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Features Sep 3, 2018 | 6:04 AMby chess24 staff

The Match of the Century: Fischer-Spassky, 1972

by GM Zenón Franco

It's a pleasure to begin my collaboration with chess24 at the start of September, as we celebrate the 46th anniversary of the "Match of the Century" — the 1972 World Chess Championship played in Reykjavik between Boris Spassky and his challenger Robert "Bobby" Fischer. It was much more than a sporting confrontation, and it had an unexpected level of acclaim at the time, provoking chess to gain much popularity. Hence, it is not strange that so many books have been written about it — it has also been the subject of several films and documentaries. Let's briefly summarize the context and the development of this historic match.

Just to set the tone, let's take a look at Peter Leko recounting Bobby Fischer's visit to his house in Hungary.

Preparation for the match

The encounter was played during the Cold War. For the first time, an American disputed the world's most important title against the hitherto unbeatable Soviets — all the World Champions since FIDE regularized the process in 1948 were Soviets. And all the challengers were Soviets as well!

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, some secret KGB documents were put on sale and published, which demonstrated that Spassky's title defense was a "national cause". Fischer's chess level was extraordinary, but Spassky's theoretical preparation was better — the best Soviet chess players wrote reports and suggestions to help the champion.

However, Spassky did not give these suggestions the importance they deserved. Besides, some of them were contradictory — for example, Spassky was convinced that Fischer would only play 1.e4, and ignored the opinion of Korchnoi, who commented on the possibility of Fischer changing his opening repertoire. During the match, Fischer played 1.c4 several times, and he did it successfully.

Former World Champion Tigran Petrosian advised, "Against 1.e4, it is possible to use almost any defense, except for 1...e5". On the other hand, another former World Champion, Vassily Smyslov, recommended, "Against 1.e4, we must prepare classic systems based on 1...e5".

With White, former World Champion Mikhail Tal opined, "Against the Grunfeld Defense, I have no faith in the system 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4, which Spassky frequently uses". Paul Keres advised instead, "Against the Grunfeld, it is advisable to play 4.cxd5 and e4". In both cases, the advisors gave opposite recommendations.

Mikhail Tal did not believe that Fischer would play the Alekhine Defense he had used against Browne (and on four other occasions)... yet Fischer did use it.

Everyone offered to collaborate with Spassky, including Karpov, but the champion did not accept their help. Years later, Spassky only recognized as positive the support of Efim Geller, who was one of his analysts in Reykjavik.

The previous encounters between both contenders were clearly favorable to Spassky, who was very confident in winning the duel. Spassky had three earlier wins, and they had drawn twice.

The chicken run

Nicholas Ray's film Rebel Without a Cause popularized "the chicken run", a duel, more often seen in fiction than in reality, which consists of two people driving a vehicle in opposite directions — the first one that deviates from the trajectory loses.

I recall that a friend had to play the game — involuntarily — about 20 years ago. He was about to cross the border between Paraguay and Argentina, and the agent on the Paraguayan side warned him about something that was going on in Argentine territory: at some point, several kilometers away from the border, a car could appear, which would put him in precisely that situation — if he braked or diverted, he would be assaulted. So, he was told that if he wanted to continue, the only solution was to accelerate and trust that the vehicle of the criminal would deflect. And so it happened.

The expression "chicken run" is applied as a metaphor to a situation in which two sides engage in an escalation, in which they have nothing to gain.

In order to win, it is necessary to put pressure on the opponent, and convince him that one does not mind to lose everything.

The book Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmons and John Eidinow recounts the 1972 Reykjavik match. In the book, it is argued that Fischer did precisely that with the organizers, demanding bigger and bigger concessions, and putting his career at risk with the only aim of becoming World Champion.

Until 1972, Fischer had almost always won the risky bets he had been engaged in. However, he did lose once, when he quit the 1967 Interzonal in Sousse, while leading.

Once the venue and the prizes for the 1972 match were established, Fischer played "chicken run" when he asked for a major increase in the prize fund. This was only solved when the British millionaire James Slater — a chess fan — doubled the initial amount. Curiously, he wrote a personal letter to Fischer with the message: "Now come and play, chicken!"

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's National Security Advisor, called Fischer, and, as an introduction, told him: "The worst chess player in the world calling the best player in the world". Kissinger told Fischer that he should go to Iceland and beat the Russians at their own game. "The government of the United States wishes you the best, and so do I".

The chat lasted ten minutes, and converted Fischer into a resolute patriot. He agreed to play "no matter what", and declared that U.S. interests were more important than his own personal interests. "At that point, Bobby saw himself not only as a chess player, but as a Cold War warrior defending his country," Frank Brady said in the book Endgame.

