General Apr 7, 2020 | 9:55 AMby FM Joachim Iglesias

Match of the Century & Spassky's Immortal: 50 years on

It's now 50 years since Boris Spassky delighted the chess world with a pure gem at the expense of Bent Larsen. The then reigning 10th World Champion played that game in 1970 during the 2nd round of the "Match of the Century", the USSR vs. the Rest of the World, which took place in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. FM Joachim Iglesias looks back at an event that also featured future or past World Champions Bobby Fischer, Tigran Petrosian, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Botvinnik and Mikhail Tal. 

Round 1: Bobby Fischer has a look at the game Spassky-Larsen. On the bottom right, Gligoric is playing against Geller | photo source: Douglas Griffin/

In 1970, the USSR dominated the chess world. The Soviets had seized the world crown thanks to Mikhail Botvinnik in 1948, and it was then worn by Boris Spassky, following in the footsteps of Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian. Moreover, the USSR had won every Olympiad since first participating in 1952. 

When the FIDE President and 5th World Champion announced a match between the USSR and the Rest of the World, it was presented as "The Match of the Century," and deservedly so, even though there would be another one two years later.

The match was held from 29th March to 5th April 1970 in Belgrade, thanks to the organisation of the Yugoslav Chess Federation, which initiated the project. 

10 players were set to play against each other over the course of four rounds. Two reserve players could replace any player for one game.

The 1970 Belgrade match is to chess what the 1927 Solvay congress is to physics | photo: Olimpbase

Bobby Fischer was absent from the photo shoot and Miguel Najdorf displayed, as so often, a gift for words: "Fischer prefers to enter Chess History alone".

The Soviet Team

Favorites on paper with their five World Champions, the Soviet team was nevertheless ageing.

  1. Boris Spassky, 33 years old, 2670
  2. Tigran Petrosian, 40 years old, 2650
  3. Viktor Korchnoi, 39 years old, 2670
  4. Lev Polugaevsky, 35 years old, 2640
  5. Efim Geller, 45 years old, 2660
  6. Vasily Smyslov, 49 years old, 2620
  7. Mark Taimanov, 44 years old, 2600
  8. Mikhail Botvinnik, 58 years old, 2640
  9. Mikhail Tal, 33 years old, 2590
  10. Paul Keres, 54 years old, 2600

1st reserve: Leonid Stein, 33 years old, 2620
2nd reserve: David Bronstein, 46 years old, 2570

Average of the 10 regular players: 43 years old, 2634 rating

The Rest of the World Team

The captain of the Rest of the World was none other than FIDE President Max Euwe. The former World Champion had decided to rank his players according to the recent invention of the mathematician Arpad Elo.

Bobby Fischer should therefore have played on first board, but Bent Larsen lobbied for this honor. The Great Dane was not short of arguments: he had just had many successes, including 1st place in Palma de Mallorca in 1969 above Spassky, Petrosian, Korchnoi and Hort. Bobby Fischer hadn't played for 18 months, during which time he wrote his best-seller My 60 Memorable Games.

While everyone expected Fischer to refuse and not participate, the world No.1 agreed to play behind Larsen, at the last minute and to everyone's surprise. Was it because Spassky was then leading 2-0 in four games against Fischer?

  1. Bent Larsen, 35 years old, 2650
  2. Bobby Fischer, 27 years old, 2720
  3. Lajos Portisch, 32 years old, 2630
  4. Vlastimil Hort, 26 years old, 2610
  5. Svetozar Gligorić, 47 years old, 2580
  6. Samuel Reshevsky, 58 years old, 2590
  7. Wolfang Uhlmann, 35 years old, 2570
  8. Milan Matulović, 34 years old, 2560
  9. Miguel Najdorf, 59 years old, 2570
  10. Borislav Ivkov, 36 years old, 2570

1st reserve: Friðrik Ólafsson, 35 years old, 2560
2nd reserve: Klaus Darga, 36 years old, 2550

Average of the 10 regular players: 39 years old, 2605 rating

Replay the games

You can now replay all 40 games from the 1970 match using the selector below - click on a result to go to the game with computer analysis:

Fischer's brilliancy price

Bent Larsen was not only playing against the reigning World Champion, but also in some ways against his future successor. Having insisted on taking Fischer's place, and getting it, he had to show he deserved it! 

In the 1st round, Larsen held a draw with Black, while Fischer won one of the most beautiful game of his career, in an Exchange Variation of the Caro-Kann against Petrosian.

