Saturday, April 29, 2017

Fischer's eccentric brilliancies: Part 4

So here we are. After steamrolling his way through the Interzonals and the Candidates, Fischer was one step away from clinching the ultimate crown. Before him stood the tenth World Champion, Boris Spassky, who won the title in 1969. A clash of the titans was about to take place.

Soviets are red, Allies are blue, Fischer is here to slaughter ya

And it was not just the chess world that was hyped up over it. The battle between an American and Russian grandmaster was touted as an extension of the Cold War. To the Reds, their 24-year monopoly over chess was key to demonstrating their intellectual superiority over the corrupt Western Imperialists. Yet now they were thrown into panic mode, having witnessed one Soviet master after another get demolished by the American juggernaut (and no, there were no Suicide Chess Championships to save their a_ses). Naturally, their expectations of Spassky were enormous, for he was the only one who could stop the tide of the Fischer machine and protect their beloved crown.

The expectations on Fischer were no less either. Being the first Westerner in 24 years to challenge the World Title, the Americans were all looking forward to him overthrowing the cruel yoke of communism (and perhaps give justification to their involvement in the ongoing Vietnam War, which was already gaining strong public opposition). But Fischer couldn’t care any less about what both sides of the Atlantic thought of him. He only had one goal in mind: Defeat Boris Spassky.

After much heated discussion between both players and FIDE over the match arrangements, the World Chess Championship 1972—dubbed the “Match of the Century”—kicked off in Reykjav√≠k, Iceland.

Things got off to a bad start for Fischer. He threw his first game with an unexpected blunder (29… Bxh2??), and further disagreements with the tournament organizers led to him refusing to turn up for Game 2, forfeiting the point to Spassky.

Position after 29. b5. Here Fischer played 29... Bxh2? 30. g3 losing the bishop

Fischer vs Spassky, Game 1

 But in the subsequent rounds, it was Spassky’s turn to falter. A string of defeats allowed Fischer to catch up, and even surge ahead by an astonishing 3 point lead!

The first game we shall look at today is Game 6 of the match. It was dramatized in the movie Pawn Sacrifice, but the backstory is still the same: Fischer surprised everyone by deviating from his trademark 1. e4, playing the English for the third time in his competitive career. Spassky employed his favourite Tatakower variation, which he had never lost a tournament game with. Still, it was not enough to stop the menacing American machine from scoring a home run:

After the game, Spassky was so impressed that he joined the audience in applauding Fischer's win (Fischer himself was greatly honoured and called Spassky a "true sportsman"). It was a well-deserved ovation, as Bobby had performed the miraculous feat of defeating a strong opponent in his own territory!

It was only at Game 11 that Spassky put a halt to Fischer's momentum, returning the favour from Game 6 by defeating the American in his favourite Sicilian Poisoned Pawn variation. After employing a counter-intuitive novelty, the Russian trapped his opponent's queen and finished off with a crushing attack:

Game 12 was drawn, and it appeared that Spassky had good chances to catch up. Then came a closely-fought Game 13, where Fischer avoided the Sicilian (following his "wake-up" call in Round 11!) and switched to the Alekhine's Defence. In this nerve-wracking battle, Fischer was up a pawn, but made inaccuracies that allowed Spassky to gain a strong counterattack. The tides swung back and forth before being adjourned at move 42:

Game 13, Position after 41... Bd5

Here, both sides performed their own extensive analysis, before concluding that the position was a dead draw.

At least, a dead draw with CORRECT play:

Fischer's unexpected victory dealt a shock to the Soviet team, who could not believe how a position they analyzed so exhaustively and concluded to be drawn, ended up as a defeat. Spassky himself was stunned, and remained glued to his seat for a long time after the game, trying to figure out where he went wrong. He remarked: "It is very strange. How can one lose with the opponent's only rook locked in completely at g8?"

