Once after a visit to Caracas, Bobby Fischer remarked on how the dictator of Venezuela had chickened out. "He won't go any place unless he has about six cars in front of him and six cars behind," said the chess star, "because he's afraid of being assassinated."
"Well, he nearly was," a companion explained. "His car was blown up and some people were killed."
"Yeah," said Fischer, "but he wasn't in it. And ever since he's been chicken. What kind of dictator is that?"
A similar question piqued watchers of Fischer himself last week—including the champion, Boris Spassky, who must have felt as though, like Alice, he had fallen down a rabbit's hole. The American challenger for the world chess title had as usual been throwing his weight around dictatorially in Reykjavik, Iceland, site of his match with Spassky. But Fischer had also lost two straight games—the first one by an utterly out-of-character blunder and the second one by forfeit when he refused to leave his hotel room. What kind of chess genius was that?
A doomed one, suggested Icelandic Grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson right after Thursday's forfeit. Fischer's whole life is based on the assumption that he is the most compelling figure in chess. He had confidently predicted that this match would make his preeminence official. But his resistance to the playing conditions—he had demanded the removal of all movie cameras covering the match, saying they disturbed him even if he could not see or hear them—might well have cost him any chance at the title. If his intransigence should scuttle this $300,000 showdown, predicted Olafsson, "it would not be forgotten for a long time. And by then I'm afraid Bobby will be destroyed." It conjured up thoughts of Paul Morphy, the 19th century American chess genius, who quit playing seriously at age 22 on obscure grounds of injured pride.
The comparison with Morphy underestimates Fischer's redoubtable conception of himself. But hardly anyone in Iceland, the U.S. or the rest of the world seemed to care much if Fischer came to such an end last week. The press and public opinion, which had previously celebrated his eccentricities, were fed up.
The week before, Fischer had arrived in Iceland at the eleventh hour, his holdout of that moment having ended when an English millionaire sweetened the pot by $125,000, but now he seemed lost once more. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had recently sent him a chess set with white-on-white squares, all white pieces and this inscription: "For playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are." But Fischer seemed to see nothing but black pieces. He feuded with his aides. He had committed the dictator's cardinal sin—loss of control.
By Sunday Fischer had tickets on an afternoon plane to New York and the championships seemed doomed, but at the last moment a new accommodation brought him to, the chessboard once again. Fischer had never objected to the fixed, unmanned closed-circuit video cameras that had been making a tape recording of the play. So Sunday's game was held in a small room behind the stage and was transmitted to the local spectators on closed-circuit.
The silent setting brought out the old Fischer. In his first-game loss he had rashly thrown away a sure draw by snatching a "poisoned" pawn on the 29th move, allowing his bishop to be trapped behind enemy lines. Then, according to the analysis of Grandmaster Larry Evans, he had missed two chances to salvage a draw. But on Sunday his imaginative Benoni Defense neutralized Spassky's cautious white initiatives, and after an overnight adjournment Fischer swept to his first victory Monday on the 42nd move. The challenger was still down 1-2, but at least the battle was joined.
For all the critical broadsides at Fischer earlier in the week, there was an interesting kernel of rationality in his complaint about the cameras. It is entirely possible that Bobby's weak play Tuesday and Wednesday was influenced by his preoccupation with the filming. "You have to be careful of picking your nose or reaming your ear out when you're on TV," pointed out a U.S. chess official, Fred Cramer. On Tuesday Fischer had sat hunched over the board in a not very photogenic position, but he also refrained from his usual practice of chewing on his hands or jerking his feet.
Certainly the cameras were visible, on two large burlap-covered towers in front of the stage on Tuesday and through a hole in the wall behind the players on Wednesday. And Fischer was not the only person in the hall who heard a faint whirring sound. He was of course the only person, including Spassky, who minded. But, after all, the rules of the match did guarantee that the official cameras would not disturb the players "in any way." Clearly Fischer was disturbed Wednesday when, on his 44th move, he said, "Excuse me, Boris," bolted from the table and spent 33 minutes of his allotted playing time yelling, summoning police and eventually getting the cameras shut down for the rest of the day.
All the excuses for Fischer's behavior rest on the assumption that he is a genius—that he must be allowed to do things on his own terms because those terms produce unique and glorious chess. By ordinary standards Fischer was wrong. For example, he refused on Thursday to inspect the cameras, which by then had been completely muffled.
Nor was it surprising that the soft whirr of the cameras was at first audible in the hall. The quiet was eerie. Any crowd murmur was squelched by a neon sign that flashed the English and Icelandic words for silence. Perhaps the absence of crowd buzz and outside noise (Reykjavik is not exactly cacophonous) made Fischer's hypersensitive hearing even more acute.
Curiously, Fischer is at once plaintiff and defendant in the same suit. It was Fischer's attraction and acquisitiveness that brought the pressures of big money and mass media to bear on the game, and now he is the one bothered by them. Perhaps his instincts were sound when he refused to perform under those pressures. Chess is not a spectacle. Its viewers do not lounge around drinking beer while vicariously enjoying savage body contact. They are trying to think along with the players. "Chess is the only art in which composition and performance take place at once," points out Fischer's biographer, Frank Brady. Perhaps such an art cannot tolerate too much glare or the whirring of cameras and presses at today's high pitch.
If Fischer is to preserve his genius in the public eye he is going to have to adopt toward the media some attitude other than hysteria, but maybe the media should back off a bit, too. Judging by his performance in game three, Fischer wields his power—and flexes his genius—best in backroom situations.
Of course, when dictators do that, they are called chicken.