At about 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, Bobby Fischer shook hands with Boris Spassky over a chess board in a hotel conference room on the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, then quietly pushed the white's king's pawn two squares forward.
Fischer has always preferred the king's pawn opening—he has long touted it as white's best first move—and let history note that it may have been the only predictable act to occur so far in this match, and through all the days leading up to it. Indeed, it came as part of a scene so surreal as to suggest no less than a dream. Exactly 20 years and one day had passed since the final game of that riotous summer of 1972, when Spassky, then the world champion from the Soviet Union, and Fischer, the eccentric, temperamental chess genius from Brooklyn, faced each other for nearly two months across a chess board in Reykjavik, Iceland, fighting for the world title in an internationally celebrated match that left them as symbols of their time: steely cold warriors doing battle with wooden cannons in the ultimate mind game, at the height of East-West tensions.
Fischer won the title on Sept. 1, when Spassky resigned in the 21st game of that match and thus confirmed what most grandmasters already knew: that the American was the strongest player in the history of the ancient game—"the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens," Mikhail Tal of Latvia, a former world champion, once said.
Spassky and Fischer went their very separate ways from Reykjavik. Spassky eventually to France, where he became a French citizen and gradually slipped into obscurity as a chess player, and Fischer to Southern California, where he soon became a sorry hostage to his paranoid belief that "the Commies" were out to kill him. After FIDE, the international governing body of chess, had stripped Fischer of his title when he refused to defend it in 1975 against Anatoly Karpov of the U.S.S.R.—FIDE would not yield to all his conditions for the match—Fischer began a slow drift into self-exile and seclusion. He broke contact with most of his old chess friends. He banished anyone from his life who dared talk about him to the press. And though his mother is Jewish, he belabored any who would listen with anti-Semitic tirades and ravings about how the Holocaust had never happened.
As the years passed and sightings of Fischer grew increasingly rare, he attained an almost mythical stature, a ghostly presence who fairly haunted the game. All he left behind were his games—pure, clean, powerful expressions of his art—and the nagging certainty among chess masters that he was still out there somewhere, alive but gone from the game. It was no wonder then that the July 24 news dispatch announcing the match between Fischer and Spassky so stunned and stirred the chess world. Fischer had surfaced in Yugoslavia, where a mysterious, enigmatic Serb, Jezdimir Vasiljcvic (pronounced YEZ-di-meer Vahsill-YAY-vich), announced that he had signed him to play Spassky.
"I'll believe it when the first chess piece is moved," said Karpov, who lost his title to the current world champion, Gary Kasparov, of the U.S.S.R., in 1985. Harder to believe was the $5 million purse, an unprecedented amount for a chess match, of which the first player to win 10 games would take $3.35 million, the loser $1.65 million.
No one was more staggered at this turn of events than Spassky, 55, a graying, personable, beloved eminence among chess masters. "Bobby pulls me out of oblivion," said Spassky, whose ranking had slipped to 99th in the world. "He makes me fight. It's a miracle...."
That was not the only evidence he found of divine intervention. Early in August, Fischer joined Spassky, who had also arrived in Yugoslavia, for dinner in a Belgrade restaurant to chat about old times. Later, when Spassky saw Vasiljevic, he approached him, making the sign of the cross: "My God, it is a miracle!" said Spassky. "Bobby is so kind, so friendly.... He is normal!"
However one defines it, normal is not a word that comes immediately to mind regarding Fischer, and surely nothing is ordinary about his bizarre, unorthodox comeback against Spassky. They had agreed to renew hostilities in the Montenegrin resort community of Sveti Stefan, just 70 miles south of where thousands were dying in the Balkan civil war. The two men began training on a small island just offshore, also called Sveti Stefan—a 15th-century fishing village with meandering walkways and old stone buildings that now serve as shops, villas and a hotel.
It is, of course, the perfect setting for Fischer. More a fortress than an island, Sveti Stefan's steep cliffs drop 150 feet to the blue Adriatic, and the only access by land is a gate at the end of a 100-yard footbridge that connects the island to the mainland. Fischer lives in the most secure and luxurious of the villas—Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti used to vacation there—high on a remote corner of the island, overlooking the sea. A guard stands sentry at its only gate. Fischer takes all his meals on the island, and bodyguards accompany him everywhere.