Wednesday, September 27, 2006

War Games

"When you play Bobby, it is not a question if you win or lose. It is a question if you survive. - Boris Spassky on Bobby Fischer

As you read this, the world championship of chess is going on in Kalmykia, which is yet another country carved out of the old Soviet Union (it's on the Caspian Sea and borders on the Crimea to the one or two of you who still know anything about geography). It's the first unified world championship in 13 years. Regrettably, in a world focused on the Internet (which should be the perfect medium to follow a chess match), brain-dead television, video games, and big-money sports, chess is almost an anachronism.

It's not that chess was a huge event years ago, but it had a great deal of respect, and the majority of people played it, even if they didn't always own up to it. Now, if the average person knows anything about chess, they probably relate it to speed-chess, a degraded form of chess that has managed de-intellectualze a game once equated with enormous expenditures of brain power.

People also know how Gary Kasparov was the first grandmaster to lose a game to a computer, the legendary Deep Blue, although he won the match. He was subsequently played to a draw in a match against a successor machine, Deep Junior. In a way, Mr. Kasparov caused the decline of championship chess by starting his own chess federation in competition with FIDE, which resulted in two separate champions who never played each other. I don't know why he did this; perhaps he got tired of defending his title against Anatoly Karpov all the time.

At any rate, we'll have one champion again, but it's unlikely to get much coverage anywhere in our too-busy-for-a-daily-hair-restorer-treatment world. It wasn't always like that.

You may recall Bobby Fischer reappearing recently when the U.S. tried to get him extradited from Japan because he violated a sanction against traveling to Yugoslavia back in 1992 to play an exhibition against Boris Spassky. He and Spassky made a pile of money, which is what got the Feds irritated more than anything else. Fischer went on the lam for years. After a lot of demonstrations, diplomatic wrangling, and general confusion, Iceland offered to let Fischer come there to honor his achievements in chess. Many would say that the greatest of these occurred in Iceland, in Reykjavik, in 1972 when he won the world championship of chess, defeating the reigning champion, that same Boris Spassky.

I could probably write about a dozen entries about that match and the craziness that surrounded it, but others have done it better (see the resource for this article below, for example). I'll try to give you an overview.

You have to understand the period. In many ways, the worst of the Cold War had passed, but there were still plenty of tensions. We had beaten the Russians to the Moon; they had beaten our basketball team in the Olympics. In general, things were moving toward what would be called detente, but we had a long way to go. And the Russians dominated the world of chess.

Bobby Fischer was the wunderkind of chess. He won the U.S. championship at 14 and became a grandmaster at 15, the youngest up to that time. He was also a nut. He was reclusive, paranoid, volatile, and he hated the Russians with a passion because he felt they were “conspiring” to keep him from winning the chess crown.

Boris Spassky was Fischer's opposite in many ways. He was gregarious, charming, and somewhat athletic. He was calm and self-composed, able to easily withstand the pressures of winning chess' highest prize. And, he had never lost to Fischer.

That the match happened at all was a minor miracle. FIDE's rules called for a series of tournaments that would culminate in a challenger's tournament which would decide Spassky's opponent. Fischer, protesting something or other, sat out the initial phases of the challenge events. After considerable cajoling by friends and chess afficiandos, he entered the fray at what's called the Interzonal level and proceeded to mop up the floor with fallen grandmasters. He didn't just win his matches; he annihilate his opponents, at one point winning 20 games in a row. At a level where draws outnumber decisions by about 2 to 1, to win 20 games straight outright is on a par with Joe Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

Fischer, who seemed often to be so childish and unpredictable, was almost frighteningly self-possessed over the chess board. His opponents seemed to be unnerved by his aggressive play, his ability to deflect attacks, and his complex tactics. Almost to a man, at some point in the match, his opponents would request a postponement due to illness. The phenomenon became known as “Fischer fever.”

So the match was set between Fischer and Spassky. Now the haggling over the sites started (which ended up being Iceland), then over the purse (which ended up being a couple of hundred thousand dollars). Fischer issued one demand after another. The Russians got upset. The more the Russians complained about Fischer, the more Fischer claimed they were conspiring against him. Meanwhile, Spassky waited.

Just when it appeared that the match would never happen, Fischer showed up, but his (non-chess-related) games were not at an end. He didn't show up at the opening ceremonies, sending a representative instead. This outraged the Russians who demanded an apology. Eventually, Fischer acceded, and the match that almost didn't happen started.
Fischer lost game 1. Then he went on a rampage about TV filming. He could hear the cameras; he could see the cameramen; the conditions were impossible. He refused to play until the cameras were removed. The next game went on with the cameras in place, and Fischer didn't show up, forfeiting the game. Now he was down 2-0 in a contest to 12.

There were considerably more histrionics, but finally Fischer was made happy, or least less unhappy. Whatever the reason, he decided to get down to business. Boy, did he get down to business. He won games 3, 5, 6, 8, and 10 (the others were draws) before Spassky finally broke back in game 11. After a draw in game 12, the score was 7 to 5 in favor of Fischer, but many thought the Russian had new life. Fat chance.

In game 13, Fischer brilliantly dodged Spassky's attempts at attack then turned the tables. After 74 moves, Spassky resigned, looking shell-shocked. Fischer was in command, and Spassky knew it. The next day he requested a postponement of the next game due to illness. “Fischer fever” had struck again.

From there on to game 20, the games were drawn. Fischer could afford to play for draws; Spassky could not. Yet Spassky couldn't find a formula to trap the American. Then came game 21.

Chess is a timed affair, because in the olden days, some players would simply wear down others by taking forever to make moves. Game 21, like several of the others, was adjourned, this time after 40 moves. Spassky had had some opportunities in the game, but he made misplays and generally seemed worn out. The next day, just as the match was about to start, Spassky phoned to say he resigned. Fischer was the world champion.

A lot of folks thought chess, would be big-time stuff after that, but it was not to be. Fischer, if I recall, never even defended his championship, essentially retiring from public life for years. Russians and Central Europeans went back to dominating the game, and, to Americans, chess went back to being a pursuit for eggheads, an occasional bright kid, and the piece-slamming speed players.

It's a shame, really. Our brains could stand the exercise.

Reference: Fischer-Spassky: The New York Times Report on the Chess Match of the Century, Richard Roberts, et. al. Bantam Books, 1972.

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