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The Dom Sindikata in Belgrade is a modern, spacious, domed theater that has now become famous as the scene of the greatest match in the history of chess. The match was a four-round affair that ended last week: the 10 best Russian players against the 10 best from the rest of the world, and there was no question about its importance. The 2,000 spectators who packed the Dom Sindikata every night were convinced of it. So were the 63 foreign correspondents who covered the event. Everyone in the world of chess found the Belgrade match no less than world-shaking—everyone, that is, except the Russian players.
They expected an easy victory. When Boris Spassky, the present world champion, was asked what he thought the outcome would be, he said, "Computers decided we will win by three points. Why not believe the machines?"
Why not, indeed? Five of the Russians sent to Belgrade were world champions—current or former. On first board for Russia was Spassky himself, who had not lost a single game since he won the world title last year. On Russia's second board was Tigran Petrosian, the ex-champion, of whom the American star, Bobby Fischer, said, "He's the hardest player in the world to beat." Then there were the ex-champions: Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal. With these were five leading Russian contenders for the championship.
The rest of the world had, to begin with, Bobby Fischer. But Fischer had not played in a tournament in nearly two years. When he arrived he was asked why he had stayed away from competition for so long. "Hang-ups," he said.
Truly an understatement. In the past bad lighting, a little noise, an exploding flashbulb have been enough to trigger Fischer's abrupt departure. Right away there was a mix-up that seemed made to order for another Fischer walkout. Bent Larsen of Denmark, ranked No. 2 in the world outside Russia, had compiled his best record to date while Fischer was inactive. Larsen threatened to withdraw unless he was allowed to play at the first board. To everyone's astonishment, Fischer gave way. "Larsen's got a point," he said.
By the time the first round started, he had second thoughts. The scene was that of any major tournament, but never before had so much chess talent been gathered in one place, and never before had Russia's finest masters been pitted against the best from everywhere else. Minutes before the match Fischer was asked how he felt about giving up first board. "It was a big mistake," he said. "I shouldn't have agreed to it."
He then took his place on the stage and thoroughly trounced Petrosian. It was an electrifying performance; Petrosian, with a lost game after the 15th move, resigned after 39 moves. There were occasional bursts of applause, and all the enthusiasm was for Fischer.
On the first board Larsen got off to a good, but not sensational, start and drew his game with Spassky. Samuel Reshevsky, seven times U.S. champion, drew his game with Smyslov after failing to press home an opening advantage. In that first round the Russians won three games, lost two and five were drawn, making the score 5� for the Russians and 4� for the rest of the world.
Spassky began the second round by doing a quicker job defeating Larsen than Fischer had done on Petrosian—in a hopeless position Larsen resigned after only 17 moves. Things did not look good for the rest of the world. Reshevsky blundered under time pressure and lost. Fischer was a pawn ahead at adjournment, but when the game resumed the next day his play, for the first time, became desultory. In the end, after nine hours, Fischer posted his second win.
The point he won was badly needed. It was the Russians' best round: the score, 6-4. At the halfway point they were three points ahead, just as the computer had predicted. On the bottom five boards the Russians were mopping up (the rest of the world won only one game there of the first 10), but they were unexpectedly losing at the top. And their situation was to get worse.