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"There is still no definitive answer to the question that has been from the start: Can the American genius play top-flight chess despite a 20-year layoff from public competition?"

This is the question Robert Byrne, chess editor for the New York Times and a former U.S. champion, discusses after the first half of Bobby Fischer's exhibition match with Boris Spassky in Sveti Stevan, Yugoslavia.Fischer is winning the $5 million series by 5-2, with four draws, which don't count. Ten victories are needed to win the match.

Match organizers said early this week that the 12th game between Fischer and Spassky would start either Sept. 30 or Oct. 3 in Belgrade. The exact date will be determined later, they said.

Fischer's quality of play is not marvelous, as it was when he won the world championship in Iceland in the summer of 1972. Probably no one expected it to be, but how should it be assessed?

One is inclined to say up and down - some of the legendary creativity alternating with almost paralysis of thought - but getting more and more up as the match goes on.

Maxim Dlugy, an Englewood, N.J., grandmaster and president of the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF), has discussed the match with the world champion, Gary Kasparov. Dlugy gave this assessment to Byrnes this week.

"Spassky is playing a lemon every game. Spassky's lack of strength is making the match a joke. But Bobby is playing quite well, on a level to be included in the top 50 players in the world."

Overall, nonetheless, Fischer's play has been spotty. As Dlugy added, "Bobby shows a loss of perception of what to do."

This was eminently true in Game 4, where Fischer could not organize a defense for his position and marched in circles to disaster. Game 5, which he also lost, was similar, but there are the other games, particularly in Games 1, 7, 9 and 11, about which Dlugy said, "They are reminiscent of Bobby's straightforward logic of years ago."

The best of them shows the old pointed clarity, and Fischer still has the courage of belief in himself. One of his strongest talents is to produce innovations in tactics and strategy, and this can be glimpsed in the present contest.

Yet the old merciless, clean-cut Fischer technique that made mincemeat of opponent after opponent is sometimes in evidence, as in Game 7, and sometimes not, as in Game 2, which he should have won routinely.

He never used to let his alertness flag, but in the fourth game, Fischer got so wrapped up in planning his own strategy that he grievously discounted a potent sacrifice by which Spassky fired up a winning counterattack. Also in the fourth game, Fischer failed under pressure to work out the clever combinations that would have saved a draw. This would not have happened 20 years ago.

Still, in the seventh game, when Spassky, who had been playing strongly, rushed his attack, Fischer sharply punched holes in it and won.

In Game 8, both players misanalyzed a complex position, but Spassky made the last mistake, and Fischer woke up to punish him and win.

In Game 9, Fischer showed some of the profound inventiveness that distinguished his play years ago. In his favorite opening, he produced an incisive nuance that Spassky could not cope with and won all the more easily when his unnerved opponent offered little resistance in the endgame. This was vintage Fischer.

In Game 11, Fischer innovated brilliantly with a new gambit to throw Spassky on the defensive. The game followed a scintillating course of slash and riposte until Spassky could stand the pace no longer and went down to defeat. An impressive battle.

Thus, as the games go by and Fischer gets back into practice, he grows stronger. If he sustains the pattern and wins by a heavy margin, he might be ready to challenge a current hotshot like Anatoly Karpov of Russia, Nigel Short of England, Jan Timman of the Netherlands, Vasily Ivanchuck of Ukraine or Viswanathan Anand of India.

And what about Kasparov? Ask again at the end of the match, says grandmaster Byrne.

- CONGRATULATIONS TO THE SOLVERS! - Steven Jensen, Raeburn Kennard, Hal Knight, Frank Knight, Richard B. Laney, Jim Low, Kay Lundstrom, Connie Miller, Norm Marchant, Lincoln McClelland, Gary Neumann, Roger Neumann, Elsa Oldroyd, Ted Pathakis, Knute Petersen, Jim Reed, Ed Richardson, Philip Rodriguez, Hans Rubner, Edwin O. Smith, Vern Smith, Edward Scherer, Al Schow, Jeff Thelin, Eugene Wagstaff, Werner Young, Steven Anderson, Loile Bailey, Kim Barney, Steven L. Baker, Ramon E. Bassett, Daniel Barlow, Alan E. Brown, O. Kent Berg, Farrell L. Clark, George L. Cavanaugh, Bobby Callery, Jack Crandall, Brian Chamberlain, Ken Frost, Ed Felt, Gordon Greene, Steven Ivie, Hal Harmon, Enos Howard and David Higley.