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Anatoly Karpov

Bobby Fischer at the Leipzig chess olympiad, 1960 <em>Picture: Bundesarchiv Bild</em>

Bobby Fischer at the Leipzig chess olympiad, 1960 Picture: Bundesarchiv Bild

By Craig Pritchett

Bobby Fischer Against the World charts the late American chess grandmaster’s rise to international celebrity, his 1972 defeat of Boris Spassky which broke the Soviet stranglehold on the world chess championship, and his sadly precipitous downfall.

Based on a compilation of news clips covering all the major public moments in Fischer’s life going back to the 1950s, this compelling film documentary – directed by Liz Garbus – provides a unique record that handles the often harrowing subject matter just about as objectively as possible. Given, that is, Fischer’s complex personality, his tendency towards reclusiveness and the all too obvious struggle with debilitating personal demons.

For much of his later life, Fischer’s public persona betrayed a near-broken mind that seemed increasingly to be teetering on the brink of total breakdown.

The film draws heavily on the calm and measured testimony of several key figures in Fischer’s life, to tease out these more hidden vulnerabilities. Of course, the later Fischer’s horrific anti-semitic and anti-US rants were unquestionably abhorrent – but they didn’t fundamentally define the man. To those who knew him or who had followed his chess career closely over the years, Fischer (1943–2008) was, for much of his life and particularly in his later decades, profoundly ill at ease with himself and distinctly troubled.

Whether, how far and from what precise time in his life Fischer may have suffered from actual (even serious) mental illness, I will leave others to discuss. But certainly by the early 1990s, most Fischer-observers feared for his ability to cope as well as most of us “normally” can with the mundane challenges of day-to-day existence. By that stage, largely estranged from his earlier and much fuller life in chess, Fischer’s behaviour seemed to have become alarmingly erratic, frighteningly self-obsessed and increasingly self-deluding.

Although the film doesn’t overly dwell on this, 1992 may have marked a particularly significant psychological turning-point for the erstwhile American world champion. In that year, following Fischer’s self-styled world championship “revenge match” with Spassky – held in civil-war-torn Yugoslavia – the US state department controversially indicted him for indulging in “banned” economic activity in what it termed an “enemy” country. For Fischer, whose ever-fragile psyche seemed to be at one of its shakiest points, this unexpected blow must have been absolutely crushing.

As a result of the indictment, Fischer suffered effective exile from the US and a heavy-handed witch-hunt for the remainder of his life. Yet the charge itself was based on highly challengeable legality. No other US citizen was ever indicted for the same “offence”. No other country either recognised the “crime” or even dreamt of punishing their own nationals who were connected “economically” with the 1992 rematch (which Fischer won by ten wins to five, with 15 draws). Many others from all over Europe benefited financially from the match – including, notably, Spassky.

It was a truly bitter irony. Fischer had many flaws, but he was no law-breaking gangster. Although one can’t blame Uncle Sam for all of Fischer’s subsequent difficulties, it is tempting to wonder whether only the US could have acted against one of its most famous citizens with a sense of such high moral outrage. In 1972, having defeated Spassky first time round in the famous “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik, Fischer had been lionised by the same US state as its foremost representative of the “Free World” against the Soviet “Cold War” enemy.

In 2005, Fischer found sanctuary in Iceland, which recognised that the 1972 match in Reykjavik had put that small country on the map and now decided to help him. Iceland made no comment on his local spat with the US. Neither did Iceland (nor Japan, earlier) consider that Fischer’s alleged crime merited his being extradited to the US under either their own or international law. Iceland’s compassionate step at least allowed Fischer to live out his last few years in comparative peace and safety.

Flashback to 1975, another major turning point. In the film, US chess grandmaster Larry Evans reveals that he had already developed a sense of impending doom about Fischer’s future by the early 1970s. By 1975, many – myself included – shared that view, after Fischer sensationally “resigned” his world title. He flatly refused to play against the challenger, Anatoly Karpov, under the auspices of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). There were no truly rational grounds for Fischer to have taken this step. It was a painfully pointless gesture.

