Bobby Fischer was a model of sanity and realism — at the chessboard

Bobby Fischer was a model of sanity and realism -- at the chessboard

Incredibly for those of us who were first drawn to the game by the excitement and spectacle of the time, this year marks the 50th anniversary — a full half-century — of Bobby Fischer’s epic run to the world chess title, culminating in the on- and off-board drama of Bobby’s defeat of star-crossed Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Even with the long, sad epilogue of Fischer’s post-match career, there has been nothing before or since to match the spectacle and the excitement it brought to the American chess scene. We’ve been trying in this space to get a little ahead of the flood of commemorations and reminiscences likely to come later this year (Fischer clinched the title when Spassky resigned a lost adjourned endgame Sept. 1), including two games from a match that got lost in the “Bobby the Unbeatable” hype of the time.

Key to the Fischer mystique were two unprecedented 6-0 blowouts in his first two Candidates matches. Soviet GM Mark Taimanov, Fischer’s first victim, was both outclassed and under debilitating pressure from officials back home to stop the bumptious American. Taimanov played nervously and poorly and never had a chance.

The same could not be said for Fischer’s next opponent, Bent Larsen, the “Great Dane” of chess and the West’s best player for most of the 1960s before Fischer’s rise to greatness. As Jan Timman notes in his recent book “The Unstoppable American: Bobby Fischer’s Road to Reykjavik,” not a few experts at the time considered Larsen — eight years older and far more experienced than his opponent — the favorite. Despite his reputation for swagger and braggadocio, Fischer largely kept his own counsel before the match, while Larsen — who had beaten Fischer at the 1970 Palma de Mallorca Interzonal in their last tournament game — was the one who talked a little smack: “I will cause as much pressure to Fischer as I can. I’m sure that if he loses the first game, this will upset him.”

The match that ensued is perhaps the greatest illustration of the Fischer paradox — the man who would prove so tragically delusional away from the game was perhaps the greatest realist ever at the chessboard. Beyond his extraordinary technique and tactical imagination, Fischer was always true to his pieces and to the position. He never lied to himself about the state of play, his opponent’s chances, or the cleanest way to get what he could out of any position. He made mistakes, stuck stubbornly to a relatively narrow repertoire, and was less than comfortable in truly obscure and speculative positions. But if there was a clear, sound path to his goals, Fischer could get there better than anyone who ever pushed a pawn.

Game 1 proved to be a titanic struggle and the best of the match. Larsen surprised his opponent with a Winawer French as Black, but White strikes the first blow with 12. Re1 Ng6?! (trying to force the issue in the center, but White finds a fine pawn sacrifice; 12…0-0 was better) 13. Ba3! fxe5 14. dxe5 Ncxe5 15. Nxe5 Nxe5 16. Qd4!? (Timman thinks 16. Bh5+! g6 [Ng6? 17. Qxd5] 17. Qd4 was even stronger for White) 17. Qd4 Ng6 17. Bh5 Kf7 18. f4, and Larsen is already scrambling to protect his exposed king.

The Black king finds a precarious perch on f6, but White lets his opponent off the hook with 21. Bf3 (Bd6! is close to winning in lines such as 21…Qd8 [Qb6+ 22. Bc5 Qc7 23. h4 weaves a mating net] 22. Bf3 Bc6 23. Qd4+ Kf7 24. Qxc4+ Kf6 25. Qd4+ Kf7 26. Bd5+ Bxd5 27. Qxd5+ Kf6 28. Rf1, with, says Timman, “devastation.” Larsen counterpunches with 21…Ne5! 22. Qd4 Kg6! (giving up material to secure his king) 23. Rxe5 Qxe5 (Rxe5?? 24. Bd6) 24. Qxd7 Rad8 25. Qxb7 Qe3+ 26. Kf1 Rd2, and suddenly Black’s king is perfectly safe while it is White who is facing ominous mate threats.

Always cool in defense, Fischer survives the swarm around his king, reaching a wildly unbalanced position after 29. Kg1 Rxg2+ 30. Kxg2 Qd2+ 31. Kh1 Rxc6 32. Bxc6 Qxc3, when White has a rook and two bishops to Black’s queen and two extra pawns. Vast amounts of analysis have gone into this complex position, but Timman concludes Black’s losing move was 34. Bxa7 g5? (Ke6! 35. Bb6 Kd6 was mandatory to disrupt the path to coronation for White’s a-pawn, as Black survives in lines like 36. Bg2 Qxc2 37. a5 Qa4) 35. Bb6!, and White ruthlessly clears the way to a new queen. After 37. Bd8+ Ke6 (too late!) 38. a6 Qa3 39. Bb7 Qc5 40. Rb1 c3 41. Bb6, Black resigned.

Echoing many Fischer opponents before and since, Larsen would remember Game 1 as “the only game where I was not really sick.”

