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The Fischer King
William Nack
September 14, 1992
In the surreal setting of war-torn Yugoslavia, reclusive chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer emerged to meet Boris Spassky
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September 14, 1992

The Fischer King

In the surreal setting of war-torn Yugoslavia, reclusive chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer emerged to meet Boris Spassky

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"Bobby is very happy here," Spassky said one day, smiling mischievously. "He has everything he want. He has good food and big villa and many guards. He is the mustafa." Spassky has not minded playing the knight to the Fischer king, but he has his pride—and his chances. "I feel confident I can beat him," Spassky said before the match began. "I'm in good shape." Leaving for his room to study, he added, "Well, I must prepare to bite the crocodile."

If Fischer has been front and center in this show, Vasiljevic has not been far behind him, literally and figuratively. He races to and from meals and meetings with something approaching manic intensity, sweating as freely as a cold beer, and with an object always smoking in his hand—a cigarette one moment, a cigar the next, a pipe in between. Rough-hewn and thickset, with a disheveled tie and shiny suits, he looks more like a Teamster organizer than the banker-trader that he claims to be, putting one in mind of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

Last winter Vasiljevic acquired the island of Sveti Stefan and the resort that is its namesake, along with three other nearby seaside hotels, from the Montenegrin government for $570 million, to be paid over five years. "It's my private offshore zone," he says of Sveti Stefan. "It is not in the war." His ambition is to turn it into his own private state.

Vasiljevic is circumspect about his years growing up in Yugoslavia and shares with Fischer a propensity for being enigmatic. "I want to remain mysterious," he says. "A man of mysterious origin." He left Yugoslavia when he was 18 and says he worked at a variety of jobs around the world, from making tires for Firestone in Australia to trading precious stones in Europe. However he made his fortune, he returned to his homeland in 1987 and founded a company, Jugoskandic, whose chief concern is import-export trading. "I trade in 1,500 articles," he says, "from medicine to oil." He denies published reports that he was involved in hiring mercenaries for the Serbian army or buying Israeli arms for Serbian troops. When he announced the Fischer-Spassky match in July, he hailed it as a triumph over the United Nations' embargo against Yugoslavia. "By bringing Fischer to Yugoslavia, we have broken the blockade in the most spectacular manner," he said then. Today, he adds simply, "I like the spec-tac-les. I like to do something nobody can do: bring Bobby back."

Fischer has not disappointed him. Indeed, Fischer made something of a spec-tac-le of himself on the eve of the match, when he held forth at a press conference that was quite as memorable as anything Roger Clemens ever contrived. Few of the hundred or so members of the press in attendance had ever seen Fischer, and when he arrived, all eyes turned and followed him as he walked with his loping, ungainly gait to the front of the room, looking much as he did seven years ago—down to the balding pate and the thin beard—when an obsessed magazine writer found him in the L.A. Public Library (SI, July 29, 1985). Settling into a chair in the Hotel Maestral, Fischer studied the written questions that reporters had submitted to him and began by saying, "I'll start off with, umm, ah, some impudent questions from The New York Times."

With traces of Brooklyn still in his voice, he read one question after another. " 'Why, after turning down so many offers to come back, did you accept this one?' That's not quite true. As I recollect, Karpov, in 1975, was the one who refused to play me under my conditions, which is basically the same conditions we are playing now.... 'Do you feel that your chess has improved over the past 20 years?' Well, we'll see.... 'If you beat Spassky, will you go on to challenge Kasparov for the world championship?' "

Here Fischer turned and pointed to the large sign behind him that announced this affair: THE WORLD CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP. "Can he read what it says behind here?" asked Fischer, to applause. " 'Are you worried by U.S. government threats over your defiance of sanctions?' " At this point he reached for his briefcase and pulled out a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department warning him that by playing the match, he risked stiff fines and 10 years in jail for violating President Bush's executive order imposing economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. "So," Fischer said, "here is my reply to their order not to defend my title here." Holding the letter in front of him, he spit on it, and added, "That's my answer."

Reporters gaped incredulously at one another. Asked if he supported the United Nations' sanctions against Yugoslavia, Fischer launched upon an attack of the U.N. for rescinding "a pretty good resolution against Israel about Zionism is racism...." He was merely warming up to the subject. " 'Do you regard yourself as an anti-Communist fighter?' First of all, we have to understand what communism is. I mean, to me, real communism, the Soviet communism, is basically a mask for Bolshevism, which is a mask for Judaism." And when asked about his being widely characterized as anti-Semitic, Fischer replied, "In the first place, this term anti-Semitism is a nonsense term, because my understanding is that the Arabs are also Semites, not only the Jews, so I don't know what that means. I'm definitely not anti-Arab."

Fischer wasn't finished yet. He accused Kasparov, Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, a former championship contender, of fixing their championship matches dating all the way back to Karpov-Korchnoi in 1978. He vowed to write a book revealing a grand conspiracy and showing how the games, move by move and even blunder by blunder, were prearranged. Calling them "these criminals," Fischer said that "Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi have absolutely destroyed chess by their immoral, unethical, prearranged games. These guys are really the lowest dogs around, and if people knew the truth about them, they would be held in more contempt than Ben Johnson, the runner, and they're going to know the truth when I do this book!"

By the time the first game began, a disquieting sense of unreality was hanging in the air like the smell of brine. In the late afternoon, as the war raged on up the coast, Fischer and Spassky climbed into the backseats of separate black Mercedes sedans. As befits the champions they used to be, the two were whisked the 1.4 miles from the footbridge of Vasiljevic's kingdom by the sea to the playing hall at the Hotel Maestral. All around, the signs and the T-shirts advertised the match as the championship of the world.

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