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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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In 1956 Bobby Fischer, 13, proclaimed to a less-than-enthralled chess world, "I'm gonna win the world championship, hold it a couple of years, then take up something else and make a lot of money." Last Friday morning in Reykjavik, the mercurial American grand master fulfilled the first part of his 16-year-old prophecy by crushing Boris Spassky, the Russian titleholder, in the 21st and deciding game of their championship series.

The final score of 12�-8� gave only scant indication of the real dimension of the match. Setting aside the game Fischer let go by forfeit and petulance and the 11 games that were drawn, the match ended with the remarkable score of Fischer 7, Spassky 2. It was, after an initial flurry of temperament and uneven chess on Fischer's part, no contest.

The match ended not with a bang but a whimper. Some 2,500 spectators at Exhibition Hall were deprived of the satisfaction of watching Spassky resign his adjourned game. He might have been able to offer long resistance with the proper defense, but he sealed the wrong move and then realized his plight was hopeless.

Fischer, who had no way of knowing this, studied the position all night, barely glancing away from his pocket chess set at dinner. He was skeptical when told an hour before the game that Spassky had resigned by phone, and demanded to see it in writing. When he arrived at the hall, the American sat at the board for several minutes before the referee, Lothar Schmid of West Germany, made the official announcement. Fischer signed his score sheet and bounded up and out at the first roar of applause. Backstage he said three words to network TV crews: "Great. Later. Later." Spassky went for a walk alone by the waterfront.

In his room at the Hotel Loftleidir, Fischer received visitors and reporters. He indicated that he wanted to give the Russian a return match. He also said he was feeling sufficiently fresh to play first board for the U.S. at the Chess Olympiad at Skopje, Yugoslavia starting on Sept. 18. Ironically, the U.S. is plagued by money problems in providing a team of grand masters on the other five boards, without which there is no chance of wresting the team title from Russia. While Fischer will probably receive $100,000 for attending, the other five grand masters have been offered only $2,000 by the U.S. Chess Federation.

The outcome of the Reykjavik series had been predicted for weeks, but the tang when it finally came was particularly acute for the American chess community, which stands to benefit mightily from the result. Already there is talk about a U.S. Chess League consisting of six teams, each headed by a grand master, playing once a week with a fast time limit on cable TV. "We've lined up New York, Chicago and Los Angeles," says Paul Marshall, a Fischer attorney, who envisions a chess world series. "Three multimillionaire sports impresarios have committed themselves. Within two years we expect to turn a profit."

The seven active U.S. grand masters—Fischer, Arthur Bisguier, Robert Byrne, Lubomir Kavalek, William Lombardy, Samuel Reshevsky and this writer—will be the greatest beneficiaries of Fischer's victory. Up to now their services commanded an average of perhaps $6,000 a year from prize money, exhibitions and articles. Fischer's previous best year was probably $30,000. All that has changed in the last two months of TV coverage, front-page headlines and almost daily suspense over the games Fischer played.

Chess should have a lasting impact on American leisure time. "Bobby is an authentic phenomenon, and chess is an enduring passion," says Frank Brady, Fischer's biographer, who was in Reykjavik for a San Francisco radio station. "Chess does not require expensive equipment or a special room like Ping-Pong or billiards. All it needs is a quiet, sedate atmosphere, and I would hate to see it vulgarized. I'd rather see chess masters in tuxedos than blazers."

Whether chess can withstand this media embrace remains to be seen. In a way, Bobby's well-chronicled donnybrooks reflect his instinctive, nonverbal revulsion against the vulgarization of chess. "Chess is like playing a concert," he once said. He considers it a private affair and wants to copyright his games.

But he also realizes that chess is show biz: "That's where it's at. Someday I'm gonna dress for a show—I mean, a game—like Tom Jones or Liberace," he said last year in Buenos Aires during the Tigran Petrosian match. The new maroon and purple corduroy suits for which he was fitted in Reykjavik are but a glimmer of things to come.

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