Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Fiction Winners

Boris Spassky's Last Gambit

Fiction - First Place

Emily Flake

Fiction & Poetry Contest 2003

Master Documents The Unprocessed Words of the 2003 Fiction and Poetry Contest Winners

Boris Spassky's Last Gambit Fiction - First Place | By Damian L. Halstad

Maryland Functional Writing Test Fiction - Second Place | By Martha Shane

Tapioca Fiction - Third Place | By Betsy Boyd

Echocardiogram Poetry - First Place | By Leslie Thierman

A Promise Poetry - Second Place | By Cary Fentzloff

Empty the Chamber Poetry - Third Place | By Dean John Smith

By Damian L. Halstad | Posted 7/2/2003

To begin with, I am not dead. Many people, Americans in particular, think I'm dead, as if Fischer did not merely defeat me but, thereafter, took both bishops and drove them into my ears. My granddaughter discovered a Web site called "Dead or Alive?", and I am one of the subjects. It accurately lists me as "Alive!", as evidenced by a large bright yellow grinning light bulb over my name, conclusive proof of my continued respiration.

A chessboard has 64 squares, alternating vanilla and chocolate. You must control the four center squares if you hope to win. After I won the World Championship in 1969, I ate salmon with Premier Brezhnev at the Kremlin. "What is your secret?" he asked. "Control the center," I said. "Ah," he laughed, "like politics, no?" His smile looked chopped from oak with a blunt hatchet.

I will not talk about the 1972 match. Bobby Fischer! Bobby Fischer! Bobby Fischer! That's all people want to hear about.

Chess pieces have relative value. Pawns are worth 1 point, knights 3, bishops 3.5, castles 5, queens 9. Some say the king has little or no value because of its vulnerability, but I think it more accurate to say it has infinite value, because when it is immobilized the game ends. I guess I am a monarchist.

I was born in Leningrad on Jan., 30, 1937. You may send me a card if you wish. When I was 5 my parents were transplanted in the war, and we were swept to a shelter in the Ural Mountains. Well, they were mountains 200 million years ago. Now they are nothing more than melting hills. You think mountains, you think beautiful, right? No, no, no, all industry and mining. Iron, copper, coal, lead, oil, asbestos. Very homely and morose, hard to breathe and smoky all day. But everybody in the institution played chess. It was the war, and chess is a war game, no? So it made sense. What else was there to do? I was taught by an old orderly, a survivor of the Revolution. We had no pieces. We used pebbles for pawns, bread for castles, acorns for knights, twigs for bishops, one of his black molars for the queen, and a ruble for the king.

Castle as early as possible.

I first met Bobby Fischer in 1965 at the Piatagorsky Cup tournament in Santa Monica, Calif. He was probably 20 and destroying everybody. He dressed like he was wearing an uncle's clothes: pressed white oxford and tie with a baggy olive suit coat. He was frenetic, palm massaging his chin, leg jackhammering the wood floor. Very quick, but incredibly reckless for a professional. Always with Fischer, constant attack. He would sit between matches with his head down by his knees as if he was having a brain hemorrhage. He never spoke to anyone, although he once spontaneously declared to me that he had an IQ of 180. "Goof morning, Bobby," I would say, and he would only nod. He thought I was some kind of spy. He was very lonely. When he was a boy his mother had to run a newspaper advertisement to find him friends. Imagine his solitude. I defeated him 3-0 with two draws.

The queen is your strength. If you display her too early, she will become nothing more than a soccer ball for your opponents to kick until she is captured.

I no longer play competitive chess. Today's game is too fast: time controls, quick sacrifices, dynamic compensation, poor defense. It is always harder to defend than attack. That is why computers win, because they are better defenders than human beings.

I do not miss Russia. When I was 10, I traveled to Vienna for a match. I sat on a stone bench overlooking the Danube in the benign afternoon sun and washed my face with an éclair while four men in cream dinner jackets played Schubert on violins. Everyone smiled at me. Perfect strangers would pass and smile. I had wandered out of the cave, you know, and you really can't go back in, can you?

I suppose I will talk about the 1972 match, if you wish.

