Six moves toward a world championship

Bobby Fischer transformed a routine elimination match into high drama with an astonishing string of victories that alarmed his rivals and forced Soviet experts to revise their assessments of his chances.

Robert James Fischer, in a match in Vancouver, British Columbia to determine the challenger of Boris Spassky for the world chess championship:

  1. Demanded that no spectators be allowed to watch him play (demand refused).
  2. Demanded that no spectators be allowed to bring chess sets to the games (granted).
  3. Changed his hotel room four. times, seeking peace and quiet.
  4. Won six games in a row, an achievement unparalleled in modern chess history.

His opponent, Mark Taimanov of the Soviet Union, was less demanding. He merely refused to play in the Graduate Centre of the University of British Columbia because the windows could not be opened in the air-conditioned room, agreed to play in the Student Union Building, which has no windows at all, and refused to stop pacing the floor during games as Fischer demanded.

Ordinarily Taimanov is one of the most genial and easygoing of the formidable Soviet chess masters. He is 45 years old, a veteran of 19 years of international competition, a theoretician of the openings who even has one named for him-the Taimanov Variation of the Sicilian Defense. Once a top-ranking Soviet star but long relatively inactive, Taimanov made a strong comeback to qualify for the current world championship elimination matches. He is a concert pianist when he is not playing chess, and says that he leads a double life. When he is on the concert stage he thinks how pleasant it would be to be playing chess, and "when I devote myself to chess I think of returning to music." Spassky's title seems less secure.

There were many occasions in Vancouver when he must have wished he was pounding out Bach or Beethoven. It began when Fischer arrived late for their first game. Fischer has taken up tennis, and had tarried a half hour at the court before going to the hall. In deference to Fischer's complaints about lights and spectators, the auditorium was dark, the stage indirectly lighted and the first four rows of seats kept vacant. Taimanov, with the white men, began boldly with a venturesome knight foray on his 12th move. It cost him a pawn, but Fischer faltered in turn on his 20th move, giving Taimanov another offensive opportunity, which the Russian failed to profit from. The game was adjourned on the 40th move, after nearly five hours of play, with Taimanov in a hopeless position. He resigned that game without resuming play.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, three other quarterfinal elimination matches were being fought out. The procedure for determining the player who is to challenge Spassky, the world champion, is excessively complex. The world is divided into chess zones, and the winners in the various zones meet in an interzonal tournament. The six top finishers in the interzonal, together with the former world champion and the former runner-up, meet in four separate matches. A win counts for one point, a drawn game gives each player one-half point, and the first player to score 5 1/2 wins the match.

While Fischer and Taimanov were meeting in Vancouver, the ex-world champion, Tigran Petrosian, played a young newcomer, Robert Hubner of West Germany, in Seville, Spain; Viktor Korchnoi of Russia played his countryman Yefim Geller in Moscow; Bent Larsen of Denmark met Wolfgang Uhlmann of East Germany in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.

None of these matches had results remotely comparable to the Taimanov-Fischer struggle. In Seville, for example, Petrosian and Hubner drew their first six games. A frail, 22-year-old college student, Hubner said before the match, "My chances are absolutely nil." They were not. The games were played in a ground-level, windowless room; the crowds were large, the air conditioning failed and Hubner was bothered by street noises that failed to disturb Petrosian, who is nearly deaf. Nevertheless Hubner held the former champion, a masterly defensive player, to six draws in succession. In the seventh game Hubner overlooked a winning move, became demoralized after he saw his mistake, lost, burst into tears, withdrew from the match and flew home to Germany. Fischer has been underestimated.

Before his first game with Uhlmann, Bent Larsen said, "I will be the next world champion." It hardly looked that way at the start. The games were played in the casual confines of Club Nautico, a Canary Island yacht club, but both players found the struggle so exhausting they agreed to rest before going on to a decision. The recess evidently aided Larsen more than Uhlmann, for he won the ninth game, and with it the match, by a score of 5 1/2 to 3 1/2. It was much the same story in Moscow, where Korchnoi won from Geller in eight games 5 1/2 to 2 1/2. Korchnoi's and Larsen's victories were impressive under ordinary circumstances, but did not come close to matching Fischer's 60 defeat of Taimanov.

