Review of the Unstoppable American by Jan Timman

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The Unstoppable American – Bobby Fischer’s Road to Reykjavic by Jan Timman 2021 New in Chess 256pp

Much has been written on the “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which took place in Reykjavic, Iceland in 1972. However, much less has been detailed about how Fischer got there in the first place. At least not in English. With the 50 year anniversary coming up next year it stands to reason that this gap in chess lore stands to be filled nicely.

One entry into that cannon is this new offering by former top player turned current top writer, Jan Timman. As someone who very much watched a large part of his career unfold over the board, it’s been a great pleasure to watch this second career unfold over the page.

This effort does not disappoint. It covers the time in Fischer’s career from his return to play at the 1970 USSR vs The World event through his Candidates Final in 1971. Interestingly both his match in the first event and in the latter were against former World Champion, Tigran Petrosian.

One things that struck me immediately as I started to go through the games was the way that Timman was using a lot of prosaic analysis of positions rather than just variations. I’ve touched on this before, but I find it to be very important since overly relying on engine heavy analysis tends to mean that the book will appear “useless” and/or “refuted” when the next version of Stockfish is released. After all, that version will see that on move 27 of Game X there is an improvement of .01 for White on ply 47 of some variation, and now the move that was given as best in the previous version is no more. This leads a lot of people to discount entirely the analytical work that has come before.

This means that verbal explanations will drive the point home better since they will very likely still apply even with small variances to the deeper parts of the analysis over time due to stronger engines. Having said that, Timman does include variations as well in order to properly demonstrate the ideas he is conveying.

As an example of this type of analysis, let’s take this position from Game Two of the 1970 match against Petrosian.

Here Petrosian seals 41.Rd1

After resumption, this position is reached after White’s 43rd move.

Fischer goes on to play 43…Nf6 and Timman goes on to state:

“It looks as if Fischer hadn’t paid much attention to the sealed move in his analysis of the adjourned position; otherwise he would have surely opted for 43…Nc7! here.

analysis diagram

Just like after the text move, the d5-square is inaccessible for the white bishop, but it is even more important that White cannot place his rook behind the black a-pawn. White’s situation is hopeless; for example, 44.Rd3 a4 45.Ra3 Rc4 46.Ra1 Nb5 47.Bb7 Nb4, and the a=pawn will decide.”

What stands out to me about that type of writing is that it will be useful forever more. Even if some tiny improvements are found which change the engine choices to other moves, the educational idea of why 43…Nc7! would have been a better move will remain.

The book itself is broken out into five chapter. They are

      1. The Road to Palma
      2. Palma de Mallorca
      3. The Match Against Mark Taimanov
      4. The Match Against Bent Larsen
      5. The Match Against Tigran Petrosian

While the final four chapters need little explanation as they cover the Interzonal at Palma, along with the three Candidates Matches, the first chapter could use a bit of an introduction. Covered in it are the event mentioned prior of the USSR vs The World Match, along with some descriptions (though no games) of the famous Herceg Novi blitz event where Fischer finished 4.5 points clear of the field. From there games are given from tournaments in Rovinj/Zagreb, Yugoslavia and Buenos Aires, Argentina, which both were held in 1970. Finally, from Argentina, Fischer rushed to Siegen, Germany to play in the Olympiad.

After all of the top level chess activity it was clear that Fischer was still the strongest player in the world. Looking at the games, it seems as though he was almost predetermined to become world champion. It’s easy to forget in hindsight that a special exemption had to be granted by FIDE to even allow him to participate in the Interzonal as he had not qualified through the usual means of playing in a Zonal tournament.

Throughout the descriptions of the various events Timman does a good job of detailing some of the roadblocks that Fischer continually set for himself, such as last minute demands for more money or better conditions, without going too far down the rabbit hole. As a reader I very much appreciated this since many authors in the past have allowed these issues to almost obscure the games themselves. There are no attempts to either psychoanalyze the reasons, nor to defend Fischer for his antics. The incidents are simply presented as fact and then moved past.

It should also be noted that Timman does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information about the events themselves. There are some great descriptions of the venues, players, conditions, and overall culture of the tournaments and matches.

All in all this book was a real treat. I very much enjoyed it and think that it’s accessible to just about anyone who knows the rules and loves the game. There is no rating minimum to get something from this book. While it’s not instructional in nature, it’s very informative, and there are definitely some lessons to be learned, per the analytical example given above.

Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of this book today.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott