Check Mate

updated 09/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1992 01:00AM

TWENTY YEARS AGO BOBBY FISCHER, a 29-year-old from Brooklyn, was the greatest chess player in the world. And then he disappeared, becoming a mythic figure as elusive as a yeti. Occasionally there would be bizarre Fischer sightings—he had joined the California-based Worldwide Church of God, had his dental fillings removed to prevent the KGB from transmitting messages through them, spent days replaying old chess games in a Pasadena, Calif., apartment littered with orange peelings. In 1975, Fischer refused to play Anatoly Karpov, the Soviet challenger, thereby forfeiting his world championship. "He became mentally trapped inside the game," said Garry Kasparov, today's world champion.

And now suddenly he is in Yugoslavia, more visible than at any time in the past two decades. Last month a Yugoslavian entrepreneur named Jezdimir Vasiljevic, 43, announced that the American chess hermit and Boris Spassky, 55, whom Fischer defeated in 1972 to become the game's then youngest world champion, had agreed to play a $5 million exhibition match, the richest ever, on Sept. 2. "Fischer pulls me out of oblivion," said Spassky, who now ranks 101st in the world and lives in France. "He makes me fight. It's a miracle, and I'm grateful."

Commencing Wednesday at 3 P.M., Fischer and Spassky will duel until one wins 10 games. The winner will pocket $3.35 million and the loser $1.65 million. If each wins nine games, they will declare the match a draw and share the prize equally. The controversial series will begin at the Sveti Stefan resort on the Adriatic Sea and finish in Belgrade—flouting a United Nations trade embargo imposed to end the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "I have nothing to do with politics," a defiant Fischer told Vasiljevic. "I came here to play chess and nothing else." Well, almost. Fischer also spends time with his 19-year-old Hungarian chess master girlfriend, Zita Rajcsanyi, and perfecting his digital chess clock, which will be used in the competition. Although the outcome of the match will have no bearing on rankings (the World Chess Federation has not sanctioned the event), a win by Fischer could make a match with Garry Kasparov a possibility.

But will this be the resurrection of the Fischer king? Or will it be only a curious coda to a career whose ending should have been played out in the shadows? "Both men are aware of their mortality and need money," notes Raymond Keene, a British grand master. "We won't know until the game gets under way whether this is a contest between two bumbling geriatrics or two of the world's best chess professionals."

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