Admittedly Taimanov was off form, but he played steady chess and offered far stouter resistance than the final astonishing score would indicate. When the Russian had the white pieces he played dynamically, and tried consistently to force the issue and maintain the offensive. Fischer had no opportunity to display the flashy style he prefers and his games ran much longer than usual, for Taimanov would not let him attack.

The main weakness Fischer displayed was a tendency to relax when he had the advantage. In the second game, with the white pieces, Fischer was a pawn up with a winning advantage when the action was adjourned at move 44. When play was resumed he advanced a passed pawn too rapidly, lost it, and came down to the second adjournment with what now should have been an easy draw for Taimanov. In the end, after 9 1/2 hours of play, Taimanov blundered out of sheer fatigue and resigned on the 88th move. So Fischer won anyway, but he would not have against a Boris Spassky.

There were few such flukes in Fischer's victories. Age, however, was a factor, for Fischer grew stronger as the match progressed and Taimanov, obviously tiring, requested a delay for reasons of health. In the third game Taimanov mounted a strong offensive but wasted 72 minutes on his faulty 20th move-which left him with about two minutes per move before adjournment on move 40. He was forced on the defensive, lost his queen and resigned. The fourth game was a masterly work of art by Fischer, a hammer-and-tongs affair that lasted 71 moves. It was climaxed by Fischer's stunning sacrifice of a bishop that left Taimanov tied in knots. In the fifth game, with an almost certain draw, Taimanov suffered one of the most humiliating defeats of his career. On his 46th move he chose to take a poisoned pawn with his rook-poisoned because Fischer had merely to move his queen to put Taimanov's king in check and simultaneously bear on the rook. It was a child's error, for Taimanov had simply thrown away the rook. The Soviet observers sat in stony silence. Fischer left the auditorium like a man fleeing the scene of a crime. Taimanov's losses became historic.

Fischer's string of victories cast new light on an old question: Can he become the world champion? Before the match he said modestly that he hoped he or Larsen would play for the title against Spassky. But afterward he said he would be the next champion. "The Soviets have been putting up roadblocks for me for years," he said. "I am tired of being the unofficial champion. I should have been world champion 10 years ago."

Next month Fischer plays Bent Larsen, while Viktor Korchnoi takes on Petrosian. In Vancouver Alexander Kotov, the chief of the Soviet experts, said, "Fischer will not be the next world champion. I expected him to beat Taimanov and I expect him to beat Larsen." Kotov also expects that Korchnoi will beat Petrosian and that Fischer and Korchnoi will then meet in the semifinal. "If Fischer beats Korchnoi," Kotov went on, "a 50-50 proposition, there will be a great struggle between Fischer and Spassky. Spassky has all the qualities of a true champion: youth, stamina, versatility in all phases of the game and a capacity for deep study. He has steadier nerves and a good plus score against Fischer."

All this would be more convincing if the Russian chess experts had not made the same points so often before. Spassky and Fischer have met in five games. Two were drawn, and Spassky won three. But the three games that Fischer lost to Spassky were in tournaments where his anxiety for a quick win led to his downfall, a situation that would not necessarily exist in a 24-game match for the world championship. Moreover, from the start of Fischer's career the Soviet authorities have depicted him almost universally as an unoriginal and uncreative player. They are almost obsessed with Fischer's defects, and it is possible that their emphasis on his flaws is a measure of their fear of Fischer.

The spectacular performance against Taimanov was not a new development; it was merely another indication that Fischer is the most gifted player in the world today. One Soviet grandmaster who recognizes this is Viktor Korchnoi. After Fischer's victory over Taimanov, he said, "There has been a regrettable tendency to underestimate Fischer. I don't."

By Larry Evans
Sports Illustrated - June 21, 1971


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