Sportsnight #23: 1972, Chess, The Match of the Century – Spassky vs Fischer

by George_East on October 23, 2013

Good evening and welcome to Sportsnight from Reykjavik, Iceland where challenger Bobby Fischer is seeking to become the first American Chess World Champion since 1888.

It is odd to think of it now – but there was hardly anything in the 45 years after the Second World War that was not seen through the prism of the Cold War.  This very year saw the legendary last minute victory of the Soviet Union’s basket ball team against the thought to be unbeatable American team at the Munich Olympics (something that would happen in reverse in the Ice Hockey final in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid) – a previous Sportsnight feature.

In the summer of 1972 Reykjavik saw the Cold War being fought through the proxy of the chess world championships.   The Soviets had utterly dominated world chess since 1948, with an unbroken series of world champions – the game at that time would see Soviet Union vs the Rest of the World matches held, as no other nation could realistically take on the might of Soviet talent.

This was all about to change in 1972 when American former chess child prodigy Bobby Fischer was slated to meet Boris Spassky, world champion since 1969.  There was added needle about this contest, as ten years earlier in an infamous interview, the then 19 year old Fischer had accused the Soviets of fixing the World Championships by playing for easy draws with each other to leave them better rested to play non-Soviet competitors.

Fischer, for many observers of the game, the greatest chess grandmaster who has ever lived, ensured that the match lived up to its pre-tournament hype.  Fischer was to the Americans and the West the Einstein of Chess; on the other side of the iron curtain he was the Hitler of Chess.   No chess player has ever been so venerated and reviled at the same time.

The hype made this the most lucrative game on record. The prize pot was $250,000 (worth about $1,300,000 in today’s values), together with a cut of television revenues.   At the time this was, boxing aside, one of the biggest money pots for any sport of any kind.   The tournament would for the first time see chess on the front page of newspapers, leading broadcast news bulletins and having prime time television coverage.

Despite this Fischer did not even turn up to the opening ceremony.    Was this gamesmanship or just a reflection of the eccentric nature of Fischer – something that would be seen in spades after he retired from international chess in 1975 and pretty much disappeared from the map for 20 years in JD Salinger-like fashion.

The tournament was the best of 24 with games scheduled on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday of each week.   Although Spassky was the defending world champion, Fischer went into the tournament as favourite – at the very peak of his powers he was ranked number one in the world by the chess federation, FIDE, a record 125 points above Spassky’s rating.  However, Fischer had never beaten Spassky.

The first game, played on a chess board and with chess pieces chosen by Fischer,  saw Spassky take an 1-0 lead after Fischer turned down the opportunity of forcing draws.  Fischer blamed the media and refused to even come out for the second game unless all cameras were removed.   Spassky won the game by default: 2-0 up and possibly the whole tournament was over, would Fischer show up if his demands were not met?

Many years later it was this default that Anatoly Karpov (who would succeed Fischer as world champion in 1975) would describe as Fischer’s tactical masterstroke  – so far as Karpov was concerned Fischer deliberately forfeited the second game to upset the rhythm and concentration of Spassky.

With Fischer still refusing to play, the tournament was on the brink of being forfeited to Spassky after only one game had been played.   To understand the significance of the game for Cold War politics, it is thought that the primary reason that Fischer did not simply get on a plane and leave, was that Henry Kissinger phoned him to plead with him to stay.

Spassky partly out of sportsmanship and partly because he did not want to win by default, agreed to have the third game played in  a back room away from the cameras.   This was a bad mistake on Spassky’s part as Fischer won the game convincingly.  Strangely, having won that game and pulling the position back to 2-1, Fischer suddenly lost his objection to the prescence of the cameras and the rest of the tournament continued as intended.

The shenangins would continue – like a Le Carre spy thriller in 1950s Berlin.  The Soviet authorities claimed that Fischer was controlling Spassky with electronic and chemical devices.  Fischer demanded the first 7 rows of spectators be removed as they were interfering with his game (the first 3 rows would be removed) and television cameras were removed for being ‘too noisy’ – this would result in that epitome of capitalist responses, a lawsuit from the production company, Chester Fox, who had paid for the rights.

However it was games 2 and 3 that turned things and with the psychological battle clearly won by Fischer as a result, he then went on to demolish Spassky on the chess board.  Spassky would only win one further game.

The gamesmanship was though matched by some sublime chess. Fischer’s play in the 13th game has been described as one of the most creative chess of all time. David Bronstein, another Soviet Chess Grandmaster, describes the game as ‘like an enigma, it teases my imagination’.

The end of the tournament would be as controversial as the beginning.  On the 21st game with Fischer 11 ½ – 8 ½ ahead, was adjourned over night in a position favourable to Fischer, when the next morning Spassky resigned the game by telephone, rather than turning up for the final session in person.

Fischer would later disappear for 20 years, turn up in Yugoslavia, deny the holocaust and make antismetic statements (even though he was himself Jewish), declare himself glad that 9/11 had happened (leading to his expulsion from the US Chess Federation, despite being undoubtedly the greatest American chess player of all time), publicly urge a military coup in the United States, write a sympathetic letter to Osama Bin Ladin  and be arrested in Japan for trying to travel on a revoked passport.   He would live out his last days as a recluse in the country that had made him famous, Iceland, having been granted asylum from the United States.   It is hard to imagine a more bizarre last 30 years for anyone, let alone a top level international superstar at their sport.

There has never been a chess match like it.  Chess would never again grip the public imagination and hold the world’s attention as Fischer v Spassky did for two months in 1972.   Chess became for that brief moment, like the Christmas football match between opposing trenches in 1914, a part of history.

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