It's 10 years and counting since Bobby Fischer won the world chess championship from Boris Spassky - and incredible as it seems, he hasn't played a single tournament or match game in all that time.
What he's been doing during a decade of seclusion is a mystery to all but his closest associates. He lives in the Los Angeles area, but keeps to himself and avoids all contact with the news media. Rumors crop up occasionally that he has been seen here or there. He reportedly still studies chess and plays occasional fast games with his friends. But the consensus is that he probably never again will sit down at the board for another serious session.
''For the longest time I thought and hoped he'd come back,'' said US Senior co-champion and many-time New England titleholder John Curdo of Massachusetts, a close observer of the national and international scenes.
''A chess fanatic like Fischer must have kept up with the game,'' Curdo noted. ''He had taken layoffs before, though of course nothing like this. And I guess I just didn't want to think he might not come back at all.
''But it's been so long that my hope has really dimmed at this point,'' he conceded as the 10th anniversary of the famous title match in Reykjavik, Iceland , passed with no optimistic signs.
It's certainly a strange twist the whole saga has taken compared to expectations 10 years ago. Then it was Spassky who appeared likely to go into eclipse, while the future never had seemed brighter for the first American ever to win the official world title.
Fischer was greeted like a conquering hero upon his return to New York, and throughout the fall of 1972 he appeared on magazine covers, national TV shows, etc. Surely his victory marked the dawn of a new era of public interest in the game in this country - a chance to give chess the stature it has long enjoyed in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations. There would be lessons on television, more chess in the schools, etc. Everybody would soon be playing. And of course the new champion would be the visible symbol making it all happen - playing in tournaments, giving lectures and exhibitions, and eventually defending his title in another highly publicized match in 1975 at the end of the prescribed three-year cycle for determining his challenger.
But very little of this ever happened. Fischer made a few appearances, then disappeared from view. Meanwhile Spassky recovered quickly from his loss and has remained among the world's top players.
Fischer's behavior is just the latest chapter in a bizarre saga that has fascinated the public since he burst upon the scene in 1957 by winning the US championship at 14. His amazing success at such a young age coupled with his ''enfant terrible'' reputation quickly made him a world-famous figure.
The brash kid from Brooklyn won five US titles in a row while still in his teens, and at 16 reached the Candidates' Tournament to select the world championship challenger. He did well in that event and a similar one three years later, but not well enough to win either time. Then came a decade of arguments with tournament directors, charges of Soviet cheating, and walkouts in the middle of events, climaxed by a truly unbelievable scene in 1969 when he was dominating a tournament leading toward a probable title shot only to quit over a dispute about playing conditions.
He put his famous temperament on hold long enough to earn the 1972 challenger's role and win the world title, only to revert right away to a lifestyle even more strange and reclusive than before - this time apparently for good.
''By now, even if he did try to come back, there's the question of whether he could do it,'' points out Curdo. ''I don't think there's any question that he could regain a position among the world's top players, but you have to wonder if he could go all the way again.
''He's 39 now. He always stayed in shape, but a lot would depend on whether he has continued to do so. Also how much he's really studied chess in these 10 years.''
As recently as a few years ago there were persistent rumors that Fischer might be lured out of retirement for a lucrative match with current champion Anatoly Karpov, who has held the title since winning it by default when Fischer declined to defend in 1975. Figures as high as $5 million were tossed around, but nothing ever came of it.
Ironically, Karpov would very much like to play Bobby according to the information that filters through to the US chess community.
''He feels his reputation will never be as bright as it should be as long as Fischer is out there,'' says International Master John Peters of Los Angeles. ''But of course Soviet officials would want no part of such a match even if Fischer did. They figure Karpov would have everything to lose and nothing to gain, since if he won, people would say it was just against a shell.''
And in any case, he says, it's all academic at this point.
''There was some hope in the mid-to-late 1970s,'' Peters said recalling the Karpov rumors and various other proposed matches with Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi, young Brazilian star Henrique Mecking, and Yugoslav veteran Svetozar Gligoric.
''When he wouldn't even agree to play Gligoric, for $1 million win or lose, in a country he loves, against a friend who would agree to just about any conditions, and a player who, though good, had very little chance of beating him , I gave up. After he wouldn't do that, it was hard to believe any more talk.''
While Fischer created his own difficulties in the wake of the 1972 championship match, Spassky had to overcome some typical Soviet-style problems. An out-of-favor individualist who had been tolerated by the party while he held the title, he learned how quickly an ex-champion can lose his privileges under such conditions. And it soon became apparent that as far as chess was concerned, the Soviets didn't think Boris had much chance of regaining the title and were already grooming young Karpov for that job.
Refusing to accept this assessment, Spassky has continued to play well, and in the three Candidates Tournaments held since 1972 he reached the semifinals, finals, and quarterfinals in that order. This time, in attempting to qualify for the 1983 tournament, which would lead to the championship match the following year, he didn't quite make it, losing out by a half point in the qualifying tournament.
So the two principals of history's most famous chess match have gone their different routes, but the memories of the struggle are still vivid for all who followed it - starting with Fischer's antics. There were constant squabbles about the site, the money, the television cameras, the chairs they sat in - you name it. Right up to the last minute, Bobby wavered between getting on a plane in New York and chucking the whole thing. When he did agree to play, he blew the first game via a blunder, then sat in his hotel room and forfeited the second one while continuing his arguments about playing conditions.
That put him down 2-0 in the 24-game match, but the turmoil apparently upset Spassky more than it did Bobby, and after he returned for Game 3, Fischer methodically destroyed his foe, winning seven games and drawing 11 against only one more loss to prevail by a decisive 12 1/2-81/2 score. Naturally the public ate it up - especially with all the US vs USSR aspects and the constant reminders that Fischer was becoming the first non-Soviet champion since before World War II.
When Bobby failed to capitalize on all this - either in terms of the millions of dollars he could have made or in the way he could have helped boost chess in this country - no one thought much about it for a while. It was a lost opportunity in both areas, but people sort of shrugged and said, ''That's Bobby.'' And if, unlike other champions, he didn't play in any tournaments for a couple of years, he again was probably doing things his own way to prepare for his 1975 title defense.
Even his long list of demands concerning match conditions seemed standard practice by then. But this time he went all the way, and when he couldn't get the changes he wanted, he simply forfeited the title.
The US chess public has taken a long time to accept Bobby's absence, but finally its attention is turning toward the new crop of young players. This is not in any unrealistic hope of ''another Fischer,'' but simply in the realization that the original one is gone, and that it's time to develop new players capable of contending for, and perhaps even winning, that elusive world championship.
It won't be for a while, though. The competition for the eight-player field to determine the 1984 challenger is already over, with no Americans left in the running - so already the earliest possible date is 1987.
That's plenty of time for just about anything to happen - even the return of Bobby Fischer. But according to all the evidence of the last 10 years, plus the opinions of virtually the entire US chess establishment, it really is time to finally put that dream away for good.