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Fischer's opponent: Vasily Smyslov in 1964 (photo: NationaalArchief NL)

The Fischer-Spassky world championship match of 1972 is renowned as the greatest confluence of chess and Cold War politics. Yet a much less well remembered event 50 years ago this month, also involving Bobby Fischer, was no less freighted with political drama. This was the Capablanca memorial tournament, held in Havana from August 25 to September 25, 1965.

Fidel Castro, a keen chess player, had the notion of luring the mercurial Fischer, who seemed to have retired from international chess tournaments. Fischer was still furious about what he saw as “Russian cheating” in the Curaçao world championship event of 1962. Instead he had concentrated on purely domestic events, with phenomenal results. Between 1963 and 1965 he achieved the remarkable feat of winning 22 consecutive tournament games, including an unprecedented 11 straight wins in the US championship.

But Castro’s offer of a $3,000 first prize (then a huge sum for a chess event) was enough to tempt Fischer to re-enter international competition — and doubtless he also would have reckoned on beating the three Soviet players competing: former world champion Vasily Smyslov, Efim Geller and Ratmir Kholmov.

Fischer did not reckon on the US State Department, which refused him a visa to travel to Cuba. The US Grandmaster Larry Evans had been granted a visa to play in the same annual event in 1964, only two years after the Cuban missile crisis. But, as we now know, the FBI was monitoring the 22-year-old Fischer’s mother, suspected of Communist sympathies, and it doubtless saw Fischer’s participation as a propaganda coup for Castro.

Fischer was not so easily thwarted. He came up with the idea of playing all his games via telex from New York. Castro, unsurprisingly, agreed to meet the $10,000 cost: and the other participants could hardly object to this unusual arrangement, as they were largely from Communist countries so would have to do as they were told. Besides, to play Fischer had become the dream of any ambitious master. Then, however, Fischer heard that the Cuban leader was boasting how he had got him to play against the wishes of the US government. Fischer cabled Castro, saying that he would withdraw unless “you immediately send me a telegram declaring that neither you nor your government will attempt to make any political capital out of my participation.” Castro’s response was perhaps not what Fischer had expected: “Cuba has no need of propaganda victories. If you are frightened . . . then it would be better to find another excuse.”

Fischer backed down and agreed to play. As David Edmonds and John Eidinow observe in their book Bobby Fischer Goes To War: “Castro’s riposte is an interesting lesson for students of Fischer’s psychology . . . scornful counter-attack was the mode.” The point is that everyone else buckled at Fischer’s demands — and found it only encouraged further aggression.

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