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Boris Spassky walked the red-paneled theater of the College of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 3:30 one afternoon last week, with the quietly purposeful air of a man who knows exactly what he is doing but would really rather be doing something else. What he was there for was routine enough for a former world chess champion—to play Robert Byrne in one of the four elimination matches now being held to determine the challenger for Bobby Fischer's world chess title. Spassky's manner was almost conspicuously inconspicuous. He wore a white sport shirt, dark trousers, rough scuffed shoes, and he was deliberately casual as he peeled the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes before starting play or took his time about jotting down his move on his scorecard. An everyday matter, the game of chess, nothing to get excited about, certainly nothing to warrant the stream of complaints, protests, threats to withdraw and offstage thunder that Bobby Fischer brought to the championship match in Iceland 18 months ago.
Eight grandmasters are currently competing in three different countries for the right to play Fischer. ( The New York Times , in an odd typographical error, headlined in its first edition: EIGHT GRANDMOTHERS JOIN IN PURSUIT OF THE KING.) None of the eight could be called a simple personality, but when the first three games with Robert Byrne were completed last week, Boris Spassky emerged as the most baffling figure in a gallery of complex individuals. At 36, with his dark hair, square jaw, broad shoulders and appearance of physical well-being, he gave an impression of suppressed strength. In San Juan, he seemed much stronger and less nervous than when he lost his world title to Fischer. But at the end of each game he was pallid. The kindly features of Byrne across the chessboard appeared to dismay him. At 8:30 each evening, after the five required hours of play, Byrne was amiable and relaxed, while Spassky looked as though he had seen an apparition.
In a sense, he had. To begin with, nobody had expected Byrne to be there. Byrne surprisingly had vaulted into the ranks of the eight contenders, but nobody gave him more than a rank outside chance of approaching the finals. Back in 1969, when Spassky won the world championship from Tigran Petrosian, Byrne was a little-known chess-playing instructor of philosophy at Indiana University, hardly the training ground for a man now trying to block a former world champion's attempt to come back. But, at least in their first two games, Byrne seemed at the point of doing something of the sort. And each day the shock became evident in Spassky's drawn features.
Yet the surprise did not seem to diminish the resourcefulness Spassky revealed against Byrne's unexpectedly aggressive attacks. The result was superior chess through the week, tense games that lost none of their excitement because Spassky's ultimate victory loomed as an almost foregone conclusion. Among the world's top masters, Spassky is considered the most versatile, with a many-sided style that he can adapt at will to the character of his opponent's play. He can be cautiously defensive against a master of defense like Petrosian, or inventive and daring against an imaginative genius like Mikhail Tal, always with as many different kinds of counterplay at his command as there are opponents to use them against. That sort of range makes him dangerous against everybody, but it leaves his own essential character a mystery. He is like a many-faceted mirror reflecting the distorted images of other players.
It may have taken the apparition of a possible Byrne victory to bring Spassky out of his thicket of acquired styles. The first game was a draw, though Byrne appeared for a time to have better chances. The second was a prolonged ordeal in which an apparently defeated Byrne came back to force a draw on a chastened Spassky. The third was an unequivocal Spassky victory, achieved with a queen sacrifice that exploded into 34 moves of unbroken hazard before Byrne resigned. In another week of comparable play, Spassky could be expected to eliminate Byrne. And if that happens, it would be a convincing demonstration that the real Spassky is a better chess player than anybody, including Spassky, expected him to be.
Robert Byrne is 45, a tall, balding bespectacled scholar and chess commentator who abandoned a promising academic career three years ago to devote himself to chess. He is one player whose style Spassky cannot duplicate. Nobody can. Possibly no chess player since the philosopher Henry Thomas Buckle has had as much training in formal logic as Byrne. He began playing seriously in high school in Brooklyn, attracted by the intellectual and artistic challenge of the game—"The kind of feeling you get proving a theorem," he says, "an abstract, esthetic thing." Byrne graduated from Yale, married a girl from Vassar, fathered two children, and was a teaching fellow at Indiana while he worked on his doctoral dissertation. He and his brother Donald, now an English professor at Penn State, were regular contenders for the U.S. championship, both members of the U.S. Olympic team, and both Open champions at various times.
At Yale, Byrne's philosophy mentor had been Paul Weiss, a dynamic professor and the author of (among other works) Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Byrne's subject for his doctorate was the ontology of Paul Weiss, which may give you an idea of how likely it was to become a best seller. "Why Robert never completed his dissertation is a mystery," his former wife (they were divorced in 1970 and he has since remarried) said the other day. "It is true that chess interfered with the writing of his thesis. But I believe his grades were all A's except for the incompletes he got for not finishing the dissertation."
" Byrne was interested in the speculative side of metaphysics," says Professor Newton Stallknecht, a former colleague, "and in the metaphysical side of Whitehead's philosophy and its relation to the history of Western thought." Byrne taught courses in the history of philosophy and, briefly, a course in logic at Butler University. He commanded the admiration of his colleagues, one of whom recalls "the intelligence and organizing ability he showed in setting up his sections."
Except for one three-year period when he gave up chess entirely, he was known in academic circles as the best chess player among professors, and in chess circles as the best philosopher among chess players. "It was a stupid move to give chess up," Byrne said. "I could have fitted it in. It took me another three years to round into form again."
The other player whose style Spassky cannot make his own is, of course, Bobby Fischer. Under the rules of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Fischer must defend his title next year or forfeit it to the winner of the current elimination series. Besides Spassky and Byrne, six grandmasters are still in contention: Viktor Korchnoi and Henrique Mecking are meeting in Augusta, Ga.; Tigran Petrosian and Lajos Portisch on the island of Majorca off Spain; and Anatoly Karpov and Lev Polugayevsky in Moscow—five Russians, a Brazilian, a Hungarian and an American. The four winners of these matches will play a semifinal round in April, and the two survivors will meet in September. In the past, the winner of one of these elimination matches was the player to score the most points—one point for a win, half a point for a draw—in a match covering a set number of games. In a 10-game match, a player with one victory and nine draws would win. Bobby Fischer's objections led to an improvement in the rules: the victor now is the first player to win three games, draws not counting unless at the end of 16 games neither player has won three; if a tie still exists then, a coin flip decides the winner.