Ostensibly, Fischer took umbrage at a decision made at a special general meeting of FIDE, in March 1975, not to accept one of his two “non-negotiable” demands to play the match against Karpov. FIDE met his main demand – that the winner should be the first to score ten wins, without limit to the number of games. They baulked at accepting his second demand – that the champion should retain the title in the event of a 9–9 tie, which would have meant Karpov having to win by at least 10–8 to become champion (whereas Fischer only needed to reach nine wins).

I was present as the Scottish delegate at the 1975 FIDE meeting and can confirm that there was no real doubt in the minds of any of the delegates that a likely outcome of voting against this second demand would be that Fischer might never play again. It was, however, hard to vote for Fischer on his second demand when the Soviets quoted Fischer’s own words against him.

Following a forfeit in the second game of the 1972 Reykjavik match (for which he had not turned up), Fischer had written to Spassky requesting him not to accept the “free” point, as it would mean that he needed 12 points to win to Spassky’s 11, thereby creating the same uneven playing-field as he was to demand against Karpov three years later.

But logic didn’t really come into this at all. Even the American delegation didn’t really believe in the “rightness” of Fischer’s second demand. Privately, they confided what everyone knew anyway: that you simply had to give in to Fischer or he would walk.

In walking away from Karpov (against whom he might well have won in 1975), Fischer not only turned down a guaranteed $5m prize fund – an extraordinary sum at the time – for a match to be held in the Philippines, but he also effectively abandoned a game at which he excelled and which had also nurtured him.

Were there even earlier significant turning points in his life that might have predisposed Fischer to tragic breakdown? It is sad that we even think about his life in this way, but its eventual course impels it. The jury, however, is out on this one and too much depends on speculation. Fischer may have been shy as a youngster and he certainly acted a little strangely at times through the 1960s – but he kept coming back to chess, seemed on the whole to enjoy playing the game and incontrovertibly remained a world-beater.

The film relays the familiar early Fischer “story”: he was brought up in an intense one-parent family that struggled a bit financially but did not seem uncaring; his biological father was (apparently) unknown to him until age nine; he achieved spectacular national and international chess success in his very early teens, dropping out of school to play the game solely; his passionate, driven, intellectually gifted mother walked out of the family apartment leaving him (aged 16) and his older sister to look after themselves after a huge flare-up… And so on. But does any of this really prove anything?

The film omits testimony from some who might have thrown more light on the man. Fischer’s closest chess colleagues, Evans and Tony Saidy, along with the Glasgow-born photographer Harry Benson, knew him well and often went out of their way to be truly supportive. In the film they all sing persuasively from much the same sad hymnsheet. Fischer was often clearly difficult but more often his own worst enemy. Defensive, fiercely independent, petulant, impulsive, naïve and unworldly – but not deliberately unkind to anyone – he resisted even minor intrusions on his privacy, deep friendships and offers of help.

Surprisingly, we don’t hear from Miyoko Watai, who Fischer married late in life while in his Japanese exile. Watai may, of course, have declined to take part, but she appears in the background of some clips and the opportunity must have existed. Something, too, might have been said about the role of the late Ed Edmondson (colonel USAF, retd.), without whom Fischer might never have got into and completed the 1969–71 world championship qualification series and who seemed to me, at the time, to have been a friend as well as an essentially selfless and devoted “servant” to Fischer’s cause.

But more than anything else, I would have liked much more penetration into Fischer’s lengthy relationship with the Christian fundamentalist, Pasadena-based, Worldwide Church of God (now known as Grace Communion International in the US). Fischer had been influenced by the views of this somewhat secretive sect from the mid-1960s. Although some facts are sketchy, after his 1972 triumph Fischer seems to have fairly quickly become a “co-worker”, paid a third of his Reykjavik prize money over to the church, obtained a tied apartment and a minder and become much more worryingly in thrall to an organisation that proscribed all board games.

