The Cold War Gladiator and his Soviet Nemesis

The Cold War Gladiator and his Soviet Nemesis

NM NMMustang6000
Feb 15, 2015, 6:50 PM |

MIKHAIL TAL’S STARE was infamous, and to some ominous. With his deep brown, almost black eyes, he’d glare so intently at his opponents that some said he was attempting to hypnotize them into making a vapid move. The Hungarian-American player Pal Benko actually donned sunglasses once when he played Tal, just to avoid the penetrating stare.

Bobby had tolerated Tal’s stare when they first met over the board in Portorož, Yugoslavia. That game had ended in a draw. At his first game against Tal, in Bled, Bobby was already at the board when the twenty-three-year-old Mischa arrived just in time to commence play. Bobby stood and Tal offered his right hand to shake. Tal’s hand was severely deformed, with only three large fingers appended, and since his wrist was so thin, the malformation resembled a claw. Bobby, to his credit, didn’t seem to care. He returned the gesture with a two-stroke handshake, and play began. 

Within a few moves, though, Bobby’s mood soured. He became annoyed at Tal’s comportment at and away from the board. This time “the stare” began to rankle him. Tal, in a seeming bid to increase Bobby’s irritation, also offered a slight smile of incredulity after each of the American’s moves, as if he were saying: “Silly boy, I know what you have in mind—how amusing to think you can trick me!” Fischer, deciding to use Tal’s tactics against him, tried producing his own stare, and even ashed Tal an abbreviated, sneering smile of contempt. But after a few seconds, he’d break eye contact and concentrate on more important things: the action on the board, the sequence of moves he planned to follow, or the ways to counter the combination Tal seemed to be formulating. 

Tal was an encyclopedia of kinetic movement. All in a matter of seconds, he’d move a chess piece, record the action on his score sheet, position his head within inches of the clock to check the time, grimace, smile, raise his eyebrows, and “make funny faces, (which was later followed and perfected by Kasparov)” as Bobby characterized it. Then he’d rise and walk up and down the stage while Bobby was thinking. Tal’s coach Igor Bondarevsky referred to his charge’s movements as “circling around the table like a vulture”—presumably, a vulture ready to pounce. 

Tal chain-smoked and could consume a pack of cigarettes during the course of a game. He also had the habit of resting his chin on the edge of the table, peering through the pieces and peeking at his opponent, rather than establishing a bird’s-eye view by sitting up straight and looking down, which would have provided a better perspective on the intricacies of the board. Since Tal’s body language was so bizarre, Fischer interpreted it as an attempt to annoy him. Tal’s gestures and staring infuriated Fischer. He complained to the arbiter, but little was done. Whenever Tal rose from the board, in the middle of the game, when Fischer was planning his next move, he’d begin talking to the other Soviet players, and they enjoyed whispering about their or others’ positions. 

Although he knew some Russian, Bobby had trouble with the declensions and usage. He’d hear the words ferz’ (“queen”) or lad’ya (“rook”), for example, and he couldn’t tell whether Tal was talking specially about his position. All he knew was that it was maddening. Bobby couldn’t understand why the chief arbiter didn’t prevent this muttering, since it was forbidden by the rules, and he told the organizers that Tal should be thrown out of the tournament. That Soviet players had for decades been talking to one another during games with no complaints didn’t help Bobby’s cause. 

Fischer was also perturbed that when a game was finished, many of the players would immediately join with their opponents to analyze their completed games, right on the stage, just a few feet from where he was playing rather than in the postmortem analysis room. 

The buzz distracted his attention. He wrote a complaint about the chattering and handed it to the chief arbiter: After the game is completed, analysis by the opponents must be prohibited to avoid disturbing the other players. Upon completion of the game, the Referee must immediately remove the chess pieces from the table to prevent analysis. We recommend that the organization prepare a special room for postmortem analysis. The room must be completely out of earshot of all of the participants.

Robert J. Fischer, International Grandmaster

As it turned out, though, nothing was done. No other players joined in the protest, because most were guilty of doing the very thing Fischer was opposing. Bobby was fast gaining a reputation as a constant complainer, the Petulant American, a role most of the players found distasteful. They believed he’d invariably blame tournament conditions or the behavior of the other players for a loss.

Whether or not Bobby was hypersensitive, he did suffer from hyperacusis—an acute sensitivity to noise and even distant sounds—and it was clear that Tal, in particular, knew just how to rattle him. The Russian would look at Bobby from near or far, and begin laughing, and once in the communal dining room he pointed to Bobby and said out loud, “Fischer: cuckoo!” Bobby almost burst into tears. “Why did Tal say ‘cuckoo’ to me?” he asked, and for the first and perhaps only time during the tournament, Larsen tried to console him: “Don’t let him bother you.” He told Bobby he’d have an opportunity to seek revenge … on the board. After that, a local Bled newspaper published a group of caricatures of all eight players, and a souvenir postcard was made of the drawings. Bobby’s portrait was particularly severe, with his ears akimbo and his mouth open, making him look as if he were … well, cuckoo.

