Age is against Bobby Fischer as he seeks again to be the world champion. Chess is more than ever a young man's game.
IN THE eyes of Bobby Fischer, the reigning world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, is "the lowest form of dog", who has cheated his way to way to the title. What then about those endless Gary Kasparov-Anatoly Karpov encounters? Every single match has been fixed, says Mr. Fischer.
So after 20 years of self- imposed exile Mr. Fischer has returned to chess and is playing his old adversary, Boris Spassky. Mr. Fischer's victory in the first game was a masterpiece, simple but profound. But, as subsequent games have shown, this fat, balding, bearded chess player is not the man of 1972. He is 49 years old, out of practice and out of shape. Mr. Spassky is even older. The Russian still commands respect, but on the chessboard he is a player of yesteryear. Ranked around 100th on the official listings, he often appears at chess games dressed for a tennis match, a sport for which he musters far more enthusiasm. As a "gentle" opponent for a Fischer comeback, Mr. Spassky is an ideal choice. But he is no longer the player a legend would lose to.
Chess has also changed a lot over the past two decades. A new era of professionalism was born out of Mr. Fischer's own popularization of the game. The rise of the professional chess circuit has seen the competitive aspect of the game overtake the scientific and artistic. The sole aim of the modern master is to win.
In international chess, a player's nerves and stamina are as crucial as his intellect and wisdom. The pressure of the game has always been intense: a chess clock is used to ensure each player completes the stipulated number of moves in the allotted time--failure to do so results in immediate loss of the game. But now the playing sessions themselves are becoming longer, with more moves between adjournments. Many games are played without a break. The increased pressure swung the pendulum in youth's favour. Over the past 30 years, each new world champion has been younger than his predecessor (see table). It is significant, of the world's ten highest-ranked players, eight are under 30.
Nor is it only the way the game is played has changed. Much of modern chess is played off the board--and not just the battle for psychological advantage Mr. Fischer wages so well. Every professional must now take seriously his pre- match preparation, not least because the age of computer databases has had a profound impact on chess. A small portable computer can hold lm chess games, and give instant access to hundreds of games of a prospective opponent.
In the Kasparov-Karpov matches, each of the protagonists employed large teams of assistants to work round the clock searching for flaws in the other's repertoire. The opening stages of a chess game are now analyzed to near exhaustion. Simply being better prepared in a chess opening can be the deciding factor in the game.
The chess world today boasts more first-rate players than at any stage in its history. Hundreds of grandmasters chase modest prize money the world over. Success demands physical as well as mental exertion. A single game may last up to eight hours. For the chess master this period represents a ceaseless struggle. A lapse in concentration can mean disaster. So the adversaries are always in a state of nervous tension.
The presence of the chess clock adds to the tension. The climax of the game is often a furious "time scramble". When this occurs, each player has only seconds to make several moves or face instant forfeiture. With minds racing and hands twitching, the masters blitz out their moves and press their clocks with a co-ordination any athlete would admire. Such moments are not for reflective intellectuals. The game descends into a primeval struggle in which nerves, tenacity and an overwhelming will to win separate victor from vanquished.
At the top level of chess, the pain of losing is unbearable. Winning brings immense satisfaction and a chance to recover from the nerves and exhaustion. But one victory is not enough to win a tournament. The chess master must be ready for the struggle the next day. Most chess competitions last for 9-11 days, with play on every day, and there is an all-year-round tournament circuit. World championship matches are even more exacting. The 1984 encounter between Mr. Karpov and Mr. Kasparov in Moscow had to be aborted after several months on the grounds of mutual exhaustion. Mr. Karpov had shed around two stone (10kg) in weight.
Even putting aside the question of mental and physical deterioration with age, competition demands a kind of youthful exuberance. Few chess veterans maintain their edge beyond the age of 40; their old drive and ambition seem a bit blunted.
Can Mr. Fischer defy these odds? He once declared: "All I want to do, ever, is play chess." This sentiment made his exodus from the chess world after 1972 seem even more inexplicable. But in some respects it was a fitting end to his story. It immortalized Bobby Fischer.
If he has come back for the money, he is on to a good thing. Whatever happens in his match with Mr. Spassky, each will end up several million dollars richer. But if Mr. Fischer has returned in the sincere belief he can show he is still the best player in the world, the final result could be heartbreaking.
All the king's men
World chess champions since 1890
Held Age at first
title in years victory
Emanuel Lasker (Germany) 1894-1921 26
Jose Capablanca (Cuba) 1921-27 32
Alexander Alekhine (Soviet Union)* 1927-35 35
Max Euwe (Holland) 1935-37 34
Alexander Alekhine (Soviet Union) 1937-47 45
Mikhail Botvinnik (Soviet Union) 1948-57 36
Vasily Smyslov (Soviet Union) 1957-58 36
Mikhail Botvinnik 1958-60 46
Mikhail Tal (Soviet Union) 1960-61 23
Mikhail Botvinnik 1961-63 49
Tigran Petrosian (Soviet Union) 1963-69 33
Boris Spassky (Soviet Union) 1969-72 32
Robert Fischer (USA) 1972-75 29
Anatoly Karpov (Soviet Union) 1975-85 24
Gary Kasparov (Soviet Union) 1985- 22
[*Became a French citizen in 1917]
By Economist, October 3, 1992