The Fischer King

In the surreal setting of war-torn Yugoslavia, reclusive chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer emerged to meet Boris Spassky. No one knew how well Fischer (left) would play, but he won game 1 in brilliant style.

At about 3:30 PM on Sept. 2, Bobby Fischer shook hands with Boris Spassky over a chess board in a hotel conference room on the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, then quietly pushed the white's king's pawn two squares forward. Fischer has always preferred the king's pawn opening-he has long touted it as white's best first move-and let history note that it may have been the only predictable act to Occur so far in this match, and through all the days leading up to it. Indeed, it came as part of a scene so surreal as to suggest no less than a dream. Exactly 20 years and one day had passed since the final game of that riotous summer of 1972, when Spassky, then the world champion from the Soviet Union, and Fischer, the eccentric, temperamental chess genius from Brooklyn, faced each other for nearly two months across a chess board in Reykjavik, Iceland, fighting for the world title in an internationally celebrated match that left them as symbols of their time: steely cold warriors doing battle with wooden cannons in the ultimate mind game, at the height of East-West tensions.

Fischer won the title on Sept. 1, when Spassky resigned in the 21st game of that match and thus confirmed what most grandmasters already knew: that the American was the strongest player in the history of the ancient game -- "the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens," Mikhail Tal of Latvia, a former world champion, once said.

Spassky and Fischer went their very separate ways from Reykjavik. Spassky eventually to France, where he became a French citizen and gradually slipped into obscurity as a chess player, and Fischer to Southern California, where he soon became a sorry hostage to his paranoid belief that "the Commies" were out to kill him. After FIDE, the international governing body of chess, had stripped Fischer of his title when he refused to defend it in 1975 against Anatoly Karpov of the USSR -- FIDE would not yield to all his conditions for the match -- Fischer began a slow drift into self-exile and seclusion. He broke contact with most of his old chess friends. He banished anyone from his life who dared talk about him to the press. And though his mother is Jewish, he belabored any who would listen with anti-Semitic tirades and ravings about how the Holocaust had never happened.

As the years passed and sightings of Fischer grew increasingly rare, he attained an almost mythical stature, a ghostly presence who fairly haunted the game. All he left behind were his games-pure, clean, powerful expressions of his art-and the nagging certainty among chess masters that he was still out there somewhere, alive but gone from the game. It was no wonder then that the July 24 news dispatch announcing the match between Fischer and Spassky so stunned and stirred the chess world. Fischer had surfaced in Yugoslavia, where a mysterious, enigmatic Serb, Jezdimir Vasiljevic (pronounced YEZ-di-meer Vahsill-YAY-vich), announced that he had signed him to play Spassky.

"I'll believe it when the first chess piece is moved," said Karpov, who lost his title to the current world champion, Gary Kasparov, of the USSR, in 1985. Harder to believe was the $5 million purse, an unprecedented amount for a chess match, of which the first player to win 10 games would take $3.35 million, the loser $1.65 million.

No one was more staggered at this turn of events than Spassky, 55, a #663300ing, personable, beloved eminence among chess masters. "Bobby pulls me out of oblivion," said Spassky, whose ranking had slipped to 99th in the world. "He makes me fight. It's a miracle. ..."

That was not the only evidence he found of divine intervention. Early in August, Fischer joined Spassky, who had also arrived in Yugoslavia, for dinner in a Belgrade restaurant to chat about old times. Later, when Spassky saw Vasiljevic, he approached him, making the sign of the cross: "My God, it is a miracle!" said Spassky. "Bobby is so kind, so friendly. ... He is normal!" Vasiljevic (right, with Rajcsanyi) tried to promote a warmer atmosphere at the rematch than that felt at the cold-war showdown in Iceland in 1972.

However one defines it, normal is not a word that comes immediately to mind regarding Fischer, and surely nothing is ordinary about his bizarre, unorthodox comeback against Spassky. They had agreed to renew hostilities in the Montenegrin resort community of Sveti Stefan, just 70 miles south of where thousands were dying in the Balkan civil war. The two men began training on a small island just offshore, also called Sveti Stefan -- a 15th-century fishing village with meandering walkways and old stone buildings that now serve as shops, villas and a hotel.

It is, of course, the perfect setting for Fischer. More a fortress than an island, Sveti Stefan's steep cliffs drop 150 feet to the blue Adriatic, and the only access by land is a gate at the end of a 100-yard footbridge that connects the island to the mainland. Fischer lives in the most secure and luxurious of the villas -- Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti used to vacation there high on a remote corner of the island, overlooking the sea. A guard stands sentry at its only gate. Fischer takes all his meals on the island, and bodyguards accompany him everywhere.

"Bobby is very happy here," Spassky said one day, smiling mischievously. "He has everything he want. He has good food and big villa and many guards. He is the mustafa." Spassky has not minded playing the knight to the Fischer king, but he has his pride -- and his chances. "I feel confident I can beat him," Spassky said before the match began. "I'm in good shape." Leaving for his room to study, he added, "Well, I must prepare to bite the crocodile."

If Fischer has been front and center in this show, Vasijevic has not been far behind him, literally and figuratively. He races to and from meals and meetings with something approaching manic intensity, sweating as freely as a cold beer, and with an object always smoking in his hand -- a cigarette one moment, a cigar the next, a pipe in between. Rough- hewn and thickset, with a disheveled tie and shiny suits, he looks more like a Teamster organizer than the banker/trader that he claims to be, putting one in mind of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Spassky and Fischer shake hands during their 1972 world championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Last winter Vasiljevic acquired the island of Sveti Stefan and the resort that is its namesake, along with three other near-by seaside hotels, from the Montenegrin government for $570 million, to be paid over five years. "It's my private offshore zone," he says of Sveti Stefan. "It is not in the war." His ambition is to turn it into his own private state.

