The match of the century

Billed as “The Match of the Century,” it wasn’t cricket or football, and certainly wasn’t baseball. It was chess, playing for the World Championship in a gripping Cold War encounter that pitted a Soviet grandmaster against an American one. The final, deciding, 21st game of the contest took place on September 1st, 1972.

The match was held at Reykjavik in Iceland in the full glare of international publicity. The results of the games were covered in news bulletins around the world, with chess experts dissecting and explaining each day’s play. Chess had never received so much excited interest, and perhaps never would again. It was a clash of ideologies and personalities as well as of grandmasters.

Bobby Fischer, the American, was volatile, eccentric and unorthodox. Boris Spassky, the Russian world champion defending his title, was noted for his calm strategic play livened by a fighting spirit. To qualify in the candidates’ tournament, Fischer had demolished two grandmasters with 6-0 scores, something never seen before.

Fischer lost the first game, playing a Nimzo-Indian defence, but handling the middle game clumsily. He seemed unsettled. He didn’t show at all for Game 2, and lost by default. At 2-0 down, it seemed he must lose the match, and considered leaving, but a phone call from Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, persuaded him to stay. He came out fighting, and beat Spassky in Game 3 with a Modern Bernoni defence. After a Game 4 draw, Fischer easily won Game 5 with a Nimzo-Indian defence and Game 6 with a Queen’s Gambit Declined Tartakower defence.

At this point the Spassky team suggested that their man was being disoriented by gases planted in his chair, and demanded it be taken apart and examined. Nothing was found except a dead fly, but when one of them sarcastically suggested a post mortem on it, he was recalled to Moscow. Meanwhile Fischer stormed ahead, winning Games 8 and 10, and drawing Games 7 and 9.

Fischer was an aggressive player and never liked agreed draws. Indeed, he’d publicly accused the Soviets of rigging international chess rankings by agreeing easy draws with each other. He’d criticized the match format for awarding victory to the first player to score 12.5, but given the rules, he now played to them, drawing Games 14-20 to capitalize on his lead. After the first game, Spassky only won one more, Game 11, plus the forfeit Game 2.

When Fischer played Alekhine’s Defence and won in Game 13, it sent ripples worldwide. It was so unorthodox that virtually nobody played it. I usually did, though, revelling in its unorthodoxy as a defence against a king’s pawn opening. When Spassky resigned without resuming play in Game 21, Fischer reached 12.5 and won the match to become world champion. Spassky had 3 wins, including the forfeit, Fischer had 7, and there were 11 draws.

Fischer became a celebrity, even featuring on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Endorsement offers totalling over $5m poured in, all of which he declined. His win demoralized the Soviets. A later world champion, Gary Kasparov, was to comment:

“I think the reason you look at these matches probably was not so much the chess factor but to the political element, which was inevitable because in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat [...] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.”

Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman called Fischer's victory "the story of a lonely hero who overcomes an entire empire".

Fischer became a recluse, and never defended his title. When he and Spassky staged a rematch in Yugoslavia in 1992, the US government pursued him for breaking sanctions and tried to have him extradited from Japan, but a grateful Iceland awarded him citizenship in gratitude for “putting Iceland on the map,” and he spent the rest of his life peacefully living there.

Fischer had mental issues, true, but he was a genius, one who gave the world an unprecedented thrill as he won a significant Cold War victory.