SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
August 14, 1972
First, catch a Russian—and at long last Bobby Fischer apparently has, dominating Boris Spassky so completely that only a sharp reversal can keep the young American from becoming world champion
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August 14, 1972

How To Cook A Russian Goose

First, catch a Russian—and at long last Bobby Fischer apparently has, dominating Boris Spassky so completely that only a sharp reversal can keep the young American from becoming world champion

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By last weekend all that had changed. Fischer was smiling, actually smiling, at people. He had even allowed a friend to come to his room and watch while he worked out some problems in the adjourned 10th game—something never heard of before. As he plays over a game Fischer is unlike the intimidating figure he presents in competition. He bends over the board, moving pieces almost too fast to follow with the eye. He sets up one position, then changes it in an instant, his hands darting about like those of a pianist at a keyboard.

"His room is a shambles," said Photographer Jerry Cooke after paying a 4:30 a.m. call on Fischer. "It is littered with magazines, dirty clothes, letters, chess books, messages...stuff. In the corners stand trays with half-eaten herrings and sour milk. At the center of it all is Bobby, hunched over a shabby vinyl chessboard."

Since Fischer has entered this new, mellow phase, his chess games have taken on their familiar, crackling vitality. Before the crucial ninth and 10th games there had been something wrong. Although Fischer had been scoring points, the strain and anxiety were obvious. Blunders by Spassky, rather than exceptional play by Fischer, accounted for much of the one-sidedness.

The first game of the match, for example, was jarred by one of Fischer's walkouts and further confused by what looked like a beginner's blunder when Fischer grabbed a poisoned pawn and lost his bishop. (Many international grand masters were at pains to point out that Fischer had some deep-laid plan in mind but that it did not work.) The second game was forfeited. The third game Fischer won, but it was marred by its setting in a small back room of the Exhibition Hall in deference to Fischer's camera shyness. It was, nevertheless, Fischer's first victory over Spassky since they first played in Argentina in 1958, and an important emotional watershed for Bobby. Still, it was not so much Fischer's win as Spassky's loss, a misstep on the Russian's 18th move placing him under the lasting necessity to defend. American Grand Master Larry Evans called the move "gruesome."

While the chess proceeded sporadically, the Icelanders grew increasingly annoyed by Fischer's early dyntir, meaning nonsense. Attendance dropped from some 2,500 at the first game to around 900 or less in the last two. A newspaper letter writer referred to Fischer as the most hated man in Iceland. One Rev. Pitur Mannusson issued a calming statement: "I urge those who have been hold their heads high if they meet [Fischer] on the street. That is what I am going to do if I meet this sharp-tongued genius."

Fischer's win in the fifth game, when Spassky on his 27th move committed the worst oversight of his career—a queen move that cost him a bishop—equalized the score at 2�-2�. But it was a game scarcely better than a routine chess-club match. Game 6 proved an exception to the early spottiness. Fischer, with white, practically blew Spassky off the board, seizing the initiative with a pawn offer on the 20th move and not letting go until the champion resigned on move 41. It was a measure of Fischer's skill that even Spassky joined the applause afterward—a gesture that visibly moved Bobby.

Game 7 was a lusterless draw, and even the eighth game, which Fischer won, was marred by another Fischer walkout over film cameras and an appalling blunder by Spassky on his 19th move. "Spassky is playing like a child," said Miguel Najdorf, an Argentine grand master who left Iceland after the game. Spassky requested a postponement for the ninth game; he was suffering from a cold that some wags suggested may have been complicated by "Fischer fear," a malaise well known to Bobby's past foes.

As if to contradict such speculation, Spassky sauntered in on time for the delayed ninth game, neatly dressed in a light jacket and blue trousers, apparently as composed as if it were the first game instead of perhaps his final chance. He proved the Soviets are not ignorant of the uses of psychology when he played his trademark opening, P-Q4, the one that Fischer could be expected to have prepared against most thoroughly. Fischer darted in breathlessly, 12 minutes late, sat at the desk with his head in his hands for five minutes of what appeared to be profound thought and then played N-KB3, his standard response to P-Q4. The hall stirred with an animation only another chess player could appreciate.

Five hours later, with equal strength on the board, the game was drawn. Spas-sky had outplayed Fischer in the opening, showing none of the shakiness that characterized his previous few games, but he appeared to back off when he had the initiative. Fischer fear?

Bent Larsen, the Danish grand master who lost six straight to Fischer in the elimination rounds last year, said that Spassky was hoping for a few draws to steady his nerves. Fischer was not accommodating.

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