However, Fischer later denied that it was Henry Kissinger who persuaded him to play with patriotic claims. Bobby gave more earthly reasons: "It was not Kissinger who put the missing dollars..."

As Brady noted: "After months of disappointing negotiations, the millionaire Slater, backed by the diplomat Kissinger, had achieved the impossible. What pushed Bobby to compete in Iceland? Apparently, three elements: pride, money and patriotism".

Fischer did not travel on time for the drawing of lots ceremony on two occasions, and when he finally arrived in Reykjavik... he did not attend the draw, despite the fact that he was contractually forced to do so. He sent his representative William Lombardy, alleging that he was very tired.

Bobby Fischer with Max Euwe

The match was hanging by a thread once again, but finally, after many tense situations, on July 11, 1972, the duel began nine days after the scheduled date. A formal apology, demanded by the Soviet delegation, was finally sent, both from Fischer and from FIDE President Max Euwe.

The match began with the famous game in which Fischer played 29...Bxh2?, sacrificing his bishop for two pawns. After an adjournment, Fischer could not hold the endgame and Spassky won.

Fischer attributed that defeat to the disturbing presence of cameras in the playing hall, and again created tension in the match. After the game, he asked the Icelandic Chess Federation for a share of the recording rights, which the organizers refused, partly because those rights did not belong to them — they had already been sold to American businessman Chester Fox.

The second game was preceded by great strain and many discussions. Incredibly, Fischer did not show up to play, so the score of the match was automatically 2:0 in Spassky's favor, which seemed definitive, both regarding the match itself and the "chicken run" side game.

Spassky waiting for Fischer

There was a bombardment of orders from the U.S. for Fischer to continue the match. Finally, Kissinger called again. The New York Times had already written an editorial calling for the continuation of the encounter.

Anyway, given the unfavorable 2:0 score, the demands were not easy to accept. There were more than reasonable doubts that the match would continue, especially after Fischer booked seats on three flights to return to his country.

The main arbiter, Lothar Schmid, tried to facilitate an arrangement by announcing that he had authority to move the venue to a closed room — he had previously talked privately with Spassky. Spassky, against the unanimous recommendation of his advisors, accepted to play the third game with neither public nor television cameras, as Fischer had demanded.

The situation was solved only due to Spassky's extreme good will. If he had not agreed to play the third game under those conditions, his refusal would have been deemed legitimate. It is almost certain that the match would have ended there, and Spassky would have retained the world title — chess history would not have been the same.

Why did Spassky continue playing? It is difficult to know all the reasons. One of them, pointed out by the great psychologist Nikolai Krogius, is that Spassky felt morally obliged to continue playing after having won the second game by forfeit. Another explanation is that after the first game the historical record between the two players already favored Spassky by 4:0, which reaffirmed the World Champion's confidence. He wanted to be the winner over the board, so as not to give rise to doubts about who was the strongest chess player in the world.

It is possible that something similar happened in the 1910 match between the challenger Carl Schlechter and the World Champion Emanuel Lasker. It was a 10-game match, and Schlechter arrived to the last game with a 5:4 advantage — a draw would have given him victory. In that last game, Schlechter had a winning advantage, could have taken the game to a drawn position, and nonetheless tried to win — to be a "true World Champion". As we know, Lasker managed to turn the game and tie the match.

Neither can we ignore the economic consequences. I do not know what the contract stated, but with only one disputed game it seems unlikely that Spassky would have received all the prize money reserved for the winner.

Fischer took several hours to decide whether he would continue playing with the new concessions. He only accepted the offer 90 minutes before the start of the third game, provided that it would be played without cameras and without public.

Indeed, the third game was played without an audience and without cameras. In fact, there were some tense moments in the game, when Fischer saw a camera and began to protest. Spassky got up and said he was going to play the game in the main playing hall.

Lothar Schmid saved the match with great skill and patience. He managed to calm both players by telling Fischer that the camera was not on and asking him to be gentle. He also reminded Spassky about his promise to continue playing — Spassky took 10 seconds to accept, as Brady recounts in "Endgame".

In that crucial battle Fischer defeated Spassky for the first time. Let us remember that encounter:

1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 e6 3. ♘f3 c5 

4. d5 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. ♘c3 g6 7. ♘d2 

7... ♘bd7 

7... ♗g7 8. ♘c4 O-O 9. ♗f4 

8. e4

8. ♘c4  8... ♘b6 

8... ♗g7 9. ♗e2 O-O 10. O-O ♖e8 11. ♕c2 

11. a4 11... ♘e5 12. h3 g5 13. ♘f3 

11... ♘h5 !

