A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma 1

maricheri
Nov 28, 2007, 12:00 AM |
2 | Chess Players

A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma

On the day he won the world chess championship [August 31, 1972], Bobby Fischer posed by an Icelandic hot spring, enveloped in its vapors and a native blanket. Since then he has shrouded himself in obscurity, venturing out of seclusion only once -- in the Philippines -- to play a chess game in public. But this week attention turned again to Fischer as play began to find the man who will challenge him in 1975. In Puerto Rico, for instance, Boris Spassky reappeared for a quarterfinal match with American Robert Byrne. It seemed a fitting occasion for the priest who was Fischer's second in Reykjavik to recount that saga.

"What's with the kid? What does he want?" That is what so many people were asking in those days when Bobby Fischer was balking before and during the world chess championship in Iceland. I couldn't answer the questions then -- or even now. But there are things that happened in those hectic weeks that reveal something of the man.

There were no long-range plans for me to serve as Bobby's second in Iceland. At the time the subject came up he had already missed the opening ceremonies in Reykjavik and nearly everyone was pessimistic about the chances of his appearing at the championship. I received a message to phone Dr. Anthony Saidy, a chess friend of Bobby's and son of the co-author of Finian's Rainbow. I guessed that Fischer might be holed up with the Saidys, and he was -- he came to the telephone. I tried to convince him to go to Iceland, but he was noncommittal. "What about you? Can you come?" he asked. I told him I was committed to covering the event on cable TV. "You haven't signed anything, have you?" I had not.

That night I drove to the Saidys in Douglaston, Long Island. Tony, an international chess master, let me in and disappeared upstairs to find out if Bobby would see me. When Tony came down, I went up. Bobby and I talked for a couple of hours while a TV in the room played loudly. Bobby interrupted at one point to ask, "Do you hear a noise?" Certainly none but the TV. "Listen," he said, flicking off the set. Five yards from where we sat the gears of a digital clock were turning. The movement from minute to minute produced a click. Fischer was keenly aware of it. To me the sound was only audible with conscious effort. Bobby declared he needed a new, silent alarm clock. I told him I would get him one the following day.

The next afternoon I returned with the clock and settled down to hamburgers with the Saidys, waiting for sundown and the end of Fischer's Sabbath. He was to leave on a 9:30 p.m. plane for Reykjavik and I was hoping to see him off, but he remained in Douglaston, insisting that unless the right conditions for the match were set, he would not go. Meanwhile, in Reykjavik patient but nervous Icelandic chess officials and Dr. Max Euwe, president of the world chess organization, were agreeing to a postponement of the first game. They had too much at stake.

That Saturday night on Long Island I challenged Bobby to give me rook odds in a casual game (actually there is no casual game for Bobby). I wondered if Fischer had lost his nerve, if he feared Boris Spassky. Maybe a game would restore his confidence. At first he refused, but then he removed his queen's rook and play began. He lost the game but only after a superb demonstration of his fighting qualities in being a rook down against another grandmaster.

The next day Bobby still balked at the trip to Iceland. I decided to visit Paul Marshall, who occasionally acted as Fischer's attorney. Bobby must be gotten to Iceland at all costs. Paul phoned Fischer at the Saidy home. Bobby was watching Cade's County and would not take the call. Marshall was told to try again in an hour. When he did, Fischer took the receiver, but he might as well have continued to watch TV. Mission: Impossible seemed of considerably more interest to him than chess.

If he was to face Spassky, Fischer had to make the 9:30 p.m. flight on Monday or arrange a cable match. Monday at 2 a.m. Marshall and I set out for Douglaston. When we arrived the house appeared to be dark except for a light in the living room. We rang the bell. Believing Fischer would be awake, I looked up at the attic window. A light could be seen. Again the bell. Still no answer. We rang persistently. Fischer, who had been puttering in the kitchen, finally could not withstand his curiosity. He came to the door.

In the living room we began to talk, but Fischer was persistent. His demand-for 30% of the gate receipts-must be met. "I'm not afraid of Spassky," he said. "The world knows I'm the best. You don't need a match to prove it." Then he fell silent. Marshall prodded. Marshall urged. Fischer asked me to leave the room, and Paul continued for another half hour in fruitless debate. Finally we gave up and returned to the Marshall home in Englewood, NJ Fischer had to be smoked out. He could not be allowed to foolishly sacrifice his life's ambition. The press might help. His whereabouts would be a choice piece of information. Marshall's wife Bette volunteered to act as an anonymous caller, phoning the Daily News, The New York Times, AP, and UPI: "Hello, I'd like to tell you where Bobby Fischer is. ..." It was now 5 a.m.

Five hours later I woke to find that a British millionaire had offered Fischer 50,000 pounds if he would compete. According to Marshall the message read, "Come out, chicken, and play." Bobby considered the offer (for six hours, according to The Times) but apparently made up his mind minutes after receiving the cable. I spoke with him at 11 a.m. "Are you going to accept?" In a subdued but jubilant tone, he responded: "That's a lot of money just to give away." Being noncommittal is normal for Bobby. But he requested that chess books be ordered, books on end games, openings, of just anthologies of games. He wanted the latest Chess Life & Review. Bobby would never ask, "Are you going to be my second?" but he did ask, "Are you coming?" "You haven't asked me," I said. "Besides, I've contracted to do the match on TV."

"Somebody else can do that," Fischer said. I questioned that. "See you later," Bobby said. I decided to go to Iceland, if only to get Fischer to the playing site. I did not know how long my services would be required.

I called Leonard Barden in London that morning, asking that he ship the chess literature that Fischer had requested to Iceland. He inquired who would be paying for the material. "I presume Bobby," I replied. En route to Iceland, I told Bobby he would receive the bill. He thought the U.S. chess federation would pay for the material. Paul Marshall said he would, if Fischer would autograph the books at the conclusion of the match. Bobby agreed. Marshall is still waiting for the books, which probably are mold- ering in the cartons Bobby shipped back from Reykjavik.

An Icelandic Airlines limousine picked up the Marshalls and me, and by 5 p.m. we were at the Saidy home. It was ringed by the press and police. Marshall went into the house while I, dressed in clerical black but without the identifying white celluloid collar of a priest, proceeded to rearrange luggage in the car. A reporter asked me what branch of law enforcement I represented. I hastened into the house. There I found Marshall pacing the floor. He had just been instructed by Fischer to present me a demand. In his hand was a letter drawn up to Bobby's specifications. Fischer wanted a signed assurance that I would not discuss or write about the match in any way or annotate the games. Quite a bombshell to a friend. I agreed not to annotate the games -- Fischer could then have confidence in my discretion acting as his second -- but I agreed to nothing more and the letter went unsigned. My independence was at stake.

At last Bobby made his appearance. "Hi," he said, "is everything all right?" He peered through the window and winced at the sight of several reporters standing on the lawn in drenching rain. 'Do you think I should see them?" Someone suggested meeting the reporters in the vestibule where it was cold and damp; perhaps they wouldn't stay long. "No," said Fischer, "I'll give them one interview. I'll see them here where it is comfortable." A courteous, dignified group of men filed in. About this time an Icelandic chess master and friend of Fischer's, Freysteinn Thorbergsson, who had flown to New York hoping to convince Fischer to appear, was waiting at the Douglaston train station. Either Bobby would not see him, or was unaware of his presence. Freysteinn waited several hours and then flew back to Iceland on the same plane as Bobby, who was seated many rows to the rear. 

Previous planes had been delayed for Fischer's sake. This time Bobby was on time. The preceding week had been harrying, and the next 60 days in Reykjavik would be as tense.

Fischer had his choice of accommodations on arrival: a split-level dwelling in the suburbs that had been first prize in the national lottery, or the presidential suite in the Hotel Loftleidir. Fischer opted for the house, but he had the use of both places. Spassky had similar accommodations. It was 7 a.m. Icelandic time and at 5 p.m. that day Fischer was scheduled to meet Spassky in the opening round,

Once inside the house, Bobby announced his intention of sleeping until game time. He was told lots would be drawn for color at noon but that according to the rules a second could appear. There was no proper stationery available, only my note pad. On a three-by-five-inch sheet, Fischer com- missioned his second: "O.K. for Bill Lombardy to draw for me. Bobby Fischer." He also scribbled out a similar note for Fred Cramer, the former president of the U.S. chess federation who was acting as an aide, but on second thought decided not to sign it.

