Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Final Move

And now for something completely different...chess! Those of you who don’t follow the machinations of the chess world will probably not have noticed that Bobby Fischer, former World Champion, recently died of kidney failure aged 64.

This is a matter of great sadness for me as he is the person who was almost solely responsible for sparking my interest in the ancient game. I played for my school team and was invited to play for the second team at St Albans Chess club, but that was about the limit of my competitive career. And it was all down to Bobby. This is his story.

Following World War II, the World Chess Championship was re-started in 1948 and immediately the title was hijacked by the Soviet Union via winner of the 6 player match, Mikhail Botvinnik and it remained in their grasp for 24 long years whilst their own almost interchangeable champions came and went (Tal, Botvinnik again, Petrosian and Spassky).

It was not until 1972 that the young American upstart, Robert J Fischer, a Grandmaster at 15, arrived on the scene to thoroughly upset the applecart and to thrill the young me into taking up chess. At Reykjavik, Iceland, the precocious Fischer took on the might of the Soviet machine and won, thus scoring a direct hit in the cold war and breaking the stranglehold of Soviet domination.

But he didn’t take the easy route. He lost the first game with an horrendous blunder and then forfeit the second by sulking in his hotel room complaining about playing conditions and failing to turn up. Thus after two games it was Spassky 2, Fischer 0. But then he turned it on and won 7 of the next 19 games (lost 1 and drew 11) and thereby the match with a combination of stunning chess and a series of complaints about everything from playing conditions to alleged cheating that had the tour organiser at breaking point. These days it would be called ‘gamesmanship’ but you had to feel sorry for his opponent, Boris Spassky, a likeable player, who was thrashed at the board and worn down by the constant barrage of paranoia from Fischer.

Predictably, Fischer grew more anti-social and more paranoid. He failed to contest the 1975 match against challenger Anatoly Karpov and was stripped of his title, thus handing it back to the Russians for a further 32 years (Karpov then Gary Kasparov and Kramnik) before the Indian Vishy Anand finally won it back last year.

In the meantime, Fischer went on the run, living in any country that would have him whilst spitting bile at the USA and finally ending his days in Iceland – scene of his greatest triumph. A tragic end to one of chess’s tortured yet undisputed geniuses.

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