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Fischer vs. Spassky (1992) - `The Revenge Match of the Twentieth Century`
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Fischer and Spassky Ready to Play Chess Not Far From a War
By ROGER COHEN
Published: August 31, 1992
Even by his own eccentric standards, the reclusive American chess genius Bobby Fischer has come up with something seriously weird in agreeing to make a comeback against his old rival Boris Spassky at this coastal resort just 70 miles from the carnage of the Balkan war.
Defying United States Government threats of stiff fines or even long imprisonment for breaking the current United Nations sanctions on Yugoslavia, Mr. Fischer has holed up in a medieval fort-turned-hotel overlooking the clear waters of the Adriatic. His heavily guarded suite, No. 118, is known as Villa Sophia because Sophia Loren once stayed here.
If Mr. Fischer, famous for flirting with commitments and then backing off, does indeed start the first game as scheduled on Wednesday, it will be the first time he has played in public since he won the world championship from Mr. Spassky 20 years ago in a match that narrowed the cold war to a chessboard and held the world riveted.
Surrounded by olive trees, pines, oleander and palm trees, Mr. Fischer, who is 49 years old, is shielded from even the faintest echo of the nearby fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the encircling mountains. Since arriving a month ago, he has spent most of his time in his rooms preparing for the match, though he did, the hotel staff said, allow himself a respite with his chess-playing, 18-year-old Hungarian girlfriend, Zita Rajcszanyi.
Washington is trying to stop him from playing. American officials in Belgrade said they had written repeatedly to Mr. Fischer`s hotel warning him that he could be fined as much as $250,000 or go to prison for up to 10 years if he plays. The match, with total prize money of $5 million, is considered a business transaction by the United States Treasury and so a breach of the sanctions.
The American officials said they had received no response. Mr. Fischer, the Yugoslav organizers of the match say, is not unduly concerned by the views of Washington. `Mr. Fischer can stay here for the next 10 years,` said Klara Mandic, a close friend of the Belgrade-based businessman who arranged the encounter. Mr. Spassky, who has French citizenship and whose family lives outside Paris, has apparently not been pressed on the issue by the French Government.
Posters, banners and T-shirts throughout this resort, which was much favored by the former Yugoslav Communist leader Marshal Tito, proclaim the match `the world chess championship revenge match of the 20th century.` It is, in fact, merely an exhibition match, albeit an extraordinary one. Refused to Defend Title
Mr. Fischer forfeited the world title in 1975, three years after his victory over Mr. Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, by refusing to defend it against Anatoly Karpov of the Soviet Union. He was the first world champion to give up the title without losing. The current champion, Gary Kasparov, has dismissed the new Fischer-Spassky encounter as a crassly commercial matching of two has-beens.
Others are not so sure. Mr. Fischer, despite his long absence, still has the world`s second-highest rating behind Mr. Kasparov. Many chess masters are tantalized by the prospect that, even two decades after his last public games, Mr. Fischer could reproduce something close to the relentless strategic brilliance and devastating precision with which he crushed Mr. Spassky in Reykjavik and insured his status as one of the greatest players ever.
`It`s enormously intriguing,` said Lothar Schmid, the German grandmaster who refereed the stormy match in Iceland and who will again be the referee here.
Whatever its quality, the match clearly has its shabby side. It is being played for a large sum of money on the fringes of a continuing war in which at least 9,000 people have died in recent months. Neither player has as yet commented on that fact.
The encounter has been organized by a mysterious Serbian trader turned private banker named Jezdimir Vasiljevic, who is apparently as rich as he is ferociously nationalistic. Yugoslav magazines and newspapers have linked him to currency speculation and trafficking of various kinds, including arms dealing, but have produced no proof of their claims. Mr. Vasiljevic, whose recently established Jugoskandic Bank is financing the match, has said he hopes to profit through spinoffs like books and other ventures. He did not respond to a request for an interview. `Anything Could Happen`
The match contract calls for the winner to get $3.35 million and the loser $1.65 million. The two former world champions are to play until one of them wins 10 games, with draws not counting. If each player wins nine games, the match, to be played in a specially prepared basement room in the waterfront Maestral Hotel about a mile from Mr. Fischer`s villa, will be declared a draw and the prize money shared equally.
