Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bobby Fischer Goes to War

The True Story of How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time

The "Match of the Century" has already been the subject of many books, but this one has benefited by coming out more than 30 years after the event.

Thanks to the ending of the Cold War, the authors had access to sources of information formerly unavailable. They spoke to many of the key people involved (the main exception, of course, being Fischer himself), and have put together this compulsively readable account.

In 1972 the match caught the imagination of people in the West because it was seen as a Cold War battle enacted over a chessboard, with a lone American taking on the seemingly invincible Soviet chess collective.

The authors have a different view: "Far from being a simple ideological confrontation, the championship was played out on many levels, of which the chess itself was only one." Thus their focus is more on what happened away from the board. They begin by describing the two opponents: Fischer the "enfant terrible of chess," and Spassky something of a maverick himself, a patriotic Russian who felt little allegiance to the Soviet Union. He was not a party member, and once raised hackles by asking:

"Did Comrade Lenin suffer from syphilis?"

The authors explain how Fischer was able to dictate the terms of the match in a way that had never happened before. The event almost never took place because he demanded an unprecedented amount of money. British businessman Jim Slater came to the rescue by kicking in an additional $125,000. That got Fischer to Reykjavik, but the barrage of demands continued, some of them quite ridiculous:

The legs of the $1200 custom-built mahogany table should be shortened, the sumptuous chessboard changed, the front rows of seats removed, the camera towers pushed right back to the point where filming would be nigh impracticable, the lighting brighter –- no, less bright, no, brighter than that.

Opposing him was the likeable Spassky, who had never been beaten by Fischer, and who was perhaps more accommodating than he should have been. The cumulative effect of Fischer’s tantrums and ultimatums wore down the champion even before the match began. He also undermined his own efforts by quarrelling with his handlers and insisting on putting together his own team. He did not prepare as hard as he could have, and was surprised by Fischer's use of atypical openings, like the English.

When Spassky fell behind, the Soviets expressed concern that the Americans were using “non-sporting” means to gain an advantage – telepathy, chemicals, parapsychology, etc. Fischer’s chair was x-rayed, revealing a strange u-shaped tube inside it, which did not show up on a second x-ray. Was it a diabolical device? Or was it planted then removed by the KGB?

"I'm crushing him with brute force. Haaaaaa!"

Fischer is reported to have said this during game 3, which he won -- the first time he had ever beaten Spassky. In the end he won 7 games to Spassky's 3 (one of which Fischer forfeited by not showing up). The rest were draws, though "far from being dull, lazy games, several of these had been desperate, protracted bare-knuckle brawls, exciting if not always pretty."

The final score was 12.5 - 8.5 after 21 games. Fischer earned over $150,000, while Spassky took home $93,750, making him a wealthy man in the USSR.

Fischer never defended his title despite lucrative tournament offers. When he was due to meet Karpov, the winner of the next Candidates tournament, he issued a list of 179 demands. When FIDE refused to meet them all, he resigned his title. Many observers believed he was frightened of the chessboard. After winning the championship, he had nothing left to achieve and descended into "an abyss of unreality."

A few final quotes:

Reykjavik changed chess itself.

Spassky went to Reykjavik to celebrate chess. Fischer went to fight.

There never has been an era in modern chess during which one player
[Fischer] has so overshadowed all others.

A movie based on the book is in development.