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Bobby Fischer (VII): At the summit

Translated from E. J. Rodríguez

A mixture of interest and annoyance afflicts those who follow closely the 1972 world chess championship. That is, almost everyone with access to mass media. After five games in the final, what has Bobby Fischer done? Not much, at least in the opinion of the observers and the public. He has come back from a disastrous start, yes, and he has managed to tie the tie at 2'5 points … but at the expense of a Boris Spassky who has been deranged with his delays and absences, with his strange maneuvers and outbursts of tone. Deconcentrated the champion, clearly he was playing quite below his level. So, Bobby needed more than psychological games to impress those who had faith in him.

And the sixth game was that something else. Already from the beginning of the game, Bobby seemed willing to surprise. From New York, the teletype operator that received the plays to communicate them to the local press requested that they send him the third move again, assuming that it was a typographical error: the message said that Fischer was playing a Lady Gambit, opening that practically never throughout his career had played. Of course it did not seem logical that he risked putting it into practice right now, when he faced the world champion in a crucial game. But yes, to the astonishment of the teletype operator, Spassky and everyone else, Bobby was doing it: he was getting out of the planned script. Bobby was known for doing just the opposite and sticking to the openings that he mastered. And his plan was perfect, although on the board, at first glance, it did not seem to happen much. Beyond the initial surprise, no move was seen to leave anyone speechless, no spectacular ax. But in the end everyone realized that their rival was lost. As in his best times, Fischer's pieces magically arrived at the right place at the right time … and Spassky's pieces could only sit and watch the thunderclouds that threatened to unload a storm. Without great bravado in attack, simply putting into practice that sense of harmony admired by his followers and even his rivals, a Fischer bordering on perfection completely disabled Spassky's options. On paper-and only on paper-he had yielded some disadvantages that could be decisive in other games, such as allowing Spassky to enjoy a dangerous past pawn, or a tower in front of Fischer's lower horse. But that was on paper. Because on the board those tactical decisions, those pyrrhic advantages granted to Spassky, had left completely defenseless the king of the Russian champion. If Spassky had believed at some point - and no doubt he believed it - that the game was going to be relatively safe for his interests, he had been wrong. A series of apparently routine maneuvers but directed by Fischer's sharp symphonic sense had been enough to dispel all hope.

The sixth match justified Bobby's prestige as a great player.

Maybe Bobby's game was not as predictable or easy to read as the champion had foreseen. Little by little, play by play, Spassky's game was gripped, strangled and finally unused. For many this is Fischer's best game in the entire championship. Of course, it was the game that most resembled the titanic Fischer of 1970-71, the one that without the need of big saber managed to bleed mercilessly to its rivals simply using small needles … but needles in greater quantity than any chess player could end up supporting.

Spassky surrendered to the inevitable, after a brilliant Fischer exhibition that had begun as a succession of seemingly harmless moves. For the first time in the final, the audience stood up to cheer the American. Finally, after a lot of reluctance and the skepticism that had caused their rugged landing in Iceland, the spectators were shown to be infuriated by their game. Fischer had played as Fischer, at last. And what's more: Spassky himself stood up and applauded at the end of the game. Fischer, astonished, shook his rival's hand and left quickly, as was his custom, but when entering behind the scenes he said to his men: “Have you seen what Spassky has done? He's a classy guy!” The score was now 3'5 to 2'5 for Fischer. In only four games he had reversed a disastrous start of the match, although of his three games won this was the first and only one in which he had really won and also convinced.

