Pawns forced to play Bobby's bizarre game

BOBBY FISCHER is not a difficult man to deal with. You just ask him what he wants and then move heaven, earth, chessboards and lavatory seats to make sure that he gets it.

The eccentric American former world chess champion (or current champion, in his world) is in the middle of his comeback match in Belgrade (he leads 5-3 with six draws after yesterday's game was drawn in 32 moves) and the match officials are getting increasingly twitchy. A source close to the organisers explained their negotiating policy: 'We fall over backwards to comply with whatever he wants.'

They fell and lay supine when he demanded a huge glass dome to surround the players on stage when the match moved to Belgrade last week. There was probably nothing to fit the bill in the whole of the Balkans. But between demand and deadline, Fischer's mood had improved with a couple of fine wins. He accepted a glass screen, 12 metres wide, 3 metres high and 1cm thick.

Before the match began, reports spoke of a 20-page contract including a clause that Fischer could change the venue if he heard noise from the Yugoslavian civil war. That was later denied by the sponsor, Jezdimir Vasiljevic, but the contract's details remain secret. The official story is that Fischer sought only three conditions to come out of his 20-year retirement: that his own recently patented chess clock be used; that draws not count in the match, which would go to the first to win 10 games; and that the match be titled 'The World Chess Championship'.

With those agreed and dollars 5m in the pot (dollars 3.35m to the winner and dollars 1.65m to the loser), Fischer came to Yugoslavia. The rest of his demands, and the organisers' response to them, they say, have been improvised as the match progressed.

The day before play began, there was an awkward empty space on the stage where the chess table should have been. Fischer had rejected six tables, which 'littered the room like discarded toys' according to one report, before finally accepting one that had been designed for the 1950 Chess Olympics in Dubrovnik. Then he demanded that 3mm be shaved off its edge, so that he could capture his opponent's pieces with minimum discomfort.

The pieces had to be the right size too. Fischer's usual test is to pick up four pawns and place them on the chessboard. If they fill a single square without overlapping its edges, the set is the right size for the board. The pieces also had to be the right weight and colour. And the lighting had to be adjusted to the right level to ensure that the pieces cast no shadow on the board. And the player's rest areas, where they could eat and relax during the games, had to have ceiling mirrors, so that Spassky could never wander out of Fischer's sight . . .

The oddest pre-match gossip was that Fischer had asked for the lavatory seat in his luxury hotel villa to be raised by one inch. It had apparently been good enough for Sophia Loren and the Emperor of Japan to sit on in the past, but it didn't suit Fischer. The hotel manager, the splendidly named Bajo Kastratovic, would not comment, but workers in the match office said it was all true. Fischer's legs are, of course, longer than the Emperor's or Sophia's, and as every grandmaster knows, if you try to analyse a game using a pocket chess set perched on your knees while sitting on a low loo, the pieces may slide off.

Despite being able to play, relax and even defecate in comfort, Fischer has been unable to recapture consistently the form of his past, and this is very worrying to the organisers. For since the match began, the lesson has been that whenever Fischer loses he wants something changed.

After winning the first game, he slipped to 2-1 behind and demanded a glass screen, to cut out the noise from spectators, and the exclusion of journalists who did not call him the world champion. The organisers provided the screen and extra curtains to keep the noise down and moved the spectators back another five metres from Fischer's original 15-metre limit. They then added another huge sign saying 'World Chess Championship' three more times.

Fischer also donned a green visor. 'You keep a little more privacy for your eyes,' he explained, 'so your opponent can't see what you're looking at.'

After losing the opening game in Belgrade last Wednesday, Fischer had the lights turned out over the spectators in the auditorium, so that he could no longer be distracted by seeing them.

Are Fischer's demands more than mere eccentricity? Dr David Veale, a consultant psychiatrist at Groveland Hospital in north London, compares Fischer's 20-year absence from competition with the reclusiveness of Howard Hughes. Both cases show the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive personality: meticulousness, conscientiousness and rigidity. Hughes locked himself away through fears of contamination; Fischer, perhaps, through a different set of fears.

However, says Dr Veale, we must distinguish between an obsessive-compulsive personality and obsessive-compulsive illness: 'Being obsessional is something you can use to good advantage in an area where meticulous checking is important.'

An equally relevant difference exists between paranoid illness and a paranoid personality. And it has often been said that, on the chessboard, a healthy paranoia is a positive benefit: if you don't believe that your opponent is out to get you, you are doomed.

In either case, paranoia or obsessiveness, illness, according to Dr Veale, is usually only a discreet episode which may be treated. The personality disorder, however, can last all your life.

For all Fischer's curious demands, he is still loved by the Yugoslavs. President Milan Panic has compared him to Mozart; the match director, Janos Kubat, has compared his comeback to the Second Coming of Christ.

Boris Spassky, however, must be wondering whether a guaranteed purse of dollars 1.65m is enough reward for his stoic acceptance of all Fischer's conditions. Spassky himself has made one single request: that a urologist be added to the medical team when he had kidney problems. His request was turned down.

(Graphics omitted)

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