Sure enough, in the drawing, next to the portrait of Bobby was a little bird perched on his board. It was a cuckoo. Spectators, players, and journalists began asking Bobby how he could take two months of, September and October, during the school year to play in a tournament. Finally it was revealed: He’d dropped out of Erasmus Hall. It had been crushing for Regina to have to sign the authorization releasing the sixteen-year-old from the school. She hoped she could talk him back into classes somewhere, someday, after he finished playing in the Candidates tournament. As an inducement to get him to change his mind about dropping out, the assistant principal of Erasmus, Grace Corey, wrote to Bobby in Yugoslavia, telling him how well he’d done on the New York State Regents examinations. He’d earned a grade of 90 percent in Spanish and 97 percent in geometry, making for “a really good year.”

Good grades or not, an image began to attach itself to Bobby. As a result of the publicity about his schooling, or lack thereof, Fischer was beginning to be thought of as a nyeculturni by the Russians, unschooled and uncultured, and they began to tease him... “

He was frustrated at being down two games to none against Tal, who never passed up a chance to annoy his younger opponent. Just before Bobby and Tal were to play a third time, Bobby approached Alexander Koblentz, one of Tal’s trainers, and said sotto-voice, as menacingly as he could: “If Tal doesn’t behave himself, I am going to smash out all of his front teeth.” 

Tal persisted in his provocation, though, and Fischer lost their third game as well. It was a situation where a youthful player like Bobby could spiral down irretrievably, playing himself into an abyss. But he took momentary charge of his psyche, despite his losses, and began to feel optimistic. After defeating a cold, he placed himself in the abstract world of Lewis Carroll and the universe of reversal and wrote: “I am now in quite a good mood, and eating well. just like in Alice in Wonderland. Remember? The Red Queen cried before she got a piece of dirt in her eye. I am in a good mood before I win all of my games. 

 Bobby began to plot. Tal had to be stopped, if not on the chessboard, then in some other way. Tal, he said, had purposely made him lose three games in a row using unfair tactics, robbing him of first place: “He actually cheated me out of a match with Botvinnik,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. 

Whether it was a clinically paranoid musing, malice aforethought, or merely a boyhood fantasy, no one can know, but Bobby began to wonder and scheme and penned his plan of reprisal against Tal: “Should I poke him in the eye—both beetlely eyes, maybe—with my pen? Perhaps I should poison him; I could gain entrance to his room in the Hotel Esplanade and then put the poison in his drinking glass.” Despite his dreams of revenge, which he never put into effect, he played valiantly in the fourth game, a contest that he vowed to the press he’d win, no matter what sleight of chess Tal would deliver on or off the board. 

Bobby tried a psychological tactic himself during that game, despite his oft-quoted demurral, “I don’t believe in psychology—I believe in good moves.” Normally, he’d make his move on the board, punch his clock, and record the move on the score sheet. In this game, though, on his twenty-second move, he suddenly altered his sequence, and instead of first moving a piece, he went to his score sheet and, in recording the move he was contemplating, switched to a Russian system of notation. 

He then offhandedly placed his score sheet on the table so that Tal could see it, and while the clock remained running, he watched Tal to gauge his reaction. Tal, wearing an atypical poker face, recognized what he thought was a winning move for Fischer, and he wrote later: “I would very much have liked to change his decision. So I calmly left my chair and began strolling the stage. I joked with someone [Petrosian], took a casual look at the exhibition board and returned to my seat with a pleased appearance.” Since Tal looked as if he were comfortable with the impending move, Fischer momentarily thought he might have blundered. 

He crossed out his move on the score sheet, made another move, and checked Tal’s king instead. It was a mistake. Bobby closed his eyes to counter any further Talian shenanigans—he didn’t have to see his position, since it was imprinted in his mind—and tried to block out any other distractions. He concentrated his energies on fnding a single move, or a variation, a tactical feint that would help him emerge from the dark waters of his position, all the while trying to avoid the temptation to move a piece or pawn to a fatal square.

Alas, nothing worked. He was lost. Tragically, emotionally, existentially, it was chess death. He cried, and didn’t attempt to hide his tears. Tal won the fourth and fnal encounter, and with it the tournament. It is amusing to know that the young Bobby Fischer planned/daydreamed of one day killing Tal by either poisoning his drink or stabbing his eyeballs with his ball pen  :)