Jan Timman: "The Unstoppable American: Bobby Fischer's Road to Reykjavik" – a review

by Johannes Fischer
7/21/2021 – 50 years ago, on 20 July 1971, Bobby Fischer (pictured) and Bent Larsen played the sixth and final game of their semi-final match of the Candidates. Fischer had won the first five games and he also won the sixth. It was Fischer's 19th win in a row against some of the world's best players, a sensational and unrivalled winning streak. In his new book "The Unstoppable American: Bobby Fischer's Road to Reykjavik" Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman takes a close look at this winning streak and Fischer's dominance in the years 1970 to 1971. Confident, entertaining, and with new insights about Fischer's strengths and weaknesses.

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Those who believe that Bobby Fischer is the greatest player of all time think above all of his play in the years from 1970 to 1972. In 1967 Fischer dropped out of the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse after a dispute with the organizers, although he was leading with 8 out of 10 (7 wins, 2 draws and one forfeited game) and would have almost certainly qualified for the Candidates Matches.

In the years after Sousse, Fischer played only a few tournaments and for some time even disappeared completely from the tournament scene. It was not until 1970, on the occasion of the match USSR versus The Rest of the World in Belgrade, that Fischer returned to the tournament arena – and then had one success after another.

In Belgrade he defeated former World Champion Tigran Petrosian 3-1, and in the blitz tournament that followed the USSR vs The Rest of the World match in Herceg Novi Fischer dominated his rivals completely: he won with 19.0/22, and finished four and a half points ahead of Tal, who came second with 14.5/22.

Then Fischer traveled to the tournament in Rovinj/Zagreb, which he won with 13.0/18, two points ahead of Vlastimil Hort. Fischer's next tournament was in Buenos Aires, and here he won with 15.0/17, 3.5 points ahead of Vladimir Tukmakov.

Next was the Interzonal Tournament in Palma de Mallorca, which Fischer won with 18.5/23, 3.5 points ahead of Larsen, Geller and Hübner, who shared places two to four. In the Candidates Matches Fischer then defeated Mark Taimanov and Larsen both 6-0, against Petrosian he won 6.5-2.5, and with a 12.5-8.5 victory against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik (including the second game which Fischer forfeited) Fischer finally became World Champion.

But all this is well known. After all, Fischer's path to the World Championship has been recounted many times in biographies and articles. Fischer's games from 1970 to 1972 are also well-known - they have been included in numerous anthologies and textbooks and they have been analysed again and again. So one wonders: what does Timman's book offer that is new?

First of all, it is remarkable how Timman manages to combine critical distance with a respectful appreciation of Fischer. Timman, for many years one of the best players in the world, has re-analysed the 63 games of Fischer that he presents in his book with the help of computers and thus arrives at new insights into his play. In the preface Timman writes:

"It will be noticed that Fischer didn't play as perfectly as it was thought for a long time, but I would like to give two short comments here:

  1. Fischer played for a win in almost every game, and this often involved consciously taking risks;

  2. Fischer was prepared to enter into all kinds of different types of play, and he clearly had a better command of all these types of play than the other top players of his time." (p. 7)

Timman has analysed Fischer's games with the help of an engine, but in his comments he doesn't overwhelm the reader with endless variations, but instead limits himself to a selection of the important moments and variations in order to highlight the critical points and to tell the story of the respective game. This makes the analyses very comprehensible and a pleasure to follow.

Timman's comments allow the reader to enjoy and to appreciate Fischer's fantastic chess but also reveal that the American needed some luck to achieve his incredible results.

Timman's easy and confident way of writing is also remarkable. He has drawn from various sources about Fischer,'s life from 1970 to 1971 but as with the analyses of the games, Timman again carefully selected the wealth of material, which he occasionally supplements with anecdotes from his own life, his own views and the opinions of other players such as Robert Hübner or Vlastimil Hort, who knew and played against Fischer. Timman's narrative skills and his deep insight into professional chess allow him to tell the well-known story of Fischer's path to the World Championship in a way that is exciting and entertaining but also restrained and neutral.

This makes both parts of The Unstoppable American, Timman's analyses and the book's narrative passages, a delight to read, and even ardent Fischer fans who know almost everything ever published about their controversial hero should enjoy the book and learn new things about "Bobby".

Jan Timman, "The Unstoppable American: Bobby Fischer's Road to Reykjavik", New in Chess 2021, ca. 23.00€

To conclude, here is the 6th game of the Fischer vs. Larsen match played 50 years ago – with shortened comments by Timman.

 

In his match against Fischer fortune did not smile on Bent Larsen | Photo: Hans Peters

On 14 December 2021 Jan Timman will celebrate his 70th birthday. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s he was one of the best players in the world, and in 1993 he played Anatoly Karpov for the FIDE World Championship. With books like The Art of Chess Analysis, The Art of the Endgame, Timman's Titans, The Longest Game or Timman's Triumphs, the Dutch Grandmaster has also established himself as one of the best chess authors in the world.

The current ChessBase Magazine #202 pays tribute to the Dutch Grandmaster with a "Special": numerous Grandmasters present and annotate their favorite Timman game.

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".

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