Now the champion was at a disadvantage. It was Spassky who would have to make an effort to turn the marker around and dispel the feeling that Fischer the Terrible could dust off the invincibility aura of 1971. So in the seventh game the Russian took the reins from the first moment, delivering a pawn to change of initiative: the famous «poisoned pawn», which Fischer devoured with pleasure because that was one of his favorite variants, with which he had never lost. The Russian was placed in a superior position, with Bobby's king unshuttered and more activity in his own pieces, compared to the Fischer pieces that seemed half-developed. A victory was expected for the Russian … but when some already saw the champion returning the blow to the applicant, Spassky did not find the correct continuation. No doubt he was still affected by previous events and outside pressure. Fischer's exhibition in the previous game had not helped to strengthen his confidence either. So despite the advantage obtained, Fischer escaped in that seventh game, managing to force a draw. 4 to 3

The champion was still behind, but not only on the scoreboard. I kept losing the psychological battle. Suddenly aware that he was not performing as expected, still affected by the stormy start of the championship and demoralized by the arduous task of tracing him to a hungry Bobby Fischer, Spassky was beginning to feel shaken on his throne. That was a new sensation for him, that he had never before perceived a real threat in Bobby (or if he had perceived it, he had not let it show) and that until then he had been the best player on the planet with no one standing up to him.

But Spassky still had more unpleasant surprises. In the eighth game Bobby returned to move the queen bishop's pawn, contrary to his habit of leaving with a king's pawn. That meant he was playing theoretical surprises again. Spassky tried to keep things from going the same way as in the sixth game, so he embarked on an opening (the English) that Fischer had almost never played, hoping that this could destabilize the American. But then Spassky realized how much he had neglected his theoretical preparation, which was proving to be of paramount importance because Bobby had studied practically everything and seemed prepared for anything. So Spassky not only did not catch Fischer off guard, but the American's response left him stunned. After only eleven moves the champion had already lost himself in a pit of uncertainty and was spending an inordinate amount of time calculating the output of an opening to which, suddenly, he did not know how to deal. Shortly after, after the number 15 move, his position already seemed seriously weakened, with Fischer's bishops lurking like two archers ready to knock down an enemy tower. On move 19, he had effectively delivered a valuable tower in exchange for a lower bishop. At that moment, with the game just leaving the initial phase, the members of the Russian delegation got up and left the premises. A gesture that said it all: there was no way to save that point. Spassky tried to offer some fighting, but Fischer's theoretical superiority had caught him off guard and the game was sentenced almost from the start. The Russian surrendered. A new victory for Bobby, who now won by 5 to 3.

Ninth game. The champion has the initiative to play with white, but Fischer responds to the opening with another theoretical novelty carefully prepared in his arduous workouts, a novelty to which Spassky also finds no answer this time. The American cancels the initiative of the Russian and forces the tables. 5'5 to 3'5. In the tenth game, Fischer uses the Spanish Open: in the middle game, very sure of himself, allows Spassky to win a pawn of advantage. Why does he do this? Because he gets several rewards in return: first, placing one of his own bishops in position to be able to raid the enemy's castling five moves later (a master turn of the Spanish game that Spassky certainly did not expect). Second, change an enemy tower for an own bishop, gaining material quality once more! And third, force Spassky to "sacrifice" a bishop to neutralize a dangerous past pawn. With simplicity and elegance, Bobby gathers his booty and obtains a superior position due to the lack of perspective - or perhaps concentration - of the Russian. Reaches the final phase of the game with clear tactical superiority. Spassky can not hold any hope. Bobby wins again. 6'5 to 3'5.

Spassky was aware that against Fischer much more was played than a title.

At this point in the championship, Boris Spassky needed to react, and he needed to do it soon. He could not continue to blame eternally the disruption caused by Fischer's extravagant behavior during the beginning of the match to explain his sudden disadvantage on the scoreboard. He felt the breath of the Soviet delegation and the Kremlin authorities at the nape of his neck, and if he wanted to keep his reputation he could not continue to be off center and playing below his level. In addition, although the American had put the nerves to everyone at the beginning of the final, now returned to get the public and the press in his pocket thanks to his victories and his irresistible charisma. As improbable as his attitude might have seemed, Bobby was The Genius, at least in the eyes of the people. And besides, people wanted to see an American breaking Soviet rule, if only because of the novelty, because of the drama or just because Fischer was that poor boy from Brooklyn who had come to the top by himself after a biography of a movie With almost everything against, Spassky played everything. It played more than the crown. He played his prestige and status as a citizen in the USSR. Mark Taimanov remained almost a pariah in his country after the loss to Fischer, and Spassky knew well that he could suffer the same fate: he himself was not the favorite chess player of the authorities and being dethroned by Fischer could face unpleasant consequences. And now he was three points behind in the final, which almost all observers already considered an insurmountable distance.

