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Original Issue


A pleasant lady who thought grand masters deserved a break sponsors the best chess tournament in the world

It was early on a Sunday morning this past July, the opening day of the Piatigorsky chess tournament at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., and no one had thought to vacuum the carpet in the ballroom where the tournament was to be held. Mrs. Jacqueline Piatigorsky discovered the unvacuumed expanse of carpeting at 7 a.m. That is an early hour on a flawless California midsummer Sunday. The broad waxed corridors of the hotel were shining emptily in the reflected sunlight, there was no one around the swimming pool, the wide white beach beyond the palm trees was unpeopled, and Mrs. Piatigorsky could not find a vacuum cleaner. She hastened to her home, a small mansion in Brentwood a few miles away, picked up her own vacuum and returned to clean personally the carpet in the huge room. "If you don't check on every little thing," she said later with a smile, "someone forgets."

Especially great chess players. They come equipped with built-in memory lapses. Chess masters can forget everything except all the moves they make in every game they play. In the case of the chess masters at the Piatigorsky tournament there was some reason for their indifference to trifles. There are not more than 20 men who can compete at the top level of international chess competition, and 10 of these were present in Santa Monica. It was the most brilliant gathering of grand masters in U.S. chess history. Or, for that matter, in anybody's history. The New York Times's chess expert called it "the strongest collection of chess players ever convened."

So it was to be expected that Mrs. Piatigorsky would have a lot of checking to do on things other people forgot. Besides vacuuming the carpet and ordering milk and sandwiches for the players, she did things like answering the telephone and giving press interviews and, just before starting time, locating an electrician when the electric clocks used to time players' moves blew out the fuses in the ballroom. Then at one o'clock on Sunday afternoon, July 17, when the long tournament formally opened, she stood poised and cool in a gray flowered dress at the entrance, talking animatedly to awed journalists in whispers—everyone whispers at a chess tournament—and still worrying about last-minute details. She was present through all of the 18 rounds of the 27-day tournament, and as it came to its end, she was still there at the door, explaining with infinite patience and genuine regret to people who were trying to get in that there was no more room in the hall. In the climactic next-to-the-last round, when Bobby Fischer of the U.S. and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union—tied for first place—were pitted against each other, the crowd reached 1,300, the largest crowd ever to watch a chess match in the U.S. All those hours of checking on every detail paid off, for Mrs. Piatigorsky's tournament was a triumph.

Not that Mrs. Piatigorsky had much preparation for the housewifely duties that were required to make the tournament a success. She spent her childhood in the mansion—at 2 Rue Saint-Florentin, overlooking the Tuileries in Paris—that had been the palace of Talleyrand before her father. Baron Edouard Alphonse James de Rothschild, purchased it. He was the head of the French branch of the House of Rothschild. "It was like a museum," said Mrs. Piatigorsky, as she sat chatting one day during the tournament. "It was so big I never saw the kitchen. I lived in that house until I was married, and I never saw the kitchen."

In weekend escapes from the formal grandeur of the mansion in Paris the Rothschild family lived at Ferri√®res—built in 1862 by her great-grandfather, Baron James de Rothschild—a cozy little place located on 9,000 acres just east of Paris, with lakes, parks, a private zoo, 12 gardeners, five foresters and pavilions hung with Van Dykes and other old masters. Napoleon III attended the fete at the opening of Ferri√®res, Rossini composed music for the occasion, and the guests shot 1,231 head of game in one afternoon on the Rothschilds' private hunting preserve. During the Franco-Prussian war, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Chancellor Bismarck and General von Moltke took over Ferri√®res for their quarters, but the Kaiser refused to sleep in the owner's bedroom. He said it was too grand.

With this background, how did Mrs. Piatigorsky become concerned with chess tournaments? And how did it come about that she was willing personally to do all the housekeeping that chess tournaments require? "If I had a hundred million dollars," one chess player said during the tournament, "I wouldn't bother with chess players."

"Chess entered my life when I was 6 years old," explained Mrs. Piatigorsky. "I had a peritonitis infection, and I was in bed for months. There was no TV then to entertain a bedridden child, and reading all the time was tiresome. I was bored, totally bored."

An English nurse taught Jacqueline and her sister to play chess when Jacqueline was convalescing. This was during World War I, when the Germans were 30 miles from Paris. Her father, a tall, thin-featured man, did not socialize with the children, and Jacqueline thought of her parents as living in a different city. "When we were very young," she said, "they would come upstairs and visit us for about 15 minutes in the evening. As we grew somewhat older we would see them every day at lunch. That was the big family event, taking lunch together, but it was not very cozy or intime; we were surrounded by servants in white gloves." Presently Jacqueline became a good enough chess player to challenge her father, who had a rudimentary knowledge of the game. She beat him, which so irritated the baron that he quit playing. One evening, when a chess-playing friend came to visit, her father said to him, "Play Jacqueline, she's good."

