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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On summer evenings in Iceland the sun barely sinks below the horizon. There is a joke going around that Bobby Fischer demanded it set three hours earlier, but so far the Icelandic Chess Federation hasn't been able to arrange it. In any case, it is daylight most of the time, and the only real darkness in the land these days has been in the cavernous interior of Reykjavik's Exhibition Hall, where the World Championship Chess Match is going on, and possibly in the heart of Russia's Boris Spassky.

After 11 games in the best-of-24 series, Fischer (see cover) had apparently taken firm command. With a couple of exceptions, his play has been clearly superior to that of the Russian. Until Sunday's fiasco, when Fischer allowed his queen to fall on the 25th move, he had not lost to Spassky in nine straight games. Spassky had won across the board only twice, and the 6�-4� lead Fischer had built up is, if not overwhelming, at least demoralizing.

Fischer has been working toward this week for 14 years, since the World Championship qualifying tournament at Portoroz, Yugoslavia in 1958, when he was 15 years old. That was the first time he had come up against a Russian chess player, and he met their top rank at the start: Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Yuri Averbach and David Bronstein. He drew his games with all four to finish fifth among 21 contenders. Since then he has made a kind of crusade out of ending the Russian dominance of chess.

He says the Russians have held the title for so long—Mikhail Botvinnik followed by Vassily Smyslov, Smyslov by Botvinnik, Botvinnik by Tal, Tal by Botvinnik, Botvinnik by Petrosian, Petrosian by Spassky—that they regard it as their property. "They don't look on me as a chess player who is trying to win the championship," he says. "They act as if I were a thief trying to steal something that belonged to them."

The promise of victory has produced in Fischer a sort of bemused satisfaction, as if winning carried with it some small pleasure he never knew existed before. It has transformed him. He is still as nocturnal as an alley cat, going to bed around six in the morning and rising in the afternoon. But when he comes out of his room at the Hotel Loftleidir he may glance with a start of surprise at the enormous pack of letters handed to him, then quickly suppress it with an indifferent air that suggests he has been getting a pouchful of letters every day of his life. He has taken to sauntering around the old center city near the waterfront, signing autographs and peering in shop windows, or to touring the watery Icelandic countryside with his second, the Rev. William Lombardy, a stately secular priest attached to the Archdiocese of New York and a brilliant chess player in his own right.

One off day Fischer wandered into the city for a fitting with a tailor and stopped in at a cocktail party for chess visitors at the U.S. Information Service headquarters. There he drank a glass of water (the officials forgot to order orange juice for him) and amiably questioned a group of Yugoslavs who wanted him to play in the forthcoming Chess Olympiad in Skopje. He listened attentively, occasionally chuckling as they described some Balkan wonder he would find there. It may not sound like much in the way of a social life, but for Fischer it is positively wanton. Or, as Bobby told his bodyguard, Saemundur Palsson, "It's great!"

This newfound tractability would have been a stunning contrast even to a normally abrasive Bobby Fischer, but until the last week or so he had been abnormally abrasive. Through the first games of this remarkable World Championship there was not much point in considering the kind of chess that was going to be played. The question was whether any chess was going to be played.

Each session was a crisis. Tension inside the vaulted Exhibition Hall was palpable, heightened by the pervasive gloom Fischer had insisted upon to help his concentration. Only the stage itself was lighted. A huge panel hung above the playing board to diffuse the waxen light from a bank of overhead lamps. The backdrop behind the mahogany-colored desk on which the board rests was solid gray. The only color relief was provided by six potted plants ranged somewhat improbably around the floor. Two executive-type chairs (Fischer had his flown in from New York) completed the decor. It could have been the setting for one of those barren futuristic dramas—say, 1984. Indeed, some said it was.

The presence of the two contenders did little to relieve the impression. Neither Fischer nor Spassky looked like men playing chess. When they took their seats they assumed postures more appropriate to a pair of angry young businessmen arguing over a forthcoming promotion. Spassky invariably arrived first, and Fischer was invariably late. When Spassky played the white pieces, he made his move, punched his clock and waited. When Fischer had white, Referee Lothar Schmid punched Fischer's clock at the starting time and everybody waited.

When Fischer finally arrived he plunged through the curtains with his hurried, loping walk and acknowledged the light—sometimes almost inaudible—applause. After each move the players jotted down their moves—Spassky with the air of a man penning a note to his secretary. The audience thought nothing of it when Spassky occasionally left his chair after a move and disappeared backstage. When Fischer did it, however, unmistakable suspense filled the room. Would he come back?

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