It was one of Fischer's greatest feats of the match. Botvinnik called it "the highest creative achievement of Fischer", and that "Nothing similar had been seen before in chess."

David Bronstein gives an even more memorable description: “Of all the games from the match, the 13th appeals to me most of all. When I play through the game I still cannot grasp the innermost motive behind this or that plan or even individual move. Like an enigma, it still teases my imagination.”

From then on, it seemed that the match was as good as over. Both sides held each other to draws for seven more games; Fischer appeared content to just inch his way to the title since he had a comfortable 3 point lead, while Spassky seemed resigned to his fate. Bobby’s dream came true in Game 21, when he triumphed again in another difficult endgame, pushing him over the required 12.5 points.

And on that fateful day, 31st August 1972, Fischer became the first non-Soviet in 24 years to become World Champion.

Spassky (left) vs Fischer

His victory made him an instant celebrity. Bobby, the giant slayer, had finally defeated the mighty Soviet Chess Empire. The Americans were ecstatic, and then-US President Richard Nixon called upon Fischer to congratulate him.

American humour columnist Art Buchwald penned a hypothetical conversation between Fischer and Nixon. It is a tongue-in-cheek parody of Fischer’s numerous demands for absolute silence during his Championship Match, as well as his disdain for the United States:

"Hello, Bobby, this is President Nixon. I just wanted to call and congratulate you on your victory in Iceland."

"Make it short will you? I'm tired."

"This is a great day for America, Bobby."

"It's a greater day for me. I won $150,000 and I showed these Icelandic creeps a thing or two."
"You know, Bobby, I almost made the chess team at Whittier College."

"Big deal."

"But I went out for football, instead."

"Is that what this call is about?"

"Now wait a minute, Bobby. I always call anyone who wins a championship for America. I would like to give you a white-tie dinner at the White House when you come back."

"How much will you pay me to come?"

"Pay you? I don't pay people to have dinner at the White House."

"Then what's in it for me?"

"I'll invite the cabinet, the Supreme Court, the leaders of Congress, and every rich Republican chess player in the country. I'll get Guy Lombardo to play after dinner. It's the least I can do for someone who beat the great Spassky."

"All right, I'll come, but these are my demands: You send the presidential plane to Iceland to pick me up. You personally meet me at the plane, and provide me with a limousine, a suite of rooms, a private tennis court, my own swimming pool and 10 Secret Service men so I'm not bugged by the press."

"I think I can do that, Bobby."

"And no television cameras."

"No television cameras?"

"I hate television cameras. They send me into a frenzy. If I see one television camera at the dinner, I'm walking out."

"Don't worry, Bobby. There won't be any television cameras."

"And no talking while I'm eating. I can't eat when people talk."

"It's very difficult to hold a large dinner at the White House and not have anyone talk."

"That's your problem. If I hear noise of any kind, you're going to have to get yourself another world champion chess player."

"Anything you say, Bobby. It's your dinner."

"What time is this shindig of yours going to take place?"

"I thought about 8 o'clock."

"I'll be there at 9. I don't like to stand around and make small talk with a lot of stuffed-shirt politicians."

"I understand, Bobby"

"And I'm bringing my own chair. I can't eat when I'm using someone else's chair. And you better know this right now. I don't like bright lights when I'm eating. If the lights are too bright, I don't start the first course."

"No bright lights. I got you, Bobby. I just want to add how proud we all are of you. You're an inspiration to the young people of America."

The President hangs up and calls Richard Helms of the CIA. "Dick, I'm sending the presidential plane to Iceland to pick up Bobby Fischer. Do me a favor. After he's on board, will you see that it's hijacked to Cuba?"

Kasparov mentions the parody in “My Great Predecessors” with the following comments:

“A joke's a joke, but here Fischer's character is guessed with striking accuracy: that predatory directness, that uncompromising and pragmatic nature, and at the same time that simple-mindedness and awkwardness of the ‘boy from Brooklyn’—persistent complexes, extending from a childhood full of anxiety and deprivation...”