"Of course, I was badly beaten," Mrs. Piatigorsky said. "I was also furious, just furious." She began to play chess more thoughtfully and even took a few lessons. She became a tennis whiz playing on the family courts and a good golfer playing on the family's private golf course at Ferrières. But her life was very restricted. She and her sister did not go anywhere alone until they married. "I wasn't allowed to go into a store alone to buy so much as a spool of thread," she said.

A vague, opaque expression seems to settle on her features when she remembers Paris, but from the bits and fragments of her recollections you can recognize something: she lived in the sort of social and intellectual world that Marcel Proust described in the early, glowing volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Devoted students of Proust have carefully traced the connections between the Rothschilds and the originals of some of the characters in Proust's great novel, and Gaston Calmann-Lévy, Proust's publisher, was a close friend of Jacqueline's parents. Faced in reality with the sort of elegance and sumptuous grandeur that Proust evoked so brilliantly in fiction, she wanted to get the hell out of there. At 18 she married Robert Paul Michel Calmann-Lévy, the son of the publisher, but the marriage lasted only four years. "I think I was unconsciously anxious to get out of the house," she said.

A few years later, in 1937, she married again, this time Gregor Piatigorsky, the famed cellist. They came to live in—of all places—Elizabethtown, N.Y., a remote village in the Adirondack Mountains. Since she knew of no chess players in Elizabethtown, she took up postal chess, perhaps the slowest-paced sport known to mankind, in which you send your opponent a postcard with your move on it and he sends you back his move, each game taking about a year. You can play as many games simultaneously as you have time for, or money to spend on stamps. Happy with everything, Mrs. Piatigorsky was especially delighted with postal chess: it gave her ample time to think over each move while she did the housework, raised two children, painted portraits, played the bassoon, learned how to repair an automobile and took flying lessons.

The late Herman Steiner, a former U.S. champion, persuaded her to enter a real chess tournament—one with visible opponents, that is—after the Piatigorsky's moved to Los Angeles in 1949. She finished in a tie for next-to-the-last place, playing for the U.S. women's championship in 1951, and tied for second place last year. In those years she learned the facts of U.S. chess life—the lack of public support, the ceaseless scrounging for money to finance tournaments, the dingy surroundings where most chess events take place. She started the Piatigorsky Foundation to promote the game, hoping to establish something in chess equivalent to the Davis Cup in tennis. She wanted to provide ample prize money for the players ($20,000 this year) and a playing environment of good quarters, good food, good manners and good taste. Unhappily, Mrs. Piatigorsky's first promotional effort was perhaps the worst in chess history. She matched Samuel Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer in a contest that ended at the halfway point in an explosion of grandmaster temperament over the starting time of games. Her second venture, the first Piatigorsky Cup tournament held three years ago in Los Angeles, was a respectable but fairly routine international tournament, which Mrs. Piatigorsky remembers with distress because the organization was so bad. U.S. chess officials, who depended on her for much of the financial support of chess events, feared she might lose interest in chess entirely if this year's Piatigorsky tournament was not a success.

They need not have worried. The drama that unfolded in the Nautilus Room was plainly the beginning of something significant in chess, not the end. During the first few rounds you could sense it shaping up, sometimes as a foreshadowing of the battle between Spassky and Fischer, more often as a conflict between two different ways of looking at chess that involved all the players in the tournament. Isaac Kashdan, a veteran U.S. chess authority who directed the tournament, called attention to the contrast in styles in his bulletin on the fourth round, noting a difference between players who played to win and players who played to draw. "Dullsville," he wrote. "All five games were drawn in this round.... The grand master draw is unfair to sponsors, spectators, and to the world of chess in general. We expect of the masters that they will give of their best at all times."

The player who illustrated the difference best was Boris Spassky. He was on both sides. A muscular, square-jawed, well-groomed Russian, age 29, Spassky sat at his board with a rocklike solidity. He sometimes wore a dark suit and tie, sometimes gray trousers and a sport jacket, but in either case he looked relaxed and untroubled. He rarely rose from his chair and walked around between moves, as do most chess masters, and when he did he seemed to know exactly where he was going and when he was coming back.