Fischer broke from the church in 1977 with considerable acrimony. How did all this prey on his mind?

It is a peculiar coincidence that the only two de facto world chess champions who retired from chess at the height of their fame and subsequently suffered from long-term withdrawal into themselves and patent mental decline were both American. Paul Morphy (1837–84) conquered the Old World in 1858–59 but thereafter refused to come back seriously to the chess board. He was first clearly diagnosed with delusional issues in 1875, precisely 100 years before Fischer walked away from Karpov.

Why America? Might this be the theme for the film’s sequel?

Bobby Fischer Against the World will be available on DVD from 12 September.

Craig Pritchett is an international master and a former Scottish chess champion.

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<em>Picture: Nestor Galina</em>

Picture: Nestor Galina

As the Commonwealth Games begin amid much-publicised concerns over venues and facilities, so another large international event has just closed with pre-tournament fears of organisational chaos largely allayed.

The 39th Chess Olympiad ended on Sunday, a huge fortnight-long contest held in the Russian oil-boom town of Khanty-Mansiysk. As the name suggests, the Olympiad is effectively the game’s Olympics, held biennially with both open (but male-dominated) and women-only tournaments – see Scotland’s results here.

Not every team was overjoyed at the prospect of travelling to western Siberia to play their Semi-Slav Defences and Sozin Attacks, and there were pre-event concerns about overpriced rooms, unhelpful flight times and tricky visa arrangements.

These concerns in turn related to the election for president of FIDE – the chess governing body – which was held during the event. The lead-up to this had seen a bitter contest between the incumbent, Kirsan Ilyumznhinov (a multi-millionaire businessman and president of the Russian Federation republic of Kalmykia), and former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, a Russian widely seen as the modernising reformist candidate.

While there were no Delhi-types doubts about the readiness of the Khanty-Mansiysk venue, suspicions grew that countries (including Scotland and England) known to be supporting the Karpov ticket might encounter hassle once they arrived at the FIDE-organised tournament.

Ilyumznhinov duly won the presidential vote, defeating Karpov 95–55 amid accusations of ballot-rigging and general dubious dealings. The fears over Olympiad logistics were largely dissipated, however. “Local organisers and volunteers are all friendly and eager to help,” said one member of the Scottish squad, who asked to remain anonymous. “The dodgy characters are all at a different, higher level.”

As to the actual chess, both the open and women’s events used what is known in chess circles as the Swiss system – teams played other teams with the same or similar score over the 11 rounds. A win brought a stronger next opponent, a loss brought a weaker one. Scotland, being mid-table, suffered an almost inevitable yo-yo effect.

For both events, teams comprised four players per match, chosen from a squad of five. Scotland entered both categories, as did England, Wales and Ireland, while Jersey and Guernsey competed in the Open. The Olympiad is similar to the Commonwealth Games and to international football in that there is no pan-UK or GB team.

Scotland were seeded 63rd out of 149 teams in the open section, and ended in 83rd place on tiebreak but actually in a huge 21-team tie for 64th place – along with a guddle of teams including Germany, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Libya and the Faeroe Islands.

In the women’s event, Scotland were the 68th seeds out of 115 and finished 65th on tiebreak, but in a 16-place tie for 49th place purely on “match points” (two for a match win, one for a draw). Oddly, both Scottish teams ended with exactly the same score: 11 match points, and 20½ game points or individual board results.

The placing in the open was no disgrace – especially in the absence of two strong Scottish grandmasters, Jonathan Rowson and Paul Motwani – while the women’s result was a definite success. Neither squad was ever going to come anywhere near winning their event – historically this has been the preserve of the USSR and its subsequent fragmented parts.

The open was won by Ukraine, who beat Scotland 4–0 in the second round – the Scots paying the price for having hammered Burundi by the same scoreline in round one. Russia won all 11 of its matches in the women’s event.