11... ♘e5 

11... ♘b6 

12. ♗xh5 

12. g3 12... ♘e5 (12... f5 13. exf5 ♗xc3 14. ♗xh5 ♗xd2 15. fxg6 ♗xc1 16. gxh7+ ♔h8 17. ♗xe8 ♕xe8 18. ♖axc1 )

12. f4 ♗d4+ 13. ♔h1 ♘df6 

12... gxh5 

13. ♘c4

13. a4 ♘e5 14. ♘d1 !

13... ♘e5 

14. ♘e3 

14. ♘xe5 ♗xe5 15. ♗e3 15... ♕h4  16. f4 16... ♗xc3 no 17. ♕xc3 (17. bxc3 ♗f5! ) 17... ♖xe4 18. ♖f3 ♕e7 19. ♖g3+ ♗g4

14... ♕h4 !

15. ♗d2 

15. f3 

15... ♘g4!

15... ♘f3+? 16. gxf3 ♗e5 17. ♖fe1 17... ♕xh2+ 18. ♔f1 ♗g3  19. ♔e2 ♕xf2+ 20. ♔d3 b5 21. ♕d1 

16. ♘xg4 hxg4 

17. ♗f4 ♕f6 !

18. g3 ?

18. ♗g3 !

18... ♗d7 

19. a4 b6 

19... a6   20. a5

20. ♖fe1 

20... a6 21. ♖e2 b5 !

22. ♖ae1

22. axb5 axb5 23. ♖xa8 ♖xa8  24. e5?  24... ♖a1+ 25. ♔g2 dxe5 26. ♖xe5 b4!  27. ♘e4? 27... ♕a6!

22... ♕g6 !

23. b3 

23... ♖e7 

23... ♖ac8   24. ♕d2 (24. ♕d3?  24... c4! 25. bxc4 ♖xc4  24...♖e7 

24. ♕d3 !

24... ♖b8 25. axb5 axb5 26. b4 !

26... c4

26... cxb4 27. ♘a2 ♖c8 28. ♘xb4 

27. ♕d2 ♖be8 28. ♖e3 h5 !

29. ♖3e2 ♔h7 30. ♖e3 ♔g8 

31. ♖3e2 ♗xc3 32. ♕xc3 ♖xe4 33. ♖xe4 ♖xe4 

34. ♖xe4

34. ♖a1  34... ♖e8 

34... ♕xe4 35. ♗h6 

35. ♗xd6? ♕xd5 

35. ♕f6? ♗f5 

35... ♕g6 36. ♗c1 ♕b1 

37. ♔f1 ♗f5 !

38. ♔e2 ♕e4+ 39. ♕e3 

39... ♕c2+ 

39... ♕xd5? 40. ♕g5+ 

40. ♕d2 ?

40. ♔e1!  40... c3 41. ♕g5+ ♗g6 42. ♕e3  42... f6 

40... ♕b3 !

41. ♕d4 

41. ♗b2  41... ♕f3+ 42. ♔e1 ♕h1+ 43. ♔e2 ♗d3+ 

41. ♔e1  41... c3 

41... ♗d3+ !

42. ♔e3 

42... ♕d1 !

43. ♕b2 

43... ♕f3+ 44. ♔d4 ♕e4+ 45. ♔c3 ♕e1+ !


Krogius recalled that "wisely" Petrosian once remarked, "It is wrong to make even a minimal concession to Fischer". According to Larry Evans, "[Fischer] deep in his heart had rooted an irrational fear of defeat. In Reykjavik he could only overcome that fear when he realized that he had upset Spassky's emotional balance".

Maybe the champion's self-confidence started to crack after the third or fourth game.

In the fourth game, Spassky, with Black, sacrificed a pawn, seized the initiative and achieved an advantage. He was close to victory. According to Bondarevsky, "The whole game after 19.Qe2 was defined by Black's strong pressure, and this time the American's resilience and stamina flourished and the game was drawn". He added, "Maybe Black did not have a concrete winning line. That issue remains unanswered. In any case, in my opinion, few grandmasters would have endured Black's pressure and saved the game ".

Let us see an extract of the fifth game:

20... g5!

20... ♘g4 21. ♖xf8+ ♖xf8 22. ♗d2 would be premature   ♗d2 would be premature  

21. ♗d2 ♕e8 !

