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Original Issue


The world championship was plunged into check when Bobby Fischer decided that a better game was hide-and-seek

The headline in Visir, one of the bemused Icelandic tabloids, proclaimed HVENAER KEMUR HINN DULARFULLI FISCHER? (When Cometh the Mysterious Fischer?). It was the local media's way of trying to cope, in a language that has taken a few strange things in its stride since the days of Eric the Red, with the engima of Robert James Fischer, the unforthcoming American chess genius.

But even an uncorrupted and highly adaptive tongue like Icelandic is not up to the lunatic moves of this world's chess championship. While Boris Spassky came from Russia early and affable, the challenger kept failing to make his plane and sending cryptic word that he was not satisfied with this arrangement or that percentage. Each arriving flight at Iceland's Keflavik International Airport last week was met by the international press corps, which, Fischerless, could only spend its time trading rumors like bubble gum cards.

These included some substantial flights of fancy: Fischer was arriving by Air Force jet, by private jet, by Navy submarine and rubber dinghy. About the only conveyance not mentioned was his own hot-air balloon. It turned out by Sunday to be none of the above, and while press and chess pined in Reykjavik, the eccentric U.S. champion bounced in and out of New York's Kennedy Airport, reporters and photographers in close pursuit. "They are preventing me from catching my flight," he complained at one point, before fleeing to the Queens, N.Y. home of a friend.

One possible explanation for Fischer's curious behavior—apart from the obvious ones of gamesmanship and profit—is a reported fear of physical harm. Last winter, after the victory over Tigran Petrosian that put him into the championship, Fischer told a friend that the Russians had been trying to get at him psychologically for years. He added that while there had been no physical threat, "there might be now." It was an improbable conclusion, absurd even, but strange are the ways of genius. One thing was certain, Fischer had been staying out of sight for weeks.

Also out of Iceland. As of late last Sunday, when play was to begin, Iceland had no snakes, no frogs, no slums, no trains, no armed forces, no illiteracy, almost no trees, no pollution and no Bobby. Fischer—who says that in his own mind he is world champion already—was adamant that he would not play unless his demands for more money, a new referee and various other concessions to his imperious sensibilities were met. The Icelandic Chess Federation was hard put to negotiate those points because no one there could claim, or figure out how, to speak for Fischer.

The patient Spassky, let down after training to a fine edge, agreed on Sunday to a two-day postponement requested at the last minute by Fischer, although the Russian could have claimed the first game by forfeit. But if Fischer continued to emulate Howard Hughes longer than that, he would presumably lose his chance for the world title.

A sudden arrival by Fischer would be apt for Iceland, for the country's history is full of uncommon visitations—pumice clouds, ashfalls, elves (as popular in Iceland as UFO sightings used to be in America) and brand-new volcanic islands arising in flames from the sea. Occasionally a volcano goes off under a glacier, causing a flood of ice water that sweeps whole farms, inhabitants and livestock into the sea.

Yet it may be that nothing has hit Iceland quite so hard as the nonarrival of "Problem Child" Fischer, as one paper called him. Reykjavik seemed from the outset to be an odd place for what might well be the greatest chess match of all time. But Icelanders are avid chess enthusiasts, especially in the winter months when there is little daylight. And even Fischer has conceded that in the summer, when the temperatures stay in the 40s and 50s, Iceland is "a nice place to visit." The country offers good meals of fresh fish and lamb, strange and beautiful terrain to drive or backpack or fish in, swimming pools warmed naturally by hot springs, and every Saturday in Reykjavik a time-honored tradition of whoopee.

On these occasions, great numbers of people eat, dance, fight, get drunk and pair off ebulliently in places like the Hotel Saga, where one American was approached out of the blue by a strange, attractive woman who asked him, "What are your intentions?" That seemed to relegate to second place Iceland's big question of last Saturday night: "What are Fischer's intentions?"

Fischer's strong preference for the match site had been Belgrade, which offered the highest purse, $152,000. The Russians preferred Reykjavik, supposedly because the climate suited Spassky. Fischer claimed that the Russians wanted to find as isolated a place as possible for what Fischer foresaw as Spassky's certain defeat. Reykjavik offered a purse of $125,000, a figure that measures Iceland's interest in chess, for it comes to about half a dollar a head for the whole population. Nor could Fischer sniff at it, since the purse is rather larger than the previous recent top chess prize—$12,000 put up in Buenos Aires last October for the Fischer-Petrosian match. Indeed, Fischer was not sniffing at the total, of which the winner gets five-eighths, but for several months he has been nosing out ways to augment it.

Through various Fischer-related channels, exclusive rights to movie and still photography of the match were assigned by the Icelandic Chess Federation to a little-known American film producer named Chester Fox. Cameramen hired by Fox were to do all authorized filming inside the Reykjavik indoor sports stadium and Fox was to market the resultant pictures and footage to the various media in advance. Income would be divided 30% each to Fischer and Spassky, 20% to the Icelandic Chess Federation and 20% to Fox. In addition, ABC paid $67,500 for television rights.

But other magazines, newspapers and news agencies declined to meet Fox' prices. When the press arrived in Reykjavik for the match it was told that no cameras other than Fox' were to be allowed inside the auditorium, and that play-by-play news reports could only be dispatched three times per game—not frequently enough to allow immediate simulation of play around the world. Both foreign and local journalists were miffed over the restrictions and resolved to defy the rules.

Then, Fischer hit on a real money move. He made an outrageous demand for 30% of the gate, a steal that would not only break the Icelandic Chess Federation, but probably rattle every bank in Reykjavik.

Until late last week the only American in Iceland remotely qualified to declare Fischer's intentions was Fred Cramer, the U.S. zone's vice-president of the International Chess Federation, and he would not venture to predict what might happen next.

At one point he did describe himself as "Fischer's errand boy," and it was he who revealed that Fischer was demanding, among other things, that Lothar Schmid of West Germany, the chief referee, be replaced. The excuse was that Bobby did not want a top-level chess player in such a key spot. Fischer, said Cramer, felt Schmid had competitive ambitions and needed the goodwill of the Russians to ensure himself a pool of strong competition. But the possibility of a chess referee having any effect on a game is slight, and Schmid refused to step down.

With that resolved—maybe—Cramer and Schmid met to consider a few other hard questions. For instance, Fischer refuses to engage in any tournament activity during the Sabbath of the Church of God, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. But in Iceland in July the sun never entirely goes down. What to do? Cramer said what was needed—even though Fischer is not a practicing Jew—was a rabbi's judgment of the time of sundown. But another thing Iceland has none of is rabbis. And so it went.

It is hard to believe the trouble already caused by two men's preparations to sit—or not to sit—before a checkered board for hours on end, occasionally moving carved black and white figures in absolute silence through such defenses as the Poisoned Pawn Sicilian and attacks like the Ruy Lopez. But championship chess is a complex game, and world championship chess the most complex of all. The confrontation is fascinating. At this point Spassky is clearly ahead. His moves have been traditional, his demeanor impeccable, his patience laudable. Fischer has been greedy, arrogant and irrational. But Fischer is renowned for one thing—brilliant use of the unexpected. These matches may be already over. Or they may have hardly begun.


Champion Boris Spassky grinned at a news conference question upon arrival in Reykjavik, while the custom-made chess board—and the rest of Iceland—waited for baffling Bobby.