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Original Issue


Hot on his world chess championship comeback, Boris Spassky faces a scholarly—and unintimidated—American

Boris Spassky walked the red-paneled theater of the College of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 3:30 one afternoon last week, with the quietly purposeful air of a man who knows exactly what he is doing but would really rather be doing something else. What he was there for was routine enough for a former world chess champion—to play Robert Byrne in one of the four elimination matches now being held to determine the challenger for Bobby Fischer's world chess title. Spassky's manner was almost conspicuously inconspicuous. He wore a white sport shirt, dark trousers, rough scuffed shoes, and he was deliberately casual as he peeled the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes before starting play or took his time about jotting down his move on his scorecard. An everyday matter, the game of chess, nothing to get excited about, certainly nothing to warrant the stream of complaints, protests, threats to withdraw and offstage thunder that Bobby Fischer brought to the championship match in Iceland 18 months ago.

Eight grandmasters are currently competing in three different countries for the right to play Fischer. (The New York Times, in an odd typographical error, headlined in its first edition: EIGHT GRANDMOTHERS JOIN IN PURSUIT OF THE KING.) None of the eight could be called a simple personality, but when the first three games with Robert Byrne were completed last week, Boris Spassky emerged as the most baffling figure in a gallery of complex individuals. At 36, with his dark hair, square jaw, broad shoulders and appearance of physical well-being, he gave an impression of suppressed strength. In San Juan, he seemed much stronger and less nervous than when he lost his world title to Fischer. But at the end of each game he was pallid. The kindly features of Byrne across the chessboard appeared to dismay him. At 8:30 each evening, after the five required hours of play, Byrne was amiable and relaxed, while Spassky looked as though he had seen an apparition.

In a sense, he had. To begin with, nobody had expected Byrne to be there. Byrne surprisingly had vaulted into the ranks of the eight contenders, but nobody gave him more than a rank outside chance of approaching the finals. Back in 1969, when Spassky won the world championship from Tigran Petrosian, Byrne was a little-known chess-playing instructor of philosophy at Indiana University, hardly the training ground for a man now trying to block a former world champion's attempt to come back. But, at least in their first two games, Byrne seemed at the point of doing something of the sort. And each day the shock became evident in Spassky's drawn features.

Yet the surprise did not seem to diminish the resourcefulness Spassky revealed against Byrne's unexpectedly aggressive attacks. The result was superior chess through the week, tense games that lost none of their excitement because Spassky's ultimate victory loomed as an almost foregone conclusion. Among the world's top masters, Spassky is considered the most versatile, with a many-sided style that he can adapt at will to the character of his opponent's play. He can be cautiously defensive against a master of defense like Petrosian, or inventive and daring against an imaginative genius like Mikhail Tal, always with as many different kinds of counterplay at his command as there are opponents to use them against. That sort of range makes him dangerous against everybody, but it leaves his own essential character a mystery. He is like a many-faceted mirror reflecting the distorted images of other players.

It may have taken the apparition of a possible Byrne victory to bring Spassky out of his thicket of acquired styles. The first game was a draw, though Byrne appeared for a time to have better chances. The second was a prolonged ordeal in which an apparently defeated Byrne came back to force a draw on a chastened Spassky. The third was an unequivocal Spassky victory, achieved with a queen sacrifice that exploded into 34 moves of unbroken hazard before Byrne resigned. In another week of comparable play, Spassky could be expected to eliminate Byrne. And if that happens, it would be a convincing demonstration that the real Spassky is a better chess player than anybody, including Spassky, expected him to be.

Robert Byrne is 45, a tall, balding bespectacled scholar and chess commentator who abandoned a promising academic career three years ago to devote himself to chess. He is one player whose style Spassky cannot duplicate. Nobody can. Possibly no chess player since the philosopher Henry Thomas Buckle has had as much training in formal logic as Byrne. He began playing seriously in high school in Brooklyn, attracted by the intellectual and artistic challenge of the game—"The kind of feeling you get proving a theorem," he says, "an abstract, esthetic thing." Byrne graduated from Yale, married a girl from Vassar, fathered two children, and was a teaching fellow at Indiana while he worked on his doctoral dissertation. He and his brother Donald, now an English professor at Penn State, were regular contenders for the U.S. championship, both members of the U.S. Olympic team, and both Open champions at various times.

