Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fischer's eccntric brilliancies: Part 2

The last time we left off, Fischer was on his way to the Soviet Union, where you don't play chess, but chess plays you he was about to participate in the prestigious 1959 Candidates Tournament. Back then the Red Chess Empire was at its pinnacle; naturally the tournament favourites were the experienced Soviet grandmasters: Petrosian, Keres, Tal, and Smyslov.

How about the American, young and untested against the Russian war machine? Of course his chances were not rated highly; in fact many felt that he was not yet mature enough for such a difficult tournament. And true to the facts, he was unable to overcome the latest weapon that the Soviet players were employing against him: The Caro-Kann defense. As Kasparov noted many years later, "(Fischer's) score against them in the Caro-Kann was dismal: 1-4, and this with the white pieces!".

Although he was having major difficulties overcoming the might of the Reds, Fischer did start on a good note, scoring a hard-fought win over Paul Keres in the first round:

Keres (left) vs Fischer in 1959, while Pal Benko spectates

Fischer eventually finished 5th out of 8, while Tal won the tournament and went on to face Botvinnik in the World Championship Match 1960. Despite this seemingly disappointing performance, it was considered a good finish for a first-timer. Again, Kasparov invokes a few notable lines from the tournament book:

"World champion Botvinnik analysed many of Fischer's games and came to the conclusion that this youth does indeed possess a brilliant talent, but some people underestimate him. In his style and understanding of the game Fischer is close to the Soviet Chess School, the founder of which was Chigorin. Botvinnik is sure that the American Grandmaster has a great future."

A great future indeed. Fischer continued participating in tournaments and matches, slowly but surely racking up his battle experience. Meanwhile, the press was writing eagerly about the rising American star, picturing him as the next possible contender for the World Championship. Before long he had qualified again for the 1962 Candidates Tournament, brimming with confidence for another shot at the world crown.

His ego was quickly shattered by losses in the first two rounds, and by Round 7 his score looked pretty bleak: +2=2-3. Fischer realized that, contrary to what his romanticized ideals told him, this tournament was definitely going to be no walk in the park. So he dug in, and held out until he scored another well-deserved win against Tal in Round 11.

Now many would know that Mikhail Tal, the magician from Riga, was a master of attacking chess, often sacrificing pieces in order to confuse and out-calculate his opponents. But in 1962 he had just underwent a major operation, and was still unwell when he entered the Candidates. Fischer lured the out-of-form Latvian away from sharp, tactical positions, and entered a tricky endgame that was familiar territory to the American: Bishop vs Knight.

Position after 23. Rhd1

In the above position, Tal as Black could have exchanged on d4, simplifying to a classical blockade position where his knight would have an edge over the bishop. But instead, he was tempted by White's king in the centre, and proceeded with 23. f5?

This severely weakened the dark squares around Black's kingside, which wasn't a very good idea given that White had the ideal bishop to exploit them! Moreover, Fischer now had a beautiful hole on g5 for his bishop and king, which he utilized to the fullest extent. I fast forward the game to 16 moves later:

Position after 39... Nf8

Any fool can tell that White is winning: His bishop is far superior to the poor knight, and after 40. Rd6 it is only a matter of time before the defenders are exchanged and Black's kingside pawns fall. White's stranglehold on the dark squares is unquestionable.

As always it is best to show more details about the struggle:

Tal was pretty out of form during this tournament; he eventually withdrew from the tournament due to his ailing health. Fischer, who had great admiration for the Magician from Riga, visited him in hospital. Nevertheless, this game still shows Fischer's absolute tenacity and his renowned mastery of bishops in the endgame.

The only sport you can play without getting out of bed

But alas, the Candidates 1962 was not Fischer's for the taking. He finished in 4th place, behind Petrosian, Keres and Geller. But while the tournament had concluded, the sparks were only just beginning to fly! Once again Kasparov provides a vibrant narrative about this in "My Great Predecessors", so I will let him do the talking:

"This failure had an enormous effect on Fischer. Of course, he had to find some explanation, some justification for what had happened... And again a trait of his character told: instead of seeking the causes of the failure in his own play, Bobby looked for others who were to blame. And he found them! In an article with the colourful title 'The Russians have fixed world chess", published in the magazine 'Sports Illustrated', he directly accused Petrosian, Keres and Geller of making a pact. They had supposedly agreed beforehand to draw amongst themselves, which gave them a respite, whereas he had to play every game with full intensity."

These accusations of Soviet collusion sounded valid to some extent: All 12 games between the top three had ended in draws lasting less than 19 moves. But of course the Reds denied all allegations, and since we're here to discuss about Fischer's games and not some crazy conspiracy theory, I'm going to skip over the details (Wiki gives a good description and analysis of the controversy here if you're really interested). Anyway, all the players involved have since passed on, so it is unlikely that we will ever find out whether the allegations are true.

What matters was that in response to Fischer's outcry, FIDE decided to change the format of the Candidates. The traditional round-robin format was replaced by a series of knockout matches from the next cycle onwards, to prevent the possibility of collusion between players. It was the very same match format that Fischer would come to dominate during his return in 1971...

To be continued...

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:
Part 5:

"My Great Predecessors: Part 4" by Garry Kasparov
Raising a flag over the Reichstag, by Yevgeny Khaldei, Fair use,
Unknown -, Fair use, 

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