But Boris was not any chess player, he was the world champion, a very talented player and he had an ace up his sleeve. In the eleventh game he played again one of Fischer's favorite variants, that of the “poisoned pawn”. The American devoured the pawn, as usual, and everything seemed to go well until perhaps driven by confidence or perhaps confused by the complications that Spassky insisted on raising during the game, gave a pawn for nothing. It was the occasion the Russian was waiting for; He seemed to be reborn at that moment. He punished Fischer's inaccuracy with a fierceness and efficiency typical of a true world champion. Fischer was beaten in just thirty-one moves by a Spassky who seemed to finally respond to the better version of himself. The scoreboard still showed a huge difference, 6.5 to 4.5, but the outlook had changed again: to what extent could Fischer deal with the rebirth of his old nemesis? Would his two-point lead really be enough if Spassky started playing with a more march like he had done in this game? Could the advantage of the applicant start to wobble?

In game number twelve, Fischer again raised that gambit of lady who before this final had been absent from his repertoire and seemed to take the initiative for much of the game, but minor inaccuracies made that initiative disappear. The strength of Spassky's game –who was now approaching his true level– made things equal and, despite his initial impetus, Fischer had to resign himself to draw. Boards. 7 to 5 on the scoreboard … but the feeling that the Russian champion could begin to put the challenger in real trouble.

However, in the next match Fischer did not want to let the champion continue to resurrect. Again he used one of his most devastating weapons: hours, months and years of training and study. Raised an Alekhine Defense that the champion had not expected. Spassky, misplaced and once again harmed by his famous laziness at the time of studying the theory, committed an inaccuracy very soon during the same opening and was left with a pawn of less for the rest of the game. It was a gross error, which showed that you could not go to such a match neglecting the theoretical preparation in front of a human chess encyclopedia such as Bobby Fischer. The aspirant already only had to pull technique to, without risking too much, to reach a rather advantageous end with three pawns threatening to be crowned, pawns that Spassky could hardly stop. It was an incredibly tense game in which the champion struggled to compensate for his initial stumble until he realized there was nothing to do: victory and 8 to 5 for Fischer. That mistake by Spassky had cost him not only the game, but also how he cut short his threat of a comeback.

So, after a brief resurgence, Spassky's situation was beginning to be really desperate. It was three points below, an almost insurmountable difference in chess. He needed several victories if he wanted to prevent Bobby from reaching the 12.5 points that he needed to score to be champion. But poor Boris had committed a destructive error at the wrong time and had lost a game that was very damaging to his chances. Many took for granted that Spassky was going to be defeated and believed that he would definitely come down, after having given clear signs of his limited psychological resistance to the tension of the competition. But as we say Boris Spassky had not reached the champion for nothing and in this infamous moment was recomposed, which has an enormous merit in such circumstances and against a rival like yours. Due to this, the final entered a new phase, where Spassky was going to try by all means to put it as difficult as possible to the applicant and where he was going to start playing, if not at his best level, at least with a closer performance who had shown in better times.

The pressure and fatigue affected the game of both contenders, although Spassky paid the highest price.

Although, yes, in the game number 14 the accumulated tension became patent for both rivals and the result was a confrontation between two exhausted minds. Fischer went back to using that Lady Gambit that was giving him good results, but the game was not particularly bright on either side. In fact, Bobby allowed Spassky to take a pawn of advantage, although the Russian was not fine at the time of seizing the opportunity and did not choose the best plays. In the end, after a soulless game where both had paid the effort dragged from previous games, they signed the tie. 8'5 to 5'5. Fischer was three points higher. In the next game, number 15 of the final, a Sicilian defense was played, well known by Fischer, who in fact was considered one of the world's leading specialists in that opening. But the game soon went through unsuspected ways. A novelty played by Spassky dislodged Bobby in what was one of his most studied openings, forcing him to think long and hard about how to respond. But when Bobby thought a lot, the result could be very powerful. His thoughtful response in turn confused Spassky, who did not expect it … and now it was the Russian who spent many minutes thinking about the continuation. In total, between one and the other, they spent more than an hour to think only three moves! Obviously, neither of them was comfortable with what was happening on the board and both were afraid to become the author of the first mistake in a tricky game, not very defined and very, very tense. In principle, the complexity of the game seems to favor Spassky's style, which had been placed with two pawns to top it all. But this time he could not take advantage and finally a Fischer who was almost against the ropes managed to force a draw against a tired rival. 9 to 6. After that game, both took a break they needed to face what they still had left.