Boris Spassky, taking an interested and perhaps anxious look at Fischer-Petrosian | photo: Douglas Griffin

Fischer-Petrosian, Round 1

White has just played 7.Qb3 reaching a tabia of the Caro-Kann, Exchange Variation. 47 years later, David Navara found the strong and shocking 7...e5!?, but such a computer move was unthinkable at that time. In his youth, Petrosian played 7...Qb6?!, which allows White to obtain a better endgame without risk. The trendy move then was 7...Qc8, played by Richard Réti in 1923 and popularized in the 60 and 70s by the GM currently living in Paris, Nikola Spiridonov.

Tigran here prefered an idea invented by Jose Raul Capablaca in 1926: 7...Na5 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qc2 e6 10.Nf3 Qb6

Instead of the 11.0-0? played by Maroczy against Capablanca, which allowed the Cuban to exchange his bad bishop with 11...Bb5! before winning a nice game, Bobby Fischer unleashed the novelty 11.a4! which refutes Black's whole idea. White is not afraid of an invasion on b3, which would lead nowhere: if 11...Nb3 then simply 11.Ra2 and if 11...Qb3 then 12.Qe2! Bxa4? 13.Rxa4! Qxa4 14.Bb5+.

White has a nice edge with easy play on the kingside and Bobby would eventually win in a (grand) masterful fashion.

The final position after 39.Rde1+. Tigran wasn't in the mood to let Bobby cap his masterpiece with the pretty mate after 39...Kf7 40.Qe8#

Bobby Fischer won the brilliancy prize for this 1st round game, putting pressure not only on his opponent and the Soviets, but also Larsen.

Spassky's Immortal

So it was with mixed feelings that Larsen went into his second game against Spassky.

Spassky smoking moments before Game 1 against Larsen | photo:

Larsen-Spassky, Round 2

1.b3! Larsen played every opening, and particularly the English, but for this game he couldn't play anything but the opening named after him. 1...e5 2.Bb2 Nc6 3.c4 Nf6!?

True to his provocative style, à la Lasker, Larsen played 4.Nf3!?

A few weeks later, against the same opponent, Bent preferred the wiser 4.e3, a move that would also be played by Bobby Fischer himself in a famous Hedgehog model game against Ulf Andersson at the end of 1970.

4...e4! Spassky's not shy about seizing the space advantage. The e4-pawn will soon cut the white camp in two. 5.Nd4 Bc5 

6.e3? Bxd4! 7.exd4 d5! would give a good edge to black in a position with B+2N vs. 2B+N, the speciality of Iossif Dorfman, while 6.Nc2?! d5! 7.exd5 Qxd5 is quite nice for Black.

Larsen preferred 6.Nxc6 and Spassky replied 6...dxc6! Black doesn't capture towards the center, preferring to open the d-file and accelerate development. 

7.e3 Bf5 8.Qc2 Qe7 9.Be2. After the game, Larsen and Spassky both suggested 9.a3!? with the idea of b4 and a complex position. 9...0-0-0

With classical play, the World Champion has already seized the initiative as Black. White's next move 10.f4? is already the decisive mistake!

It was advisable to follow the plan with 10.a3 and then b4, or to play 10.Nc3, after which Black can play the prophylactic 10...Kb8, waiting to see on which side White is going to castle. If 11.0-0-0 then 11...Rhe8 or 11...Rd7, and if 11.0-0 then 11...h5, followed by Bd6, with a strong initiative. 

10...Ng4! Spassky's extraordinary sense of the initiative did not deceive him. Black is already winning!

In a bad position, there are no good moves:

11.0-0 Rxd2! 12.Nxd2 Nxe3 wins the queen.
11.Bxg4 Qh4+ 12.g3 Qxg4 and with the light squares that weak White cannot survive for long.
11.Bxg7 would confirm that gluttony is a cardinal sin after 11...Rg8 12.Bb2 Bxe3! 13.dxe3 Nxe3 14.Qc3 Qh4+ 15.g3 Rxg3

Larsen tried 11.g3, after which Tal might have played the strong sacrifice 11...Rxd2!? 12.Nxd2 Nxe3 13.Qc3 Rd8 with a decisive attack upon White's stranded king. But Tal was busy battling against Najdorf, and Spassky played the clearer 11...h5!

12.Nc3? would allow 12...Rxd2!, with a quick win e.g. 13.Qxd2 Bxe3 14.Qc2 Bf2+ 15.Kd2 e3+

Larsen played the natural 12.h3, not suspecting the uppercut 12...h4!!

In this position Larsen thought for 53 minutes before bringing himself to take the knight with 13.hxg4

13.Bxg4 Bxg4 14.hxg4 hxg3 15.Rg1 would have allowed the same coup de grâce as in the game.

