Bobby Fischer has now won the U.S. chess championship for the fourth consecutive year, and since he will not be 18 until March, this means he has been sole possessor of the title ever since he was 14 years old. What made his most recent triumph particularly meaningful, however, was the fact that the players who pressed him hardest are not much older than he is. Second place in the tournament went to William Lombardy, a seasoned veteran of 23, and third to Raymond Weinstein, a 19-year-old college junior.
These three had met before, playing together rather than against each other. Last fall they were members of the American team at the Chess Olympics in Leipzig. On the Russian team were: the present world champion, Mikhail Tal; the former world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik; another former world champion, Vassily Smyslov; and Paul Keres, an Estonian master who ranks with the major chess figures of the 20th century. The Russians were perhaps the most formidable aggregation of chess power ever assembled on any team. Bobby Fischer and his youthful colleagues nevertheless finished a close second to them—which, of course, raised a pertinent question: Will they be able to beat the Russians when they get a little older and more experienced? "We can't beat the Russians this year," Bobby said, "and probably not next year. But we can give them the hardest fight they have ever been in."
If such a match were held right now, the important matter would not be who won. Whatever the outcome, a contest between these old Russian stalwarts and a group of newcomers would be a visible demonstration that the vital figures in chess are currently coming from the U.S., not from Russia. "We aren't producing young players!" exclaimed Vassily Smyslov recently. Chess in Russia is subsidized in a fashion that would have shocked the Tweed Ring—even a minor chess master gets a car and one or two houses—and if good young players are not forthcoming, it is evident that some Dostoevskian soul-searching is overdue. On the other hand, no sport, with the possible exception of tossing the caber, has ever been so little supported as chess in the U.S. Yet the young players are nevertheless emerging here, and the national championship tournament that Bobby Fischer just won was dominated by them.
Bobby's first opponent in the nationals was Raymond Weinstein, who was a junior at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn when Bobby was a freshman there. In those days Bobby occasionally dropped in to play chess at the Weinstein home, always beating Raymond with ease. Bobby hasn't been in a classroom since he quit high school in the middle of his junior year; Raymond is well on his way through college. Despite Bobby's repeated victories, there is a quenchless rivalry between them, intensified because Raymond just had a big year, playing on the American college team that beat the Russian college students in a stunning upset in Leningrad.
Thus, when with Weinstein and 10 other contenders for his title, Bobby entered the ballroom of Manhattan's Hotel Empire on a wintry Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, he faced a familiar situation. But in chess, and especially in Bobby Fischer's brand of chess, nothing is ever the same. The 12 took their places at tables before big boards on the wall that duplicated their moves and set the chess clocks that timed their games. Each had to make a minimum of 40 moves in the 2� hours allotted to them. At 2:22 Bobby shook hands with Raymond, moved pawn to king four and pressed the lever that stopped the clock on his side and started the one on Weinstein's side. He was pale, but surprisingly relaxed. Usually the most fidgety and restless of chess players, always walking about during his games, he now leaned over the board with folded hands, or barely rocked back and forth in his chair, or at most nodded his head from side to side, as if following the beat of a metronome, while he mentally played out moves ahead.
The game progressed in profound concentration. Then, at 2:44, Bobby jumped to his feet for the first time, blinked his eyes rapidly, stuck his hands deep in his trouser pockets and began a long-striding pace around the tables to glance at the progress of the other games. He returned to his place almost at once, however; neither he nor Weinstein pondered long over their moves. At 2:50 he was on his feet again for another brief walk. At 2:56 he again jumped up. At 3:01, after he castled, he arose, yawned, looked owlishly at the audience and walked once around his chair. Raymond, who had castled on his queen side, played knight to bishop four, whereupon Bobby sat motionless for 11 minutes. Then, looking not too pleased, he moved his king rook over one space to the king square. Raymond removed his glasses. He moistened the tips of his fingers in a glass of water, touched his eyes, put his glasses on and, after deliberating 16 minutes, moved his bishop back one space to his king square.
The ballroom had grown warm. In the somewhat faded grandeur of the Hotel Empire the yellow lights from two overhead spots gleamed on the polish of the black chessmen, on the heavy gold-flecked beige drapes, on the gold trim of the ivory walls. Beveled mirrors reflected the three chandeliers and the warm rose-shaded wall lamps. Outside it was growing dark, the cranes and half-demolished buildings of Lincoln Square looming enormous against the gray-felt sky, a few stragglers making their way over the slippery paths that had been cut through the drifts on Broadway. There was no sound except the whispered hum of kibitzers studying the moves—"Why not bishop to rook four?" or "He's going to trade his queen for two rooks and a pawn"—and similar comments that serve chess fans in place of cheers.
At 4:37 Bobby removed his coat. At 5:13 an attendant brought coffee and sandwiches to the players, Bobby absentmindedly removing the lid from the container but neglecting to drink from it and leaving his sandwich untouched. At 5:30 a certain nervous dismay gripped the spectators. " Fischer doesn't look so good," said a youthful bystander, as if announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And it was true: Bobby had launched an attack along the open knight file, bearing on Weinstein's castled king, the sort of wild, daring attack that usually brings him victory; but this time it had petered out, and Raymond was unperturbed, while Bobby was beginning to look strained. At 5:58 Bobby suddenly retreated, pulling his rook back to knight two, and for the next two or three moves seemed to be improvising, with no clear objective in mind.
There were games going on at five other tables, but as far as the audience was concerned they might just as well, have been played in the snowdrifts in the excavations for Lincoln Center. The chess addicts who follow Bobby Fischer to tournaments believe he is the greatest natural chess player in history (an opinion he readily agrees with), and they no longer merely expect to see him win. They expect to see him come up with daring, surprising, imaginative combinations while winning. For the first time since Fischer began winning championships, he was neatly groomed, wearing a suit rather than his customary sweat shirt and with his brown spiky hair neatly trimmed. All this finery disturbed his youthful admirers, many of whom could have fitted right into the cast of West Side Story without changing costume, and their concern deepened as Bobby's expression suddenly grew haggard and despairing.
At 6:03 Weinstein began a slow-paced offensive of his own. He moved his queen across the board, traded off a knight and proceeded with cautious accuracy to accomplish nothing. Then, at 6:42, Fischer struck. He leaned across the board, took a pawn with his rook and put the black king in check. He literally jammed the rook across the board with a swift, exultant gesture, as if he were driving a sword through a deadly enemy. Weinstein stared at the board, transfixed. Dazedly, he moved the king out of check and, on the third move, resigned. In the gallery elderly men shook hands with each other, each as pleased as if he had personally won, and the younger kibitzers, all merciless Fischer idolators, busied themselves with sardonic wisecracks about the beaten Weinstein.