Game number 16: Spassky soon gets on with a pawn of more. Although it is a symbolic advantage since it is a pawn not too valuable (it is in the same row as another pawn, blocking it, what is called a "doubled pawn" and that generally has little use). Bobby will soon take the game to what seems an inevitable draw, no matter how much the Russian continues to fight until the end, relying on that material advantage that is actually worth more on paper than on the board. Spassky has a pawn of more, yes, but few possibilities to develop it for his own benefit. Extend the game waiting for a miracle to happen in the form of a Fischer error. That error will not come. With one pawn down, Fischer forces another draw. Starting at a disadvantage, he has again rid of defeat: 9.5 to 6.5. It is a little closer to the crown.

At this stage of the final, specialists have begun to understand that something is happening. Game after game, Spassky seems to take the initiative and obtain certain advantages. But game after game, the thing always ends in a draw. Every time he seems to have it ready, every time Fischer seems to be on the ropes, he finds a way to nullify the Russian's advantage and get rid of the defeat. Boris Spassky is using his best weapons and the American is surviving. Spassky would later say that he felt that Fischer was “slippery as a fish, every time I thought I had him trapped, it slipped between my fingers”. Why? What is happening? It is true that Spassky is playing better than in his disastrous initial stretch of match, which is effectively getting certain advantages during the games and that Fischer is being conservative because it suits him. But the reality is that Bobby barely shows cracks where to attack him. Observers are coming to a conclusion: it is true that the match would be very different if Spassky had not sunk psychologically during the first games, yes. But almost nobody dares to deny that Fischer's game seems to be at a level higher than the champion's. At least enough superior to, starting from apparently disadvantageous positions, end up signing comfortable ties that greatly favor their interests. Everyone agrees that neither Fischer nor Spassky are playing at their best – the tremulous external pressure that both suffer has a lot to do with it, of course - but there is a key difference: Bobby seems to have the games under control even when Spassky is who gives the impression of having the winning tricks.

About Spassky Fischer: "It was like a fish, When I thought I had it, it slipped in my hands".

Game 17: Fischer, with blacks, uses another unusual defense in his repertoire - the Pirc Defense - with the usual intention of nullifying any previous preparation of Spassky. Knowing that in this game the Russian does not move on familiar grounds, Fischer does something contrary to his habit: he refuses to simplify the game to quickly reach a final phase with few pieces in which to impose his «computer game». He has seen the possibility of blocking the white pieces during the half game, so he cleverly dedicates himself to leaving the opponent without options to attack. And he gets it. Spassky does not see clearly the way to go and although he arrives at the end with a slight material advantage (a pawn of less, but two powerful towers in front of a tower and a horse), he simply does not know what to do to get a victory that he has returned to caress without get. Bobby has closed all roads, his vaccine has worked. Forces Spassky to sign a new tie. It is the fourth consecutive draw in games where, on paper, Spassky had a chance to win. 10 to 7. Needless to say that such a march begins to be truly frustrating for the champion. He is not losing more games, true, but he does not win either, nor even achieving tactical advances. And each point that is shared is half a point that Fischer is closer to the crown. Is Fischer finally the best, after so many years? The answer, many think at this point, is that probably yes.