13...hxg3 14.Rg1 was blitzed out by the players, who understood that 14.Rxh8 Rxh8 would give Black an easy win with g2, Rh1+ and Qh4, in one move order or another.

Even in the Stockfish era Spassky's 14...Rh1!! would have come as a shock!

Since Spassky's sacrifice 12...h4!!, the 2000 spectators at the House of Trade Unions in Belgrade, including many Masters and Grand Masters, had eyes only for this game. Several people understood that Black was winning, but none of them had foreseen Boris Vasilievich's move 14...Rh1!!

Larsen stated that 14...Qh4 15.Rg2 Qh1+ 16.Bf1 Bxg4 17.Qxe4 Rhe8 18.Be5 f6 would have won prosaically, but Spassky's shocking sacrifice, for just one tempo, brought this game into the Chess Pantheon.

15.Kf1 Rxg1+ 16.Kxg1 Qh4 followed by Qh2+ and Qf2# underlines the powerlessness of the white pieces piled up on the queenside.

Larsen played 15.Rxh1 g2 16.Rf1

16.Rg1 whould have allowed 16...Qh4+ 17.Kd1 Qh1!

After 16...Qh4+ 17.Kd1 gxf1=Q+, Larsen resigned.

The final position. It would have been mate after 18.Bxf1 Bxg4+ 19.Be2 Qh1#

Naturally, the World Champion received the brilliancy prize for Round 2.

Many players would never have recovered from such a rout, especially in this context. Bent Larsen showed all his class by avenging himself with the black pieces in Round 3! In Round 4, Boris Spassky was replaced by Leonid Stein, whom Larsen also beat!

Speaking of his uncompromising style, it was during this tournament that Larsen said: "If I were afraid of what could happen on the chessboard, I would do something other than play chess."

Bobby Fischer won a beautiful ending with Black against Petrosian in Round 2. I much prefer the Round 1 victory mentioned above, but, rare enough to be noted, this Round 2 defeat for the Armenian World Champion is in his collection of best games! (Стратегия надежности, or "The strategy of solidity" has been published in English under the title Python Strategy). Games 3 and 4 between Fischer and Petrosian ended in a draw, causing Bobby Fischer to say in a TV interview, "I'm not in top form."

The question of who out of Bobby and Bent was the best player in the West would be decided definitively (and violently!) in 1971, with Fischer's crushing 6-0 victory over Larsen in the Candidates semi-final. 

Little details that make history

In the first round, in a winning position, Lajos Portisch inadvertently repeated the position against Viktor Korchnoi, even though he didn't repeat moves: 

The game continued 64.Kh5 (1) Rh6+ 65.Kg4 Rd6 66.Kh5 (2) Kf6 67.Rb2 Kg7 68.Rb8 (3) and the game was declared a draw. This clumsiness brought Bobby's ire down on poor Lajos. But after all, a draw with Black against Korchnoi is a good result, and what is half a point lost in one game out of 40 games if not a detail?

The second detail is that the last round took place on the Sabbath, which Samuel Reshevsky observed. The seven-time US Champion, who was tied (+1 =1 -1) against Vasily Smyslov, was replaced by Fridrik Ólafsson

On the 39th move, the Icelandic GM could have resigned:

39...Nb6 allows 40.Rc7 and Olafsson resorted to playing the sad 39...Nxd6 40.exd6 Qb6+ 41.Qf2 Qxd6

A piece down ending against the 7th World Champion is obviously hopeless, but Olafsson had a good reason to continue: it was the last game in progress and the match score was 19.5 to 19.5!

 Smyslov declared in 2002: 

As it turned out, everything was decided in my [final-round] game with Ólafsson. I had the advantage in the position, but psychologically I proved to be in a very difficult situation. All of the other games were finished, while we still had around an hour to play [in the first session]. The rest of the teams (both theirs and ours) crowded around and waited. The final result depended completely on us. To make a draw would mean a draw in the match as a whole. Were I to win, we would win. Were Ólafsson to win… Imagine the situation?! I would then be the sole culprit. Imagine how much nervous energy this game cost me! One mistake by me, and the World team would be the victors…

This game, incidentally, our reviewers did not notice. They picked out others, but everything was decided by it. That’s why I at once told everyone that this victory remains for me one of the most memorable; in terms of its intensity it can only be compared with the one that made me World Champion.

[Source: Interview of Smyslov by N. Anzikeev – ‘Да не прервётся связь времён!’, ’64’ (№ 8, 2002).] Quoted by Douglas Griffin on his blog

The great endgame player did not blunder and brought the decisive point home on move 67.

The Final Score

The USSR won the match by the narrowest of margins: 20.5 to 19.5!

The results | source : Wikipedia

See also: 

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