A review of Russians Versus Fischer by Dmitry Plisetsky and Sergey Voronkov

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Russians Versus Fischer
Dmitry Plisetsky and Sergey Voronkov
Everyman Chess
September 2005, ISBN 1857443802, Format Hardcover, 462 pages

This fascinating book presents a unique perspective on the chess career of Bobby Fischer, and includes some marvelous material. It contains, first and foremost, all the games (there are 158 in total) that Fischer played against Soviet opposition. (The “Russians” of the title is something of a misnomer, by the way, for many of the best Soviet players were not Russian: Mikhail Tal was Latvian, Tigran Petrosian was Armenian, Paul Keres was Estonian, and so on.) Moreover, as can be imagined, the vast majority of these games – many of which are annotated – are of an exceptionally high quality.

The book also contains detailed accounts of all the tournaments and matches where Fischer fought against Soviet players. The first such was a tournament held at Portoroz in 1958: Bobby was then a boy of 15, but already the best player in America; he had won the U.S. Championship the previous year (becoming champion of a country he now condemns) and would continue to win it, whenever he competed in it. The last serious competitive event included here is the world championship match Fischer played against Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972, the one that everyone remembers. By defeating Spassky, Fischer became the eleventh world champion; and then he stopped playing, seemingly for good. (In 1992, after an absence of 20 years, Fischer returned to play a further match with Spassky. An account of this match is also included in the book, though this was not, to be frank, a serious competition. Both players were, by then, well past their best.)

What is so extraordinary about Russians Versus Fischer, though, is the way in which it uses a myriad of till-now confidential documents from the archives of the USSR Chess Federation and the Soviet Sports Committee, many of them dating from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, to tell the story of Fischer’s rise from a Soviet perspective; i.e. from the viewpoint of those who had most to lose from it. Two research reports are of especial interest: “An Analysis of Fischer’s Play” and “All Hands on Deck!” The latter was a report compiled for Spassky’s benefit, an evaluation of Fischer’s strengths and weaknesses by the leading Soviet players of the day. There was a hope that such analyses would enable Spassky to keep the world championship in the Soviet Union’s hands. Alas, all was futile in the face of Fischer’s strength! Mark Taimanov’s despairing description of what it was like to face Fischer as an opponent comes to mind here: “He is a kind of wall, which moves inexorably towards you, a wall in which there are no cracks at which you can fire.” Indeed: Bobby beat Taimanov 6-0 in their 1971 match.

In many ways, the story told here is a kind of fable: An Empire (the Soviet Union) hears tell of a Prince in a distant land (Fischer), whose powers somehow threaten its existence (for the Soviets used their chess dominance as a propaganda tool). The Prince succeeds, but only for a brief time: Fischer reigned for only 3 years, resigning his world title in 1975, and was succeeded by Anatoly Karpov. The Prince destroys himself and is vanquished. Is the Empire now fine, still prosperous and intact? Well, in a way. Yet there is a lingering feeling of impoverishment, of a significant absence. Life is elsewhere – wherever Fischer is.

If this seems overly fanciful, consider for a moment Karpov’s fate. After he became world champion, Karpov tried to arrange a match with Fischer. Once, he was close to succeeding, but Soviet officials absolutely prohibited it. They wanted Fischer out of the picture for good. Here are Karpov’s thoughts in retrospect:

It is hard to describe the feeling I experienced, when I realized that there would be no match with Fischer. I felt a sense of loss … Some kind of a vacuum opened up in my life. It did not cause me pain, but a great deal of time passed before I was able to overcome that feeling of regret. I realized that the most vivid thing that could have happened in my life would not take place. (424)

This book recounts what is, in many respects, a tale of irresistible triumph and success. It tells how Bobby Fischer, for many the strongest chess player in history, won the world championship at age 29 and, as some would see it, fulfilled his destiny. Yet considering what came after, the presentiments of which can be read here as well (for shadows there undoubtedly were, before the darkness came), a final elegiac note is unavoidable. Yuri Averbakh, still a big cheese on the Russian chess scene, says this:
It has long been established statistically that a chess player is at his best between the age of 30 to 40. As a rule, it is at that age that grandmasters achieve their best results. And, of course, it is very sad that the world’s foremost player of the early 1970s, a player of scintillating and original talent, voluntarily crossed these years out of his chess life and did not make use of the gift that nature had bestowed upon him. Sad as this may be, time lost cannot be recovered! (427)

Set against many now quite common, everyday occurrences – a suicide bombing, the death of a child – this is a small tragedy. But for those who care about chess, it is a tragedy nonetheless.

Russians Versus Fischer is a superb book and is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the chess world during the period of Fischer’s rise. Dmitry Plisetsky and Sergey Voronkov should be congratulated and commended for making these documents available to a wider public, as should Everyman Chess for producing such a handsome hardback.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk