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A king takes himself off the board—maybe
Steve Englund
July 15, 1974
With regal hauteur, Bobby Fischer resigns his world championship in a gambit calculated to make FIDE change the rules for the next title match
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July 15, 1974

A King Takes Himself Off The Board—maybe

With regal hauteur, Bobby Fischer resigns his world championship in a gambit calculated to make FIDE change the rules for the next title match

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There are few personalities in the history of sport like Robert J. Fischer. Arrogant, evasive, uncooperative, private and mysterious, he awes spectators, colleagues and opponents alike not so much by his genius for chess as by the force of his uncompromising will that stands in contrast—often in belligerent contrast—to that of the rest of the world. His is a Nietzschean integrity, chiseled in flint, oppressive to lesser mortals who lack his confidence and singlemindedness. In a sporting world replete with Mark Spitz and Bobby Riggs types in a frenzy to cash in on any available jackpot, Bobby Fischer looms like some distant, unsealed peak. Other gifted talents in sport can be acted upon and for, shaped, seduced, controlled and otherwise orchestrated by public opinion, by the professional athletic Establishment, by the pressures of the marketplace (and the perfervid managers from Madison Avenue), but Fischer remains his own man. He does not endorse, he is not managed, he is not available, he notoriously rejects advice and he has few friends. He is not always right but he is always himself, and this rankles and grates. He is labeled a reclusive egotist, when in point of fact the world could learn some lessons from Fischer on the value of autonomy and solitude.

In any event, for better or worse, Bobby has struck again—much to the chagrin of the managers of international chess, the F�d�ration Internationale des Echecs (FIDE). Seemingly out of the blue, and with nary a tear of regret, Fischer resigned what most people would have supposed to be his most precious possession, the title of world chess champion, thereby proving once again that titles, power and pelf conferred by organizations mean little to him.

Bobby Fischer not only plays chess brilliantly, he is keenly interested in how the game is played in international competition—its rules, organizations and regulations. Unlike so many other athletes and sportsmen, Fischer is not content simply to play the game and "leave the driving to us." If chess is like war, as many say it is, then it is too important to be left to the secretaries-general. As world champion, Bobby is ex-officio a member of FIDE's central committee. From this base he has deluged FIDE delegates and officers with a steady stream of proposals for reforms and innovations in playing, scoring and organization. Among his many peeves has been the draw—that dreary, inconclusive conclusion of far too many match and tournament games. At Fischer's prodding FIDE had excluded the draw as a significant entity from the 1975 world championship in which Fischer is to meet his first challenger, the winner of the Viktor Korchnoi- Anatoly Karpov playoff this September. The final regulations were to be determined at the FIDE meeting in Nice on the occasion of last month's 21st Chess Olympiad (in which Bobby chose not to participate) and the 50th anniversary of FIDE.

On the eve of the discussion Fischer sent an 800-word cablegram to the delegates outlining his stands on a large number of issues ranging from his opposition to the politicization of FIDE (i.e., the proposed expulsion of Rhodesia and South Africa), to his support of Max Euwe in the latter's bid for reelection to the federation presidency. The hard-hitting message, which reminded people of the 95 Theses Luther tacked onto the church door at Wittenberg, ended with Fischer's non-negotiable demands concerning the conditions of the upcoming championship match. He "proposed" that the contest be won by the first player to win 10 games, with no limit on the total number of games played, thus obviating the value of drawn games. Previously, FIDE had agreed in principle on a limit to the number of games with draws to count only if neither player had won 10 games. Lastly Fischer insisted that in the event the match reached a 9-9 tie, the champion would retain the title and the prize fund would be split equally between both players. This in effect requires the challenger to win by at least two games, 10 to 8 for instance.

Though the style of Fischer's cablegram was admittedly undiplomatic, there was nothing in its content that cannot be justified by appeal to precedent. Most of the previous 39 world championship matches have presented similar hurdles for the challenger, though in the years (1948-71) that the Russians dominated the championship, match regulations stipulated a total of 24 games, the player with the higher score winning, draws included in the total. (In the event of a tie the reigning champion retained his title.) In effect Fischer is insisting that only wins count and, as before, a tie score goes to the incumbent titlist.

