The Peacock vs. the Wren

| 1 | Chess Players

he Peacock vs. the Wren  

Not since the youthful pianist Victor Borge, with the whole Danish Royal Symphony sawing away seriously behind him, looked up at the audience in the middle of a long troll--and winked--had a sporting crowd reacted so uproariously to so small a gesture. One night last week, sitting on a plain wooden chair in the fluorescent lightly dais of the Martin Coronado Salon in Buenos Aires's San Martin Theatre, an impassive 42-year-old Armenian named Tigran Petrosian moved a chess piece--his king--one square into the near right corner of the board. Across the table, a lanky 28-year-old American named Robert J. Fischer pondered this move for a moment, then stood up and extended his hand.

That was all, but the Coronado Salon went berserk. Two thousand Argentines leapt from their seats and from their hunched positions in the aisles to whoop, "Tigre, Tigre," and 1,500 ticket less fans in the lobby outside picked up the cry. A swarm of beamish Russians and officials and other players from the twenty-odd nations descended on Petrosian, and his dumpling-shaped wife, Nona, hurdled herself into his arms. It was a crazy scene. Petrosian's victory did not give him the world's title, or seal up the twelve-game match he was playing with Fischer, or even put him in the lead, but it had greatness to it all the same. After twenty consecutive outright victories against the very highest level of competition during the past two years--a record unapproached in the 1,500-year recorded history of this depthless and hypnotic game--Bobby Fischer had finally failed to win a game of chess, and he was not merely held to a draw but decisively beaten.

The irony of Petrosian's splendid win is that in all probability it will end up as a parenthetical aside in an epic whose hero will not be Tigran but Bobby. King of American chess since he won his first U.S. Open title at 14 and the equal of any player in the world by 1962, Fischer nevertheless spent most of the late 1060s in fidgety semiretirement--a unique Fischer blend of high principle, neurotic sulks and cunning self-interest. Two years ago he put aside some of his quirkiness for an all-out shot at the world title held by Russia's Boris Spassky, and Bobby's record since then has been all but incredible--seven straight wins to wind up the preliminary round-robin tournament at Palma, Majorca; then six straight wins in his opening elimination match with Russia's international grandmaster Mark Taimanov; next six more straight wins against Bent Larsen, who was thought to be Bobby's equal as the world's strongest player outside the Soviet Union.

Tense: Finally came the current showdown with Petrosian for the right to meet Spassky next spring--and in the tense opening game two weeks ago, Fischer won again. Petrosian's great victory early last week finished the streak, but it hardly finished Bobby. Two days later, fighting off a bad cold he pulled out a surprising draw from an unpromising position. Now, to get by Petrosian, Bobby need win only one more game than he loses through the rest of the twelve-game match (a flat tie will be decided by a flip of a coin), and a healthy majority of expert chess opinion suspects that nothing will then stop him from toppling Spassky. "Fischer," says the U.S.'s international grandmaster Larry Evans, a thoroughly partial observer, "is probably the greatest player who ever lived."

Fischer's assault on the world chess title has produced real sporting hysteria in those countries--most of them in Europe and South America, but including such outposts as Cuba and Mongolia--where chess is a popular passion. In Argentina, where a million persons (6 per cent of the over-15 population) belong to chess clubs, banner headlines greeted Bobby's arrival in Buenos Aires. Flocks of pretty chess groupies gathered for a glimpse of him outside the Presidente Hotel, but Fischer never breaks training. He rises after noon and studies most of the day from the huge assortment of chess books and magazines (in English, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, German) that he carts with him wherever he goes. In the afternoons he lopes through the city for an hour or two, and then dines at one of Buenos Aires's first-rate steak or Chinese restaurants. Almost the only people who are able to get anywhere near him personally nowadays are his friend and second, Larry Evans, and U.S. chess federation president Edmund Edmundson.