Vasiljevic is circumspect about his years growing up in Yugoslavia and shares with Fischer a propensity for being enigmatic. "I want to remain mysterious," he says. "A man of mysterious origin." He left Yugoslavia when he was 18 and says he worked at a variety of jobs around the world, from making tires for Firestone in Australia to trading precious stones in Europe. However he made his fortune, he returned to his homeland in 1987 and founded a company, Jugoskandic, whose chief concern is import-export trading. "I trade in 1,500 articles," he says, "from medicine to oil." He denies published reports that he was involved in hiring mercenaries for the Serbian army or buying Israeli arms for Serbian troops. When he announced the Fischer-Spassky match in July, he hailed it as a triumph over the United Nations' embargo against Yugoslavia. "By bringing Fischer to Yugoslavia, we have broken the blockade in the most spectacular manner," he said then. Today, he adds simply, "I like the spec-tac-les. I like to do something nobody can do: bring Bobby back." Last week's opening ceremonies included a banquet for the principals, and dancers dressed as chess pieces.

Fischer has not disappointed him. Indeed, Fischer made something of a spec-tac-le of himself on the eve of the match, when he held forth at a press conference that was quite as memorable as anything Roger Clemens ever contrived. Few of the hundred or so members of the press in attendance had ever seen Fischer, and when he arrived, all eyes turned and followed him as he walked with his loping, ungainly gait to the front of the room, looking much as he did seven years ago down to the balding pate and the thin beard-when an obsessed magazine writer found him in the LA Public Library (SI, July 29, 1985). Settling into a chair in the Hotel Maestral, Fischer studied the written questions that reporters had submitted to him and began by saying, "I'll start off with, umm, ah, some impudent questions from The New York Times."

With traces of Brooklyn still in his voice, he read one question after another. "'Why, after turning down so many offers to come back, did you accept this one?' That's not quite true. As I recollect, Karpov, in 1975, was the one who refused to play me under my conditions, which is basically the same conditions we are playing now. ... `Do you feel that your chess has improved over the past 20 years?' Well, we'll see. ... 'If you beat Spassky, will you go on to challenge Kasparov for the world championship?'"

Here Fischer turned and pointed to the large sign behind him that announced this affair: THE WORLD CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP "Can he read what it says behind here?" asked Fischer, to applause. "'Are you worried by U.S. government threats over your defiance of sanctions?'" At this point he reached for his briefcase and pulled out a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department warning him that by playing the match, he risked stiff fines and 10 years in jail for violating President Bush's executive order imposing economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. "So," Fischer said, 'here is my reply to their order not to defend my title here." Holding the letter in front of him, he spit on it, and added, "That's my answer." Last week's opening ceremonies included a banquet for the principals, and dancers dressed as chess pieces.

Reporters gaped incredulously at one another. Asked if he supported the United Nations' sanctions against Yugoslavia, Fischer launched upon an attack of the UN for rescinding "a pretty good resolution against Israel about Zionism is racism. ..." He was merely warming up to the subject. "'Do you regard yourself as an anti-Communist fighter?' First of all, we have to understand what communism is. I mean, to me, real communism, the Soviet communism, is basically a mask for Bolshevism, which is a mask for Judaism." And when asked about his being widely characterized as anti-Semitic, Fischer replied, "In the first place, this term anti-Semitism is a nonsense term, because my understanding is that the Arabs are also Semites, not only the Jews, so I don't know what that means. I'm definitely not anti- Arab."

Fischer wasn't finished yet. He accused Kasparov, Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, a former championship contender, of fixing their championship matches dating all the way back to Karpov-Korchnoi in 1978. He vowed to write a book revealing a grand conspiracy and showing how the games, move by move and even blunder by blunder, were prearranged. Calling them "these criminals," Fischer said that "Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi have absolutely destroyed chess by their immoral, unethical, prearranged games. These guys are really the lowest dogs around, and if people knew the truth about them, they would be held in more contempt than Ben Johnson, the runner, and they're going to know the truth when I do this book!"

By the time the first game began, a disquieting sense of unreality was hanging in the air like the smell of brine. In the late afternoon, as the war raged on up the coast, Fischer and Spassky climbed into the backseats of separate black Mercedes sedans. As befits the champions they used to be, the two were whisked the 1.4 miles from the footbridge of Vasiljevic's kingdom by the sea to the playing hall at the Hotel Maestral. All around, the signs and the T-shirts advertised the match as the championship of the world. The island of Sveti Stefan lies 70 miles from the bitter battles of Yugoslavia's civil war.

In the audience, meanwhile, waiting for play to begin, sat demure, 19-year-old Zita Rajcsanyi, a Hungarian chess player whom Vasiljevic had been passing off as Fischer's girlfriend -- a kind of Soon-Yi of the Adriatic. "I don't know who invented this story that I am Bobby Fischer's fiance or girlfriend, but it is absolutely not true," she said before the match began. "We're just good friends, that's all."

After pushing that king's pawn, Fischer played brilliantly, with the logic and power that once marked his finest games, and Spassky resigned on his 49th move. Afterward, chess masters rhapsodized over Fischer's play. "It was clean, crystalline, pure, like Capablanca in a way," said referee Lothar Schmid, who had also worked the match in '72, comparing Fischer to the Cuban grandmaster of the 1920s. "This is what no one knew in advance. How would he play? Not even Bobby knew."

Their next two games, on Thursday and Saturday, ended in draws, and on Sunday, Fischer resigned on his 50th move. So Bobby is back, though it is still impossible to tell whether he is indeed the Bobby of old. After all, in this house of mirrors, only the game seems real.

By William Nack
Sports Illustrated - September 14, 1992


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