What stuck in the Russian delegates' craw was Fischer's demand for unlimited games. Publicly they claimed the mental and physical strain on a player under such an arrangement would be too great, although privately no one—including the Russians—expected the championship match to last longer than the Fischer-Spassky contest, which comprised 20 games. As one international grandmaster put it, " Fischer will either win or lose—most likely win—in fewer games than at Reykjavik."

So the nub of the issue was the principle of authority. Who, in effect, has a right to call the shots concerning match organization, the players or FIDE? The Russian national chess federation—though not necessarily its players—backed FIDE. The American delegates and spokesmen at Nice upheld Fischer's demands, although they struggled frantically to avoid a head-on clash. After much discussion and politicking, the FIDE delegates reaffirmed their earlier position: a match with a 36-game limit (if no one has compiled 10 wins, the player with the higher score takes the title and a tie goes to the champion). When Fischer was apprised of this decision, he fired off a cable resigning "my FIDE world chess champion title." It was a strong gesture on Fischer's part and one clearly contrary to advice he received from U.S. Chess Federation officials, but as former Federation President Fred Cramer put it, "Bobby acts on his own logic, not ours."

If FIDE had a stronger case for insisting on its terms it might have a better chance to win this confrontation. As it is, Max Euwe and his boys are on such thin ice that they're practically standing on (or sinking in) water. Fischer has precedent, common sense and most grandmasters on his side. But more important, he is simply stronger than FIDE. The title of world champion that FIDE awarded Fischer in 1972 only confirmed (somewhat belatedly, most felt) the straight facts: Bobby Fischer is far and away the best chess player currently drawing the breath of life and is an odds-on favorite to go down in history as one of the three or four greatest ever. Any world championship, or for that matter any major tournament or match, which does not take him into account risks derision and neglect. Witness, for example, the Chess Olympiad where 40 of the world's top grandmasters could scarcely attract one headline because Bobby was not there. Singlehandedly, Fischer has brought chess out of the esoteric backwater of Mittel-Europa and established it in the realm of sport.

Spassky could have kept his title and avoided a match with Fischer after the stunts Bobby pulled before Reykjavik. But the Russian champion correctly sensed that without this contest the title would have little meaning. Similarly, Korchnoi has agreed that a title by forfeit would mean virtually nothing. Moreover, as Isaac Kashdan, a Californian who is one of the most observant and experienced chess personalities on the international scene, points out, " Fischer would have no trouble, if he chose to, in setting up his own matches, getting his own high-paying backers and playing a match with practically any grandmaster he chose—may be even a Russian." FIDE would not dare, and in fact could not, forbid a master from playing Fischer. FIDE could only refuse to give rating points on the basis of the match—a meaningless sanction at that level. Without a shred of doubt grandmasters like up-and-comers Henrique Mecking of Brazil and Ulf Andersson of Sweden would jump at the chance to play a match with Fischer outside the auspices of FIDE. Unless their own national federations forbid them to do so, a number of Russian grandmasters would probably do likewise. Why? Because Bobby Fischer plays the best, most exciting chess of any man alive, that's why.

For the time being the situation is a standoff. FIDE sent Fischer a courteous, conciliatory cablegram asking him to "reconsider the possibility of defending title under regulations adopted here." Actually FIDE did not technically send it to Bobby because it did not know his address or telephone number (though Fischer definitely knows FIDE's number). So Euwe made the cablegram public in the hope that Fischer would see it. Very likely Fischer won't bother to read it. Nevertheless, there is no urgency until January 1975 when a city must be selected as the site of the world championship match. By that time, Max Euwe and FIDE may have come to realize what Andrew Soltis, an American international master, observed while playing Fischer a game of chess. "You know you're going to lose. Even when I was ahead I knew I was going to lose."