Game 18 arrives. Fischer is beginning to caress the crown, knows that the successive tables bring her closer and decides not to risk the least, a completely unusual attitude in her previous career, where she used to always win, even when she does not I needed it. Obviously, with the crown in play, Fischer has become a strategist when managing points and times. In this game he walls his king after a long castling, ready to propose a defensive game not too usual in him. Knowing that Spassky needs a victory like water, let the Russian be the one who breaks the brain trying to find a way to attack that castling. Bobby puts in practice a conservative game, yes, but that in fact is a lesson of strategic defense: he has raised the game so that his rival finds it almost impossible to hurt him. It has the necessary tools: a solid position, a capacity of calculation essential in the defensive game, and the tranquility of going far ahead on the scoreboard. If he plays to defend himself, he will not win games, but he will be almost untouchable. Spassky realizes this. Much to his dismay, he is forced to grant a new tie. It is the fifth consecutive tie. The champion notices how the earth trembles beneath his feet. Fischer is digging a trap with the patience of a sapper; Sooner or later, as things do not change much, the ground will sink under the champion.

Game number 19. Spassky continues with the pressing, almost exasperating feeling that he is about to win. After pressing considerably Fischer with a dynamic and ambitious game, the Russian comes to the end with a pawn of advantage ... once again. But again he fails to find a way to keep that pawn, which probably Fischer had already considered vulnerable since a few moves before and that had worried him little. So the advantage vanishes again when Fischer captures that pawn. For Spassky's martyrdom, there seems to be no clear way to victory. Sign a new tie. The situation is terrible. What can you do? There is nothing worse than tying several times in a row, having always had the feeling of being able to win. Game after game, Spassky is gaining an advantage in the game. Game after game, Bobby is getting closer and closer to the title.

Game number 20. Fischer raises another long castling to, once again, try to disable Spassky's attack. Another defensive approach to a man whose only salvation is to attack. But Fischer gets his way and again achieves his goal: to equalize things. The Russian does not know where to make a dent in the defense of his rival. The game comes to an end without towers where neither side seems to have clear options for victory. The final is becoming a via crucis for the Soviet champion, who signs the seventh consecutive tie. It is clear that Fischer has everything under control.

You only need one point.

Game number 21. In this game Spassky needs a victory, yes or yes. Otherwise, you will lose your title. Fischer, who plays with blacks, poses the Sicilian defense, one of his specialties. This defense can lead to an aggressive game, something that theoretically interests a Spassky whose only imperative is to win. But on the seventh move Bobby advances a pawn that transforms the opening by making it more closed, more prone to a draw that would be little if Fischer avoids making mistakes. The Russian is stunned by this unexpected tactical turn and what is promised as an open and dynamic game threatens to become another tricky game without a winner. Neither this time gets a clear attack, Fischer's hypothetical error does not arrive and the game ends in a dubiously matched final phase: Fischer has a rook and two pawns in front of the bishop and four Spassky pawns. In addition, two of Spassky's pawns are united, reinforcing each other, and they seem to offer a good chance to try to crown them … although it is not easy to find a way to do it. Once again, the syndrome seems to repeat itself throughout the second half of the final: Spassky's tactical advantages seem to be worth more in theory than in practice. It is as if Fischer knowingly gave up the initiative and voluntarily placed himself at a disadvantage, but very sure that this disadvantage is deceptive and – for him – easy to neutralize. If Boris Spassky was until now the best player in the world, Bobby Fischer is showing that he has learned to play him one on one. After a give and take without a clear winner, you arrive at move # 40, the time to postpone the game until the next day. Spassky writes what will be his next move, as dictated by the regulation, and delivers it to the referee in a sealed envelope to resume the game with her.

That moment of the resumption will never come. Spassky's night is long and agonizing, knowing that if he gives that point Bobby will be champion, but at the same time looking at the board in search of solutions that do not arrive, neither by him nor by his team of assistants and advisors. He is lost. In the morning, the Russian telephones the referee and informs him of his decision: he surrenders. And it does so, at a distance. He does not even show up for the resumption, probably because the Soviet authorities do not want the photograph of a defeated Spassky posing next to the new king of the boards. And although many fans believe that the surrender is premature because the position is subtle, the truth is that the final is over. Bobby Fischer has just become the eleventh world chess champion. The dream of his whole life, to which he has given himself since childhood, has become a reality. He celebrates in his own way, taking refuge for a few days in his temporary home in Ilandia, enjoying walks through the landscape and contact with horses, animals with whom he likes to spend time. He has achieved everything for which he has always fought.

