Bobby Fischer, the Holy Grail - A Balkan Odyssey -

Once upon a time, in 1975, a little English girl called Cathy Forbes leaned to play chess. She had heard wonderful tales of a great American champion, Bobby Fischer, who had captured the world chess crown from the mighty Russians. She decided she was going to be world champion too one day, just like Bobby. Then she lost five games in her first competition, and she cried and cried. Clearly it was not so easy to become world champion, and chess was a rather more difficult game than she had imagined.

As I and a new generation of inspired Western players grew up, so did the paradoxical legend of the mysterious Fischer. As time went by, comeback rumors began to sound as apocryphal as sightings of a resurrected Elvis Presley.

In 1992, ambitions long buried and reincarnated as a chess journalist, I saw Bobby on News at Ten, spitting chess back onto the front pages. I couldn't believe my eyes. Was it really him? The Second Coming of the chess Messiah? This I had to see! The BBC loaned me a video camera, taught me to use it, and I was all set for the biggest adventure of my life.

Somehow I survived the horrendous thirty-hour journey to Montenegro, despite being arrested for attempting to film it.

THE SCENE IN SVETI STEFAN

The banners read "The World Chess Championship 1992: Fischer-Spassky Revenge Match of the Twentieth Century" and similar slogans. Very soon one became house trained into the chess politics of the match: of course Bobby Fischer is the undefeated World Champion, so his insistence on referring to the match as the World Championship is quite logical when you look at things from his point of view. Yasser Seirawan adopted the most elegant diplomatic position: "I have no problem recognizing Kasparov as FIDE Champion and Bobby Fischer as the World Champion. . ."

It's remarkable what a close friend everyone is of Fischer, how "I talk to him all the time." If Bobby really socializes on such a generous scale with the multitudes claiming him for their intimate friend, one wonders when he gets time to prepare, swim, shower, sleep.

Journalists quickly seized the few authenticated episodes in Bobby's social life. Seirawan, having spent a day as a guest in Bobby's island villa, was soon discussing his experience on Yugoslav TV. I too would soon receive similar media attention.

Sveti Stefan (the island, and the mainland resort) must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. You cannot imagine a more idyllic setting for a chess match - provided you bring some earplugs to muffle the gunfire. I don't mean the actual war 40 kilometers away in Bosnia - I am referring to the incident when a feud between locals and sponsor Jezdimir Vasiljevic's security guards erupted into "Gunfight at the Hotel Maestral." Just when I was lounging smugly in my deck chair marvelling at how the lovely unpolluted aquamarine waters and palm fringed coastline put St. Tropez to shame, a series of loud bangs made me and several hundred sun worshippers jump like frightened rabbits.

The Hotel Maestral (the playing venue) takes its name from the gentle sub-tropical breeze (mistral) that tempers the sun's rays. The tax-free status of the resort makes everything pleasantly cheap. Its remoteness meant few spectators, and although a small crowd of devotees gathered to see the protagonists arrive and depart, the atmosphere was so charmed that everyone - even Bobby - could relax.

The local Montenegrin security men, however, were somewhat over-zealous. When one Dagobert Kohlmeyer accidently strayed too close to the beach where Bobby was taking his daily dip, the unfortunate journalist was manhandled, imprisoned and put in fear of his life for several hours. An apology for this "inhuman treatment" later appeared in the bulletin.

As far as filming was concerned, frustration was routine. Despite being officially told it was possible to film the first three minutes of play, the musclemen were seemingly a law unto themselves.

After awhile I gave up to some extent, and accepted an invitation to the local water skiing school, with disastrous results. Sveti Stefan is very much the playground of wealthy Serbs, and there were instances of hostility to visiting Britons and Americans - we were, of course, blamed for the embargo on Serbia and Montenegro.

I stayed up most of Sunday night planning my questions for Monday's closing press conference - questions to Mr. Robert Fischer were written on a form. I was agonizing over my third question - originally conceived as a joke - when Grandmaster (Problem Solving) Marjan Kovacevic insisted, "Keep it. I like it. It's a brave question, one we would all like to ask."

"These questions are from Woman International Master Cathy Forbes... No. 3: May I play a game of chess with you?" Fischer looked down from the podium at me. "What's your rating?" Trying not to shake too visibly, I caught his eye and replied, "2125." Bobby smiled - "Well, we'll think about it." Everyone laughed.

With the score at 5-2, Bobby was in a good mood. At the convivial closing party, he was even persuaded to dance to the stirring strains of local folk melodies. Unexpectedly, but happily fortified by several powerful brandies, I was summoned to his table by a "Bobby-guard."