Plodder: As the match began at the jammed Coronado Salon, the excitement over Bobby's victory streak obscured the fact that Petrosian is an opponent of almost exalted excellence--an unflappable defensive genius who defeated the great Mikhail Botvinnik for the world title in 1963 and held it until Spassky won it on his second try three years ago. In 61 games prior to this match, Petrosian had lost only two (both to Fischer in a Russia-vs.-the-world match in Yugoslavia last year). His trouble, if it can be called that, is that he is something of a wren to Fischer's peacock, invariably content to draw unless an opponent's blunder hands him a sure win. In the elimination tournament, the Armenian crept past Robert H�bner of West Germany by ultimate default and countryman Victor Korchnoi by 5�-4�, winning only one game and drawing nine against Korchnoi. Petrosian is often put down as a plodder. But it is a nervy kind of plodding., something like that of a boxer who muffles and slips a hundred blows and eventually wins by tiring his opponent out. " Has anyone ever proved," Petrosian says in irritation, " that defense is less dangerous and risky than attack?"

Sacrifice: But Fischer is a legitimate golden boy. He lives for the attack ("I like to see 'em squirm," he said in an unguarded youthful interview), and his games are full of heady sacrifices of his own pieces, opening the lines to the opponent's king, and of profound combinations--linked series of moves that begin as apparently pointless sacrifices and turn out, two to ten moves later, to have netted Fischer a pawn, a piece or a checkmate. But Fischer also defends with fierce ingenuity when necessary and is forever transforming lost games into draws by sheer will and brilliant technique. He is acknowledged as the world's greatest master of the myriad variations of chess openings, and he does not seem to be much less than that in the full-board strategic complications of the middle game, when both sides are still nearly at full strength, or in the exhaustively analyzed minutiae of the end game. His memory is phenomenal, but memory alone won't do it on the chessboard. In the words of Holland's Dr. Max Euwe, world champion in the late 1930's, Fischer is "very good at finding the right move, especially in difficult situations." Fischer's chess even delights the esthetes. He is said to play a purer style of chess, with fewer unnecessary complications, than anyone since the Cuban nonpareil of 50 years ago, Jos� Capablanca; Fischer some have put it, is Schubert to everybody else's Brahms.

All of which makes for a highly cerebral exercise, which chess surely is. But the larger truth, as every grandmaster discovers quickly enough, is that the head bone's connected to the nerve bone, the nerve bone's connected to the heard bone, the heart bone's connected to the carcass bone-- and a failure of any one of them can lead to swift disaster. Stamina is critically important, and most masters train like athletes before a big match (Fischer plays fierce tennis and Petrosian skis); they also fret like divas over a cold, a headache or a bad night's sleep.

The psychosomatic fallout is universal--a favorite grandmaster joke is that no one ever wins a game from a healthy opponent. Fatal distractions loom in the lights, the crowd noises, the gamesmanship of opponents, even the entrance of a wife into the exhibition hall--a solecism that once caused Capablanca to worry so much about his mistress's peace of mind that he blundered fatally on the next move. Fischer blew a game himself a few years ago after a flashbulb went off nearby. Tobacco smoke can be a menace. The late Akiba Rubinstein, legendary genius, psychotic and smoke hater, studied for an important match while a friend blew smoke in his face to condition him. Much of Fischer's reputation as a terrible-tempered troublemaker comes from his fanatical insistence on just-so lighting, indirect and fluorescent, and on total silence. Only Petrosian seems oblivious to little sounds, but then he is a little deaf-and can tune out unwanted noise simply by turning off his hearing aid.

The greatest psychological weapon in chess is still surprise, however, and there were many of them in the initial three games in Buenos Aires. In the first, Tigran's open moves were uncharacteristically aggressive and wholly unexpected. Playing the Black side of a Sicilian Defense, an active defense much favored by Fischer himself, Tigran on the eleventh move sprung a "novinka"--a truly new move in grandmaster play, worked out by Petrosian and his compatriots in advance, that opened up Fischer to a dangerous attack on both flanks. Most of the experts on hand thought that Petrosian would win if he persisted in the attack, but nerves or force of habit pulled him back. He traded off pieces, offered Bobby a draw--which was monosyllabically declined--then missed a saving move and lost outright when he ran short of time (each player has two and a half hours on his own clock to make 40 moves).

In the next round, playing White against Fischer's Gruenfeld Defense, Petrosian attacked again, taking advantage of Bobby's failure to castle to drive home a winning game in a quick 32 moves. But Fischer plainly played badly. A head cold had clogged him up so that "I couldn't see anything at all," he said afterward. The cold was real enough. It hung on through the third game, in which both players reverted to their normal styles. Fischer attacked the barricade formation known as the French Defense, Petrosian defended with deadly accuracy and by the 30th move Fischer seemed to be in deep water. But Petrosian got in trouble with the clock again and inadvertently allowed Bobby to slip away with a draw. So Bobby escaped from his viral miseries with the match tied at 1�-1�, and his chances were as good as ever.

