SI Vault
Larry Evans
September 11, 1972
After 16 years, Bobby Fischer's prophecy of becoming No. 1 in chess came true in a fashion even he could hardly have calculated
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September 11, 1972

A Steamroller Ride To The Summit

After 16 years, Bobby Fischer's prophecy of becoming No. 1 in chess came true in a fashion even he could hardly have calculated

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"I have a file drawer stuffed with offers for Bobby—and none is under six figures," said Paul Marshall. "Bobby is a superstar, like the Beatles, destined to change public taste on a broad scale. If Bobby had a crew cut, crew cuts would be In again."

So far, however, Bobby hasn't signed anything. He makes his own decisions and has not agreed to any endorsements, though he is devoted to Sony radios, with which he travels everywhere. (The rate of attrition on the money offers he has been getting is staggering. "I'd like to have the salvage rights to his wastebasket," said an aide, Fred Cramer.) It is quite conceivable that Bobby may never see a penny from his $156,250 share of the quarter-million purse after the IRS and assorted litigants (e.g., film maker Chester Fox) get through with him, but his vision as the first million-dollar chess champion is not so farfetched.

Fischer is the highest-rated player in history, in a class by himself, as Paul Morphy was 100 years ago. He can reasonably look forward to a long and lucrative career. He may well make good another of his boasts by holding the title until 2001. Emanuel Lasker held his crown for 27 years before being deposed by Jos� Capablanca in Havana in 1921 and remained a formidable opponent until the late '30s. Bobby has vowed to be a fighting champion and take on a challenger every year. "Maybe even a bum-of-the-month club, like Joe Louis," he says, breaking up. The reason for his exuberance is his love of the game. "Every day I go in like an unknown to prove myself."

Dr. Max Euwe, the former world champion who is now president of FIDE, the international chess federation based in The Hague and representing 84 nations, said, "The title belongs to FIDE. But I do not see any objection to Fischer playing a title match whenever he wants, providing he faces an accredited challenger every three years as called for by the rules." Bobby may well cause a crisis in FIDE, however, if he insists on nursing old grudges like the one he still bears against Russia's ex-world champion Tigran Petrosian, whom he would like to strip of his title retroactively, "because he cheated to get it."

Some observers feel the same charge may apply to Fischer, that his psyching tactics in the weeks preceding the beginning of the match and during its first several games were as calculated as the moves he made on the chessboard. Finally, when the match had become almost hopeless for Spassky, the Russian's chief second, Efim Geller, accused Fischer of using "non-chess means" to disturb his opponent. Fischer roared with laughter when he saw Geller's letter, but the organizers were not amused. They conducted chemical and X-ray examinations of the playing area, dismantling the two black leather swivel chairs. Nothing was awry except perhaps the ex-champion's dignity.

Spassky was clearly shocked and offended by Fischer's off-board antics, yet as a prisoner of his own dignity he could not strike back. He even resisted suggestions from Moscow that he come home when Bobby did not show up for the originally scheduled first game. Many observers believe that Geller's protest was engineered from the Kremlin.

Most grand masters on the scene did not believe that Fischer's psychological ploys were directed intentionally against the Russian. "That is the great riddle," said Svetozar Gligoric of Yugoslavia. "Bobby is clean. He used no tricks, traps or shots," said Robert Byrne of the United States. "I am afraid Spassky unconsciously wished to lose," said Jan Donner of Holland. "Bobby is the greatest, and he exudes confidence in his every motion and manner. Boris simply got the message," said William Lombardy, a Catholic priest who was also Fischer's second. "Boris would have been beaten even at his best," concluded Harry Golombek of The Times of London.

In a broad sense Fischer's strategy was to keep Spassky guessing, to shake him up. The uncertainty ranged from what opening he would play to whether he would even show up. It was a triumph of arrogant confidence over melancholy fortitude. But not everyone believes Fischer restricted his warfare to the chessboard, and perhaps only a return match will resolve matters.

Whether it comes next year or in 1975, and whether it is against Spassky or another challenger, the next championship series should hold a higher prize than ever for the winner. Discussions of a million-dollar purse are in the wind, and Fischer is unquestionably a hotter property than he was one year ago. Infinitely so.

Freed from the burden of the title and the absurd obligation to defend Soviet prestige, Spassky would be a much more formidable opponent the next time around. At 35 he is still in his prime and, in an interview after the last game, he showed remnants of a fighting spirit. He had Fischer in his hands, said the ex-champion, "but I couldn't kill him." Spassky sees personal problems ahead for Fischer—"I am sure he is going to be unhappy" in the role of champion—and hopes to be his first challenger. "Bobby is stronger than me now," he said, "but I am sure I can beat him. I will not repeat my mistakes, on or off the chessboard."

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