BOBBY FISCHER has had no trouble reclaiming his old title as the enfant terrible of chess, but regaining the world-championship level as a player is proving a bit more difficult.
From the beginning of his $5 million rematch with Boris Spassky, Fischer displayed his old form away from the board - railing against real or perceived enemies and making threats and demands about media coverage and playing conditions.
At the board, he also started out like the "same old Bobby," winning Game 1 with a skillful display of high-level chess.
Grandmasters attending the match on the Adriatic resort island of Sveti Stevan in Yugoslavia hailed his sharp, logical play - and marveled at his ability to come back from a self-imposed, 20-year absence.
The euphoria was short-lived. After two draws, Spassky struck back to win Game 4.
Then came Game 5 and another stunner: Spassky won with the black pieces - something he had not done in all 29 of their previous encounters, including the historic 1972 match in Iceland in which Fischer wrested the world title from him. (White always begins the game, an advantage.)
It wasn't just the results, but the way the games were played, that raised the first doubts about Fischer's strength. His moves seemed aimless at times, and his play was hesitant and inconsistent. Indeed, Spassky almost made it three in a row in Game 6, but Fischer held on for a draw.
Then just when he appeared on the ropes, Fischer came back to win Game 7 and tie the match again (results of Game 8 were not available at press time). The question remains, however, as to how much the long layoff may have taken away from him.
Former US champion Arthur Bisguier, a frequent rival of Fischer's in the 1950s and '60s, said that the first half-dozen games made it "painfully obvious that a rust has set in. The strategic concepts are good, but [Fischer's] legendary accuracy isn't there."
Bisguier also speculated that Fischer's confidence might have been shaken by his early losses: "He's been down a couple of games before, but I don't think he ever doubted that he was the best ... but now he has to be doubting it."
Bisguier, who has also played Spassky, noted that Fischer is up against a dangerous rival. "Spassky is a great player, and for the first time in 20 years, he is taking a match seriously," Bisguier said. "I'm very impressed with his opening preparation. He's played very creatively at times...."
Indeed, from the time this match was announced, Spassky has not been given his due, with the press and public fascinated as always by Fischer's eccentric genius.
With his early victories, however, Spassky has made it clear that not one, but two great former champions are trying to regain their form. There is plenty of time to do so (the match goes to the first player to win 10 games), and right now the jury remains out on who will be more successful.