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Friday, January 22, 2016

Bobby Fischer, the Curt Flood of Chess

    Originally this post was going to be solely about Booby's exploits at the Interzonal of 1970, but I got to thinking about how, in some ways, he was like baseball's Curt Flood.
     Curt Flood (January 18, 1938 – January 20, 1997) was a Major League baseball center fielder who spent 15 seasons in the major leagues playing for the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, and Washington Senators. Flood was an All-Star, Gold Glove winner and batted over .300 seven seasons. At various times he led the National League in hits, singles, putouts as center fielder, in fielding percentage and he retired with the third most games in center field in NL history. 
     Flood became one of the pivotal figures in baseball history when he refused to accept a trade following the 1969 season, ultimately appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although his legal challenge was unsuccessful, it brought about additional solidarity among players as they fought against baseball's reserve clause and sought free agency. He believed that Major League Baseball's decades-old reserve clause was unfair in that it kept players beholden for life to the team with which they originally signed, even when they had satisfied the terms and conditions of their contracts.
     It cost Flood his baseball career. And, although by all accounts, Flood was, unlike Fischer, a genuinely nice guy, he ended up sacrificing his career, but his sacrifice made it possible for future professional athletes to make the kind of money they make today and the right to peddle their talents to whomever is willing to pay for them. Prior to Flood, the owner's kept almost all the money they raked in and lorded it over the players. Fischer was a snot, but his personality and unending demands made chess popular and paved the way for multi-million dollar prizes so that today good players can actually make a living playing chess.
     Everybody familiar with Bobby Fischer is aware of his phenomenal success on his way to his world championship victory over Spassky when he mowed down Mark Taimanov in Vancouver by a score of 6-0, then Bent Larsen in Denver by the same score, and, finally former World Champion Tigran Petrosian in Buenos Aires by a score of 6.5-2.5 before going on to defeat Spassky. What may be less remembered was his huge success that got him there...the Interzonal at Palma de Mallorca in 1970. 
     The 1969 U.S. Championship was a zonal qualifier with the top three finishers advancing to the Interzonal. For 13 years the tournament had come to be a matter of would Fischer even play and if he did, how large would his winning margin be? Before the 1969 championship Fischer wrote a letter to the USCF president Ed Edmondson in which he accused Edmondson of lying about the previous championship. In 1968 Fischer had voiced his opinion that the championship should be 22 rounds just like it was in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Rumania and other East European countries. If this wasn't changed, Fischer vowed he would never again play in another U.S. championship. His reason was that 12 rounds was "too chancy." 
     By passing up this tournament Fischer would not be able to qualify for the 1970-72 cycle and would have to wait until 1975. Fischer implied that the bureaucrats were denying the country a world champion. By the way, this was the last championship where Fischer's participation was even considered. But, Pal Benko, one of the three qualifiers, agreed to give up his spot in the Interzonal in order to give Fischer a shot at the World Championship. In order for that to happen FIDE and the other players in the U.S. Zonal (Championship) had to agree. Some reports said it was Edmondson's idea, but Benko insisted it was his because he felt Fischer had a realistic chance at the title. In any case, Edmondson convinced FIDE to allow Fischer to play and Benko received a reward of $2000 which equals about $12000 today. 
     After all that, an ungrateful Fischer still threatened not to play in the Interzonal because he didn't think the money was enough.  What were the offers? 

Interzonal - $4000 
Candidate's Match Quarter Final - $3000 
Candidate's Match Semi Final - $3000 
Candidate's Match Final - $4000 
World Championship Match - $5000 
That's a total of $19000 which amounts to about $116000 in today's currency. 

     This was in addition to any prize money he collected. In addition Edmondson also guaranteed Fischer's pocket money would be twice what the other guys got, he would be put up in the most luxurious hotels and the conditions at every stage would meet Fischer's standards.  Finally, Fischer agreed. Fischer's demands also included glare-free fluorescent lighting and a schedule that accommodated is religious practice at the time of observing a sundown Friday to sundown Saturday Sabbath. 
     All this was enough to tick off Bent Larsen who declared that many players had decided that this was to be the last time Fischer got such special treatment...”What he wants, he gets, but no more!” 
     Fischer won the Interzonal with a score of 18.5 of 23, three and a half points ahead of the 21-year old sensation Robert Huebner of West Germany, Bent Larsen and Yefim Geller. Huebner entered the tournament as a “lowly” International Master and so his success was a huge surprise. 
    Players who might have expected to qualify in this event were guys like Lajos Portisch and Vasily Smyslov who tied for places 7-8. Gligorich and Polugayevsky (places 9-10), Vastimil Hort (13th) Mecking (11-12 with Panno) and, possibly, Reshevsky who finished in 17th place. Fischer lost only one game, to Larsen, and won his last seven games!
     Fischer's streak also included one incident involving Oscar Panno who was scheduled to play Black against Fischer, but Panno refused to play. The games of the last round were scheduled for 4:00pm Saturday, but Fischer and Reshevsky were allowed to start at 7:00pm for religious reasons. Panno felt this was unfair in the last round because some players might have an advantage from knowing the results of earlier games. Panno himself was the only player who could have benefited from that information, but no matter...he refused to play even after Fischer urged him. Fischer played 1.c4 and when Panno wasn't there he hunted Panno down who showed up at the board and resigned. IF Panno had played and IF he had won, he would have tied Portisch and Smyslov for a chance at a playoff spot. Read the article in the Sun-Sentinel.
     Fischer's score might have been even better were it not for draws against the tailender Eleazar Jimenez and Renato Naranja and Tudev Uitumen who tied for places 20-22 with Miroslav Filip. You can read excerpts, including tidbits on this tournament in the great book Bobby Fischer Goes to War HERE.


  1. That is the first that I have read about Fischer's proposal for a 22 round US championship. I presume that he wanted a double round-robin format. This would never have happened

    a) the other players were used to getting belted once by Fischer in the US championship - twice in the same tournament would have been too much!

    b) there would be no way that the USCF would be able to financially support and/or organise such a large tournament - trying to find avenue for approximately a month (there would need to be rest days in between rounds) would have been impossible.

  2. For a copy of Fischer's letters and more details see: http://graeme.50webs.com/chesschamps/us/1969.htm