Throwback Thursday: Under One Condition, Fischer Begins Path to World Championship

Fifty years ago, though the world did not yet realize, the greatest American to become the World Champion of Chess had begun his triumphant march to the crown. 

And he almost missed the first step. 

In 1971 America’s Golden Boy – Bobby Fischer – had reached the peak of his formidable powers. Though his fateful climb to the summit would not be finished until the following year -- arriving with a standing ovation from reigning World Champion Boris Spassky -- Fischer’s first step of his title journey was FIDE’s 8th Interzonal Tournament in Palma de Mallorca, Spain at the end of 1970. The qualifier event was a marathon 24-player round robin, with the top six finishers earning a spot in the Candidates’ knockout bracket later that year. 


Fischer Wins Interzonal, from Chess Life and Review, January 1971
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Chess Life & Review, January 1971

An interesting footnote in history is that Fischer should not have even been there -- and would not have been, were it not for the self-sacrifice of his American compatriots. Though it was universally conceded that he was the only Western player with any chance of defeating Spassky, the American had just returned from a brief hiatus to the game in 1970 and had no way of qualifying through the normal three-year cycle like other Candidates. The U.S. zone had chosen to send Sammy Reshevsky, William Addison and Pal Benko on the basis of their scores in the 1969 U.S. Championship -- of which a semi-retired Fischer did not participate.

Larry Evans, Fischer’s official second who delivered a three-part report from Palma de Malorca to Chess Life & Review through the early months of 1971 (Evans' Interzonal reports 1, 2 and 3), explains how Bobby found his seat: 

In recognition of Fischer’s brilliant achievements, FIDE voted at its last meeting to allow the 27-year-old American ace to play in the Interzonal if one of his countrymen would step down to make room for him. Pal Benko agreed to step aside for Fischer, as did the designated first-alternate, Bill Lombardy – as well as all the other players in the U.S. Zonal. 

Benko’s selfless gesture came with one personal request, which he described in Chess Life & Review years later:

"It has been widely and erroneously reported in the foreign press that I was paid a certain sum to give up my place in his favor (I had qualified in the 1969 U.S. Championship, which was the zonal and in which Fischer did not play). The idea for me to step down and give Fischer my place was my own; it was made voluntarily and without pressure from anyone. I felt that as one of the world's strongest players he should have the right to participate in that critical Interzonal. The U.S. Chess Federation had always treated me well; by my action I hoped to show my gratitude.

“The only condition I asked for stepping down was for Fischer to agree not to withdraw from the Interzonal or the ensuing matches should he qualify for them – and he fulfilled this condition.” 

An understandable request, given that the finicky Fischer had bailed from the 1967 Interzonal while leading midway through the event. But he did more than fulfill Benko’s demands in 1970: the American ace trounced the studded field convincingly, taking clear first place by a shocking 3.5 points ahead of the pack, and closing with a 7/7 score that began a legendary streak of 20 consecutive victories against the world’s most-elite players. 


FIDE 8th Interzonal Tournament 1970 Final Standings
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The final standings of FIDE's 8th Interzonal Tournament in 1970.

In this third victory of that streak, coming in the 19th round against Soviet GM Mark Taimanov, who Fischer would face again in the quarterfinals of the Candidates bracket in May 1971, the Russian achieved positional advantage after preparing a new setup for black in his patented Sicilian. But Taimanov’s sealed move at adjournment – 41. … Rd4 – was a decisive error, and in their adjournment analysis the Soviets discovered that Fischer could find victory if he made 17 ‘only’ moves in a row.  

He found them all. Fifty years ago in March 1971, Evans wrote to the legions of American chess fans:  

This victory was a triumph of adjournment analysis. In a beautiful finish, Fischer sacrificed a pawn and demonstrated the absolute supremacy of a Bishop over a Knight. One wag suggested that perhaps he would now be made an honorary citizen of the USSR after scoring 3.5 out of 4 against the Soviet quartet. This victory may prove important psychologically, since he will face Taimanov in the first elimination match. 

[pgn][Event "Palma de Mallorca Interzonal"] [Site "Palma de Mallorca ESP"] [Date "1970.12.06"] [EventDate "1970.11.09"] [Round "19"] [Result "1-0"] [White "Robert James Fischer"] [Black "Mark Taimanov"] [ECO "B44"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "115"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 e6 5. Nb5 d6 6. c4 a6 7. N5c3 Nf6 8. Be2 Be7 9. O-O O-O 10. Na3 b6 11. Be3 Bd7 12. Rc1 Qb8 13. f3 Ra7 14. Nc2 Rd8 15. Qe1 Be8 16. Qf2 Rb7 17. a4 a5 18. Nd4 Nxd4 19. Bxd4 Nd7 20. Qg3 Bf6 21. Bxf6 Nxf6 22. Rfd1 e5 23. Qh4 h6 24. Rd2 Nd7 25. Bd1 Nc5 26. f4 exf4 27. Qxf4 Ne6 28. Qg3 Qc7 29. Nd5 Qc5+ 30. Kh1 Bc6 31. Rc3 Ng5 32. Bc2 Bxd5 33. Rxd5 Qc7 34. e5 dxe5 35. Qxe5 Rdb8 36. Bf5 Qxe5 37. Rxe5 g6 38. h4 Nh7 39. Bg4 Nf6 40. Bf3 Rd7 41. Rb5 Rd4 42. c5 Rxh4+ 43. Kg1 Rb4 44. Rxb4 axb4 45. Rc4 bxc5 46. Rxc5 Kg7 47. a5 Re8 48. Rc1 Re5 49. Ra1 Re7 50. Kf2 Ne8 51. a6 Ra7 52. Ke3 Nc7 53. Bb7 Ne6 54. Ra5 Kf6 55. Kd3 Ke7 56. Kc4 Kd6 57. Rd5+ Kc7 58. Kb5 1-0 [/pgn]