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

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