As well as the win against Burundi, the Scottish open squad beat Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Costa Rica (revenge of sorts for the 1990 football world cup) and, in the last round, Iraq. There was a drawn match against the Philippines (including a fine top-board draw by Dundee’s Colin McNab against one of the rising stars of chess, 16-year-old Wesley So), and defeats to Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Moldova and Bosnia/Herzegovina in addition to the gubbing by Ukraine.

The women’s team beat Tunisia, Kenya, Chinese Taipei, the Dominican Republic and Wales, drew with Montenegro in the last round, and lost to Hungary, Greece, Mexico, Kazakhstan and Moldova.

As for the neighbours to the south, England were the 12th seeds in the open but could only finish in a ten-way tie for 20th despite fielding their two strongest grandmasters in Mickey Adams and Nigel Short. The English women were 39th seeds and finished in a nine-way tie for 15th.

The Scottish and English results suggest that women’s chess is on the rise in the UK – although the Welsh women’s team performed below expectation, seeded 70th but finishing in a nine-way tie for 91st.

There were some excellent individual performances in the Scottish squads, both of which were captained by Alan Minnican, himself a strong player with the Wandering Dragons club in Edinburgh. (Minnican posted blog-style reports from the event on the Chess Scotland website.)

The open fivesome comprised grandmasters Colin McNab of the Dundee Victoria club, Keti Arakhamia-Grant of Edinburgh West and John Shaw of Kilmarnock, along with international master (the next title down from grandmaster) Stephen Burns-Mannion of Hamilton and English-based FIDE master Graham Morrison.

McNab, Shaw and Morrison each scored 50% overall (McNab’s victory against Burundi being his 50th career Olympiad win in his 15th event dating back to 1980), while Arakhamia-Grant racked up an impressive 55% comprising three wins, five draws and two defeats. Only Burns-Mannion really struggled for form, scoring 25% over eight games.

For the women, Heather Lang, formerly of Stirling, scored 45% on top board, while Elaine Rutherford of Edinburgh scored an excellent 55% including five wins. Rosie Giulian of Giffnock found it hard on board three, managing just one win and three draws in ten games, while Siegrun Macgilchrist of Ayr won two of her five games on bottom board. Star of the show however was Joy Durno of Newmachar, whose four wins and two draws from nine games duly qualified her for the women’s FIDE master title (which Rutherford had also earned some years ago).

Fatigue and ill-health were issues – the source within the squad noted that “dodgy stomachs and heavy colds are the Olympiad norm”, but also that the weather was “cool and damp but not as Siberian as it might have been”. The next events on the domestic chess circuit – the Dundee weekend congress in mid-October, followed by the first round of the Scottish national league in Dunfermline at the end of the month – might well feel somewhat mundane by contrast.

The game perennially struggles for both cash and coverage, but there is an argument to be made that Scottish chess has outperformed numerous other sports and pastimes (including football) over the past decade or so, with a series of solid Olympiad performances, four consecutive British Championship wins and the gradual emergence of a new wave of strong junior talent.

Planning will already be underway for the next Olympiad – scheduled for Istanbul in 2012 – and Scotland can take heart from their endeavours in Khanty-Mansiysk.

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<em>Picture: Hamilcar South</em>

Picture: Hamilcar South

In the wake of the 11-hour, 183-game Wimbledon encounter between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, here are four other sporting encounters that took a while to finish.

Timeless Tests

Long before the invention of Twenty20 cricket, there was the complete opposite – the “Timeless Test”. The idea was that if a series was undecided coming into the last match, it would be played to a conclusion.

Two notorious matches put paid to this. The final test of the 1929–30 series between West Indies and England, played in Kingston, Jamaica, from 3–12 April 1930, was agreed drawn after nine days of play (the Sunday was an allocated rest day), when the last two days had been lost to rain.

The Windies (as they decidedly weren’t called at the time) had reached 408 for 5 in pursuit of 836, after the England captain – the Honorable Frederick Somerset Gough Calthorpe – declined to enforce the follow-on despite being 563 ahead on first innings.