I remember the first time I saw a chessboard. Its symmetry was constricting, like the grid of a city block or identical rooms in a tenement. But the freedom of movement within that field, how liberating! Each game a new adventure. People always speculate about the reasons for Soviet dominance in chess. I say that in a totalitarian state, anything that provides even a hint of freedom, however temporary, is cherished.

At 8, I could play entire games in my head while waiting for sleep.

By conventional standards, Bobby Fischer was the biggest ass I ever met. But, then, in my opinion, convention is overrated.

By 1972, we could no longer avoid each other. Our match was inevitable. Fischer had beaten everyone else, and I was World Champion, so it was the order of things. I was giving my daughter a bath, thinking of a particular pub in London, when the Federation representative came to my flat to tell me Fischer had challenged me. The next day, the Western papers declared, "USSR and U.S. to Fight for World Domination." I laughed. All the pawns I had sacrificed in my career were now exacting their revenge. "How does if feel, Boris?" they were asking.

We were scheduled to begin on July 1 in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, an apathetic and frozen city roughly equidistant to Russia and America. Fischer had not arrived in Reykjavik, however, because he was in a cabin in New York demanding the Federation double the prize money. He also wanted one-third of the gate receipts and half the film and TV revenue, and he requested the loser's share of the purse before even playing. And he was the challenger. Incredible. The Federation said they would consider it if he would just get on the plane.

We have a saying in Russia: "Monkey see check, monkey give check." Do not attack your opponent's king until you are ready to kill him.

He failed to attend the opening ceremony and choosing of colors. He said he was too tired. Then he said he was sick, though he continued to swim in the hotel pool every day. It took 10 days just to get him to play. He finally apologized by breaking into my hotel room at 4 a.m. the morning of Game 1 and leaving a handwritten letter on the night table next to my bed while I dreamt of Brigitte Bardot. The wobbly red script looked like that of a stroke victim. He asked forgiveness for the "disrespect the Chess Federation has forced me to exhibit." He finished by writing: "Remember Boris, life expands or contracts in direct proportion to our courage." He signed it, "Your friend, Bobby."

The lowly pawn is the soul of chess. He plods through life with little respect yet, given a benevolent fate and circumstance, can be elevated to any piece he chooses. Except a king. You cannot have two kings.

He was late for Game 1, and I was shocked at how erratically he played. The game began with a queen's gambit and drifted into the Nimzo-Indian Defense, a game going nowhere. I offered a draw at moves 20 and 29. Instead, he attacked my back rank and sacrificed a bishop for a pawn. Absurd. I mated him at move 32.

For me, defection was never really an option because everyone you leave behind is plundered, debased, sent to the gulag. Now, if you do something really horrendous, something that shames the Party, well, then they're glad to get rid of you. Then they throw out you, your family, your fish, everyone. Much better way to go.

He refused to play Game 2. He claimed the lights were too bright, the chessboard too shiny, the audience too close, the TV equipment too noisy. I won by forfeit. Who wants to win by forfeit? The Federation threatened to award me the entire match, which would, of course, have been disastrous to me.

A chess game has an opening, a middle, and an endgame. There are only so many ways to be born and die, but the middle game is glorious chaos.

He refused to play Game 3. Henry Kissinger, the American diplomat, intervened and told him he must play. Fischer demanded we play in a Ping-Pong room off the exhibition hall, with no audience or cameras. The room was so small and feverish that we had to open the windows, filling the game with street noise. There I sat, watching him vacillate between euphoria and desolation while I listened to children yelp, laugh, and joke in a language unknown to me.

After Game 4, Time magazine asked to take my photograph. They drove me to a sheep farm outside Reykjavik and had me sit on a rock. They took a little magnetic chessboard with only a few pieces and balanced it on top of another rock and told me to pretend I was contemplating a move. "This is stupid," I protested. "Why would I be playing chess in the middle of a field on a rock? And shouldn't I have an opponent?" Besides, with the pieces they gave me, checkmate would have been impossible, so what was there to contemplate? But you still see that picture today, me from 30 years ago, my hair still charcoal, sitting on a rock looking confused while an ominous granite-colored weather front blows in over my left shoulder.

In 21 games, he never began play on time.