Uncompromising indeed. Fischer just couldn’t get enough of having disagreements with FIDE. When he was scheduled to defend his title in 1975, his request to change the match format (from first to 12.5 points into a first to ten wins) was denied. As a result, the American refused to defend his title, and his challenger—rising Soviet star Anatoly Karpov—was declared the new World Champion. The Soviets had their beloved title back in their hands.

How about Fischer? Well, he vanished. Not totally, but he did not play a competitive game for a long time. After his long struggle with the Russians, and his tooth-and-nail fight to the pinnacle of the chess world, he had been thought by many to be invincible. Yet now he slipped into obscurity, at the very height of his career.

Is that the last we would see of him? Many would love to remember him in this way: The invincible Robert Fischer, slayer of the Soviet Chess Empire. Perhaps this is how it would end… or would it?

The end?

To be continued...

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

"My Great Predecessors" by Garry Kasparov

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pre-exam April Presents 2017: Part 2

I'm nowhere near to finishing my next Fischer article, so here's some puzzles to keep y'all entertained first:

Have fun!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Pre-exam April Presents 2017: Part 1

Just some bit of fun before your exams start. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The rise and fall of suicide chess

DISCLAIMER: The following article was written as an April Fool's story, and all events that occurred are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual historical events or characters, dead or alive, is purely coincidental.


Today, we are experiencing the resurgence of many interesting chess variants, from bughouse to chess960 and even the occasional crazyhouse tournament on One particular variant, Suicide Chess, remains a popular but curious variant that many of us play as a break from regular chess. But how many of us ever paused to think about how such a weird variant was created, and why did it come about?

To uncover the truth we need to return to Part 3 of our Fischer series, where Robert James Fischer was dominating the chess world in the 1970s.

Fischer (right) vs Petrosian, Candidates Match 1971 Game 6

After Fischer’s rapid and unexpected victory in the 1971 Candidates, the Soviet Chess Federation was in pure panic mode. Two of their finest grandmasters—Taimanov and Petrosian—had been crushed by an outsider, and their beloved world crown was in danger. Despite Spassky’s confidence, and predictions that it would be a close fight, results from the earlier Candidates Matches were proof that anything could happen. Former World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik describes it quite accurately:

“In general Spassky is now superior to Fischer. That is my firm conviction. But how the match between them will end, the character of it and the result, I will not venture to predict, since in recent times in the chess world miracles have been occurring.” 

The Reds realized that they could not simply sit and cross their fingers, hoping that Spassky would save the day. They had to prepare for the worst, and come up with something to mitigate the situation if things got ugly. Some suggested organizing separate world championships for blitz and rapid chess, so that even if the Russians lost the main crown they would still have a chance to retain the others. But the idea was quickly shot down: Fischer had proven himself to be equally successful in shorter time controls, and creating more championships would only give him more titles to win!

It was then that Mikhail Tal came up with a bright idea: Creating a new chess variant that would throw Fischer’s preparation off guard. He proposed a variant where, instead of capturing pieces and checkmating the king, the aim was to lose all your pieces before the opponent did. Indeed, it was in line with Tal’s daring, sacrificial nature in classical chess!

And so, modern day suicide chess was born.

The initial rules were simple: Both sides were given a set amount of time to play as in normal chess, but the player with fewer pieces at the end of the time control would be the winner. Then the authorities realized that either player could decline captures and dance their pieces around till the end of time, so they added a new rule: Any capture available on the board would be a forced move (unless there are two or more captures present, in which the player MUST choose one of them as his next move).

The proposal was submitted to FIDE who, in their eagerness to make chess more appealing to the general public, accepted it. Before long, it was declared that alongside the World Chess Championship, a new and separate World Suicide Chess Championship would be introduced, alongside its own Interzonal and Candidates Tournaments.