What nobody can suspect yet is that he will never play a single game in an official competition.

Fischer's victory was front-page news throughout the world.

The international press, especially the Western press, goes crazy over the news. The Soviet Union has just received a blow in what was one of its greatest reasons for pride and national self-esteem. This final has given an unexpected turn to the Cold War, with a propaganda victory that has come from the most unsuspected corner of the US: a chessboard. In fact, when poor Boris Spassky flies to the USSR he finds a cold reception: there is no welcoming committee at the airport, no big shots to comfort him or congratulate him on the dignity he has shown in the fight … and what Fischer has said that Spassky is the toughest opponent he has ever had. In fact, the now ex-champion will begin to have serious difficulties with his career. For a time, the communist authorities will prevent him from participating in international tournaments, until Spassky vindicates himself once again winning the very difficult USSR championship, making his forced absence of world competition almost ridiculous. But now, for the Kremlin, Spassky is the man who lost to Fischer, the champion who did not want to comply with the demands of the regime. It is not well seen anymore. And that Boris Spassky is not a political opponent, far from it. As we said, Spassky is not a communist, and certainly he has not been a docile champion either, but he is not a dissident either. He wants to continue living in his country. However things will get more and more difficult there. Battered by the authorities of Moscow, one of the most noble champions that any sport has ever ended, very reluctantly, in exile: fed up with the fact that in the USSR they continue to make life impossible he will leave to live in France in 1976. Shortly after French will be nationalized to be able to continue competing. Although he will never be the same player he was, among other things because he will refuse to continue giving himself completely to chess. He wants to do other things, practice other sports, live his life. The match with Fischer has not only burned him, but it has taught him that there is – and there must be – a lot of life beyond the boards.

On the other hand, Fischer is received in his country as a national hero. He has won a victory for his country and for the West as a bloc, a victory of a kind that no other individual has achieved because the other American victories (such as the space race) have been the product of a joint effort. Bobby has beaten the Russians, but he has done it alone, in his own way, without help from anyone. In New York, his city, he receives a welcome from the titans of astronautics. It's as if Bobby had stepped on the moon or traveled to Mars. His feat has acquired a titanic dimension in the eyes of the public. Even a date is decreed that will become the “Day of Bobby Fischer”. Politicians kill each other by taking pictures with him, he is invited to the most popular TV programs, the companies tempt him with succulent advertising contracts –they will reject them all– and the US Chess Federation will record an absolute record of registrations as a result of the title won by the genius of Brooklyn. Bobby Fischer is now a figure of international magnitude, probably the most famous man in the world during that year 1972. Although he does not seem to care about all that when, at the honorific dinner for his triumph, which as usual declines to drink or even a glass of wine – it is isolated from the rest of the guests and immersed in its small portable chess board, an unusual image that will be recorded by the security cameras of the premises. He is the man who has won everything, but who has not changed much since school. Speeches are delivered in his honor; but he is not attending. He is playing chess.

Twenty-two months later, Bobby Fischer will be stripped of his title for not showing up to play against the new challenger, the young Russian Anatoly Karpov. The public will not hear from him again for twenty years. It will be the beginning of an enigmatic and fascinating stage that will definitely end up helping to turn it into a legend. Almost nobody knows where he is, what he does or if he will ever play again to claim his crown. Bobby Fischer will become a ghost, an almost mythological figure, like the Yeti or the monster of Loch Ness. Had he not reappeared in 1992 - unfortunately for his legend and above all for his personal misfortune - we would perhaps be talking about an enigmatic figure comparable to characters from classical antiquity or old Egypt. Bobby Fischer, the champion who vanished in the shadows. Seen the seen, I wish the story would have stayed like this. But we'll talk about that another time. For now let Bobby as champion, which should never stop being in our memory.