At Game 8, Fischer demanded that the camera team be replaced. They decided he was crazy, sold their rights to ABC-TV for $100,000, and left Iceland.

He had large hands and long, thin fingers. He sometimes palmed his pieces, so that when he moved his knight it looked like a caged parakeet. In my opinion, his love of chess was not passion, but obsession. In the endgame, when the board is a desert and bishops and rooks roam freely, he became animated, crisp, eager for victory. One could only admire his devotion. I used to say, "Chess is like life." Fischer used to say, "Chess is life." Perhaps that was the difference between us. But only someone who is psychologically content, whose survival is protected, whose basic needs are met, can suggest that a game is life itself. Otherwise, it's delusional to say such a thing. But he made chess popular, briefly, and he made us all rich men. Did he know our fates were one? I doubt it. Did he suspect that his victory would be mine as well? Certainly not.

Do not expose your king.

He refused to play Game 10 in protest at having to share the swimming pool with others, the hotel service, the size of the chessboard, and the size of the pieces, which he first claimed were too small, then too large, then not sufficiently distinct. I must say, they looked black and white to me.

It is very easy to lose if you're subtle, as people have a strong belief in their own superiority and will overlook almost anything in furtherance of it.

When Fischer gained the lead in the match, my delegation crumbled. They claimed that Fischer was using a secret electronic device to alter my concentration. Idiots. The match was suspended when the Icelandic police inspected the hall, the stage, and dismantled light fixtures. The police unearthed only two dead flies, which I imagine had died of boredom while waiting for Fischer to show up.

In Game 11, I used a Najdorf Sicilian Defense and crushed him. This was the last victory I allowed myself.

I was drinking coffee in a Philadelphia Starbucks last year. There was a chessboard, and two little boys, maybe 7 and 3, dressed in matching cobalt rugby jerseys, had set up the pieces for a game. It was just very cute. The older one begins by moving a pawn, the little one responds with a pawn, the older one moves out his knight, and the little one puts his tiny whiffled head in his palm and says, "Ugh. I must concede." Just so cute. That's how players react to Fischer, though. Ugh. I must concede.

After I lost Game 15, the Soviet government recalled me to Moscow. I refused. Russia was like a bad parent, impossibly cruel at home while kind in public, so I knew they would do nothing while the world watched. And anyway, by now I was determined to play things out regardless of the consequences.

Before Game 18, the Icelandic police put a 24-hour guard on Fischer's chair. They performed chemical and X-ray tests on it, searching for some unfathomable mind-altering device. At this point, Fischer counterattacked that Russian satellites were being employed to interfere with his thought patterns. I sat in the hotel bar, drinking scotch, waiting for nuclear war to break out.

Short of actual blunders, lack of faith in one's position is the chief cause of defeat.

Game 21 was the last. I erred twice in the endgame, adjourned, went to my hotel room, called my wife, and told her to begin to assemble our things. I expected it to be very difficult to leave my country for what I assumed, at the time, would be forever. But it was as easy as spring. I called Fischer the next day to resign the match:

"I can't accept that, Boris. It's not legal."

"What?" For a moment, I thought he really was crazy.

"You must sign the score sheet first, Boris. I will not accept."

"Bobby, why are you such an asshole?" I asked.

"OK, OK," he said. "Don't get so upset. I accept."

My wife says I was too nice to be a World Champion. I tell her it's not as though I had to kill people. I just killed little pieces of wood.

We played chess from July 11 to Sept. 1. For seven weeks Americans stared blankly at a huge illuminated chessboard while waiting for baseball scores, their heads cocked in confusion, oblivious to the terminology, but nonetheless happy that Fischer had won. I find that image amusing.

After my loss, Pravda declared that I had failed Russia, my people, and communism. My wife was ridiculed in the markets, my children beaten in school. The Soviet Chess Federation did not care about players. For the Communist hierarchy, chess was an instrument. But it seemed that the government interest and my interests had finally coincided, and I was allowed to leave. Who could tell? I decided to find a city generally more hospitable. I moved to Paris.

Related stories

Fiction Winners archives

More Stories

And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest

An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
First Place

What Was Janie Looking At? (12/2/2009)
Second Place

Comments powered by Disqus
Calendar
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter