06 May 2020

When Fischer Snubbed a Zonal

Three months ago, in a post on my main blog, February 1970 & 1995 'On the Cover' (February 2020), the highlight of the 1970 Chess Life & Review (CL&R) side was a report by Bert Hochberg on the 1969 U.S. Championship. The post included quotes from Hochberg:-
The Hochberg report continued, 'Since this championship, as it is every three years, is the FIDE zonal from which the top three players go to the Interzonal late in 1970, Addison qualifies by finishing second. We are happy and proud to see Bill Addison in the Interzonal and we wish him great success. Pal Benko has never done better than third place in a U. S. Championship.'

It signed off, 'The question will of course be asked: "Why didn't Bobby Fischer play?" The answer to this question, in the form of a letter from Fischer to USCF. Executive Director E.B. Edmondson, will be published next month, along with Mr. Edmondson's reply.'

I was reminded of this in the most recent post on that blog, May 1970 & 1995 'On the Cover' (May 2020). The May 1970 CL&R included another report, titled 'Fischer Dialogue' by Ed Edmondson. It started,

Ever since Grandmaster Fischer withdrew from the 1967 Interzonal after forging to an early lead with seven wins and three draws out of ten games completed, the big question has been "Will Fischer compete in the next World Championship Cycle?" No one has been more concerned with that question than I, both personally and on behalf of our Federation. Personally because I like Bobby, am interested in his welfare, and think he would serve himself best by contesting for the World Championship. On behalf of USCF because the majority of our members admire Fischer's undeniable chess skill and because our national interest would also be served if he tried for the world title.

The report included copies of several letters:-

  • 1969-10-24: EBE to RJF, 'available to participate'?
  • 1969-10-29: RJF to EBE; 'Information copies sent to major news sources'

The Fischer letter started,

Thank you for your inquiry as to my availability to participate in the 1969 U.S.A. Chess Championship. I am not available. Also I would like to take this opportunity to make a correction of fact. It was stated in last year's CHESS LIFE magazine that I never answered my 1968 invitation to the 1968 U.S.A. Chess Championship. This, as you know Ed, is a lie. I answered and declined in writing to you well over a month before the championship began. The reason I did not play last year and will not play this year is the same -- the tournament is too short.

Another copy of the letter is available in Frank Brady's book, 'Profile of a Prodigy'. More letters followed in the Edmondson report:-

  • 1969-11-13: Saul Rubin ('former President of the Marshall Chess Club') to RJF
  • 1969-11-??: comments by GM Isaac Kashdan
  • 1969-11-04: EBE to RJF, 'reconsider your decision'? [...] 'Returned to sender -- Addressee Unknown'

With the hope of convincing him to play, Edmondson made one more attempt to contact Fischer, this time by telephone. He ended his report saying,

When I talked with Fischer, these last hopes were dashed. Thinking back, I feel that both of us were tense because the tournament was about to begin and the question of whether or not he played was so vital. I tried to expound upon the arguments advanced in my undelivered letter, but Bobby was adamant in his demand for 22 rounds. This demand simply could not be met; you know the rest -- the tournament was played without Fischer.

I still think he's the greatest player of our time.

A coda to the report by CL&R Editor Hochberg said,

We had intended to report here on the unsuccessful negotiations for a Fischer - Botvinnik match and the successful(!) negotiations for Fischer to participate in the USSR vs. Rest of World Match. But we just ran out of room and will have to continue the Dialogue next month.

The June 1970 CL&R delivered as promised. A follow-up report by Edmondson, also titled 'Fischer Dialogue', started,

In May we discussed Grandmaster Robert J. Fischer's declining to play in the 1969 U.S. Chess Championship and Zonal Qualifying Tournament. This month we bring the dialogue up to date by covering the negotiations for a Fischer - Botvinnik Match, the USSR vs. Rest of the World Match, and the Tournament of Peace in Rovinj and Zagreb.

The report included a document by Fischer titled, 'Proposals by Grandmaster Robert J. Fischer for Standardizing Rules and Playing Conditions'. Edmondson commented,

Yes, the organizer who seeks Fischer as a contestant in his chess event often faces insurmountable obstacles. Many try, a few meet all of the originally proposed conditions, and yet success is not so easily come by. Take the case of the Netherlands' Leiden Chess Club and its offer to arrange and host a match between Fischer and former World Champion Botvinnik.

Last summer, President Goudsmit of the Royal Netherlands Chess Federation telephoned to ask if I could supply Fischer's current address and/or telephone number. He explained that he wanted to contact Bobby on behalf of the Leiden Chess Club. which hoped to sponsor a Fischer - Botvinnik Match to observe its 75th Anniversary in 1970.

The report covered negotiations between Goudsmit and 'Fischer's business representative, Bernard Davis of New York City'. The match finally fell through because of last minute format changes demanded by Fischer, and 'was replaced by a four man tournament in which Spassky, Donner, Botvinnik, and Larsen played four games against one another'.

Who would have guessed that Fischer eventually played in the upcoming Interzonal?

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