Skip to main content
Original Issue

The further adventures of terrible-tempered Bobby

Bobby Fischer played like a champion at the international tournament in Tunisia, but he ended by forfeiting his way out of the competition

Bobby Fischer walked out of the world international chess tournament held in Sousse, Tunisia the other day and then, pale and determined, reentered and walked out again. Otherwise, things went along as they usually do in the tournaments that he enters. That is, he fought with the officials, complained about the lights, objected to the noise, threatened to smash a news photographer's camera and, so far as the chess games were concerned, beat almost everyone around.

By the 10th round he had a comfortable lead over the 23 assorted national champions and chess masters in the Interzonal, playing chess as brilliantly as he has played at any time since he first won the U.S. championship 10 years ago. He beat Leonid Stein, the champion of the Soviet Union, for example, one of the toughest opponents he would have to face, and made it look as if anybody could do it just as easily.

He also protested about the glare from the glittering chandelier in the ballroom of the Sousse Palace Hotel, where the tournament was being held, and when the U.S. Ambassador, Francis Russell, came to lunch, Bobby would not allow even the Ambassador to take his picture—no favoritism. But he also won six games and lost none. With a start like that, how could he be beaten? You could see him going on and on, winning the Interzonal, winning the world championship—and complaining every step of his way into chess history.

And then Fischer suddenly 1) forfeited a game; 2) withdrew from the tournament; 3) left Sousse for Tunis, 80 miles away; 4) returned to Sousse and began playing brilliantly again; 5) forfeited a second game and left suddenly for Tunis again. He probably would have withdrawn a third time, but it was not necessary. The players and the officials beat him to it. They dropped him from the tournament.

"The entire chess world was startled," said Al Horowitz, the chess editor of The New York Times. Then he added, by no means irrelevantly, that Fischer had become very much interested in the Church of God, a sect that "is Christian, Protestant and fundamentalist, and its interpretation of the Bible is literal." The members of the faith believe in no voting, no drinking, no pasteurized milk, the avoidance of all but certain meats, and the observance of a Sabbath that runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Because of this, Fischer requested that several of his games be rescheduled, and the dispute began when Bobby learned that the rescheduling left him with four tough games on consecutive days.

With one game uneasily postponed, Fischer was next due to play Aivar Gipslis, a newcomer among the Russian contenders. And at 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, October 28, the chess clocks were started. Gipslis, playing white, made his first move and pressed the lever that stopped the clock on his side of the board and started the clock on Fischer's side. (In international matches each player is required to make 40 moves in 2½ hours.) But Fischer, who was demanding that a satisfactory date be set for his postponed game, refused to start playing. One hour ticked away on his clock, after which, in accordance with the rules of the Fédération Internationale des Eschecs, the game was forfeited. Gipslis was credited with a win, and Fischer, charged with his first loss, dropped to fourth place in the tournament standings.

Fischer departed for Tunis. He registered at the Tunis Hilton Hotel, moved to the Tunisia Palace, moved again to the Majestic, all within 24 hours, dodged telephone calls, and then, giving in to the appeals of U.S. Embassy officials and the president of the Tunisian Chess Federation, returned to Sousse.

It was now Sunday, October 29, and Fischer's opponent was Sammy Reshevsky. These two have been the most stubborn rivals in American chess, their battles going back to 1958, when Fischer, then 14, beat Reshevsky for the American championship, a title Fischer has virtually monopolized ever since. Reshevsky, playing black, had to wait for Fischer's first move. The clocks were started at 4 o'clock, but Fischer was still en route from Tunis. The minutes ticked away, and it seemed Fischer was going to forfeit another game. Fidgeting in his chair and watching the clock, Reshevsky appeared increasingly unsettled.

At 4:55, five minutes before he would have had to forfeit, Fischer appeared, took his seat calmly, and with ease and superb style demolished Reshevsky. Within half an hour Reshevsky had obviously lost the game, though he played on stubbornly before he resigned. Reshevsky protested that he was psychologically upset and mentally unfit to play by the time the game began. His protest was disallowed.

Fischer's victory put him back in first place. He strengthened his hold on it in the next round, when he defeated Robert Byrne, a graduate student from Indiana University, the third American hopeful in the Interzonal. But the fight over the scheduling of Fischer's postponed game was still going on, and on Wednesday, November 1, Fischer again left for Tunis.

He was supposed to play Vlastimil Hort, a Czechoslovakian grand master. The clocks were started on schedule, but this time there was no last-minute sensation: Fischer did not come back, and another loss was charged against him. In the Interzonal, nobody can afford to throw away one game, let alone two. "Fischer is not only the greatest chess player in the world today," argued Lieut. Colonel Edmund Edmondson, the executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation, "but he is the greatest chess player that ever lived." Certain that Fischer could overcome a little matter like a two-game handicap, he urged Bobby by long-distance to go back to Sousse.

"They're bugging me," said the world's greatest chess player. The tournament committee included a Czechoslovakian, a Rumanian and a Hungarian, and Fischer believed that some American chess brass was needed to defend his interests. But he said he would return to the tournament if Colonel Edmondson would come to Tunis. Edmondson forthwith departed, after learning that the Tunisian Chess Federation would indeed permit Fischer to return.

Word spread around in Sousse that Fischer was coming back again. "The rest of the players became very excited," said an observer. "They called a meeting." The upshot was that they demanded Fischer sign a written statement before he be allowed to return. Among other technical matters, the statement provided that one more forfeit would banish him from the tournament and that he would "promise to finish the tournament in accordance with normal conditions...."

Fischer telephoned his reply from Tunis, asking permission to reenter, acknowledging that he had forfeited two games (providing the Fédération Internationale passed on their legality), and added that he would be back in Sousse by 9 p.m. Saturday, if the starting time of his game with Bent Larsen, the Danish champion, would be delayed to give him time to get there.

Meanwhile, he remained in Tunis awaiting the answer. The arbitration committee decided that the regular starting time on Saturday night, 8 p.m., would be observed, and that Fischer would not be allowed to play if one hour ran out on his clock. Fischer received this news at 8:40. He could hardly get from Tunis to Sousse in 20 minutes. The game had started at 8 o'clock, and at 9 Fischer was declared out of the tournament "officially and finally."

A friend from the U.S. Embassy at Tunis brought him to my house outside the city a little later, but when I tried to interview him about the tournament he refused to say anything. He was a bit pale, asked for a glass of milk, drank it and continued to say nothing for publication. I thought that essentially he did not want to be as intransigent as he was—that in his fight with the officials he was saying no when he wanted to say yes, and that his impulse to agree was thwarted by some inner aggressiveness not really in his nature at all.

A phase of his chess career was certainly over. He left for Rome, saying he was going to buy some shoes there and then go on to Germany to pick up some chess books before he returned to the U.S. In Sousse no one appeared pleased to have him leave; the Interzonal lost its most brilliant star and possible world champion. "He is one of the best in the world," said Bent Larsen, who took over first place and appeared the likely winner.