"We'll play a game - just quickly," he said. I looked around uncertainly, and realized with horror that he was indicating a pocket set. Without, of course, wishing to make excuses, I can truthfully say that I almost 'never' play on a pocket set. Not if I can help it, anyway. Overuse, moreover, had eroded the flat representations of this set, particularly the bishops, down to barely intelligible squiggles.

"I'm at a disadvantage here," I complained. "Yeah, I'm used to this set," he agreed. On the other hand, he did let me have White...but perhaps I should have taken a leaf from Bobby's own book and insisted on perfect playing conditions for this important game?

PIRC DEFENSE [B08]
W: WIM Cathy Forbes
B: GM Robert J. Fischer
Offhand game, Closing Party, Sveti Stefan, 1992

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. Bf4 Bg7 4. Nc3 d6 5. e4 O-O 6. h3 c5 7. dxc5 Qa5 8. Bd2 Qxc5 9. Bd3 a6 10. a4 b6 11. O-O Bb7 12. Re1 Nbd7 13. Be3 Qc7 14. Qe2 e6 15. Bf4 e5 16. Bg3 Nc5 17. Nd2 Nh5 18. Bh2 Nf4 19. Bxf4 exf4 20. Nb3 Nd7 21. Qd2 f3 22. g3 Ne5 23. Bf1 h5 24. Rad1 Rad8 25. Nd5 Bxd5 26. exd5 Nc4 27. Qd3?

"What is this?" demanded Bobby, looking surprised. Mortified, I realized I had blundered. After trying so hard to give him a good fight...

27... Nxb2, White resigns.

Later I was informed that Bobby had complained about me taking too long over my moves. He of course moved instantly throughout.

Inevitably, after these marvellous happenings, everything - to me at least - seemed anticlimactic. In the depressing urban ambience of Belgrade, disillusion began to dawn.

Although geographically further away from the scene of the conflict, in Belgrade you know there's a war on. Prices climb crazily every day. Items taken for granted by Western civilization (e.g. mouthwash and dental floss) are unobtainable. Tragic-looking beggars line the streets. Refugee children stare at you with haunted eyes.

The streets crawl with armed police. The hotels are full of profiteering gangsters - only they can afford the prices. Virtually every adult male seems to carry a gun.

THE SCENE IN BELGRADE

As in Sveti Stefan, you got a better view of the action from the TV monitors than from the playing hall, where the noisy rabble were separated from the kings not only by glass screens but by meters in double figures. For the first game at Belgrade's enormous Sava Business Center, the atmosphere was electric. The modest (c. 1000) but enthusiastic crowd rose to its feet and erupted in a crescendo of cheers as Bobby emerged from behind the glass panel to acknowledge the applause. Meanwhile, altercations were in progress between aggrieved photographers and the security cordon who were preventing them from getting within 15 yards of their quarry.

Despite being told we could film the first three minutes of play, we were chased out of the hall as soon as the two Bs sat down. As I backed up the steps, at least 50 meters away from the show, a security man was trying to wrest a camera from a protesting journalist. I filmed this until the power-crazed attacker shot an ominous glance in my direction, when I made a prompt dive for the exit.

Fischer reportedly asked for guarantees that at least 2,000 spectators would turn out for each game. He must have been disappointed, especially since entrance was free of charge, but I am sure the low turnout was not due to any lack of interest in chess (Belgrade has always been a chess Mecca, especially for Bobby) but to the shortage of gasoline resulting from the embargo. Since it was virtually impossible to get to the venue on foot, the only alternative to coming by car was to take the usually congested bus.

The ever-resourceful Mr. Vasiljevic, however, swiftly addressed this little problem by bussing fans in from Nis, Paracin, Novi Sad, and Subotica.

THE JOURNALIST EXPERIENCE

Attempting to "cover" Bobby Fischer's comeback was no picnic. Whilst guns are normal fashion accessories in this psychotic country, camera excite pathological paranoia in all public places. Explanations cut little ice, even when they were understood. "The BBC tells lies about Bosnia," was a typical challenge.

It seems strangely ironic that Fischer, with his legendary loathing of cameras, should have chosen this tormented land as the arena for his return to competitive chess. His regard for journalists is scarcely any warmer, but he just about tolerated the home-grown propaganda of the fawning Yugoslav chess media.

The original $1,000 asking price for press accreditation deterred many foreign chess journalists from making the trip. By the time I showed up three weeks into the match, however, the tariff had been reduced by 100%, since most of the media had long since departed. They came to the opening press conference, lapped up Bobby's saliva and after that only two questions remained: 1) Will he really sit down and play?, and 2) Is he any good?

A few legal chess moves sufficed for answer and a mass exodus of hard currency followed. Thus, my first impression of Sveti Stefan was that as an incoming journalist I was a welcome sight. Match public relations supremo. Nebejsa Dukelic, a Serbian TV chat show star, greeted me and introduced me to the translator who showed me the ropes. This charming and helpful lady, Tatiana, was the one chink in an otherwise efficient wall of obstruction.

