Collusion in Curaçao

In 1962 Bobby Fisher claimed "the Russians have fixed world chess". He was certainly paranoid but was proved to be partially right

They don’t hand out prizes for polemics in chess, only for winning tournaments. But if there were a prize for the most explosive article ever written on the subject, it would surely go to one published 50 years ago, in the August 20, 1962 edition of Sports Illustrated. The byline was one Bobby Fischer, beneath an incendiary headline: “The Russians have fixed world chess”.

It’s fair to say that Sports Illustrated had never before shown interest in the purely cerebral pursuit Fischer sought to dominate; but this was at the height of the Cold War — the hair-raising climax of the Cuban missile crisis was only two months away — so a piece which accused the Soviets of concerted skulduggery against an American was of compelling fascination to a mass audience.

Fischer wrote this article almost as soon as he returned from a gruelling 28-round event designed to find an official challenger for the reigning world champion, Russia’s Mikhail Botvinnik. Played over two months in the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, the International Candidates Tournament was heavily tilted towards Soviet players. Five of the eight candidates played under the hammer and sickle: Tigran Petrosian, Paul Keres, Efim Geller, Viktor Korchnoi and Mikhail Tal (who became too ill to complete the event). From the US came Fischer and the Hungarian émigré Pal Benko. The only other competitor was the Czech      champion Miroslav Filip.

Although only 19 years old, Fischer regarded himself as destined to win. He declared of the Soviet champions, “They have nothing on me, those guys. They can’t even touch me.” So it must have been a bitter shock when Fischer lost his first two games in Curaçao. He never recovered from this and eventually finished in fourth place, fully three and a half points behind Petrosian — who the following year beat Botvinnik to become world champion.

Fischer could have blamed himself: his opening play was naive in a number of games and he also lost his first encounter against the completely unfancied Benko. This must have been especially upsetting as the two had earlier exchanged physical blows after Fischer had taken a childish pleasure at tormenting Benko by mimicking his heavy Magyar accent. (Some years later Benko confessed: “I am sorry that I beat up Bobby. He was a sick man, even then.”) 

Part of Fischer’s sickness was an inability to see any failure on his part as other than the result of a conspiracy: he had a persecution mania, which was later the basis for his obsessive anti-Semitism. However, there really was a kind of Soviet conspiracy at Curaçao, though it was less extensive and corrupt than Fischer claimed: Petrosian, Geller and Keres had a non-aggression pact, so that each of their four games against the other would be quickly agreed drawn. The idea was to conserve their energies for use against other rivals — of whom Fischer, of course, was pre-eminent. As Fischer wrote: “There was open collusion between the Russian players. They agreed ahead of time to draw the games they played against each other . . . They consulted during the games. If I was playing a Russian opponent, the other Russians watched my games, and commented on my moves in my hearing. Then they ridiculed my protests to officials. They worked as a team.” 

Fischer also accused one of the other Russians, Korchnoi, of throwing games against his compatriots and declared that he would no longer compete for the world championship, unless the rules were changed to prevent such manipulation by Soviets determined to keep the supreme chess title in their country. Fischer concluded: “It is a waste of time for any Western player . . . The general public long ago lost interest in any title gained in this fashion. Maybe chess players are losing interest in it also. I have, permanently.”

This articulate tirade galvanised Fide, the governing body of world championship chess. With unaccustomed haste they changed the rules, so that the challenger for the world title would henceforth qualify through a series of one-on-one matches, rather than a single tournament. They also put an arbitrary limit on the number of players from any one country who could qualify for the final tournament stage of the world championship (which amounted to a form of anti-Russian discrimination). Under the new system Fischer prospered, using it to become world champion ten years later — before once again entering a paranoiac sulk and abandoning the game.

Fischer’s most sensational allegation — that Korchnoi had thrown games to benefit his Soviet comrades — was preposterous. Korchnoi — still active today in his ninth decade — was always ferociously intractable; he especially loathed Petrosian, the supposed beneficiary of his “arranged” losses. As Korchnoi wrote in his memoir, “Surely [Fischer] wasn’t being serious. I am incapable by character of being made a sacrifice, the more so since, if I had won those three games, it wouldn’t have been Petrosian who won the tournament!” It would, almost certainly, have been Korchnoi himself.

Perhaps even more to the point, if Fischer had actually won the majority of his encounters with the members of the Soviet cartel, rather than the opposite, then their draws against each other would have been counter-productive, if the object was that at least one of them should finish ahead of Fischer in first place. In fact, like most cartels, it broke down. In the penultimate round Keres needed to beat Benko to have a chance of overtaking Petrosian. Benko records in his own memoir how, after he adjourned his vital game against Keres with a slight advantage, “Petrosian and Geller came to me in secret and offered to help me beat their own countryman! I was disgusted [and] demanded that they leave.”

By way of amends for Fischer’s calumnious accusation against the incorruptible Viktor Korchnoi, here is one of their games from Curaçao, in which the American, with the White pieces, was completely outplayed, fair and square. 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 c5 7.dxc5 Qa5 8.0-0 Qxc5+ 9.Kh1 Nc6 10.Nd2 a5! 11.Nb3 Qb6 12.a4 Nb4 13.g4? (This shows Fischer was off-form. He provokes Korchnoi, who needs no second invitation) Bxg4! 14.Bxg4 Nxg4 15.Qxg4 Nxc2 16.Nb5 Nxa1 17.Nxa1 Qc6 18.f5 Qc4 19.Qf3 Qxa4 20.Nc7 Qxa1 21.Nd5? (Fischer wrongly spurns 21.Nxa8 Rxa8 22.fxg6 fxg6 23.Qb3+ Kh8 24.Qxb7) Rae8 22.Bg5 Qxb2 23.Bxe7 Be5! (The Bishop is an immovable monster on this key square) 24.Rf2 Qc1+ 25.Rf1 Qh6 26.h3 gxf5 27.Bxf8 Rxf8 28.Ne7+ Kh8 29.Nxf5 Qe6 30.Rg1 a4 31.Rg4 Qb3 32.Qf1 a3 33.Rg3 Qxg3! (Korchnoi shows a sense of humour. After 34.Nxg3 a2 he will get a new Queen. Fischer resigned).

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