At noon I went to the Hotel Esja to await the Russians. When the group gathered, the Russians lined their side of the table with great solemnity. Spassky speaks fluent English but naturally proceeded to read his statement in Russian; an interpreter supplied a running translation. Spassky and the chess federation of the USSR had been insulted over Fischer's failure to appear at the opening ceremony; therefore, "Fischer must bear just punish- ment before there is hope of holding the match." With that the Russians tossed a copy of the statement on the table and made to go. We prevailed on them to stay but they were in no mood for discussion. "Just punishment. Just punishment," they kept saying. I knew Spassky from student-team tournaments and asked to talk with him alone. "William, this is very serious," he said, blushing furiously. "Fischer must apologize or there will be no match." I sympathized with his hurt and we shook hands. That afternoon a new round of negotiations began. The irony of the situation was that now when Bobby was itching to play, Boris was not.

Another day went by, filled with press conferences, charges and countercharges. Fischer listened to the crisis reports. The Russians wanted an apology. "Anything, anything to get the match going," he said. Marshall drew up a statement of apology. Bobby approved it but would not sign the paper. He said he wanted to make a personal explanation to Spassky. Satisfied with even minor success, Marshall and I returned to the bargaining.

Fischer's apology was refused by the Soviets, who noted it was mimeographed, sent secondhand and was unsigned. According to Marshall and Brad Darrach, a LIFE writer, Fischer was in an extremely overwrought mental state that evening. He so feared the cancellation of the match that he rather hastily drafted a letter to Boris in which he renounced all claim to the purse. Rumor has it that the original copy of this remarkable letter remains in existence in the hands of Darrach.

Marshall spent the evening convincing Fischer to curb his impetuosity. The original letter was scrapped and another handwritten apology to Boris substituted. Marshall was not satisfied with the final draft but it was simply the best he could get under the circumstances. At 5 a.m. Marshall, accompanied by Fischer, drove to the Saga Hotel. While Bobby retired to a corner of the lobby, Marshall went up to Spassky's seventh-floor suite, managed to gain entry and thrust the letter into the hands of the astonished, half-awake Russian. Whereupon Marshall fled. The apology was accepted and the match was on.

Laugardalsholl, as the chess arena was called, had been transformed into an impressive theater. The stage was thickly carpeted and the walls draped to muffle the slightest sound. Placed in the center was the massive, handmade chessboard, inlaid with Icelandic stone and Italian marble. Above was a lighting fixture that could be adjusted up to 140 candelas. In the early hours of the morning two days before the first game actually took place, Bobby made a personal inspection of the hall. He rather casually suggested that the grotesque scaffold towers, meant to house the TV cameras, be placed out of sight, maybe at the back of the hall. They were draped with burlap, punched with peepholes, and looked for all the world like Trojan siege machines. Fischer paid the matter no further heed, proceeding to test the lighting. Up to 140, down to 60, 20 and back to 100 candelas. He was satisfied with the degree of light, yet the glare had to be reduced. It was. Every celluloid filter plate in the fixture -- 98 in all -- was replaced at the cost of $600. Our lighting expert, Fred Cramer, noted that the normal light needed for reading and for playing various board games was somewhere between 24 and 40 candelas. Bobby was getting an immensely intense 120.

At the outset Fischer had been offered the hospitality of the U.S. Naval Air Station at Keflavik. He could have been the house guest of the base commander. The recreational facilities and the cafeteria of the base were at his disposal, without charge. All this changed in the days before the match. The bad press Fischer received had had its effect. House hospitality was suddenly withdrawn. Fischer had to pay for his bowling. He took no special note of the change.

On Tuesday, July 11, the first game was held. Bobby woke at 4 p.m. to what became his customary pre-game snack of skyr (a sour milk whipped with sugar and heavy cream), cheese and herring, dark bread, apple juice, orange juice, milk and dextrose malt, a barley and malt health beverage. Bobby never finished these meals. Most of the food was transported to the hall to be eaten during the game.

From the start, Bobby established a custom of tardiness. Why was he always late? His excuse was that he could only manage to wake half an hour before game time. That is possible, but there was always something else to cause delay. The food. A misplaced tie clasp. Last-minute game preparation. The right tie. Finding a good ballpoint for recording the game.