Even that match, however, was overshadowed by the last test of the 1938–39 MCC tour of South Africa, played at Durban, 3–14 March 1939 (there were two Sunday rest days). The home side scored 530 and 481, against 316, such that England started their run chase late on the sixth day needing 696.

Despite the loss of occasional wickets and the whole of the eighth day to rain, Paul Gibb scored 120, Wally Hammond 140 and Eddie Paynter 75 – but the pace of proceedings can be seen in that these three hit only 14 boundaries between them.
Bill Edrich was more sprightly, scoring 219 with 25 fours, and the match was in the balance when more rain arrived on day ten. England needed 42, the South Africans needed five more wickets – it was anyone’s game.

The tourists had a boat to catch, however – and there has never been another Timeless Test.

Airdrieonians v Stranraer, Scottish Cup, 1963

Not so much a match that wouldn’t end, more one that proved difficult to get started. It was a severe winter, and 12 January, the original date for the first-round tie, slipped by – as did 32 subsequent arrangements. There were 11 attempts to play in January, 17 in February, and five in March, before the Monklands team won 3–0.

Other saga-length football fixtures include Inverness Thistle versus Falkirk in the second round of the Scottish Cup in 1979, which needed 28 attempts before Falkirk won 4–0. That same winter saw the third-round FA Cup tie between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal – this survived the weather but needed four replays, after successive matches ended 1–1 (twice), 2–2, 3–3 and finally 2–0 to Arsenal.

That the Gunners went on to lift the trophy might offer some encouragement for the weary John Isner at Wimbledon.

Anatoly Karpov versus Garry Kasparov, world chess championship, 1984–85

Karpov was the reigning champion, having held the title since Bobby Fischer declined to defend in 1975. Kasparov was the coming man, and the match was played in Moscow, with a tennis-like system whereby the first to win six games would take the title. The problem, however, was that draws were deemed not to count – and there can be a lot of draws in chess.

Karpov began strongly, winning games 3, 6, 7 and 9. There was then a sequence of 17 draws, before Karpov won again. It now seemed a formality – but Kasparov began what Raymond Keene, in The Moscow Challenge: Karpov–Kasparov, described (with a little hyperbole) as “almost certainly, the most impressive rearguard action of any sportsman in any discipline in the history of recorded sport”.

After four more draws, Kasparov won his first game. Another 14 draws followed, then – with the frail Karpov struggling – the younger, fitter challenger won two in a row.

With the score now 5–3, both men professed a keenness to continue, but Florencio Campomanes, president of the governing body, intervened and abandoned the match. The whole thing had lasted just under five months, and there has never been another open-ended contest.

The two Ks played a best-of-24 rematch in the autumn of 1985, with Kasparov taking the title 13–11.

Tom Reece and the record billiards break

Reece (1873–1953) was a Welsh billiards professional, who played Joe Chapman in the summer of 1907 at the Burroughes and Watts hall in London’s Soho. The intention was to set a new record for the highest break, and the match was played to 500,000 points.

After the opening exchanges, Reece started a break that was to occupy him for almost five weeks. By the time the match was won, the break had reached 499,135.

Much use was made of the cradle cannon – where the two object balls are nudged and nurdled in a corner near-endlessly. With the game effectively having been “solved” by Reece, the cradle cannon was soon restricted and subsequently outlawed. (Reece had accumulated 249,552 cradle cannons during his break, scoring two points each time.)

The great puzzle about all this, however, is what Chapman did while Reece was racking up the points. Did he sit in his chair and snooze, read the paper, have the occasional fag, go down to the bookies?

Seemingly he played and won a lot of games of “Indian pool”. Never can any sportsman have been reduced to quite such a passive role – whereas Nicolas Mahut, with his 103 aces and 91 game-wins, undoubtedly played a full part in recent events at Wimbledon.

Vishwanathan Anand. <em>Picture: Stefan64</em>

Vishwanathan Anand. Picture: Stefan64

In a curious coincidence, 11 May 2010 was decision day in not just one great leadership battle, but two. Just a couple of hours before rumours of a Conservative–Lib Dem coalition government coalesced into hard political reality, the final moves of another lengthy period of uncertainty were played out – and an Indian named Viswanathan Anand was confirmed as world chess champion.

