Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fischer vs. Spassky World Chess Championship Match 1972Fischer vs. Spassky World Chess Championship Match 1972 by Svetozar Gligorić
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Throughout its centuries long history, chess has been the game of a tiny minority of mankind. Now, strange things have happened within a few weeks. This incredible match and the even more incredible Fischer have made the whole world read about chess."

The "Chess Match of the Century" took place in summer of 1972 but my fascination with Robert James Fischer ("Bobby Fisher", in short) had begun much earlier. On September 10, 1962, Fischer participated in the Poland vs. USA chess match in Warsaw, and I, an eleven-year-old schoolboy, member of my school chess club, watched the handsome, devilishly smart, well-dressed young American man - so unlike the drab, grim, gray Soviet-style role models - play chess in Dom Chłopa (A Farmer's House) and winning his game against the Polish champion, Bogdan Śliwa. Since that moment, 54 years ago, I have been interested in world chess, although I stopped playing when still in grade school, having realized I did not have any talent. But I followed almost the entire trajectory of Fischer's career, which to me began with the Candidates' Tournament at Curacao in 1962, peaked during the unforgettable summer of 1972, and then gradually declined into reclusion and quasi-insanity that ended in 2008 when the quite possibly best chess player ever died in exile in Iceland.

In his short book Fischer v Spassky (1972) the famous chess grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić gives the background of this most important chess match of the 20th century as well as an account of the insanely complicated process of preparations and the equally unusual dynamics of the match itself. The colossal importance of the match was that it broke the Soviet domination of chess. Players from the Soviet empire had been continuously holding the world championship title between 1948 and 1972, and since the very beginning of his career Bobby Fischer had felt that his life mission was to "wrangle the chess crown from the Russians," as he incorrectly called the Soviet players. Mr. Gligorić provides astute psychological portraits of the opponents: he contrasts Boris Spassky, the reigning world champion, an urbane, highly-cultured man of many interests with the singularly driven Fischer, for whom life was chess, chess was life, and nothing else mattered.

After the protracted negotiations about the venue of the match between the Americans and the Soviets had ended with the Reykjavik, Iceland, compromise Fischer continued the fight to ensure a bigger cut of the match money for himself. There was a moment - the preparations for the match were already complete - when it became almost certain that the match will be cancelled. Luckily, a rich British chess sponsor, James Slater, saved the event by adding a substantial amount of his own money to the prize fund.

The extraordinary process of pre-match negotiations was totally surpassed in its bizarreness by the dynamic of the match itself. In the very first game, Fischer committed perhaps the greatest blunder of his career and lost. He lost the second game by forfeit because he did not show up at the chessboard complaining about the presence of TV cameras, noises from the audience, etc. Normally, a 2:0 lead after two games should be enough for Spassky to retain his crown. However, Fischer was able to prove that he indeed must be considered one of the very best players of all time, when in the remaining 19 games he destroyed Spassky 12.5:6.5. Yet, while demonstrating his absolute chess brilliance, Fischer continued to complain about the conditions of the match and made new and new demands. This led to such bizarre events as testing the players' chairs to make sure they are not used to carry poison and dismantling the "105 glass plates of the huge lighting canopy over the stage," which produced only two dead flies. Perhaps the most hilarious moment came when the Icelandic Chess Federation issued a declaration that "it was not its intention to sue Mr. Robert Fischer."

Of course, grandmaster Gligorić, one of the world's strongest chess players in the 1950s and 1960s, explains every single of the 21 games played between Fischer and Spassky with his own detailed annotations, but that part of the text will appeal only to chess experts.

Overall, while the book is a worthy read, it could be much better. I understand that the speed of coming out with the book was the primary consideration for the publisher: the match ended in August and the book was printed in September, which undoubtedly is why the coverage feels a bit sketchy and the book reads as the series of reports for a daily paper rather than a consistent whole. In fact, I am still waiting for a definitive biography of Robert James Fischer.

Three stars.

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