Fischer’s Cuban Crisis

A lesser-known Cold War chess clash which left Bobby Fischer the worse for wear

Chess Communism
Fischer's opponent: Vasily Smyslov in 1964 (photo: NationaalArchief NL)

The Fischer-Spassky world championship match of 1972 is renowned as the greatest confluence of chess and Cold War politics. Yet a much less well remembered event 50 years ago this month, also involving Bobby Fischer, was no less freighted with political drama. This was the Capablanca memorial tournament, held in Havana from August 25 to September 25, 1965.

Fidel Castro, a keen chess player, had the notion of luring the mercurial Fischer, who seemed to have retired from international chess tournaments. Fischer was still furious about what he saw as “Russian cheating” in the Curaçao world championship event of 1962. Instead he had concentrated on purely domestic events, with phenomenal results. Between 1963 and 1965 he achieved the remarkable feat of winning 22 consecutive tournament games, including an unprecedented 11 straight wins in the US championship.

But Castro’s offer of a $3,000 first prize (then a huge sum for a chess event) was enough to tempt Fischer to re-enter international competition — and doubtless he also would have reckoned on beating the three Soviet players competing: former world champion Vasily Smyslov, Efim Geller and Ratmir Kholmov.

Fischer did not reckon on the US State Department, which refused him a visa to travel to Cuba. The US Grandmaster Larry Evans had been granted a visa to play in the same annual event in 1964, only two years after the Cuban missile crisis. But, as we now know, the FBI was monitoring the 22-year-old Fischer’s mother, suspected of Communist sympathies, and it doubtless saw Fischer’s participation as a propaganda coup for Castro.

Fischer was not so easily thwarted. He came up with the idea of playing all his games via telex from New York. Castro, unsurprisingly, agreed to meet the $10,000 cost: and the other participants could hardly object to this unusual arrangement, as they were largely from Communist countries so would have to do as they were told. Besides, to play Fischer had become the dream of any ambitious master. Then, however, Fischer heard that the Cuban leader was boasting how he had got him to play against the wishes of the US government. Fischer cabled Castro, saying that he would withdraw unless “you immediately send me a telegram declaring that neither you nor your government will attempt to make any political capital out of my participation.” Castro’s response was perhaps not what Fischer had expected: “Cuba has no need of propaganda victories. If you are frightened . . . then it would be better to find another excuse.”

Fischer backed down and agreed to play. As David Edmonds and John Eidinow observe in their book Bobby Fischer Goes To War: “Castro’s riposte is an interesting lesson for students of Fischer’s psychology . . . scornful counter-attack was the mode.” The point is that everyone else buckled at Fischer’s demands — and found it only encouraged further aggression.

Once under way, Fischer started with two wins — taking his tally of successive victories to 24, a record which has never been matched, let alone superseded. The last of those victories — before Fischer finally conceded a draw—was against the man who won the event, Smyslov. The former world champion piled up 15.5 points out of 21 games, half a point ahead of Fischer, Geller and Borislav Ivkov of Yugoslavia. Ivkov, a former junior world champion, was actually running away with the event, including a victory with the Black pieces against Fischer. But in a totally winning position in the penultimate round against the Cuban in last place, he made a stupendous blunder — and, as he put it later, “in a delirium” lost again in the final round.

Fischer would not have been happy with his joint second place, still less with the fact that he also lost against Geller (whom he always found a difficult opponent) and Kholmov. However, he played the event under a considerable handicap as the length of the delay down the telex line meant that he was at the board for two hours longer than normal each playing day, a burden which his opponents would endure only once.

But at least he had the pleasure of defeating the great strategist Smyslov at his own game, a victory which Fischer included in his collection, My Sixty Memorable Games. Here it is, with some of the author’s own comments from that remarkable book.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.d3 (Fischer wrote: “Steinitz’s favourite, long abandoned, and the first time I’ve employed it”) d6 6.c3 Be7 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.Nf1 b5 9.Bb3 d5 10.Qe2 dex4 11.dxe4 Be6 (Smyslov volunteers for doubled pawns, in order to control the key squares of d5 and f5. But Fischer’s build-up of pressure on the now weakened Black pawns becomes the game’s theme) 12.Bxe6 fxe6 13.Ng3 Qd7 14.0-0 Rad8 15.a4 Qd3 16.Qxd3 Rxd3 17.axb5 axb5 18.Ra6 Rd6 19.Kh1! (stopping Smyslov’s threat of playing 19…Nd4! 20.Rxd6 Nxf3+ before recapturing on d6.) Nd7 20.Be3 Rd8 21.h3 h6 22.Rfa1 Ndb8 23.Ra8 Rd1+ 24.Kh2 Rxa1 (Here Smyslov telexed the offer of a draw. But Fischer never agreed to splitting the point if there remained the faintest chance of victory) 25.Rxa1 Nd7? (Fischer wrote: “When I spoke to Smyslov on the direct phone line immediately after the game, he congratulated me on a beautiful performance and attributed his loss to his reluctance to play b4 at some point — and this is his last chance. After 25…b4 26.axb4 Bxb4 27.Nf1 Black obtains much more freedom than in the actual game) 26.b4! Kf7 27.Nf1 Bd6 28.g3! (Fischer’s comment: “Once and for all negating all possible combinations with …Nd4) Nf6 29.N1d2 Ke7 30.Ra6 Nb8 31.Ra5 c6 32.Kg2 Nbd7 33.Kf1 Rc8 34.Ne1! (heading for the wonderful square d3 and also freeing his f-pawn to advance) Ne8 35.Nd3 Nc7 36.c4! bxc4 (Unfortunately necessary as 36…Ra8 is answered by 37.c5 winning a piece) 37.Nxc4 Nb5 38.Ra6 Kf6 39.Bc1! (Another exquisite manoeuvre: now the Bishop is heading for b2 to bring even more pressure on the e5 pawn) Bb8 40. Bb2 (and this threatens f4) c5 (Fischer describes this as “a desperate bid for counterplay”. Too late) 41.Nb6! Nxb6 42.Rxb6 c4 43.Nc5 c3 and after telexing this move, Smyslov resigned without waiting for Fischer’s next move to come down the line. After the forcing continuation 44.Bc1 Nd4 45.Rxb8! Rxb8 46.Nd7+ Ke7 47.Nxb8 Nb3 48.Ba3 c2 49.b5+ Kd8 50.Nc6+ Kc7 51.Ne5 c1=Q+ 52.Bxc1 Nxc1 53.Nc4 the Knight and pawn ending is trivially winning. One of Fischer’s greatest games and worthy of the record it set.