The 22-day-long world chess Olympics opened in Siegen, West Germany last month with two remarkable features to set it apart from all other chess tournaments. First, it was the biggest, with teams from 60 nations playing. Second, Robert James Fischer played on the American team. Fischer is not regarded by the rest of the chess world merely as a loner. He is the most individualistic, intransigent, uncommunicative, uncooperative, solitary, self-contained and independent chess master of all time, the loneliest chess champion in the world. He is also brilliant, and his very presence meant that America might just, for once, have a chance to beat the omnipotent Russians, who have won every chess Olympics since 1952.
Fischer, as the 360 chess masters playing at Siegen well knew, had been turning in spectacular individual performances in recent tournaments, finishing far ahead of the Russian grand masters who made up the Soviet Olympic team. If he could do as well in team play as he did alone, Russia might at last be beaten.
To the chess world, Bobby Fischer is an enigma. Now 27, he is more puzzling than he has been at any time since he burst on the scene at the age of 14 to win the American championship. Tall (6'2"), lanky, pale, broodingly handsome and single, he is moody and unpredictable. The Siegen tournament was not his first Olympic venture. Two years ago, at Lugano, Switzerland, Fischer also headed a strong U.S. team, or at least started to. He refused to play because the organizers would not give him a room away from the spectators and photographers' flashbulbs. After that blowup, Fischer withdrew from international play. He moved from his native Brooklyn to Santa Monica, Calif., where he kept to himself, studied chess openings and worked on a book of his best games, a volume which has already become a classic in chess literature.
Fischer's Olympic flare-up was not an isolated case. Once Prince Rainier of Monaco asked the U.S. Chess Federation to send two grand masters to Monte Carlo for a tournament, with the condition that Bobby Fischer be one of the two. Two years later His Highness sent another request for two American players, with the stipulation that neither could be Bobby Fischer. On the other hand, Fischer's defiance of chess authorities and his demands for better playing conditions have raised the professional standards of the game. He has always stuck to his guns in these disputes with chess officials, even though one cost him a chance at the world championship. Halfway through a qualifying event in Sousse, Tunisia in 1967, he walked out over a scheduling argument, though he was far in the lead and almost certain to win.
Today Fischer is able to command as much as $5,000 for tournament appearances, and those who pay it get something special from the moment he arrives. A rock-and-roll fan, he travels with his own portable short-wave radio. Together with his chess set and the reference works he carries with him, he often has to pay more than $100 in airline overweight luggage. When playing, he concentrates intensely on each game, oblivious to the fans who ignore the other games to watch his moves. He taps his feet restlessly to some inner frenzy, and during the five hours of action he will consume several sandwiches and as many as a dozen bottles of apple juice. These are served to him at his chessboard, three at a time.
Last April Fischer came out of retirement to play in Belgrade in a match that pitted the 10 best players from Russia against the 10 best from the rest of the world. There he scored a sensational three points out of a possible four against the former world champion, Tigran Petrosian, winning two games and drawing two. A nontitle match with Boris Spassky, the present world champion, was then arranged, with the purse to be $25,000, but Soviet chess authorities intervened and refused to let Spassky play. But what created even more interest in chess circles was Fischer's performance after his victory at Belgrade. Many of the world masters remained in Yugoslavia, and in a tournament in Zagreb, Fischer cleaned up on them, getting 13 of a possible 17 points by winning 10 games, drawing six and losing only one. From Zagreb he went to Buenos Aires, where he did even better. In 17 games against some of the world's best players, he won 13, drew four and lost none. He won both these events by a wide margin over several Russian grand masters. His play throughout was elegant, forceful and exciting, and of a quality that placed him in a class by himself. The question at Siegen was whether he could sustain this remarkable record on behalf of the American team. If he could, it would be the high point of his career.
The world chess Olympics is always a tumultuous affair. Each team consists of four boards, with two reserve players, and these can be needed. A British chess master made a bad move, collapsed from nervous exhaustion and, on his way to the hospital, vowed to give up chess forever.
Twelve teams qualified from the six preliminary groups. The American team consisted of Fischer, Samuel Reshevsky, Pal Benko, The Rev. William Lombardy, Edmar Mednis and myself. The U.S. had no trouble during the preliminary rounds, and Fischer's games remained at the consistently high level they had shown since he emerged from retirement. Nothing was heard this time about his playing in a separate room, though one concession the organizers did make was to move his table three feet from the aisle.
In the finals Fischer began with a fine victory over Miguel Najdorf as the American team defeated Argentina 3-1. Against Canada, however, the U.S. could do no better than a 2-2 tie, and Canada was to finish next to the bottom in the final standings. International chess play proceeds at the pace of 16 moves an hour, and a failure to complete 40 moves in 2� hours means the game is forfeited. Unfortunately, Rev. Lombardy, with an equal position, overstepped the time limit.
In the fifth round the U.S. faced Bulgaria and two of the top Americans were absent. Neither Fischer nor Reshevsky plays chess on their Sabbaths—sundown Friday to sundown Saturday—and officials refused to reschedule their games. But the U.S. team still posted a jolting 3� to� victory over Bulgaria and was suddenly tied with Hungary for the lead with 12� points. Surprisingly, Russia was in third place, with 12 points.