In 1972, the American chess grandmaster, Robert James Fischer, won the right to play a match against Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was in an unusual position for an American.
Bobby Fischer with sculptor. Photo byPavao Cajzek.
Soviet vs. American Chess
The soviets used winning athletic competitions to show communism’s superiority. Chess was no different. Chess was a national pastime in Soviet Russia and the soviets. They saw their chess advantage as evidence of intellectual and cultural superiority and dominance over the United States. Winning international chess competitions was a big thing for them. Soviet Russia had a great number of young players, and gave free training to those that showed talent and the means to develop that talent. This gave Russia a great number of grandmasters. Soviet world-class chess players got preferential treatment and were expected to perform that way. To the soviets, it was a matter of national prestige and honor.
America didn’t have an organized program to develop chess players. The United States Chess Federation (USCF) was associated with the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and sanctioned clubs and tournaments in the United States. Player development consisted of experienced players giving developing players advice. A player studied games alone, with friends or hired chess teachers and tutors. America had few world-class chess players who could compete on equal footing with the Soviets.
Soviet grandmasters were well known by the general public, but the opposite was true in the United States. Bobby Fisher won his first U. S. Championship in 1958 when he was 15 years old. Shortly after his victory, Fischer was on the national television program, I’ve Got A Secret, and the panelists didn’t recognize him. More people in Russia knew of Fischer than in the United States.
It was the middle of the cold war and the United States saw a tremendous propaganda potential if Fischer beat Spassky. During to the lead up to the match, chess became popular in the United States. National magazines and TV shows featured stories on Fischer after he qualified for the match. CBS’s 60 Minutes did a segment on Fisher in February of 1972. Chess books were on bookracks at grocery and drug stores. Fisher’s book, Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess became a bestseller. Chess had gained some respect in the United States.
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Fisher Vs. The Soviets
Fisher didn’t like the Soviets and they didn’t like him. The Soviets knew his sole focus was on chess, and felt he was an inferior person because he hadn’t developed other interests. They considered chess as part of a complete intellectual and cultural package. Fischer’s sole focus was chess.
Russians did recognize his talent. In Russia, his book My 60 Memorable Games sold out in less than a week. They were also afraid he could beat them over the chessboard.
Fisher didn’t like the way the Soviets played. He said they teamed up to play for draws between themselves so as not to lose points. They played against non-soviets for a win. American grandmaster, Ruben Fine, declined to play in the 1948 world championship chess tournament for similar reasons. Fisher was willing to talk about soviet cheating to anyone who would listen. Later, players who were in the soviet chess system at the time both confirmed and denied this rumor
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FIDE controls play for the World Chess Championship and required a challenger every three years. FIDE organized a series of elimination matches to determine the challenger to the champion. Scoring gives the winner 1 point, loser 0 and a draw gives a half point to each player for a game that couldn’t be won or lost.
Play for matches and tournaments are timed. After a predetermined amount of time, play is adjourned. The player to make the next move writes the move on a paper and sealed in an envelope. The move is made when play is resumed. During tournaments, soviets helped each other analyze adjourned games. During the match, they had a team to assist Spassky with opening preparation and analyzing adjourned endgames. Fisher trained with Grandmasters Larry Evans or Bill Lombardy, but did most of this analysis himself.
Early photo of Lombardy and Fisher with John Collins in middle.
Fischers Demands And Delays
Fisher announced he wasn’t going to play because the prize fund was too low. He felt they were the best players in the world and should be compensated as such. Fischer felt chess professionals should make money equal to baseball and football players. An English businessman and chess player, James D. Slater, provided money to raise the prize fund to a quarter of a million dollars.
Dr. Anthony Saidy, also a grandmaster, was Fischer’s friend and let him stay at Saidy’s home. He finally talked Fischer into going to Iceland. He was with Fischer in the airport on the way to board the plane. A photographer recognized Fisher and approached him. Fischer spooked and ran out of the airport and into the first available cab.
Fisher not playing was a real threat. He had walked away from other tournaments when he felt slighted. Those who knew Fisher didn’t think the match would take place.
Opening ceremonies were July 1 and the first game was to be on July 2nd. The match was important for the U. S. political interests and the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, called Fisher and encouraged him to play. Fisher arrived on July 4th, but match wouldn’t start until he apologized to Spassky. Fischer apologized a week later.
Players that knew Fisher felt that he wasn’t trying to use those tactics to unnerve Spassky. The two players respected, and even liked, each other.
Boris Spassky in 1990
Spassky and Fischer played the first game of their match on July 11, 1972. Fischer blundered, lost the first game, and forfeited the second because he refused to play because of television cameras. Two games down is a large deficit to overcome in a chess match between two strong players. Fischer won the third game, drew the forth and won the fifth to tie Spassky.
A June 1972 cover of Chess Life and Review predicted the match. Fisher played a small variety of openings. As white, he usually moved the pawn in front of his king two squares forward, P-K4 or e4. The magazine had a cartoon of Boris Spassky surrounded by a pile of chess books. Someone asked him, “Boris, what if Bobby doesn’t play P-K4?” For game six, Fisher played a Queen side opening move he hadn’t used in matches or tournaments before. The audience and Spassky stood and applauded when Fischer won game six. It is considered the best game of the match.
Fischer controlled the rest of the match and won by winning the 21st game, three short of the maximum 24 games needed to win the championship.
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After Fisher returned to the United States, he was given the key to New York City, appeared on a Bob Hope television comedy show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Tonight Show and other TV programs. Chess had become mainstream. Fischer said he would be an active champion and play for the championship more frequently than was required. The American chess playing public looked forward to it.
In 1974, Russian Anatoly Karpov won the right to play Fischer for the championship. Fisher made continuing demands that resulted in his forfeiting the title to Karpov. After that, he disappeared and his mental instability became obvious. His place in the order of chess champions is still being evaluated.