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Veteran Chess Stars Vie Again

Commentary: Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky will meet in a world far removed from 1972

BOBBY FISCHER vs. Boris Spassky! The names alone conjure up memories of the most-publicized and widely followed chess match of all time.

The global chess community is agog as these old rivals and former world champions prepare to square off again in the unlikely setting of the former Yugoslavia starting Sept. 2.

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But even the $5 million purse and the box-office appeal of their names cannot equal the excitement or the significance of the original match. Too many things have changed since that 1972 media circus in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Earlier this summer, Yugoslav banker Jezdimir Vasiljevic contacted both parties and began making the necessary arrangements. In July, he announced that both men had signed contracts, and that the match would begin with an unspecified number of games on the resort island of Sveti Stefan, then move to Belgrade for the concluding phase.

International Grand Master William Lombardy, who was Fischer's coach and adviser in Iceland in 1972, expressed both sorrow and anger at Fischer's long absence - and at the site for his return.

"I think Fischer has been forgetting that a great artist has an obligation to produce his art," Mr. Lombardy said in a phone interview. "Also, now that he finally is playing again, I think it's a disaster that he's playing overseas while American chess is practically dying on the vine."

To win the match, a player must win 10 games and be ahead by at least two points, in which case he gets the $3.35 million top prize, with the loser pocketing $1.65 million. Should the score reach 9-9, the match will be declared a draw, with the combatants splitting the prize money. Flouting UN sanctions

Banker Vasiljevic has made no secret of the fact that one of his aims is to defy United Nations economic sanctions against his country, imposed because of the warring factions there. A spokesman for the United States Treasury Department said the match, if it occurs, will violate the sanctions.

Fischer's representatives had approached the department about obtaining a license for the match, the spokesman said, but didn't make a formal application after being told it would be declined.

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Meanwhile, Fischer and Spassky are in Yugoslavia awaiting the start of the match. Both have also apparently conducted the intensive pre-match training that is standard for such a contest.

Fischer, of course, is the main reason for all the excitement. Ever since his arrival on the chess scene as a child prodigy in the 1950s he has captured the public's imagination as no other American player has, both by his superlative play at the board and his erratic behavior away from it.

Throughout his playing days his actions became more and more bizarre - constant squabbles with organizers over seemingly insignificant details, forfeiting games or walking out of tournaments and matches, periodic disappearances from the scene. But whenever he did compete, all seemed to be forgiven in the glow of his fantastic play.

First, he was the boy wonder, champion of the United States at the age of 14. Then he was the young superstar - America's only hope against the Soviet chess monopoly that had ruled the game since World War II. When he finally reached the championship match, the whole country watched as he battled Spassky in the famous showdown in Iceland.

It was cold-war drama at its best: the brash young American wresting the title from the flag-bearer of the "Big Red Machine."

Fischer won the match by the crushing score of 12 1/2 to 8 1/2, only to disappear into seclusion and remain there until now. From time to time during the past two decades, rumors of big-money comeback matches popped up, but always the proposals fell through.

Today, there's no more cold war - not even a Soviet Union. Spassky hardly represents the old regime, anyway: He was never a party hard-liner; he married a French woman years ago and became a French citizen himself. Despite its hefty price tag, the match has no official significance. There is no title at stake - it is an exhibition match. And unless they prove otherwise, the players themselves are far removed from today's top echelon. Why Fischer's return?

Despite all this, fascination continues to grow as the match draws near. Even if the chess turns out to be exciting, how will it compare with the play of world champion Gary Kasparov and the rest of today's top competitors?

Then there is the biggest question of all, as far as US chess is concerned: Why is Fischer doing this now, after rejecting so many other offers over his 20-year hiatus? He has never given any public explanation.

Initially, Fischer refused to make the mandatory defense of his title in 1975 when he demanded but was unable to obtain certain changes in the format. He dropped out for the next 17 years, living in seclusion in the Pasadena, Calif., area.

He would be spotted from time to time ("Fischer sightings" became as talked-about in the chess world as "Elvis sightings" among the general public), but he never made any public appearances. Sporadic second- or third-hand reports indicated that he continued to keep up with the game.

Speculation about the reason for his return ranges from financial hardship, to ego, to restlessness, to a reported recent engagement, even to annoyance that his record for becoming the world's youngest-ever grandmaster was recently broken by a woman, 15-year-old Judit Polgar of Hungary.

Many chess experts wonder how much of his old form Fischer can regain after such a lengthy absence from top competition.

Spassky's current level of ability is also suspect. After getting over his loss in 1972, he continued to play in major events for quite some time, though he was never able to reach the role of world championship challenger. And in recent years he has gravitated toward a more relaxed lifestyle featuring more tennis and skiing and less serious chess.

Perhaps just as much as with Fischer, the question is whether Spassky can regain anything approaching his old form. He apparently wants to give it a shot, though, as he said of Fischer in a recent interview with the New York Times: "He pulls me out of oblivion," Spassky told chess columnist and fellow grandmaster Robert Byrne. "He makes me fight. It's a miracle, and I am grateful."

As for Fischer, his return certainly pulls chess out of at least quasi-oblivion in the United States.

Back in his halcyon days, he single-handedly raised American interest in the game to levels it never reached before or since. "Fischer fever" brought thousands of new enthusiasts to the game, creating a boom in chess clubs, equipment and book sales, and membership in the US Chess Federation.

His withdrawal led to a consequent drop in all these areas, and his return to the scene - if indeed it is more than just this one shot - has US chess officials licking their chops in anticipation of yet another growth spurt.

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