Ever since 1952,
when it first entered the Chess Olympics, Soviet Russia has won. Twice the U.S.
has finished second: in Leipzig in 1960 and in Fidel Castro's Havana, a
fortnight ago. On both occasions the U.S. team was headed by Bobby Fischer, the
eccentric glamour boy of international chess.
There really were
two major conflicts going on in the ballroom of the Habana Libre (formerly
Hilton) hotel during Fischer's more recent appearance. One was for first place
in the Olympics, which was likely to go to Russia, barring some considerable
upset. The other was for a gold medal representing the outstanding individual
performance among some 200 players from 52 countries. The eighth consecutive
victory for the Soviet chess team (the Olympics are held every other year) was
as close to routine as such a performance in chess can be. But Fischer's
struggle for the gold medal belongs with the legends, and is going to be
remembered, at least in Havana, long after the Soviet team victory has become
merely another item in the record books.
At Leipzig, six
years ago, Bobby was a touchy, thin-skinned, self-conscious 17-year-old, who
suffered so acutely in the limelight that he almost had to win so the world
would not witness his pain when he lost. At Havana he was an expansive,
good-natured, self-possessed champion, who avoided that dilemma by a simple
expedient: he did not lose. Or at least not until the last critical moment. The
Olympics needed something dramatic, and he provided it. It was the biggest,
best-run and most expensive Chess Olympics ever held. Rumor was that it cost
the Cuban government 1.3 million pesos. It probably did. Castro learned to play
chess just recently and wants the country to share his enthusiasm. With those
familiar props of his—the long cigar and the crumpled cap—he dropped in at the
tournament often, and he played both World Champion Tigran Petrosian and
Fischer. The hall was crowded for every round of the tournament. And the games
were broadcast, play by play, over radio and TV.
thousand who could not get into the hall, an electronic demonstration board was
set up on a wall opposite the Habana Libre, and that alone, we were told, cost
another 80,000 pesos.
and demonstrative chess fans soon became ardent partisans of Bobby Fischer. The
brilliant and aggressive character of his play and his willingness to take on
all comers gained the affection of the crowds, and it was a good thing: the
U.S. team presently needed all the resources it possessed to obviate hostility.
At one point the Polish captain accused us of having thrown our match with
The second blowup
was more serious and came on the second day of the finals. It has been
generally accepted in chess circles for the past two years that Fischer never
plays chess, or even discusses the game, from sundown Friday to sundown
Saturday. That period, he says, is his "holy day." He has gotten
religion, though no one has been able to find out which religion it is, or
whether it has a brand name. Chess players are not a notably devout group, and
Bobby's religion has provoked endless speculation and theological arguments
among them. One theory is that he has come under the influence of an obscure
California radio preacher, who aims at a reconciliation of the Jewish and
Christian faiths. However, unless you know Bobby well you do not ask him about
anything he does not want to discuss. You certainly do not ask him if you are
playing on the same chess team.
arrangements with Cuban officials before the U.S. team left for Havana, Colonel
Edmund Edmondson, the executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation, was
assured that Bobby's sabbath would be respected. By the luck of the draw, the
U.S. opponent on Saturday was Russia, and Fischer was therefore in line to meet
Petrosian. The Russians were asked to postpone the starting time of Fischer's
game against Petrosian from 4 until 6. Alexei Serov, the manager of the Russian
team, not only refused, but chewed out Donald Byrne, the nonplaying captain of
the American team, in a lengthy, irrelevant anti-American harangue.
Not wanting to
play without Fischer, the other three members of the American team took the day
off and thus forfeited the match. Our action was written up in the Havana press
at least once as a yanqui dodge employed to avoid a humiliating defeat at the
hands of the Soviet Union.
At this point
Donald Byrne reported to Colonel Edmondson in New York by phone. Edmondson, in
turn, outlined the situation to Folke Rogard, the president of the
International Chess Federation, in Stockholm. Rogard cabled Byrne recommending
that an arbitration board be set up to reschedule the match. Igor Bondarevsky,
the Russian captain, said the incident had developed international
repercussions. As a result the decision would have to be made by the Russian
chess federation. He told us that we could expect it in a few days. But the
very next day the director of the Cuban Sports Federation announced that the
Russians had agreed to reschedule the match—"in order," they said,
"not to disappoint their Cuban public."
The Cuban public,
however, was not theirs. It was Fischer's. For tactical reasons the Russians
replaced the cautious Petrosian at first board with young Boris Spassky, to the
distinct disappointment of the Cuban fans, who wanted to see Fischer pitted
against the world champion. Fischer, playing white, exploited an opening
advantage and achieved a winning bind in 35 moves. On the 36th move, with 45
minutes at his disposal, he made a hasty pawn snatch and followed it with a
dubious rejoinder that permitted Spassky to salvage a draw. On the second board
Mikhail Tal trounced our Robert Byrne, and on the third board Pal Benko held
Soviet Champion Leonid Stein to a draw, while my game with Lev Polugaevsky was
also drawn. The score: 2�-1� in favor of the Russians.