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The Interzonal Tournament at Portoroz by Harry Golombek (1958)

It is not often that one is privileged to attend a tournament destined to form a landmark in chess history, but I am convinced that the fourth Interzonal Tournament, which took place at the seaside resort of Portoroz, Yugoslavia from August 4 to September 12 of this year, will prove to have been one of the outstanding turning points in 20th-century chess history. In this respect, arguments as to whether this Interzonal was stronger or weaker than its predecessors are largely irrelevant. What matters is the emergence of new forces in the game and the rise of young players to undreamt-of heights. We are presented with the delightful paradox that the older chess becomes, the younger its best exponents become. The average age of the players in this year’s event was 30; first prize was won by a 21-year-old, and a 15-year-old was one of the qualifiers for the Candidates Matches.

One more interesting point arose, sure to vivify real international interest: for the first time in many years, the Soviet contingent failed to overwhelm all opposition. True, they did well in gaining two of the first six places, but they were far from being as absolutely powerful as in previous Interzonals, with the wholesome result that in next year’s Candidates Tournament, there will be four Soviet players (Smyslov, Tal, Keres and Petrosian) and four from the rest of the world (Gligoric, Benko, Fischer, Olafsson). One wonders what would have happened had Reshevsky played in the Interzonal; it might have even reduced the Soviet contingent by one more!

When FIDE appointed me as Chief Arbiter of the Interzonal, I accepted with the realization that I would have an ideal opportunity to watch some of the best chess of the era. Perhaps I should warn those who might be contemplating becoming a professional arbiter, however, that it is not as much of a sinecure as they might think! It is well to have capable assistants, but in the end, the responsibility for the running of the tournament and settling of crucial and controversial questions rests on your shoulders. There are always 1,001 things to check at the beginning of each round, and then, when everything appears in order, there comes the invidious task of seeing that the players are not unduly disturbed by the demands of publicity. I mean by this the hyenas who wander around shaped like photographers, the jackals that prowl in the form of cameramen, and the vultures hovering overhead taking television shots. This last is truer than the reader might think; in the final round at Portoroz, I discovered a television cameraman taking shots of the playing area from a window opening out onto the roof!

Later on in each round comes an even more strenuous period: time trouble. Since FIDE rules quite categorically state that it is the arbiter’s duty to determine when a player has exceeded the time limit, there rests on him an even greater responsibility than on the player. In the course of my duties in this respect, I believe I was even more affected than the players! The winner, Tal, gave me little trouble with this, as his brain works much quicker than ordinary mortals and he was rarely afflicted by time pressure. The unfortunate tail-ender, Geza Fuster, was just the reverse, seeming to take almost a masochistic delight in getting in time trouble. It is possible that once or twice, he had more than five minutes for his last fifteen moves, but his average must have been much less. While he did not achieve Sämisch’s record in this matter (who once lost four of nine games at a Hastings tournament on time), he certainly lost a large number of games through lack of time. Quite a number of the other young players also often ran short on time, Olafsson being particularly inclined to do so, while Fischer seems to be following in Reshevsky’s footsteps in this field as in others.

I would not like to give the impression that my bed as chief arbiter was entirely of nails. There were rose petals too, chief of which was the amiable and friendly cooperation of the players. Confidentially, I had infinitely more trouble from the players’ seconds than from the players themselves! Leaving delicate ground here, I come to the facts and figures of Portoroz. There were twelve prizes: 300,000; 225,000; 200,000; 150,000; 120,000; 100,000; 80,000; 60,000; 50,000; 40,000; and 30,000 dinars (official tourist exchange rate is 400 dinars to the dollar). Non-prize winners received 2,000 dinars per point and there were a number of special prizes for best combination, endgame, etc.


