Bobby Clears The Board For The Title 1

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Bobby Clears The Board For The Title  

The audience in the Teatro General San Martin in Buenos Aires seemed mesmerized as Bobby Fischer took his seat in a leather desk chair and pushed his king's pawn forward two squares. P-K4. The first game of the scheduled 12-game chess match between Tigran Petrosian of the Soviet Union and Fischer of the United States had begun as expected. Fischer, playing the white pieces, made his usual, almost inevitable first move. He pressed a lever stopping his time clock and starting Petrosian's, then jotted down his move on the score sheet beside him. Two young men hurried forward from the obscurity of stage rear-one checking the move Fischer had made, the other duplicating it on a large red-and-white chessboard set against the backdrop behind the players. Twenty-seven days later, after eight games, 42 hours on the stage and a total of nearly 350 moves each, Fischer and Petrosian had come to the brink. Or rather, Petrosian had. After a four game lapse in which he had played listlessly or ineptly, Fischer had regained his summer form and had reduced the former world champion to a pawn, a knight and a king in the ninth and, as it turned out, last game. For all that, the scene appeared much as it had when the matches began.

One change was the chessboard: Petrosian had objected to the bright colors on the red- and-white layout, and so the red squares had been changed to a dull brown. But the audience for the ninth game was as it had been for the first: entranced with the situation and the Fischer personality. The broad panels of fluorescent lights threw the same pallid, shadowless illumination on the two immobile figures onstage-Fischer, age 28, dark blue suit, dark maroon tie, tall, thin, pale, intent; shifting hardly at all except to move his chessmen or to rest his fingers against his bony cheek or to step into the wings occasionally to take a bite of a grilled-kidney sandwich and a swig of orange juice; Petrosian, age 42, short, square-shouldered, bulky, abundant black hair over his grave Armenian features, bending over the board and peering at each of Fischer's moves like a diamond merchant appraising a possible purchase. He too was immobile except for a rare walk to the referee's table for a cup of coffee from his thermos bottle.

Between moves, Petrosian deliberated much longer than Fischer-as much as 25 minutes. At such times the audience squirmed with anticipation, but nothing happened- unless the squirming got too noisy. Then red signs went on at both sides of the proscenium: SILENCIO. The sameness, the nothingness, was all camouflage, however. These 27 days had shaken the chess world.

The Fischer-Petrosian match was the third and final round in the eliminations to determine the challenger next spring for the world championship now held by 34-year-old Boris Spassky of Russia. Under the rules the first player to score 6� points-a victory counting for one point, a draw half a point-was the winner. But the issue was settled, for all practical purposes, by the seventh game. After that victory by Fischer, Petrosian would have had to take four of the last five games to win. Despite this air of inevitability hanging over the last days of the competition, something new and undefined charged every game. Fischer had arrived in Buenos Aires after the most sensational string of chess victories ever recorded-19 in a row over some of the world's greatest players (SI, Aug. 2). He was quite sociable-for Fischer, that is. He gave interviews, tramped the streets at night with hero-worshiping young journalists, smiled stiffly for photographers and responded amiably when President Alejandro Agustin Lanusse gave him and Petrosian exquisite chessboards of green-and-white onyx. Ordinarily, Fischer is socially evasive rather than hostile, likely to greet even an old friend as if he were expecting a subpoena. Despite his good humor, he was under a strain: he wanted to keep his unbroken string going, but he also wanted to show that it had not gone to his head.

Petrosian arrived with a record as impressive in its way as Fischer's. In 42 preceding games he had been beaten only twice-but he had won only a handful of the rest. The others were all draws, reinforcing his reputation as the most cautious, imperturbable, resourceful defensive player of all time. And so Petrosian was under no strain to uphold an impossible standard. He arrived with his wife Rhona, a friendly and motherly woman, together with a number of Russian chess officials and experts and a pair of muscular bodyguards.

Petrosian began the first game against Fischer as if bodyguards were the last thing in the world he needed. On his 11th move in a Sicilian Defense opening, Petrosian introduced a surprise variation that refuted Fischer's favorite line in such situations. The effect was to reverse roles. Petrosian was suddenly attacking with Fischer's boldness, and Fischer was defending with Petrosian's habitual caution. Fischer exchanged pieces, simplifying the game, but still appeared to be losing. Then, unexpectedly, Petrosian reverted to his usual passivity, drifting into an infirm end game in which his allotted time was woefully short. He offered Fischer a draw. Fischer refused. With only seconds remaining on his clock (Fischer had half an hour), Petrosian staggered into a hopeless position and resigned on the 40th move. Fischer's unbroken string of victories had now reached 20 games. Still, he had been outplayed. If not for his time trouble, Petrosian could easily have drawn, and possibly won.

Fischer arrived three minutes late for the second game, and with the black pieces played a reckless match. In a rare lapse of judgment he overreached himself in the opening, was unable to castle and found himself in the end game with a wandering king. He resigned after 32 moves. The great winning streak was over.

"Over?" said Isaac Kashdan, a former U.S. champion. "It's smashed to smithereens!" The crowd-1,200 inside the theater, 2,000 in the lobby--chanted, "Tigran! Tigran!"

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