SI Vault
Bobby Fischer
August 20, 1962
Soviet athletes are being good sports on a number of fronts lately, as shown by Igor Ter-Ovanesyan's story in this magazine two weeks ago. The same admirable attitude does not apply, however, to one treasured game. Here our national champion tells how the Soviets have arranged title competition so that they can't lose in chess
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August 20, 1962

The Russians Have Fixed World Chess

Soviet athletes are being good sports on a number of fronts lately, as shown by Igor Ter-Ovanesyan's story in this magazine two weeks ago. The same admirable attitude does not apply, however, to one treasured game. Here our national champion tells how the Soviets have arranged title competition so that they can't lose in chess

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The international Candidates' Chess Tournament that ended June 28 in Curacao left me with one conviction: Russian control of chess has reached a point where there can be no honest competition for the world championship. The system set up by the F�d�ration International des Echecs, the governing body of world chess, insures that there will always be a Russian world champion because only a Russian can win the preliminary tournament that determines his challenger. The Russians arranged it that way. As far as I am concerned, they can keep it that way. I will never again play in one of these tournaments.

I've been told that is a hard decision to make, because it means giving up any hope of ever winning the title. The truth is that as long as the present system exists neither I nor anyone else from any Western country can win the title. So the decision isn't a hard one to make, but it is hard to explain. The reason why it is hard is that anything I say about Russian dominance of this part of chess—or anything that any Western player says—is bound to look like an alibi for not having beaten the Russians in the Cura�ao tournament. Any loser explaining why we can't win the world championship, or arguing that the setup makes it impossible for us to compete with the Russians on equal terms, seems to be suffering from sour grapes; it's said there is nothing in the Russian control of international chess that a few victories by others wouldn't fix.

Well, I now know better. And if these reasons sound like sour grapes, I hope a statement of the facts will change that impression. I began playing chess 11 years ago, when I was 8 years old. In 1959 I qualified for the Candidates' Tournament, held that year in Yugoslavia. The winner would meet Botvinnik for the world championship. There were eight players in the tournament, four of whom were Russians. I finished in a tie for fifth place, right behind the four Russians. In the three years before the next Candidates' Tournament rolled around, I played against the Russians at every opportunity I was offered. In these interim tournaments I defeated all the Russians I had faced in Yugoslavia (and would face again at Curacao) or I came out ahead of them in tournaments in which we were entered—in Stockholm, for example, where I won the tournament by 2� points, or in Bled, Yugoslavia, where I beat the four Russian entries, 3� to �. That is, I won three and drew one of my four games with the Russians in that tournament.

But between 1959 and 1962 the Russian dominance of the Candidates' Tournament became much more open than it had been before. At Curacao it was flagrant. There was open collusion between the Russian players. They agreed ahead of time to draw the games they played against each other. Each time they drew they gave each other half a point. The tournament winner, Petrosian, got 5� points of his 17� total this way. They consulted during the games. If I was playing a Russian opponent, the other Russians watched my games, and commented on my moves in my hearing. Then they ridiculed my protests to officials. They worked as a team.

The present trouble in international chess goes back to the end of the war. In March 1946 Alexander Alekhine, who had been the world champion, was found dead in Lisbon, and there was no clear-cut procedure for choosing his successor. In the old days, champions themselves decided whom they would play for the title and there was some unfairness about it, because a champion could refuse for years to play a strong challenger. Generally the trouble had something to do with money: if you couldn't put up enough money, you couldn't get a match. It may have been unjust at times, but at least it was logical. Now you can't get a match if you put up money or anything else.

The Russians have substituted propaganda for money as the incentive for holding on to the title, and the system they have worked out makes no sense whatever. I personally would be willing to play a match with Botvinnik at any time, letting him decide the minimum and maximum stakes we would play for, and the time and place. I would go so far as to spot him the advantage of two points in a match of 24 points. It isn't conceit that leads me to say I could come out the victor with ease in such a competition; it is simply that Botvinnik has been world champion too long, his reign perpetuated by the system that selects his opponents, and he is no longer a chess master of championship caliber.

The tournament to pick Alekhine's successor was held in Moscow in 1948. There were five players, three of them Russian. Botvinnik won the tournament and became the new champion, but he did not win by a very big margin—certainly not enough to suggest that he and the other Russians outstripped all other competition thereafter, for all time. Botvinnik's margin would have been even less (possibly even nonexistent), except that another Russian, Paul Keres, lost all his games to him. So right at the start there was a question of whether the Russian numerical superiority in these Candidates' tournaments might not be decisive. But there wasn't so much criticism at first.

By 1953, when I was beginning to play chess seriously, everybody was talking about the unfair way of selecting Botvinnik's opponents. And there were charges that the Russians were rigging international tournaments to keep the world championship in Russian hands. For example, the Chess Review wrote about the Candidates' Tournament of 1953: "There has been undeniable collusion by the Russians to freeze out Western competition." The main argument was this: nothing could prevent one of the Russian players' winning the Candidates' Tournament if, at a critical stage, "it became expedient to throw collective support to the Soviet candidate whose prospects had crystallized above those of his fellow Russians." Nothing could prevent it because the Russian team could draw all their games with each other if they were in the lead, or throw their games to the strongest Russian contender it they were threatened by a player from another country. In an editorial The New York Times said that the system for picking the challenger for the world championship led "to possible collusion between Soviet players to help one win a tourney, as against a non-Soviet opponent."

That was nine years ago, when I was 10 years old, so I don't think I can be guilty of sour grapes in quoting it. In the intervening years Russian mastery of this system of keeping in the lead has grown more skillful. At Curacao there were five Russians out of the eight contenders. Mikhail Tal, however, the former world champion, had recently recovered from a kidney operation, became ill during the tournament and withdrew to enter a hospital, having no part in the general Soviet team effort thereafter. The other four Russians swam in the afternoons, dressed, came to the start of the games in the chess room at the Hotel Intercontinental, dawdled at the chessboards for half an hour or so, made a few quick moves, traded off as many pieces as possible and then offered a draw. "Niche!" one would ask. "Niche," his opponent would reply. They would sign their scorecards, go through the formality of turning them in to the officials and then have dinner or change their clothes and go back to the pool. We played four games a week. Two other days were given over to finishing adjourned games. I played on every day set aside for tournaments. In effect, I was playing a regular schedule of six days a week. But when the Russians drew with each other, they drew early, before the time of adjournment. They thus played only four days a week. In the weeks when all four Russians happened to be playing each other, and drew all their games, they really played only two days that week.

Geller and Petrosian drew their first game in 21 moves. They met again in the 10th round. That game lasted 18 moves. Their next game went only 16 moves. In their last meeting they drew in 18 moves.

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