The Cold War threw up many challenges, but few so strange as the match between the American Bobby Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky to decide which of them was the world’s chess champion. The match was held in July 1972 in Reyjavik, the capital of Iceland — and a dump of a place it is too, to be honest. Everyone wanted to see whether the winner was the United States and the individual, or the Soviet Union and the system. Suddenly chess took on a major political dimension.
I flew there to cover the event for the Sunday Telegraph, and on the same flight was Arthur Koestler, reporting for the Sunday Times. I already knew him, and now we were staying in the same hotel. A Party member of standing in his youth, Koestler could criticize Communism from inside knowledge. In Spain during the civil war on a Communist assignment, he had been captured and sentenced to death, and then he had lived through the fall of France in 1940. His exposure of Communism in his famous novel Darkness at Noon, and in his great autobiographies and essays, had given him an international reputation. Remorselessly, the Soviet press and fellow-travellers in the West attacked him, sometimes calling for him to be murdered. Granted his c.v., this chess match might seem tame, but he was the right companion for it. He was also a good enough chess player himself to be able to analyze the board..
Play took place in a large cheerless hall. Quite often, Fischer’s tantrums meant that there was no play. One mini-crisis succeeded another. Arthur and I would fill in time trying to waylay the champions. We discovered where Spassky had lunch, and almost managed to talk to him in a restaurant. A phalanx of KGB officers simply shut out access by standing shoulder to shoulder in a square surrounding him. Executioners and potential victim had come face to face on neutral ground. Their expressions showed that they knew who Arthur was, and would deal with him if they could. Spassky could do nothing. Pale, he seemed vulnerable to the pressures he was under. Fischer was playing psychological games, and this surely helped him to defeat Spassky.
We got to talk with Fischer and with the grandmasters advising him, one of them a Jesuit. They did not hesitate to call him a genius. You had only to take one look at Fischer to know that this might be true but he was a kook at the same time. His rapid speech, the hunched way he walked as if he had to get that very moment to wherever he was going, were signs of self-obsession so strong that it verged on derangement. The rest of his life, alas, demonstrated it, as he railed whenever he had the chance in stupid and vulgar terms against the United States and against Israel, a self-hating Jew if ever there was one. Somehow it was poetic justice that he finished up a stateless person in dour and uninviting Reyjavik where the air smells either of the fish being processed in the fish factories, or of the sulphurated water piped in from the island’s geysers.
Fischer has just died, and as an epitaph there comes to me the tragic-comic tribute paid to him in his finest hour by Arthur Koestler, uttered in tones of amazement and in Arthur’s Hungarian-accented English too, “Better than anyone who has ever played the game of chess, he has understood the mid-field aura of the queen.”