On summer evenings in Iceland the sun barely sinks below the horizon. There is a joke going around that Bobby Fischer demanded it set three hours earlier, but so far the Icelandic Chess Federation hasn't been able to arrange it. In any case, it is daylight most of the time, and the only real darkness in the land these days has been in the cavernous interior of Reykjavik's Exhibition Hall, where the World Championship Chess Match is going on, and possibly in the heart of Russia's Boris Spassky.
After 11 games in the best-of-24 series, Fischer (see cover) had apparently taken firm command. With a couple of exceptions, his play has been clearly superior to that of the Russian. Until Sunday's fiasco, when Fischer allowed his queen to fall on the 25th move, he had not lost to Spassky in nine straight games. Spassky had won across the board only twice, and the 6½-4½ lead Fischer had built up is, if not overwhelming, at least demoralizing.
Fischer has been working toward this week for 14 years, since the World Championship qualifying tournament at Portoroz, Yugoslavia in 1958, when he was 15 years old. That was the first time he had come up against a Russian chess player, and he met their top rank at the start: Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Yuri Averbach and David Bronstein. He drew his games with all four to finish fifth among 21 contenders. Since then he has made a kind of crusade out of ending the Russian dominance of chess.
He says the Russians have held the title for so long—Mikhail Botvinnik followed by Vassily Smyslov, Smyslov by Botvinnik, Botvinnik by Tal, Tal by Botvinnik, Botvinnik by Petrosian, Petrosian by Spassky—that they regard it as their property. "They don't look on me as a chess player who is trying to win the championship," he says. "They act as if I were a thief trying to steal something that belonged to them."
August 13, 1972
The promise of victory has produced in Fischer a sort of bemused satisfaction, as if winning carried with it some small pleasure he never knew existed before. It has transformed him. He is still as nocturnal as an alley cat, going to bed around six in the morning and rising in the afternoon. But when he comes out of his room at the Hotel Loftleidir he may glance with a start of surprise at the enormous pack of letters handed to him, then quickly suppress it with an indifferent air that suggests he has been getting a pouchful of letters every day of his life. He has taken to sauntering around the old center city near the waterfront, signing autographs and peering in shop windows, or to touring the watery Icelandic countryside with his second, the Rev. William Lombardy, a stately secular priest attached to the Archdiocese of New York and a brilliant chess player in his own right.
One off day Fischer wandered into the city for a fitting with a tailor and stopped in at a cocktail party for chess visitors at the U.S. Information Service headquarters. There he drank a glass of water (the officials forgot to order orange juice for him) and amiably questioned a group of Yugoslavs who wanted him to play in the forthcoming Chess Olympiad in Skopje. He listened attentively, occasionally chuckling as they described some Balkan wonder he would find there. It may not sound like much in the way of a social life, but for Fischer it is positively wanton. Or, as Bobby told his bodyguard, Saemundur Palsson, "It's great!"
This newfound tractability would have been a stunning contrast even to a normally abrasive Bobby Fischer, but until the last week or so he had been abnormally abrasive. Through the first games of this remarkable World Championship there was not much point in considering the kind of chess that was going to be played. The question was whether any chess was going to be played.
Each session was a crisis. Tension inside the vaulted Exhibition Hall was palpable, heightened by the pervasive gloom Fischer had insisted upon to help his concentration. Only the stage itself was lighted. A huge panel hung above the playing board to diffuse the waxen light from a bank of overhead lamps. The backdrop behind the mahogany-colored desk on which the board rests was solid gray. The only color relief was provided by six potted plants ranged somewhat improbably around the floor. Two executive-type chairs (Fischer had his flown in from New York) completed the decor. It could have been the setting for one of those barren futuristic dramas—say, 1984. Indeed, some said it was.
The presence of the two contenders did little to relieve the impression. Neither Fischer nor Spassky looked like men playing chess. When they took their seats they assumed postures more appropriate to a pair of angry young businessmen arguing over a forthcoming promotion. Spassky invariably arrived first, and Fischer was invariably late. When Spassky played the white pieces, he made his move, punched his clock and waited. When Fischer had white, Referee Lothar Schmid punched Fischer's clock at the starting time and everybody waited.
When Fischer finally arrived he plunged through the curtains with his hurried, loping walk and acknowledged the light—sometimes almost inaudible—applause. After each move the players jotted down their moves—Spassky with the air of a man penning a note to his secretary. The audience thought nothing of it when Spassky occasionally left his chair after a move and disappeared backstage. When Fischer did it, however, unmistakable suspense filled the room. Would he come back?
By last weekend all that had changed. Fischer was smiling, actually smiling, at people. He had even allowed a friend to come to his room and watch while he worked out some problems in the adjourned 10th game—something never heard of before. As he plays over a game Fischer is unlike the intimidating figure he presents in competition. He bends over the board, moving pieces almost too fast to follow with the eye. He sets up one position, then changes it in an instant, his hands darting about like those of a pianist at a keyboard.