When Spassky became a major chess figure at 16 he was hailed for his aggressive, attacking, imaginative style of play. But when he played Tigran Petrosian for the world championship earlier in 1966 (he lost) he surprised everyone by playing the same kind of cautious defensive game that Petrosian had always played. At Santa Monica, the grand old man of chess, Miguel Najdorf, asked Spassky why he had changed. Spassky said he tried to adapt his game to one that would be effective against Petrosian. "Ah, but you're no longer Spassky!" Najdorf exclaimed.

That appeared to be true; Spassky had become an inflexible, unchanging enigma, playing cautiously and defensively. He drew 13 games in all. He sat back with an almost tranquil air while his opponents grew harried. He was a kind of reformed aggressor, able to anticipate all attacks because he had formerly tried them all himself. At the opposite extreme from Spassky's amiable calm, Bobby Fischer managed to get in trouble in every round, from the first game to the last. At Santa Monica he appeared to be completely transformed in his social life. After a decade in which he became famous for his explosions of bad temper, Bobby was suddenly, in the setting that Mrs. Piatigorsky provided, a handsome, well-mannered, good-natured young man thoroughly enjoying life. He visited, exchanged pleasantries and submitted to television interviews. But as a chess player he remained the same flamboyant character he was when he won his first U.S. championship in 1957 at 14. He still seemed to put himself on a plane of absolute equality with his opponent, no matter how strong or weak his opponent happened to be. He drew four of his first five games, winning only from Borislav Ivkov, the Yugoslavian (who finished next to last). But unlike Spassky's casual, almost offhanded air when he drew his games, Fischer's desperation gave the impression that he was struggling for every draw. Then Spassky beat him. Najdorf beat him. Bent Larsen, the Dane, defeated him in 30 moves. At the halfway point Fischer had won only one game, drawn five and lost three and was at the bottom of the standings. Then he began to move. He won his next four games in a row, drew one and then won two more—an unprecedented record against top-ranking chess masters. And with two rounds to play, Fischer was tied with Spassky for first place.

Not that these two provided the only interest, or the only indications of the growing difference in styles of chess play. The defeat of Petrosian, the most cautious of defensive players, was equally astonishing to chess fans. The world champion was beaten in the seventh round by Larsen, who did it in the grand style by sacrificing his queen. Petrosian never recovered his form, lost three games in all, drew 12 and wound up in sixth place. For his part, Larsen made chess history. Previously all but buried in the complicated procedures of international-chess red tape, Larsen flourished in the spotlight that the Piatigorsky tournament provided. Always attacking and playing with initiative and imagination, he dominated the first half of the tournament just as Fischer dominated the second half. He won four games in a row and, in his games against the Russian giants, kept them on the defensive in a way that rocketed him to the first rank of contemporary masters. There appeared to be substance to Isaac Kashdan's observations on the growing difference between playing to draw and playing to win.

In any event it brought the tournament to a dramatic conclusion, with Fischer trying desperately to win all his games and Spassky smoothly drawing all of his. Spectators lined the walls, took positions behind pillars, sat on the floor, stood on chairs and created a never-ending jam in the aisles. They kept Mrs. Piatigorsky and a special policeman busy clearing the pathways. A SOLD OUT sign stood at the door. One day a malcontent who had been turned away tried to force his way in. Jerry Hanken, a tournament official, blocked his path. The man turned as though to leave, Hanken turned back to watch the games and—"The man hit Jerry and knocked him down," whispered an outraged Mrs. Piatigorsky. "He's in jail now, but that's why we have the special officer." Removing her glasses, she adjusted the thermostat on the air conditioner and then stood quietly at the entry with the special officer to explain once again to latecomers that fire regulations prohibited any additional admissions until someone left. The latecomers gathered behind ropes, waiting silently for someone to leave. When anyone did Mrs. Piatigorsky acted as usher in guiding a fortunate newcomer to the vacated seat.

In the hall the last rounds ran their predicted course. The climactic game between Spassky and Fischer ended in a draw, and they remained tied in their struggle for first place. In the final round Fischer was pitted against Petrosian, while Spassky played Jan Hein Donner of Holland, who had won only one game, lost six and eventually finished last. This circumstance was luck, determined by the drawings. But it gave Spassky first place and $5,000 prize money; Fischer and Petrosian drew, and Spassky easily won from Donner.

"It was Fischer's tournament," Spassky said generously. "He played better than anyone else, including myself." It was a nice gesture from the victor, but he was not entirely correct. It was really Mrs. Piatigorsky's tournament. At the end of it she was still working, making notes on 3-by-5 index cards to guide her during the next tournament. "This way," she said, "I will be able to eliminate little things next time that were not right this time." She was asked how much the tournament cost. "About $60,000," she said. She looked as if she thought the House of Rothschild had never made a better investment.