I think it was the tension, the anticipation of the chess struggle, that slowed him down. It was as if something subconscious prevented him from appearing too soon lest he arrive without full armament. It was as if an unseen force prompted him to avoid the fight until he was forced into it by the necessity of time. He wanted more than anything to play, yet before each game he had to make a superhuman effort to wind himself up. "What time is it?" he would ask. "What time is it?"

In that first game Fischer took a poisoned pawn, a reckless move that I watched with disbelief. I began to doubt my own judgment. I decided, "It's a mistake; I hope he knows what he's doing." The first game was adjourned and 10 minutes of analysis in the suite at the Loftleidir confirmed the sad truth. But Fischer and I spent another six hours considering the position. The prospect of the loss didn't seem to faze Bobby, who concluded the analysis session with, "We work well together." The next day Bobby resigned on Move 56. It took me five minutes to circle the hall to pick him up. I was greeted by Bobby snapping his fingers: "Come on, Bill; I can't wait around here all day, you know." Trouble was only beginning.

That night Argentine Grandmaster Miguel Najdorf held court in the cafeteria of the Loftleidir. "Bobby wants 30% of the gate and 30% of television, but he doesn't want the audience or the television." Najdorf roared with laughter but he had summed up the situation as most observers saw it. No one will ever know what afflicted Bobby. He could not be compelled to accept TV as a condition of play. He was concerned with money, yet would watch it drift away. He objected to noise but vetoed the soundproof glass partition that might have been erected between the players and the crowd. He wanted the feel of a live audience, but he was soon to demand play in a closed Ping-Pong room. He wanted the match, yet he seemed not to fathom or fear that it was on the verge of collapse. For him a match without perfect conditions was to be avoided.

Before the second game I went to Fischer's suite. Ready? No, he declared, if the cameras weren't out, then the game was. Referee Lothar Schmid was determined to start Fischer's clock according to the rules, ones which were drawn without consideration of that new element in chess, television cameras. It was 5 p.m., starting time, and Fischer declared he was not going; 5:10, 5:15, 5:20. 1 bounced back and forth negotiating with the film representatives. At 5:30 the camera people agreed there would be no filming during this game. Too late. The debate had cost Fischer half an hour on his clock. He wanted the time back. No, declared Lothar Schmid. Outside Bobby's hotel a squad car waited, its lights flashing, to take Fischer to the hall in time to avoid the forfeit. An hour ticked by and Fischer did not appear. Spassky was declared the winner of the game.

I decided to try a different tack. I talked to Fischer about Paul Morphy's slow start in his match with Daniel Harrwitz a century before. The first to win seven games was to be declared the winner. Morphy had begun with two losses, the same as Bobby, and this did not prevent him from garnering 5.5 of the next six games, at which point Harrwitz, pleading sickness, broke off the match. Bobby thought the matter over but said nothing.

That evening Brad Darrach and I decided to launch a telegram campaign. Calls were made to friends in the States, asking for cables of support to Bobby. Hundreds of telegrams arrived. Bobby relished each. "America waits for you to carry back the world chess championship. Don't back down now!" "The Russians want you to go home. You must play the match." These were typical messages. Perhaps this campaign caused Bobby to reshape his thinking and continue the match. Perhaps, but not before Fred Cramer had been summoned by Fischer, who demanded that plane reservations be made, destination private. Someone notified the press of Fischer's plans to leave. The press was glad to cooperate. A large contingent traveled to Keflavik to watch departing flights, while others stationed themselves around the hotel. Perhaps Bobby's fear of the press might deter him from a premature departure.

Spassky agreed to play the third game in the Ping-Pong room, though he acknowledged later it was a great psychological error. Fischer was willing to permit a remote-control, closed-circuit TV to monitor the proceedings; he never objected to remote-control cameras if they operated silently.

When Bobby arrived, Boris was, as usual, seated at the table. Bobby did not sit down but went around inspecting the television equipment, and at this point Boris betrayed indignant agitation. Bobby tested the remote-control camera for possible sources of noise. Schmid watched the proceedings and became anxious. He felt the match once more was in jeopardy. Schmid took Bobby by the arm in an effort to get him to the playing table. Bobby brushed off Schmid's entreaties. "The American grandmaster permitted himself great liberty in his remarks, which were very disagreeable to hear," Spassky said later. Finally satisfied with the camera, Bobby settled down for the match.