"His room is a shambles," said Photographer Jerry Cooke after paying a 4:30 a.m. call on Fischer. "It is littered with magazines, dirty clothes, letters, chess books, messages...stuff. In the corners stand trays with half-eaten herrings and sour milk. At the center of it all is Bobby, hunched over a shabby vinyl chessboard."
Since Fischer has entered this new, mellow phase, his chess games have taken on their familiar, crackling vitality. Before the crucial ninth and 10th games there had been something wrong. Although Fischer had been scoring points, the strain and anxiety were obvious. Blunders by Spassky, rather than exceptional play by Fischer, accounted for much of the one-sidedness.
The first game of the match, for example, was jarred by one of Fischer's walkouts and further confused by what looked like a beginner's blunder when Fischer grabbed a poisoned pawn and lost his bishop. (Many international grand masters were at pains to point out that Fischer had some deep-laid plan in mind but that it did not work.) The second game was forfeited. The third game Fischer won, but it was marred by its setting in a small back room of the Exhibition Hall in deference to Fischer's camera shyness. It was, nevertheless, Fischer's first victory over Spassky since they first played in Argentina in 1958, and an important emotional watershed for Bobby. Still, it was not so much Fischer's win as Spassky's loss, a misstep on the Russian's 18th move placing him under the lasting necessity to defend. American Grand Master Larry Evans called the move "gruesome."
While the chess proceeded sporadically, the Icelanders grew increasingly annoyed by Fischer's early dyntir, meaning nonsense. Attendance dropped from some 2,500 at the first game to around 900 or less in the last two. A newspaper letter writer referred to Fischer as the most hated man in Iceland. One Rev. Pitur Mannusson issued a calming statement: "I urge those who have been offended...to hold their heads high if they meet [Fischer] on the street. That is what I am going to do if I meet this sharp-tongued genius."
Fischer's win in the fifth game, when Spassky on his 27th move committed the worst oversight of his career—a queen move that cost him a bishop—equalized the score at 2½-2½. But it was a game scarcely better than a routine chess-club match. Game 6 proved an exception to the early spottiness. Fischer, with white, practically blew Spassky off the board, seizing the initiative with a pawn offer on the 20th move and not letting go until the champion resigned on move 41. It was a measure of Fischer's skill that even Spassky joined the applause afterward—a gesture that visibly moved Bobby.
Game 7 was a lusterless draw, and even the eighth game, which Fischer won, was marred by another Fischer walkout over film cameras and an appalling blunder by Spassky on his 19th move. "Spassky is playing like a child," said Miguel Najdorf, an Argentine grand master who left Iceland after the game. Spassky requested a postponement for the ninth game; he was suffering from a cold that some wags suggested may have been complicated by "Fischer fear," a malaise well known to Bobby's past foes.
As if to contradict such speculation, Spassky sauntered in on time for the delayed ninth game, neatly dressed in a light jacket and blue trousers, apparently as composed as if it were the first game instead of perhaps his final chance. He proved the Soviets are not ignorant of the uses of psychology when he played his trademark opening, P-Q4, the one that Fischer could be expected to have prepared against most thoroughly. Fischer darted in breathlessly, 12 minutes late, sat at the desk with his head in his hands for five minutes of what appeared to be profound thought and then played N-KB3, his standard response to P-Q4. The hall stirred with an animation only another chess player could appreciate.
Five hours later, with equal strength on the board, the game was drawn. Spas-sky had outplayed Fischer in the opening, showing none of the shakiness that characterized his previous few games, but he appeared to back off when he had the initiative. Fischer fear?
Bent Larsen, the Danish grand master who lost six straight to Fischer in the elimination rounds last year, said that Spassky was hoping for a few draws to steady his nerves. Fischer was not accommodating.
The American opened with the white pieces in game 10, playing his trademark, P-K4. He is the world's strongest player with white in the Ruy Lopez, and Spassky is one of the best defenders with black against it. The result was a game that kept onlookers immobilized with its tension and depth. It was as exciting a chess game as one was ever likely to see, yet it was not thrilling in the sense of daring and dynamic movement. Both sides were in cramped and congested positions, with little action promised. But with every move both sides evoked some visible hazard.
It was characteristic of Spassky's play throughout the match that whenever Fischer introduced some innovation, even a relatively tame or unthreatening one, Spassky reacted with extreme caution. In game 10, for the first time in the match, Fischer deliberated longer than Spassky over the opening moves. At move 10 Spassky was ahead of Fischer on time, but six moves later the situation was reversed. At Fischer's 16th move, B-N2, Spassky seemed suddenly paralyzed, spending 50 minutes on his next two moves. Why did the champion seem so indecisive? Larsen said his preparation for the match was inadequate, a singular observation considering that Spassky spent eight months training with a team of experts for anything Fischer might throw at him. No. said Yugoslav Grand Master Svetozar Gligoric, Spassky was prepared, but in a limited area. Fischer played openings that Spassky and his team could not have dreamed he would play. Fischer has a wide knowledge of openings, a broader spectrum than Spassky. He simply had not played them frequently before and had become identified, above everything else, as a king's pawn player. Spassky's preparation was profound, but it was largely wasted. He had prepared for a different Fischer than the one he met.