At Yale, Byrne's philosophy mentor had been Paul Weiss, a dynamic professor and the author of (among other works) Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Byrne's subject for his doctorate was the ontology of Paul Weiss, which may give you an idea of how likely it was to become a best seller. "Why Robert never completed his dissertation is a mystery," his former wife (they were divorced in 1970 and he has since remarried) said the other day. "It is true that chess interfered with the writing of his thesis. But I believe his grades were all A's except for the incompletes he got for not finishing the dissertation."

"Byrne was interested in the speculative side of metaphysics," says Professor Newton Stallknecht, a former colleague, "and in the metaphysical side of Whitehead's philosophy and its relation to the history of Western thought." Byrne taught courses in the history of philosophy and, briefly, a course in logic at Butler University. He commanded the admiration of his colleagues, one of whom recalls "the intelligence and organizing ability he showed in setting up his sections."

Except for one three-year period when he gave up chess entirely, he was known in academic circles as the best chess player among professors, and in chess circles as the best philosopher among chess players. "It was a stupid move to give chess up," Byrne said. "I could have fitted it in. It took me another three years to round into form again."

The other player whose style Spassky cannot make his own is, of course, Bobby Fischer. Under the rules of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Fischer must defend his title next year or forfeit it to the winner of the current elimination series. Besides Spassky and Byrne, six grandmasters are still in contention: Viktor Korchnoi and Henrique Mecking are meeting in Augusta, Ga.; Tigran Petrosian and Lajos Portisch on the island of Majorca off Spain; and Anatoly Karpov and Lev Polugayevsky in Moscow—five Russians, a Brazilian, a Hungarian and an American. The four winners of these matches will play a semifinal round in April, and the two survivors will meet in September. In the past, the winner of one of these elimination matches was the player to score the most points—one point for a win, half a point for a draw—in a match covering a set number of games. In a 10-game match, a player with one victory and nine draws would win. Bobby Fischer's objections led to an improvement in the rules: the victor now is the first player to win three games, draws not counting unless at the end of 16 games neither player has won three; if a tie still exists then, a coin flip decides the winner.

With acute insight, chess analyst Larry Evans once wrote that Spassky was "a prisoner of his own dignity." One reason for his defeat by Fischer was psychological: Spassky, he said, was "clearly shocked and offended by Fischer's off-board antics." Shocking, also, was the official Soviet reaction to Spassky's defeat. Exactly seven friends and relatives reportedly were on hand at the airport to greet him on his chilly return to Moscow. Some of the privileges given him as the world champion were said to have been reduced by the Ministry of Sport and Culture. "He failed to display high qualities of will and morale," said Sovietsky Sport. As a further punishment he was refused permission to play in two tournaments abroad, one in San Antonio with a first prize of $1,000. As world champion, Spassky received a monthly salary of more than $500, high by Russian standards. He lost some of that—or all of it, by some accounts. In San Juan, Spassky admitted that losing the title meant financial problems. "I like to make as much money as possible," he said dryly. "I'm making less money now." The winner in the current match is to get $2,500, the loser $1,500.

"I think the measures of the Soviet bureaucrats with regard to Spassky can be described as counterproductive," said Julio Kaplan. Kaplan is a brilliant 23-year-old Puerto Rican grandmaster who won the world junior title at 17 and is acting as the official analyst of the Byrne-Spassky match. "As a result, Spassky's chess since Iceland has ranged from the desperate to the equal of his best efforts in the past." In a minor tournament in West Germany, Spassky finished in a three-way tie for first. Last March in Tallinn, in what used to be Estonia, he could do no better than a three-way tie for third. Then at the European team championships in England last summer, Spassky won the gold medal for achieving the top score of any Board One player. And last fall he won the Soviet championship, winning seven games, drawing nine and losing one. In so doing he finished well ahead of the four other Russian contenders in the current elimination rounds—Petrosian, Karpov, Korchnoi and Polugayevsky. And as the Soviet champion once again, he also reportedly returned to the payroll. Finally, there was the possibility, assuming he got by Byrne, that he might well get another chance at Fischer. "There are eight of us in the qualifying rounds," he said. "I may not win. But if I do, I'll have the right impetus and morale."

Immediately after arriving in San Juan, he was asked about his defeat by Fischer, a question he is evidently tired of. "He won on psychological grounds in addition to the actual playing," he said, and then announced that he would give no more interviews. When Byrne arrived, he too was asked about Fischer and Spassky. "Boris had some problems after his match with Bobby," Byrne said tactfully. "But he has come back brilliantly." Those matters established, the contest could begin.