Title: For both Fischer and Petrosian, the Buenos Aires match runs deeper than a personal test. After Petrosian, Spassky is the last defended if a Soviet monopoly on the world title that began with Botvinnik in 1948. To the Soviets, the game is a passion and its championship a unique symbol of Russian supremacy, and they encourage, subsidize and boast proudly about their 4 million registered players and 33 grandmasters. The U.S. has 25,000 registered players and eleven grandmasters, of whom only Fischer and perhaps the Hungarian-born Pal Benko are of current world class. For his part, Fischer dislikes and distrusts the Russians, and aversion apparently dating back to Fischer's trip to Moscow as a 15-year-old U.S. Open Champion. Even then, Bobby wanted to play the grandmasters but was shunted off on a few "fish"--the ultimate insult--of his own age.

At the time, Fischer was a scruffy kid in sneakers and leather jacket, pulling courtesy D's at high school in Brooklyn despite his IQ that one classmate--Dr. Richard M. Pious, now a Columbia University political scientist-- recalls as 184. Fischer began playing chess at 6 and that was it, from then until now--no books, activities, friends, income, travel or interests that were not directly connected with chess. By 14 he was U.S. Open champion and had begun putting together the beautiful, profound, often startlingly original games that have made him one of the two best-known American names in all of Communist Europe (the other is Van Cliburn)--even though most of his countrymen know of him only as an occasional name in the newspapers. At 16, he left school; at 19, he split with his mother, who has since remarried and moved to London (Fischer has not seen his father, a transplanted German physicist, since the age of 2). Bobby finished back in the pack at a second-level tournament in Buenos Aires in 1965, and the reason was said to be girls. If this was so, Bobby promptly forgot them, for he has lived ever since as a celibate--and a homeless one at that, having given up his modest apartment in Los Angeles last year to live out of a series of hotel rooms.

For many of his early years, Bobby was an egomaniacal menace, showing up late or never for matches, even missing whole tournaments, holding up sponsors for more money (the Russians, he rationalized, were paid by their government), complaining about lights, noises, spectators, opponents, morning games (he sleeps late) or any game scheduled after sundown Friday--this last because it is against the tenets of the fundamentalist sect he belongs to but steadfastly refuses to name. And always out in front of him as a goal was the treasures championship and the noisome Russians who owned it. In 1962, after finishing just behind the three qualifiers in the Candidates' Tournament in Cura�ao (he had arrived two days late and lost four of his first six games), Fischer accused the numerically superior Russians of cheating--specifically of ganging up in round-robin tournaments on non-Russians by playing automatic draws with each other and going all-out against outsiders. Whether this was " cheating" or not, there was enough apparent truth to the charge so that FIDE-the F�d�ration Internationale d'Echecs, chess's international governing body--changed the eight top challengers to meet each other in the head-to-head elimination matches that Fischer has dominated so sensationally.

Civil: Fischer is still an unpopular man--the Russians sniff that he is " nyekulturni," (uncultured--an ultimate Soviet epithet). Even a self-assured cosmopolite like Denmark's Larsen could barely be civil about him before or after his humiliation at Fischer's hands. But now the Russian papers call him "Robert"--and Spassky has said privately that he expects Robert to be his next challenger. Spassky, an eclectic, chain-smoking chess wizard of 34, is fully equal to Fischer if he can overcome his own inclination to laziness--and he has already called in the revered Botvinnik to help him prepare. Well he might, for the title is a serious matter; Russian chess heroes are rewarded with Foreign cars, among other things, and though Botvinnik's Mercedes seems secure, Spassky's Volvo could conceivably go up for grabs if he should lose the championship to Bobby.

Fischer, of course, continues to profess no doubt whatever, not even after his stunning but perhaps pressure-easing loss of one game to Petrosian. "I should win this match," Fischer told Newsweek's John Barnes last week. "Anybody who knows anything about chess knows that I have been the champion in everything but name for the past ten years. That doesn't mean I'm going to win--the Russians will do anything to beat me. But I know I can beat Spassky if I go on playing the way I have been playing."

Newsweek, October 18, 1971


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