When the 10th game was adjourned after 40 moves Spassky had a rook, a bishop and four pawns, including two passed pawns on the queen's side. Fischer had three-king-side pawns and two rooks. "Anybody who does not see that Spassky has a lost game," said Grand Master Al Horowitz with a meaningful glance, "does not know anything about chess." When play was resumed the next day Spassky wriggled through another 16 moves before resigning—his pawns decimated, his rook threatened, his king exposed. Fischer had seemed to put himself out of reach.
But Sunday's 11th game gave the Russian flickering life. Fischer, with the black pieces, repeated a thrust he had tried successfully in game 7—snatching a poisoned pawn with his queen early in the game. This time Spassky was prepared, and on move 25 he pounced, capturing Fischer's queen and winning the game. The challenger resigned on move 31, the earliest Fischer surrender in two years of tournament play.
Did the victory imply a reversal? To the contrary, said U.S. Grand Master Larry Evans. "With the three-point lead Fischer could have chosen a conservative, closed game. Instead, he played ultra-aggressively. The game is great for Spassky's self-respect. But in the match as a whole Fischer's advantage is still overwhelming."
A part of Fischer's strength was certainly surprise. Not that the Russians underestimated him; on the contrary, they overestimated the depth and complexity of his play and frequently overreacted to his innovations, even when they were of no particular consequence. But every game was a shock. The openings were those Fischer did not regularly play, and he adjusted himself quickly to the innovations that Spassky and his team had prepared. Fischer never gave Spassky a second chance. The Russian was shattered by every mistake, while Fischer seemed to absorb most variations Spassky threw at him with an instant, pragmatic adjustment on the board.
Another part of Fischer's strength is that he habitually thinks of his Russian opponents as part of a group, not as individuals. In the past 14 years he has played 105 tournament and match games with the top-ranking Russians, winning 37, losing 21 and drawing 47. But 15 of the lost games were in two Candidates Tournaments at Bled in 1959, when he was 16, and at Curacao in 1962, when he was 19. In Curacao he became convinced that the five Russian entries (of eight in the tournament) were conspiring, drawing their games with one another and concentrating their attacks on players from the rest of the world.
In the last five years he has played 45 games with the best of Russia's great players, and has won 24, drawn 16 and lost only five. "The top Russian players are very nearly equal in ability." he said just before the Spassky match. "They are very solid, and generally well-informed. They're all of them always in practice. They're well honed. But they're not great talents. They're not particularly original, though the Russian style in general is pretty interesting. They play basically straight professional chess and are interested chiefly in their relative standings with each other. If they can win a match by drawing 10 games in a row and then winning one, that is great chess in their book.
"You play chess in Russia because it is an intellectual thing, and the Russian chess players have to be better than those from the rest of the world. Or the Russian chess books and magazines have to pretend that they are to prove the superiority of their system. That's the thing about the Russian players. They don't always love the game. It's work, a job to them. It's like a nine-to-five job. They have to be prodded. The system takes away, something."
When Bobby Fischer was six years old someone told him that to be a successful chess player he would have to work within such a system. Fischer declined. "I don't know what that would have done to me," he says. "I don't think the lack of such training held me back. See, I love the game."
THE MINI-BOOM IN KNIGHTS AND BISHOPS
Until the Fischer-Spassky confrontation most Americans never understood what the rest of the world saw in chess. Since the Reykjavik antics began, however, the game has been enjoying a mini-boom from San Francisco to Boston. Demand is brisk for chess sets and instructional books—particularly Bobby Fischer's Chess Games.
Proprietors of chess clubs report membership increases of 40 to 50%. Alex Agre of Philadelphia's Franklin Mercantile Chess Club describes the weekend scene there as "gangbusters." San Francisco chess master Jude Acers says his personal appearance fees will hit $35,000 this year.
The Reykjavik factor has brought full employment and instant prestige to the ranks of U.S. international grand masters, who in ordinary times enjoy a status approximately equal to that of Gypsy violinists. Three grand masters (Larry Evans, Robert Byrne and Al Horowitz) are in Iceland for the press, while two others—Sammy Reshevsky for New York's WNEW-TV and Isaac Kashdan for Associated Press—are employed at home.
Chess master and teacher Shelby Lyman has become an overnight cult hero on educational television. His phone exchanges with the laconic but unseen Edmar Mednis at the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan ("Hello, Edmar? What do you think?" "Well, we don't think it looks too bad for Fischer") highlight the coverage.
In Atlanta an underground café called The Chessboard reports a burgeoning but somewhat misguided clientele. Its name has nothing to do with the game. It was bestowed by the owner, Anita Chess.