Which came about just in time; the 1972 World Championship match had just concluded, and Fischer was the new World Champion. The Soviets, desperate to take a new title and prove to the world that they still had something to boast about, urged FIDE to kickstart the new Suicide Chess Championship cycle.

The Russians’ plan worked like a charm. Their new confidential training program, designed to convert current grandmasters into suicide chess experts, was reaping results. Top Soviet players like Petrosian, Korchnoi and Smyslov were dominating the Interzonals, sweeping their way through games as their pieces fell off the boards rapidly.

How about Fischer? The American, drunk over his recent conquest of the chess world, saw an opportunity to add another feather to his cap. So he entered the Suicide Chess cycle, confident of knocking aside the Reds as he did in mainstream chess.

But he was in for a rude shock. While standard chess had trained him in the ways of spotting piece-winning tactics or looking out for enemy threats, it was the absolute opposite this time round. He simply could not get used to the fact that he had to spot threats from his own pieces, and maneuver his way out of tactics rather than into them!

Bobby scraped his way through the Interzonal, barely qualifying for the 1973 Candidates Matches. Incredibly, for his first match he was paired against Spassky. In a reversal of history, the Russian defeated the American 6.5-3.5, with six wins, three losses, and one draw. It was reported that at the end of the 6th game, Fischer was seen storming out of the playing room cursing under his breath when he played what he thought was a brilliant piece-winning windmill, only to remember that they were playing suicide chess!

Fischer's agonized expression after realizing his mistake

The following game was taken from the critical 10th game, where Spassky scored his 6th win that pushed him over the 6.5 point margin.

1.e4?? b5 2.Bxb5 Nf6 3.Bxd7 (D)

Fischer, Robert James vs Spassky, Boris
World Suicide Chess Candidates 1973 Game 10
Position after 3. Bxd7

3... Nxe4 4.Bxe8 Qxd2 5.Qxd2 (if 5.Bxf7 Qxc1 6.Qxc1 Nxf2 7.Kxf2 Rg8 etc.) 5...Nxd2 6.Kxd2 Rg8 7.Bxf7 c5 8.Bxg8 g6 9.Bxh7 e5 10.Bxg6 e4 11.Bxe4 Nc6 12.Bxc6 Bb7 13.Bxb7 Rc8 14.Bxc8 a6 15.Bxa6 c4 16.Bxc4 Ba3 17.Nxa3 0-1

Just like that, the American genius, favourite of the press, and the greatest standard chess player of all time, was knocked out of the Suicide Chess Championship cycle. The 1974 World Suicide Chess Championship was eventually won by Mikhail Tal; not surprising, considering that sacrificing pieces was already second nature to the Magician from Riga!

Following his defeat, Fischer realized that there was no way he could let suicide chess overtake standard chess in popularity. So he proposed a new chess variant, which follows the rules of standard chess only that the initial position of the pieces on the 8th rank is randomized. Today, this is known to us as Chess960.

What about Suicide Chess? Well, the Reds were happy to keep their new title, and finally beat off the American Imperialist that menaced them for so long. After Fischer forefeited his title in 1975 due to yet more disputes with FIDE, Anatoly Karpov was declared the world champion. The Soviet authorities, having the treasured crown finally back in their hands, saw no reason to continue holding any alternative title, and stopped sending their players to subsequent Suicide Chess Championship cycles.

As a result, FIDE found themselves lacking sufficient funding for suicide chess, since the absence of the Reds meant that the great support they received was no longer present. Slowly, the popularity of suicide chess declined. After Kasparov broke off from FIDE to form the Professional Chess Association (PCA) in 1993, the World Suicide Chess Championship was cancelled.

Today, we might enjoy a short game of suicide chess, and laugh as we rush to let our pieces fall off the board. But hopefully, through this interesting story you will get to appreciate how such a variant arose, and that the war between Fischer and the Russians was not all that bad after all!