22. ♗e1 ♕g6 

23. ♕d3 

23... ♘h5 

24. ♖xf8+ ♖xf8 25. ♖xf8+ ♔xf8 

26. ♗d1 

26. g3  26... ♘f6

26. ♗g3 ♘f4 

26... ♘f4 

27. ♕c2 

27. ♕b1 27... ♔e8  (27... ♕f6 28. g3 ♘h3+ 29. ♔g2 g4  27... g4   28. ♗h4 )

27... ♗xa4 !

28. ♕xa4 ♕xe4 

29. ♔f2 ♘d3+


With this victory, Fischer managed to level the score. Afterwards, he also won the sixth encounter, which is considered by most grandmasters to be the best game of the match.

Miguel Najdorf, always present at major events, compared it to a Mozart symphony.

In a very chivalrous and rarely seen gesture — especially in a World Championship — Spassky joined the public's applause, congratulating Fischer on his magnificent victory.

Fischer gained the lead, and in the next five games extended his advantage. When the 12th game arrived — half the match had been played — he was up 7:5, after five wins, three losses (one by forfeit) and four draws. He needed 5½ points in the last twelve games to become the new World Champion.

That is how they got to Game 13, a number which Kasparov is very fond of. Let us look at the last critical position.

69. ♖d1+? "

69. ♖c3+! a 69... ♔d4 (69... ♔e2  70. ♖xc4 f3 71. ♖c1 f2 72. ♔xb3 ) 70. ♖f3  70... c3+  71. ♔a1 (71. ♖xc3 a1Q+ ) 71... c2 72. ♖xf4+ o 72... ♔c3 (72... ♔d3 73. ♖f1 ) 73. ♖f3+ ♔d2 74. ♗a3! (Gligoric) 74... ♖xg7 75. ♖xb3 ♖c7  76. ♗b2  (76. ♔xa2 ♖a7! 77. ♖b2 ♔d1 )

69... ♔e2 

70. ♖c1 f3 !

71. ♗c5

71. ♖xc4 f2 72. ♖c1 f1Q 73. ♖xf1 ♔xf1 

71... ♖xg7

71... f2 

72. ♖xc4 ♖d7 

73. ♖e4+

73. ♖c1 ♖d1

73... ♔f1 74. ♗d4 

74... f2 

75. ♖f4 

75... ♖xd4! 76. ♖xd4 ♔e2 


"After the match, Fischer told me that even before Spassky made that fatal mistake he knew, by looking at Spassky's face, that the champion was already resigned to losing the game" (Krogius).

After this marathon game that lasted nine and a half hours, Fischer was up 8:5 and only needed to score 4½ points in the remaining 11 games.

Everything indicates that at that time Fischer decided not to take more risks and started to approach the goal with caution. The next seven games ended in draws. Fischer kept changing his openings, and the games were hard-fought.

Fischer commented after finishing the duel, "In the second part of the match Spassky played very well. I felt that, except in the last two or three games, I was under big pressure..."

Anyway, the Soviets could not understand how the champion was overcome or why he was unable to win any more games. Before the start of the 17th game, Spassky's second Geller circulated a statement about "the possible influence over Spassky of electronic elements or chemical substances, which might be present in the playing hall". The "suspect" was Fischer's chair. When Fischer read this letter, he laughed as he had never done in his two months in Iceland.

The organizers took the matter seriously and examined the chair with X-rays — they found a small forgotten screwdriver and two dead flies. The correspondent for The New York Times commented ironically, "Someone suggested that an autopsy should be performed... Did the flies die of natural causes? Or did they die after licking the Sicilian's poisoned pawn?"

The 21st game, with Fischer leading 11½:8½, was played on August 31st, and was adjourned with Fischer having the upper hand in the position.

Spassky did not seal the best defensive resource and lost the game. Brady commented: "The next day, Harry Benson, a Scotsman who was an important photographer for Time Life, met Spassky at the Saga Hotel. ‘There is a new champion,’ Spassky told him. ‘I'm not sad. It's just a sporting event, I've lost. Bobby is the new champion. Now I have to take a walk to get some fresh air’.

Fischer was effectively the best. He got a 12½:8½ victory and became the eleventh world champion. It seemed like a new and better era was about to begin. Fischer wanted to defend his title every year — already at the closing ceremony there was talk about the possibility of a rematch to be played in Las Vegas in 1973. Fischer was received in the U.S. as a national hero — Richard Nixon sent him a congratulatory telegram, inviting him to the White House. The new champion was going to create a club with his name, organize international tournaments, and so forth.

But it was all an illusion. Nothing was ever done. Fischer did not play an official game ever again.

Translated by Carlos Colodro

See also:

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