Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The chess partner

How the Fischer-Spassky clash from 1972 fired the imagination of a young boy and led to an unusual friendship

Years later, I learned it was way beyond just me. The 1972 World Chess Championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer got me interested in chess, sure, but it wasn’t just me. It grabbed the entire world’s attention. It set off a boom in public interest in chess like no other before or since. It so fired sales of Fischer’s classic paperback, Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, that today, more than four decades later, it remains the bestselling chess book of all time.

Still, at the time I didn’t know any of this. I just got caught up in the drama of the match, that’s all—the exotic locale, the contrasting personalities, the Cold War US-USSR overtones. I was a skinny kid who enjoyed the varied games we played on our school’s tiny playground, remaining steadfastly hopeless at all of them. So when newspapers told the story of Fischer and Spassky going at it in far-off Reykjavik, this was one more game to try my hand at.

I quickly learned the notation—today, who remembers P-K4?—and replayed the two warriors’ games endlessly over the next several years. Even as a beginner, I knew how foolish the 29th-move blunder was that cost Fischer the first game. Still, only five games later, he had taken the match lead for good and was soon the new champion. Of the two, I liked Spassky more—possibly because we share a birthday—but Fischer’s brilliance was obvious, irresistible.

And yet, even as these two men and their tussle over two months beguiled me, in my mind those early forays into chess are inextricably linked with someone else altogether.

This was a friend and colleague of my father’s, in a project that set out, ambitiously enough, to shape an entire city. I knew the project was a big deal. But I was too young to fully understand and appreciate it. Nor did I realize that this was a man already celebrated for his thinking and accomplishment. No, he was just another uncle, that’s all, tall and rangy, with an oddly soft voice. He lived in an airy sea-facing flat not far from where we were. It was filled with all manner of fascinating art and knick-knacks, including a framed mock-NYT headline reading something like “Monica lands in New York; JFK declares holiday".

Monica, of course, was his wife.

And he liked chess. One day he came to visit and found me playing the game by myself in a corner, no doubt replaying a Fischer-Spassky encounter for the umpteenth time. “Why don’t you come home and play with me?" he suggested. With that, we began a series of happy chess encounters. About once a week, I’d take a water bottle—not sure why, because I am fairly sure he would have offered me a drink had I asked—and walk over to his flat. He’d open the door and behind him, I’d see a board that was already set up. Sometimes we’d talk a bit about—what else?—Fischer and Spassky. But on most days, with little preamble, we’d sit down to play.

And these were keenly contested games. For like me, he was also a beginner. If I felt like I was blundering about, unsure of any kind of strategy beyond the next move or two, I could see that he was in much the same boat. Sometimes he’d even admit it, his eyes twinkling and crinkling: “Hey, I have no idea what to do next!"

But we both greatly enjoyed those evenings. Don’t know about him, but I think I actually learned from playing those live games. No, I never became any good at chess, but I have two fond chess memories from later years.

One, in my lonely first few days at college in Rajasthan, I would sit on my bed, playing out yet another Fischer-Spassky game—for by then, I possessed a beautifully produced book about their championship match. My college buddies later told me they would pass my room in some awe, thinking I had to be some kind of grandmaster at the game, given how absorbed I was in it. Then we’d laugh at my real prowess at the game, which was, let’s just say, about as far from grandmaster class as my cricket prowess is from Rahul Dravid’s. Which is to say, pretty damn far indeed.

But, two, some more years later, I was in a tiny town in Tamil Nadu. Someone there introduced me to his two sons, about 11 or 12 years old, saying they were keen chess players who were starting to win local tournaments. Now I was about that age too when I first played the game. So, I asked, “Shall we play?" Which we did, the two kids against me, a long-drawn game under two gently swaying palms that took us well into the December dusk.

And I won.

And the years fell away, and I was a kid again, playing my father’s rangy colleague in that sea-facing flat. There was one evening, I remember so clearly still, when I sat there hunched over the board, staring at it for 10 minutes straight, checking the position of every single piece, going over our last few moves in my mind, again and again. For I could scarcely believe my eyes: in my next move, I had a win.

How had he missed it? How had he let me get here? Why wasn’t he saying anything? I don’t know. All I knew was, I had this game in the palm of my hand. So, I finally moved my bishop (yes, I remember) and muttered a quiet “Checkmate!"

He looked totally bewildered. Indeed, he had missed it. But then he smiled widely, looked up and reached across the board to shake my hand.

His eyes twinkling and crinkling, Charles Correa said, “Hey, I have no idea how that happened! Shall we play another?"

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

Twitter: @DeathEndsFun

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