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Winning without really trying
Robert Cantwell
June 04, 1962
Four Russian masters evolve a devious plan to keep on top of the world's biggest chess event
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June 04, 1962

Winning Without Really Trying

Four Russian masters evolve a devious plan to keep on top of the world's biggest chess event

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Four Russian chess masters, operating on the strategic isle of Cura�ao in the Dutch West Indies, have discovered a way of boosting themselves to the top of the standings of one of the world's most important chess competitions. They simply don't beat each other. These Russians are four of the eight contenders in the Candidates' Tournament, the last step before the world championship itself. It is traditionally the longest (two months), hardest and most bitterly fought-out event in chess. The four Russians are comfortably in the lead at the moment and show every intention of remaining there. Their scheme has not only kept them ahead of their foreign opposition, it is helping them defeat one of their own countrymen as well.

The Candidates' is a grueling round-robin affair, in which every contestant plays every other contestant four times. The four Russians have softened its rigors by not trying to win when they meet each other. They draw. They have been playing at Cura�ao now for nearly a month, and every game they have played has been drawn—every game they have played against each other, that is. When they face any luckless contender who is not a member of their happy quartet they try their best.

Thus, they play to win when they meet Bobby Fischer, the 19-year-old American prodigy (and occasionally succeed), and all four experience a mighty revival of their competitive fervor when they come up against Pal Benko, the other U.S. contender, a Hungarian refugee who won an American chess championship last year. And the four Russians show just as much competitive ardor in thoroughly rooking the other member of the Russian contingent, ex-World Champion Mikhail Tal, and the remaining Iron Curtain candidate, Dr. Miroslav Filip of Czechoslovakia.

The shock of this amoral if not illegal strategy to the world of chess has been considerable. Spectators at the tournament in the big, pink Hotel Cura�ao Intercontinental have taken to wandering away from the tournament scene to watch the gambling in the Casino. Correspondents following the brief newspaper accounts have been writing angry letters denouncing the Russians for collusion. "The implication is that they may not be putting forth their best efforts against each other," wrote Hermann Helms, the dean of American chess critics, adding politely, "for reasons best known to themselves."

The shock is all the greater because all previous Candidates' Tournaments—there have been four since 1950—have been bitterly contested, with a minimum of grandmaster draws. Cura�ao was expected to be a particularly hard-fought event, because the two pretournament favorites, Tal and Fischer, had vital stakes in it. Tal, who won the 1959 Candidates' decisively—"by originality of thought, brilliance in combination, steadiness under pressure, lightning speed in calculation," said the tournament director—went on to win the world title from Mikhail Botvinnik. He was crushed by Botvinnik in their return match and played erratically thereafter. But nobody knew how badly he had been beaten, and his comeback try at Cura�ao made the occasion dramatic.

As for Bobby Fischer, the local press reported that he arrived in Cura�ao wearing a green corduroy suit, hand-tailored shirt, handmade shoes and Panama hat and "immediately went into seclusion." In the 1959 tournament that Tal won Bobby finished in fifth place. That was a spectacular achievement for a 16-year-old playing in his first Candidates'.

In the intervening three years Bobby has won most of the events that he has entered. Last fall at Bled in Yugoslavia he did not lose a game, though finishing second to Tal; in Stockholm this spring he was undefeated and decisively beat most of the contenders he now faces in Cura�ao. The momentum of Fischer's victories and the superb quality of his recent games indicated that he had a real chance at the world title.

Scared Russians

In any event it was obvious that Bobby Fischer posed a threat to Russian domination of the game. "They're afraid of him," said Larry Evans, the U.S. champion, in the simplest and most logical explanation of Russian tactics and strategy.

The shape of things to come was indicated in the first round, when Ewfim Geller, a 37-year-old economist and former champion of the Soviet Union, drew his game with Victor Korchnoi, who was previously famous for playing desperately to win—"balancing on the edge of disaster," as Tal described it. In the second round Korchnoi met Tigran Petrosian, a methodical and unimpassioned Russian master. Korchnoi and Petrosian also drew. In the third round Tigran Petrosian met Ewfim Geller, while Korchnoi was playing the fourth member of the Russian quartet, Paul Keres. All four drew. In the fourth round Keres played Petrosian, and that game was quickly drawn. In the fifth round Keres and Geller just as quickly agreed to a draw. So it went, on and on, as the Russians piled up their scores by getting half points for draws. (A win is worth a full point, a loss nothing.) Geller and Petrosian drew one game in 18 moves, Petrosian and Keres drew one in 21 moves, and in the 12th round Keres and Geller shook hands and called it a draw after 18 .

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