himself in the opening, was unable to castle and found himself in the end game with a wandering king. He resigned after 32 moves. The great winning streak was over.
"Over?" said Isaac Kashdan, a former U.S. champion. "It's smashed to smithereens!" The crowd—1,200 inside the theater, 2,000 in the lobby—chanted, "Tigran! Tigran!"
Games three, four and five—all draws—represented another kind of turn in the Fischer fortunes. In the third game Petrosian barricaded his king behind a hedgehog formation and waited for Fischer to come and get him. Fischer made a speculative sally, sacrificing a pawn and offering to sacrifice the exchange (trading a stronger rook for a bishop), but Petrosian declined. For a time his ruthless precision promised another victory, but he again got into time trouble, and Fischer gained an automatic draw on repeated moves. It was a lucky save for the American. The score, now 1½ to 1½, could easily have been 3-0 in favor of Petrosian.
For the next 10 days, while he took on all the earmarks of a loser, Fischer reverted to kind. No photographs. No smiles. No interviews. "I've been seeing too many people," he said. He caught cold. He changed hotel rooms repeatedly. He could not sleep and blamed it on the sound of traffic rising from the Avenue of the Ninth of July. "I do not know how many times Mr. Fischer changed his room," said the hotel manager with dignity. "Every day, I think."
Edmund Edmondson, a retired Air Force colonel and executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation, acted as Fischer's buffer against photographers, television cameramen, journalists and innocent bystanders. When a well-wisher told Edmondson that he looked forward to happier chess occasions for Fischer, the colonel said hollowly, "A draw is a happy occasion."
The fourth game was a grand master's draw, a perfunctory 20-move affair, with Fischer proposing and getting a draw after only an hour and 20 minutes of play. In the fifth game Petrosian offered a draw on the 34th move, and Fischer refused, only to turn around four moves later and offer one that Petrosian accepted. "Petrosian is making Bobby play his kind of chess," said Larry Evans, Fischer's second.
The draws seemed to increase, rather than reduce, the tensions of the crowds, which appeared, in the great mirrored lobby, to reach out into infinity. People stood shoulder to shoulder, like a crowd in a subway rush hour, remaining till the final move of each game. In addition to the fans trying to figure out each player's next move, there were those who studied something else: they were watching Fischer come down from his mountain of unbroken victories, to the plains of victory, loss and draw.
With the white pieces in game six, Petrosian was relaxed and confident. Fischer was pale, if not haggard. And yet, after half a dozen moves Fischer had calmed and begun to concentrate. About an hour into the game two stench bombs went off in the last row of the theater. All over the theater handkerchiefs were held to noses; in the back rows people headed for the exits. Referee Lothar Schmid, a West German publisher and chess master, approached Petrosian and Fischer to ask if they wanted to stop. "It's a gas bomb," he said.
"Poison gas?" Fischer asked.
Assured it wasn't, Petrosian and Fischer agreed to continue. But it turned into a sterile game for Petrosian. Fischer broke through on the queen side just before the game was adjourned at the 40th move; when it was resumed at five o'clock the following day Fischer demolished the blockades that Petrosian tried to set, and after the 66th move Petrosian resigned.
Fischer's victory in game six was simplified because Petrosian played badly, but there was no such weakness in the seventh, a classical, logical demonstration of mastery and the turning point of the match. Tradition has it that when two chess masters are of roughly equal ability the winner will usually be the one in the best physical condition—or, as chess players put it ironically, nobody has ever won a match from a healthy opponent.
Until this stage of the drama, Petrosian looked better than Fischer. But two days later, at the last possible moment before the eighth game, Petrosian requested a postponement, submitting a certificate that he was suffering from low blood pressure complicated by the hot, humid weather of the Buenos Aires spring. He spent the day wandering through the city and listening to Tchaikovsky records in a music store.
The five-day rest was precisely what Fischer needed. With a two-point advantage, 4½ to 2½, and relieved of the pressure of his victory string, he relaxed visibly. He avoided the American chess experts and hung out with a young Argentine champion, Miguel Angel Quinteros, 24, who was doing commentary for local television. Fischer played a little tennis at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, swam in the pool of the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima, played Ping-Pong with some Argentine youngsters and hid out from reporters.
What chess players think about during a game is incommunicable, particularly in matches like this, when every move they make is being pondered by thousands around the world. Fischer gave one small glimpse of what went on in his mind as he took his place on the stage for the eighth game when he admitted (after the match) that he was still not confident of winning. He played carefully, coldly, logically, trying no bold ventures or brilliant forays, slowly building up a minute advantage in position until he was able to launch an attack of overwhelming power. "Petrosian's spirit is broken," said a Russian grand master, Yuri Auerbach, when Petrosian resigned at the 40th move. "You can't play chess after you are 40 years old. Spas-sky will be stronger."
So the stage was set for the ninth game, same scene, same setting, except that the characters looked drawn and the crowd spilled out of the theater into the street. Playing the white, Fischer advanced his queen pawn on the second move, and it all seemed to have happened before, a static drama endlessly repeated. But now Fischer seemed to be more mature. He watched Petrosian hesitate over his opening, saw him spend nine minutes on his seventh move, and two moves later, when Petrosian wasted another five minutes on a weak response, Fischer knew he was going to win.
At that point Fischer may have been the only one who did. But then, chess masters see farther ahead than ordinary chess players. Petrosian sacrificed material to set up a mating net on the king side. To the layman's eye (and even to some experts), Petrosian's web looked lethal, and although Fischer slowly worked his king to safety, picking up pawns as he did so, his position seemed hopeless. But Petrosian failed, and on the 44th move had only his king, a knight and a single pawn; Fischer had his king, rook and six pawns.
"Six pawns!" said Herman Pilnick, the commentator on the games. "Do you know what that means? There are only eight to begin with." Two moves later Petrosian resigned. By any standard, even those of the rankest amateur, he should have resigned long before. But he went on playing like an automaton, until he literally had nothing left to lose.
Fischer's recent record raises the distinct possibility that he has made a breakthrough in modern chess theory. His response to Petrosian's elaborately plotted 11th move in the first game is an example: Russian experts had worked on the variation for weeks, yet when it was thrown at Fischer suddenly, he faced its consequences alone and won by applying simple, classic principles. Masters like Petrosian may have become prisoners of the past.
In the moment after winning, Fischer started to step forward on the stage to acknowledge the cheers. Then he changed his mind and disappeared through a rear exit while Petrosian threaded his way slowly through the screaming mob in the lobby, nodding his thanks to applause. Fischer and Quinteros ran down the dark back street, pursued by a crowd of excited youngsters. Finally at Uruguay Street they found an empty cab, made a brief appearance at the television studio to discuss the match, and then drove to a bowling alley in a suburb in north Buenos Aires where the two of them bowled steadily until 3:30 in the morning.