An unfashionable opening variety and an inspired bowling choice changed the trajectory of both chess and cricket. It also embellished the aura of the tortured chess genius Bobby Fischer and the imperturbable former India captain MS Dhoni.
Fischer had lost the first game of the 1972 World Championship in Reykvajik against reigning champion Boris Spassky by a gross blunder, and forfeited the second due to a protest about film cameras being present in the playing hall, and was on the brink. Dhoni, on the other hand, had a dozen runs to defend in the final over of the inaugural World T20 final against Pakistan.
The stakes were staggering in both contests. One was an American-Russian duel in the Cold War era and the other was an India-Pakistan face-off. Fischer nearly pulled out of the match but for US national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s insistence. As far as Dhoni was concerned, an angry mob had pelted stones at his house after the 50-over World Cup exit a few months ago and he was captain because the seniors had collectively abstained from the tournament.
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But pressure only emboldened the two. With Fischer playing with black, experts thought he would go on the defensive to stay alive in the series. Spassky began the game on an aggressive note, but Fischer surprised him with an unusual move, called the Benoni Opening. In the opening, Fischer divided his game into a kingside and a queenside squadron, putting his knight at risk. Spassky was taken utterly by surprise, brooding for 40 minutes before his next move. Fischer then worked up play on the opponent’s king pawn, which was attacked and had to fall.
The Russian kept falling into the trap – he traded bishop for the knight and the absence of the white bishop was felt later. Fischer’s idea was to use the white squares of the opposing bishop, even if meant sacrificing a knight. The former desperately played for a draw, but Fischer was not to let the match get out of his grip, and sealed it with his 41st move. Basically, it is a forceful defence, giving rise to extremely active positions rich in rapid-fire tactical possibilities.
Similarly, Dhoni had the more defensive and logical option of experienced off-spinner Harbhajan Singh. But he inverted conventional wisdom and opted for medium pacer Joginder Sharma, not the archetypal, yorker-bowling death bowler. The logic, Dhoni later explained, was the immediacy of events. Misbah had creamed Harbhajan for three sixes in his previous over. He also remembered a similar onslaught on the Indian spinners in a tri-series three years ago. So ambled in Sharma, a move that seemed to boomerang as his first three balls were a wide, a dot ball and six, chopping the target down to five off four balls. Then the Misbah brain-fade, the fatal scoop that nestled into the palms of S Sreesanth. Misbah, like Spassky, had several escape routes, but panicked.
Rest is (Indian) history, as the shortest format captured the collective imagination of the country. The Indian Premier League swiftly followed, changing the sport’s shape irrevocably and triggering an explosion in 20-over franchise cricket. Fischer’s triumph produced a chess boom in the West that lasted a decade, though he was to subsequently dissociate from the US and embrace a self-imposed exile.