The brilliance displayed in the first half of the first game was all Byrne's. Playing White he opened with P-K4 and Spassky replied with P-QB4, leading to what is known as the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defense. Ten minutes passed quietly and then, on Byrne's sixth move, he opened an attack on the king side. He traded queens on Move 13, made a risky queenside castle two moves later, and won a pawn on Move 17. To the audience in the 96-seat theater of the College, Byrne's confidence seemed no less than belligerent, the startling venture of a middle-aged professor taking a daring chance in the opportunity of a lifetime. The Colegio de Ingenieros y Arquitectos y Agrimensores, located in an almost impenetrable maze of one-way streets, was an ideal site for the drama that was unfolding—quiet and comfortable, altogether free of the noisy kibitzers and the gargoyle types who have plagued chess tournaments since Fischer made boorish-ness fashionable. There was no question of the power of Byrne's attack, or of the careful preparation that had preceded it. If there was any flaw, it seemed perhaps a little premature, without the resources to sustain it. Byrne's pawn advantage was countered by Spassky's greater mobility as Byrne tied up his pieces in defense of his extra pawn. And in the later moves Byrne's inspiration seemed to falter. His moves were still carefully composed, distilled from a wealth of chess precedents and chess history, but they lacked the freshness of his challenging start, and Spassky eventually achieved the draw.

The second game was a demonstration of "the abstract esthetic thing" Byrne finds in chess. With the White pieces Spassky opened P-K4, and the Sicilian Defense, Najdorf variation, almost duplicated the pattern of the first game, except that Spassky played with none of the extravagance of Byrne's attack. His moves were patient and calculated, amounting to a lesson on how Spassky felt Byrne should have played when he had the White pieces.

The game was also characterized by a kind of structured tension, something beautifully machined and engineered, so that the slightest pressure at any point on the board seemed to affect the entire edifice. At 8:05 p.m., after four hours and 35 minutes of play, on his 38th move, Byrne made what the assembled experts called his worst blunder, a pawn move that Spassky took immediate advantage of with a kingside attack. Every expert concluded that Byrne's game was as good as lost when adjournment came two moves later. Their opinions varied only in degree—"A very bad position," said one. "Clearly favorable to Spassky," said Julio Kaplan. "Hopeless for Byrne," said a third expert.

But hopeless it was not. After 32 more moves the next day, Spassky proposed a draw and made his exit out a side door. There was a standing ovation of sorts for Byrne—96 people are not much of a cheering section—for what the San Juan Star called "turning a psychological loss into a draw." "It is unfortunate that Byrne met Spassky in the first round," said Dr. Max Euwe of FIDE. Indeed, Byrne might have been able to handle some of the other grandmasters.

Next day Spassky came back for the third game with the mask off and the absolute need to win as present as a specter by his side. He had stopped smoking (his last cigarette was on Move 60 of the adjourned game the day before) and he was restless. At 4:12, beginning a breakthrough on his 16th move, he ate a candy bar. Waiting for Byrne to answer, he paced back and forth in front of the stage. At 4:17 he sat on the sofa at one side of the playing area, looking forlorn, rising after a moment and crossing the room to sit on a straight chair by the judge's table. Thereafter he resumed his pacing periodically, at 5:19, 5:27, 5:37, 5:45, 5:48, 5:57. Byrne, who was smoking almost continuously, took no more exercise between his moves than that required to take off his glasses and polish them. At 6:12, on his 22nd move, Spassky sacrificed his queen for two bishops and two pawns, and ended up with an overwhelming position. He paced very little after that, but sat mainly with his elbows on the table and his head cradled in his hands. With an advantage in position and material, Spassky made a long series of neutral moves and meaningless checks in order to arrive at the 40th move and adjourn the game. When he reached it he stopped his clock before he sealed his move, a rule-book error beginners frequently make. The gaffe started a brief hassle, the only one of the match. Nothing could have been further from the rancorous atmosphere of the games with Fischer in Iceland.

The resumption next afternoon took only 16 moves before Byrne resigned. The San Juan Star afterward explained the applause that followed as a tribute to the players for their stubbornness in transforming defeats into draws or for holding on in the face of defeat. But it was rather a tribute to the drama of an urbane and cultivated scholar, enjoying a belated time with a game he loves, matched against a veteran professional playing as if his life depended on it.


Robert Byrne sifts a problem in his room.


With no Fischeresque histrionics, Byrne and Spassky quietly start Game One of their match.


Spassky was on the courts between games.