The Fischer King
In the surreal setting
of war-torn Yugoslavia, reclusive chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer
emerged to meet Boris Spassky.
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!"
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
"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.
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."
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."
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-
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.
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