Match Director Janos Kubat, a professional journalist, was quick to disown the official press organization. "They are not professional. They are communists, Mephistos, Teufels. I would never have hired them." Apart from constant homilies to journalists about how grateful they should be, the ritual response to any request for information was a weary and not elaborated "I dooon't knooow."

One person who seemed charming enough at first was match organizer and mysterious tycoon Jezdimir Vasiljevic, Serbia's answer to Al Capone. Serbian newspapers coyly describe him as "a respectable businessman." His ghost-written bulletins reassured that "Gazda Jezda" (Boss Jezda) as he is locally known, writes poetry in his spare time.

To protect himself and his investment, Fischer, from the dangerous attentions of journalists (and whoever else there is to be afraid of), Vasiljevic surrounds himself with characters known as security men. A Yugoslav journalist freely told me these bodyguards were killers and criminals, ie., they had all been soldiers and probably looters and profiteers in this dirtiest of wars. Information on these individuals was classified, especially their names.

Apart from at least two other journalists who were threatened, I myself was both intimidated and sexually harassed by these charmers on numerous occasions.

Treatment of this kind, and instances of harassment by police for the apparent offense of carrying a camera around in Belgrade, met with scant sympathy from locals, for whom "permission" to do anything was like a religious rite. Local journalists recommended that I clear all filming activity with the Orwellianly named "Ministry of Information." The permission ritual applied to all press facilities, eg. photocopiers, electronic typewriters, and fax machines. A charge was levied for 'incoming' fax messages.

Having enjoyed my big moment when Bobby honored me with his first public game of chess with a female, I was supposed to go home like a good little girl. "You still here?" said Vasiljevic when he first saw me in Belgrade.

After his defeat in Game 20, Bobby decided that the already deferential bulletins were not respectful enough. Certain half-complimentary references to Kasparov, in particular, were pointed out as likely triggers. So incensed was Bobby that he reportedly asked for the bulletin staff to be sacked. As a compromise, match organizer Vasiljevic took over as acting bulletin editor and censor. When I overheard Vasiljevic announcing this new state of affairs, he advised me in no uncertain terms not to quote him.

"Jezda" did talk to me, when I accidently bumped into him in the lobby of the International Hotel. He admitted that merely being President of Serbia would not satisfy him: his real ambition was to unite the Balkans. He gave me some advice on how to establish a genuine relationship with his protege. "Never go near bobby with a pencil in your hand. I know him better than you."

Vasiljevic subsequently declined to be formally interviewed, on-or off-camera. I couldn't understand this, but a Belgrade-based journalist explained: "Jezdimir gave many interviews to foreign journalists at Sveti Stefan, but they wrote things that were not correct."

Next, Vasiljevic developed an alarming habit of gripping me by the throat and enquiring "what are you doing here?" when I ventured into the Grandmaster analysis room. His loyal staff assured me that this was an affectionate gesture. I was skeptical, especially when he enquired "are you leaving, finally?" as I was on my way to dinner.

After six weeks in Yugoslavia I would have been more then happy to obligingly disappear, but Reuters had hired me to report on the match. I was dying to get back to London, Spassky and his wife were probably dying to get back to France with their money, and Vasiljevic himself was said to be heartily sick of the match. As always, everyone was just waiting for Bobby Fischer.

"IN AT THE DEATH"

"Spassky's resigned!" I yelled, rushing for the telephone booths to get the news out for Reuters ten minutes before AP. Camera perched precariously on my shoulder, I waited impatiently in Booth 6 of the makeshift press phone enclosure. "A line!" I bawled at the imperviously bored-looking switchboard operators. "Get me a line!"

Meanwhile Fischer, overcome with the electrifying emotion of the adoring Belgrade crowd, discreetly wiped away a tear to cheers of "Bob-by! Bob-by!" Sponsor Jezdimir Vasiljevic enveloped him in an enormous laurel wreath and shook his hand. Arbiter Lothar Schmid told the auditorium: "You see, he is the undefeated World Champion." Journalistic supremos at Associated Press demanded hungrily of their on-site reporter: "Did he (Fischer) do anything bizarre?" The reply was "Well, apart from having himself proclaimed world champion - no!"

It was over at the last. After weeks of "Waiting for Bobbo," as two exhausted veterans slugged out endless games of trench chess with Fischer's perpetual Chinese Water Torture clock, the suddenness of the finale took us by surprise. But then, perhaps it really shouldn't have.

By Cathy Forbes
Woman International Master
Chess Life Magazine, March 1993, pgs 26-27 (217-218)


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