These are rules Mr. Fischer has long favored despite many players` objections. When a version calling for only six victories was used in the 1984-85 Kasparov-Karpov title match, play was finally stopped after more than five months: both contenders were exhausted and neither had enough victories to win. Usually, match rules provide that draws will count a half-point and that the number of games will be limited to 24.
`Anything could happen,` said Dimitrije Bjelica, an international chess master and former friend of Mr. Fischer`s. `After so many years, it is very hard to say what the quality of the games will be. It`s like trying to do a remake of a great movie classic 20 years after it first appeared. You just don`t know how it will come out.`
Certainly, much has changed on both the personal and geopolitical level since the Reykjavik encounter, which Mr. Fischer, playing with a devouring accuracy that sometimes verged on the cruel, won by 12 1/2 to 8 1/2 after losing the first two games. His prize money then amounted to $156,430.
In 1972, with both the cold war and the Soviet Union still in existence, bitter, sometimes apparently absurd charges of spying, and even of the use of chemical and electronic warfare, characterized the match. A recurrence of this seems unlikely under the new world order.
At the time, Mr. Spassky was an enormously respected world champion. Since then, living the good life in France, he is said by friends to have let himself go somewhat. He is now, at age 55, tied for 96th to 102d place on the ratings list of the Paris-based International Chess Federation.
Mr. Fischer is also a changed man in some respects. The lean, gaunt figure with hooded eyes, who brooded over the chess board like a predatory bird, has given way to an overweight, balding, bearded figure, unmistakably middle-aged, whose expression sometimes seems strikingly vacant.
Has his genius disappeared with his looks? Reports over the past 20 years have portrayed him as living an unusual life in Los Angeles, at times in his own apartment and at others in cheap hotels where he would check in under pseudonyms.
He has, former friends say, been given to anti-Semitic outbursts even though his mother is Jewish. At one time he became deeply involved in a fundamentalist sect called the Worldwide Church of God, which believed that Christ would return to earth in 1975 after a nuclear holocaust.
It was through this sect that he met a woman named Claudia Mokarow, whom he is said to have addressed as `Mommy.` Mr. Fischer has never given interviews and has declined to do so here. Still Formidable?
To what extent he has kept up his chess during his long period of seclusion has remained a mystery. But it is generally believed that he has assiduously continued to study and follow the game, which became his monomaniacal passion as a child.
Mr. Fischer became a grandmaster at the age of 15 and won the United States championship for the first time when he was 16. His subsequent career was brilliant, but marked by outbursts over playing conditions -- often supported by less-outspoken colleagues -- that made his presence in any tournament unpredictable.
His stormy character has apparently not changed. Organizers said that the table on which the games against Mr. Spassky are to be played had already been altered seven times to Mr. Fischer`s requests, and that they were still not clear that he was satisfied. The lighting, also built to suit Mr. Fischer, remains under discussion as well.
But up to now, the American chess giant has shown no sign of pulling out. Surrounded by four burly bodyguards -- one in front, one on either side, and one behind -- he has become a familiar sight on the steep stone alleys of the tiny peninsula on which his hotel is set.
Simonida Djordjevic, an artist with a gallery on the peninsula, said that Mr. Fischer strode in a few days ago and roared `Stop!` to his bodyguards. Then, taking what she described as huge strides, he raced around the works before freezing in front of a painting of a naked woman. Then he dropped to his knees and caressed the canvas, saying how beautiful it was.
On the way out, he asked how much a poster cost. Miss Djordjevic told him it cost nothing, which she said left Mr. Fischer incredulous. He took several. `He is a strange man indeed,` Miss Djordjevic said.
Just what has lured Mr. Fischer here and tempted him to come out of seclusion is unclear. Over the past two decades, he has received many lucrative offers but spurned them.
He is known to like Yugoslavia, now reduced to a rump state comprising Serbia and Montenegro about half the size of the country he first visited 30 years ago, and is a friend of the grandmaster Svetozar Gligoric and other Yugoslav players. But his affection for the country appears an insufficient explanation for so unlikely a voyage.
One theory is that Mr. Fischer, a man with a huge ego