Local chess fans speculate on outcome of championship THE CHESS KING RETURNS

September 02, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Bobby Fischer has been gone from public view for 20 years -- but among avid local chess players he has hardly been forgotten.

For two decades, they have read the former world champion's books; studied the moves of his most famous games; swapped stories about his private life -- and wondered whether he would ever return to international play.

Now they are eagerly, if somewhat skeptically, awaiting a $5 million exhibition match between the reclusive Mr. Fischer and Boris Spassky, scheduled to begin today on an island off the coast of what was once Yugoslavia.

"We're all waiting with baited breath," said Damon Norko, proprietor of the Chess Story, a midtown chess club, of the match that is a reprise of the historic 1972 Fischer-Spassky championship which captured the world's imagination as no chess match before or since. "The question is, 'Will Fischer go ahead with the match?' I'll believe it when I see it."

Indeed, the mere mention of Mr. Fischer last week at one of the thrice-weekly tournaments at the Chess Story at 208 W. Read St. provoked a string of stories -- mixing fact and rumor -- about the chess legend.

There was one about the prodigy who won the U.S. chess title as a teen-ager and had such an incredible memory that he once recalled every move he made in a 22-game speed-chess tournament in which each game lasted no longer than 10 PTC minutes.

Another about the master of psychology and precision who so unnerved a fellow grandmaster with an unorthodox opening that his opponent resigned without making a move rather than risk humiliation by a line of attack he didn't understand.

And there was talk of the man raised as a Jew whose anti-social views reportedly include anti-Semitism who has been lured out of seclusion in southern California by a "mystery woman."

There was also conjecture about whether the anti-hero's resolve would be strengthened by the U.S. government's warning that the match might violate international economic sanctions against Serbia.

And on a recent afternoon at the Chess Corner, a row of outdoor tables in the plaza across from City Hall downtown, players paid homage to Mr. Fischer's influence, debated whether the match would come off -- and speculated how well he would do.

"I still think he's real sharp. I think he's going to beat Spassky. I think he could be world champion again if they give him a chance," Delton Nash, 36, said between games, though his latter prediction is disputed by many grandmasters.

Mr. Fischer's appeal spans generations.

"He has been the greatest player of this century. We're all looking forward to this return, although I tell everybody, 'When he plays the second game of the match, I'll believe it,' " said Robert Erkes of Randallstown, a longtime Maryland Chess Association official.

At 50, Mr. Erkes, a teacher and accomplished "master" of the game, is a year older than Mr. Fischer and has followed Mr. Fischer's career since they were both teen-agers. He says Mr. Fischer's win over Mr. Spassky -- which marked the first time an American had become world champion and ended Soviet domination over chess at a time of Cold War paranoia -- became a demarcation line in the public's perception of the game.

"Before 1972, if I told people I played chess, they looked at me strangely," he said. "In 1972, they said, 'Oh, you play chess?' It was suddenly acceptable."

What Mr. Fischer did on his way to the world championship, Mr. Erkes said, when he won 12 consecutive games against two of the world's top players in preliminary matches, "was unheard of." What strikes him about today's exhibition, he added, is that the purse will be $1 million greater than the $4 million prize money for Garry Kasparov's defense of his world title next year.

Alex Sherzer, Maryland's top-rated player, was 1 year old when Mr. Fischer beat Mr. Spassky in 1972. He first heard about Mr. Fischer from his father and other players when he was a young boy and has since studied his style.

"He's one chess player who I think is a real genius," Mr. Sherzer said by phone from his home in College Park. "The players today generally feel that the older players are past their prime and can't compete. But Mr. Fischer might be the exception to that."

"The whole world will be watching to see what Bobby's like," he added.

At the Chess Story last week, William Stokes, 38, said, "Bobby Fischer's the Elvis Presley of chess. Elvis was the king, right?"

Mr. Stokes said he has studied one of Mr. Fischer's more famous games but added, "I still don't understand it."

John Tutin, a highly rated 13-year-old from Dundalk, said of Mr. Fischer, "I read some of his books and I see his games in the [chess] magazines that I have." But he added he still favors Mr. Kasparov, the champion, saying, "He plays a more aggressive style. Fischer plays a subtle style."

In 1972, Marvin Cooper, 44, was one of the few Americans rooting for Mr. Spassky because, he said, "I didn't like Fischer's attitude."

But this time around, said Mr. Cooper, he's pulling for Mr. Fischer "because of the comeback."

"I want the comeback to continue," he said. "I want to see more drama."

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