Unlike the change of power in Downing Street, the chess championship – held in Sofia, Bulgaria – saw the status quo maintained. Chess – like boxing, like darts, indeed like politics – has been riven with splits and factions in recent years, but Vishy Anand, as he is known, has held the undisputed world crown since 2007.

Anand is the fifteenth world champion since the sequence began with the Bohemian-born Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886. There have been 24 British prime ministers in the same timespan, and the rate of succession is such that the Chennai-born grandmaster is only the fourth champion since the late Bobby Fischer declined to defend in 1975.

From late April, after a start delayed by volcanic ash, Anand had been battling with the Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov. Anand was the slight pre-match favourite, but there was never much to choose between the two men. Chess blogger Mig Greengard highlighted the difficulty of picking a winner with his comment: “Anand better, Topalov tougher”.

The match was scheduled for 12 games. Each player had the white pieces – and the slight advantage of moving first – six times. High-level chess has a reputation for producing a large proportion of drawn games, often dull in nature as the players decline to take risks. The 1984 world championship match, between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, saw 17 consecutive draws.

In an effort to counter this, recent matches have become shorter, sharper affairs. The rules for Anand versus Topalov were that if the score reached 6–6, there would then have been four games played at a much faster time control. Had these failed to split the players, there would have been a pair of ultra-fast “blitz” games. Then, finally, an “Armageddon” game, again at a very fast pace but with the white player having an extra minute. The catch was that white had to win: in Armageddon chess a draw is good enough for black to prevail.

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. Lovers of the stately time limits of “classical” chess, where a single game can last upwards of six hours, were relieved that none of the knockabout tiebreakers was needed.

The match got off to a thrilling start, with Anand forgetting his opening preparation in game 1 and playing a move out of sequence. He was duly demolished by a piece sacrifice from Topalov, one of the world’s great attacking players. Undaunted, the Indian won game 2 courtesy of some elegant positional play, and also game 4, after Topalov himself allowed a sacrificial attack.

The next three games were drawn, before an extraordinary 56-move encounter in game 8. Topalov reached the endgame a pawn ahead, but the players had “opposite coloured bishops”, one operating on the light squares, the other on the dark. Such endings can be impossible to win, and Anand had all but steered the game towards a draw when he put his bishop on a bad square. Suddenly the position was indefensible, and he resigned two moves later.

The match was again level, with four games to play. Three draws followed, including the fraught game 9 when Anand missed several opportunities. Thus the twelfth and final full-length game arrived, with everything to play for – and everything to lose.

Anand – with the black pieces – sprang a surprise by opting for one of the oldest of opening systems, the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Play continued cagily, before Topalov succumbed to temptation. His 32nd move, a pawn capture on the e4 square, will go down as one of the great miscalculations in world championship history.

The champion began an overwhelming attack. He unnerved his fans by missing a couple of routes to victory, before eventually steering things into a near-trivial endgame. And so, according to one spectator who posted a comment on Greengard’s blog, Topalov “closed his eyes with his finger and thumb at the bridge of his nose, and then resigned.”

Whether Topalov will get a second chance remains to be seen. This defeat could prove to be the closest he ever comes to the title, and he now has to return to the lengthy qualification process, where there is no shortage of ambitious and talented rivals.

Change is surely coming, though. Anand’s victory further confirms his status as one of the most accomplished players the game has seen, but he is aged 40. This might be three years younger than the new prime minister David Cameron (himself the youngest in that role since the Earl of Liverpool in 1812), but it is regarded as old for top-class chess.

Many observers believe it is only a matter of time before Norwegian Magnus Carlsen claims the world title. Carlsen currently tops the official chess ratings, – and is aged only 19. For now, though, Vishy Anand can relax and enjoy the spoils – which is where, perhaps, the comparison with Westminster politics breaks down.