Game 2 is a Fischer classic of another kind, hanging tough from the Black side of a Sicilian in which his queen nearly gets trapped in the center. He fights off Larsen’s attempts to renew the attack (the dangerous-looking 28. Re3, instead of White’s 28. Rxf5, is just barely countered by 28…Rg8 29. Bxf5+ Kh6 30. Bh3 d5!, and Timman gives 31. cxd5 Bxd5 32. Re5 Rd8 33. Rxe7 Rde8 34. Rxe8 Rxe8 35. Kg1 Re1+ 36. Kf2 Ra1, and Black can hold the pawn-down ending), and pounces the very first time his opponent gives him the chance.

Thus: 36. gxf5 exf5 (see diagram; the draw is in sight after a sound move like 37. Reg1 Ra4, but not 37…Rxa3? 38. Bc4! Rxh3+ 39. Kg2 Kxg6 40. Kxh3+ Kf6 41. Bxf7 Kxf7 42. h5 and White wins) 37. Bc4? Ra4! 38. Rc1? (a dispirited Larsen makes a second mistake that throws away the game for good; 38. Bxf7 Rxh4+ 39. Kg1 Kxg5 40. Be8 had to be played, though Black keeps his winning chances alive with 40…Bc8!) Bxb5!, snagging a second pawn and leading to a won ending. White plays out the string, but after 53. Rc8 Rb1+ 54 Kh2 Kf4, mate is coming soon on h1 and Larsen resigned.

Larsen obtained — and spoiled a couple of decent positions in the ensuing four games, but found a way to lose every one. Tellingly, in his career-spanning 2014 anthology “Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane,” the Danish GM skips right over without a single mention the Debacle in Denver.


Quick hits … Young American GM Hans Moke Niemann continues to impress mightily on his first tour of the major international tournament circuit. He followed up the 2-point victory at the 55th Capablanca Memorial in Havana with a solo first in the even stronger 27th TePe Sigeman & Co. Chess tournament in Malmo, Sweden, last week, finishing ahead of such veteran stalwarts as British GM Michael Adams and Latvian-Spanish great GM Alexei Shirov. … Russian GM Yuri Averbakh, the world’s oldest grandmaster, passed away May 7 at the age of 100. He was the 1954 USSR champion and one of the greatest endgame analysts and writers in the history of the game.

Fischer-Larsen, Candidates Semifinal, Denver, July 1972

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 Ne7 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 c5 7. a4 Nbc6 8. Nf3 Bd7 9. Bd3 Qc7 10. O-O c4 11. Be2 f6 12. Re1 Ng6 13. Ba3 fxe5 14. dxe5 Ncxe5 15. Nxe5 Nxe5 16. Qd4 Ng6 17. Bh5 Kf7 18. f4 Rhe8 19. f5 exf5 20. Qxd5+ Kf6 21. Bf3 Ne5 22. Qd4 Kg6 23. Rxe5 Qxe5 24. Qxd7 Rad8 25. Qxb7 Qe3+ 26. Kf1 Rd2 27. Qc6+ Re6 28. Bc5 Rf2+ 29. Kg1 Rxg2+ 30. Kxg2 Qd2+ 31. Kh1 Rxc6 32. Bxc6 Qxc3 33. Rg1+ Kf6 34. Bxa7 g5 35. Bb6 Qxc2 36. a5 Qb2 37. Bd8+ Ke6 38. a6 Qa3 39. Bb7 Qc5 40. Rb1 c3 41. Bb6 Black resigns.

Larsen-Fischer, Candidates Semifinal, Denver, July 1972

1. c4 c5 2. Nf3 g6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. e4 Nf6 6. Nc3 d6 7. Be2 Nxd4 8. Qxd4 Bg7 9. Bg5 h6 10. Be3 O-O 11. Qd2 Kh7 12. O-O Be6 13. f4 Rc8 14. b3 Qa5 15. a3 a6 16. f5 Bd7 17. b4 Qe5 18. Rae1 Bc6 19. Bf4 Nxe4 20. Nxe4 Qxe4 21. Bd3 Qd4+ 22. Kh1 Rce8 23. Be3 Qc3 24. Bxh6 Qxd2 25. Bxd2 Be5 26. Bf4 Bxf4 27. Rxf4 gxf5 28. Rxf5 Kg7 29. Rg5+ Kh6 30. h4 e6 31. Rf1 f5 32. Re1 Rf7 33. b5 axb5 34. cxb5 Bd7 35. g4 Ra8 36. gxf5 exf5 37. Bc4 Ra4 38. Rc1 Bxb5 39. Bxf7 Rxh4+ 40. Kg2 Kxg5 41. Bd5 Ba6 42. Rd1 Ra4 43. Bf3 Rxa3 44. Rxd6 Ra2+ 45. Kg1 Kf4 46. Bg2 Rb2 47. Rd7 b6 48. Rd8 Be2 49. Bh3 Bg4 50. Bf1 Bf3 51. Rb8 Be4 52. Ba6 Ke3 53. Rc8 Rb1+ 54. Kh2 Kf4 White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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