From the day Boris annexed the world title, his play had been less than impressive. His tournament performances through a two-year period featured a string of lackluster draws. Some viewed his no-risk policy as holding back for Fischer. Most of his peers wondered. Great grandmasters fight for victory. They are not satisfied with second, let alone sixth place, in a crucial, closely watched tournament. Each one matters. Spassky had mysteriously lost his fighting spirit long before Reykjavik. But even this cannot account for his petrifyingly passive approach to the third game. Such a stance succeeded in the first game only because of Fischer's impetuosity and his distracted play. Boris disdained every chance to pry open the third game. And, finally, he strayed from his customary habit of immediately adjourning the game upon completion of 40 moves. His 41st move was a gross blunder. 

When Bobby jumped into his Cougar for the trip home he exclaimed, "I sealed a knockout." Indeed he had. Boris appeared the next day, saw the sealed move and resigned without resuming play.

After the third session, Fischer's mood was transformed. He wanted to relax, dining in town. We drove to the Odal Restaurant where Bobby ordered a sizable meal and then abruptly left the table. He returned from a local bookstore with a wad of magazines which he devoured along with his dinner. Afterward, we walked the streets, followed for more than an hour, at a discreet distance, by two small boys. Finally, as we were leaving, they approached and asked Bobby for his autograph, which they got.

With the win, his first ever over Spassky, Fischer seemed less concerned with the second-round forfeit, but he remained adamant that no filming of future games be allowed. The Icelandic federation, for the moment, agreed. Fischer drew the fourth game and won the fifth when Spassky erred while in a grossly inferior position. By now the Russians were aware of their tactical mistake in allowing Boris to play in a closed room. They, too, began to vigorously protest game conditions, even the hum of the air conditioners.

Fischer was in high spirits the night of his second victory. After dinner we headed for the air base, Bobby driving. On a highway with a 50-mile-an-hour speed limit, Bobby drove 25. Fortunately, Icelandic traffic, particularly at one in the morning, does not pile up. Now that Bobby's chess game was superb, his bowling slackened. In 10 games he averaged only 137. I drove home. "Slow down, you're going too fast," Fischer urged whenever the speedometer ventured above 35.

Despite the victory, neither Bobby nor I was satisfied with the outcome of his king pawn sally in Game Four. "Don't worry. Sunday I will play something that will make you very happy," he promised. He was willing to change strategy, and he did. In the sixth game Fischer opened with a queen pawn for the first time in his life and Spassky retaliated with his favorite Tartakower defense. Spassky had relied on this in more than half a dozen tournament games, never losing one. But this time Boris seemed unable to cope with Fischer's surprise. He lapsed into passivity and lost. Later he reluctantly referred to the effort as "probably the best game of the match." It was a tactical and technical masterpiece and a hysterical Spassky joined the audience in applauding Fischer's win.

The seventh game was a draw, but only after Fischer missed an easy win with listless play. In the final position he was two pawns ahead, had not moved his king rook the entire length of the 49-move game and was himself forced to take a perpetual check to avoid checkmate.

A win in the eighth gave Fischer a 5-3 lead and evened his lifetime score with Boris at four wins apiece. About this time the chessboard again became a bone of contention. The workmanship, size of the squares, grain of the wood, measurement of the board itself -- one thing or another did not suit Bobby. One wonders whether the complaints weren't a ruse on his part to keep everyone occupied -- the Icelandic organizers and members of his camp. But I was aware of Bobby's professionalism and convinced that a defect in the board was distracting him.

Fischer made no public statements himself, yet when his aides attempted to explain his actions he would object. After the objection he would retreat once again into seclusion: One time he opened some mail from Buenos Aires, dumping clippings on a table. A quick look at the newspaper stories raised his ire. "You're being quoted all over," he blurted out to Fred Cramer. "No more interviews. People think you are speaking for me."

One spectator described the ninth game as "two dead men dancing." They split the point, despite a Fischer innovation. Bobby had the white pieces in the 10th game. Samuel Reshevsky once said, "Snap off the buttons and the pants fall by themselves." And this is what Fischer did. Spassky had two connected passed pawns. Fischer adroitly snapped up these by combining mating threats against Spassky's king. Bobby had his victory, and he was up by three.

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