1. M. Tal 13.5
2. S. Gligoric 13
3. P. Benko 12.5
4. T. Petrosian 12.5
5. R. Fischer 12
6. F. Olafsson 12
7. Y. Averbakh 11.5
8. D. Bronstein 11.5
9. A. Matanovic 11.5
10. L. Pachman 11.5
11. L. Szabo 11.5
12. M. Filip 11
13. O. Panno 11
14. R. Sanguinetti 10
15. O. Neikirch 9.5
16. B. Larsen 8.5
17. J. Sherwin 7.5
18. H. Rossetto 7
19. R. Cardoso 6
20. B. DeGreif 4.5
21. G. Fuster 2

The first six qualified for the Candidates; originally, only five were to qualify, but upon the players sending in a petition to allow eight or even nine to qualify, the FIDE President decided that this Interzonal was strong enough to warrant him exercising his prerogative of sending a sixth player forward–a fortunate decision for Fischer and Olafsson because it spared them an elimination match against each other. Since all who qualify for the Candidates become Grandmasters, this event created two new ones (Benko and Fischer). The event was played in the Ljudksi Dom, a modern building on the shores of the Adriatic. A cynical critic described its architecture as “adobe”, but I thought it looked pleasant enough and I doubt whether any of the players made conscious note of what the building looked like. The rounds were played in the evening from five to ten p.m., with adjourned games finished on special days from four to ten p.m. Spectators crowded the hall every evening, and although it proved impossible to prevent applause when a player won, they behaved very well on the whole.

Before the tournament, most regarded Bronstein, Tal and Petrosian as favorites for the first three places, though no one was foolhardy enough to predict the order. The Russians said they didn’t know who would be first, but Petrosian would be second–a tribute to his steadiness. As it turned out, Bronstein was far from his usual form, and the fact that he drew game after game while Petrosian won point after point seemed to show that they had exchanged personalities. It was generally agreed that Gligoric had excellent chances of qualifying in view of his recent fine form, and perhaps the next favorites were Larsen, Olafsson and Szabo. Nobody gave Fischer a chance to qualify, but those of us who had studied his games were convinced he would end pretty high.

Tal took the lead from the very start and held it until Round 4, when he was well and truly beaten by Matanovic. The joint lead then passed to Averbakh and Petrosian, but Benko’s victory over Averbakh deprived him of first place and Averbakh never looked likely to regain it. It looked as though Petrosian would do even better than the Russians had predicted, for he was in the sole lead until Round 15, when Tal, playing with the fiery determination for which he is already noted, overhauled him. In that round, Tal summarily disposed of Larsen in only 24 moves. Possibly this acted as a spur to the latter, since in the next round, he inflicted Petrosian’s first loss in nearly four years! Even so, Petrosian was second just a half-point behind Tal, but from then on, he played safe, drew his remaining games and made sure of qualifying–albeit without the panache of being in the top two.

Tal was a deserved first-prize winner; the young Latvian GM set out to win every game. This fervent desire to win is coupled with a passionate enthusiasm for chess; if he could, Tal would play 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At Portoroz, he never seemed to have enough; as soon as his game was finished, he could be seen playing speed games with whomever he could find. Gligoric’s second place was also well-merited; only an unlucky loss to Olafsson deprived him of making a serious challenge for first place.

One surprise of the tournament was Pal Benko. Known to be Hungary’s third strongest player after Szabo and Barcza, his international appearances have been too rare to form a positive judgment as to his chances in such a strenuous contest. In addition, one might have thought the fact of his being a refugee and temporarily stateless would create an unsettling feeling. The contrary was the case, as he qualified with some ease. The tie between Fischer and Olafsson was just about the most pleasing result that could have been expected. Olafsson was awarded the GM title by the FIDE Congress at Dubrovnik while this tournament was taking place.

Much more astonishing was the result of 15-year-old Bobby Fischer. Starting off a little insecurely, he seemed to gather fresh strength and confidence in each round until, in the end, grandmasters were afraid of him and anxious to draw. What interests the onlooker is the nature of his style. Unlike normal prodigies, he does not spend his time looking for combinations. If the complications come, then he can “ride the whirlwind and command the storm” with the ease of a Capablanca. He can produce an appropriate combination at the appropriate moment, but for the most part, he is content to win by a remarkably mature positional judgment.

The possibilities of such a player is truly enormous. Practically no bounds can be set on the development of a genius based on such secure foundations. He has already achieved much (U.S. champion and GM at age 15) but will certainly achieve considerably more in the future. Some six months ago, I wrote it would not be long before Bobby Fischer would be knocking at the door that led to the World Championship, and he seems to be knocking louder than most people then anticipated. Lest I gave the impression above that Fischer is not also a fine attacking player, I give the following bright example from Round 8.