During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed in almost every arena: space, sports, and of course the military. Everything they competed in was designed to show the superiority of their respective systems.
In 1972, one of the greatest cold war rivalries came to a head in Reykjavík, Iceland.
It didn’t take place at a sporting event or on a battlefield. Rather, it took place over a period of two months on a chessboard.
Learn more about the 1972 World Chess Championship, aka the “Match of the Century”, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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To be totally honest, the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in chess, wasn’t really much of a rivalry.
The Soviet Union completely dominated the upper ranks of chess for decades.
From 1948 to 2007, every world chess champion, save for one, all came from the Soviet Union or Russia. You can take that back as far as 1927, where the champion was a Russian who fled France because of the communist revolution.
Soviet chess was a machine. They recruited bright players with talent at a very young age. The Soviets took chess seriously and treated it as a sport, not a game.
Soviet chess players would be rigorously trained and study games of past grandmasters. They would also analyze and drill on opening moves, and they would be able to constantly practice against some of the best players in the world.
Coming into 1972, the reigning world champion was Borris Spassky.
Spassky was a product of the Soviet chess system. He was a world junior champion and a two-time Soviet champion. He played for the world championship and lost to fellow Soviet Tigran Petrosian in 1966, and then beat him for the world championship in 1969.
Not only was Spassky good, but he had the entire Soviet chess system behind him.
Spassky’s challenger in 1972 was American Bobby Fischer.
Fischer couldn’t have been more different than Spassky.
Bobby was born in Chicago and raised in Brooklyn by a single mother. He never knew his father, but later investigations showed that it was probably Hungarian mathematician and physicist Paul Nemenyi.
Fischer was a chess prodigy. He learned the game at the age of six from a chess set purchased a local candy shop. His sister quickly lost interest in the game and his mother didn’t have time to play, so he would play most of his early games against himself.
That year, he found a book on chess when his family went on vacation and he studied it religiously.
Fischer became consumed with chess, so much so that it worried his mother. She eventually tried to put a classified ad in a local newspaper looking for other children to play chess, but the paper didn’t know how to classify it and rejected it.
Fischer eventually found his way to chess clubs in New York and began to quickly excel.
In 1956, he became the youngest US Junior Chess Champion at the age of 13. The next year, at the age of 14, he became the youngest United States champion, a record he still holds.
At the age of 15, he became the youngest grandmaster in history.
At the age of 16, he became the youngest person to qualify for the World Championship candidates tournament.
Fischer ended up winning 8 US championships out of 8 attempts, a record that still stands. In 1964, he won the US Championship with an 11-0 record, the best record in the history of the tournament.
He began competing internationally and found a great deal of success.
At the 1962 candidates tournament, he accused the Soviets of collusion, saying they would quickly draw matches against each other to save their energy and time for their matches against Fischer.
By and large, the accusations were believed to be true.
Fischer had a very abrasive personality. He was extremely arrogant and demanding.
Throughout the 60s, he was extremely flaky. He went into semi-retirement twice, constantly objecting to tournament conditions, formats, and prize money.
However, in 1970, he finally made a serious run at the world championship.
Over 1970 and 71, he crushed his competitors in a way no one else has before or since.
In the lead-up to the world championship, he defeated Soviet Grandmaster Mark Tominov 6-0. A lopsided score that is almost unheard of in international competition. He then did it again beating Danish GM Bent Larsen 6-0.
By the time he was the official challenger for the world championship, he set a record high ELO score of 2785, 125 points higher than the next highest person, which is still a record today.
However, despite all his success, there was one person he had never beaten. Borris Spassky. He had lost to him three times and tied twice.
Fischer began being stubborn again about the match conditions.
Fischer wanted the match to take place in Yugoslavia and Spassky wanted it to take place in Reykjavík, Iceland. Fischer agreed to Reykjavík, but only if the prize money was increased. Eventually, a British businessman donated $125,000, doubling the prize money, making it the largest purse for a chess match ever.
Eventually, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Fisher to cajole him to go to Iceland.
The match format was the best of 24 games. A win being 1 point and a draw being half a point. Fischer needed 12 ½ points to become the world champion. If the match was a draw at 12 points, Spassky would retain the title.
Fischer didn’t show up for the opening ceremony on July 1.
When the first game started on July 11, Fischer didn’t show up. Spassky moved his piece, hit the clock, and waited 9 minutes. Fischer finally entered the room and proceeded to lose his match.
After his loss, Fischer began making more demands of the tournament officials, including the removal of all the cameras which were making too much noise.
The officials refused to remove the cameras, so Fischer forfeited game two. Something absolutely unheard of at this level of chess.
Fischer was about to board a plane to leave Iceland when he received a flood of telegrams and phone calls, one again from Henry Kissenger.
Spassky, now up 2 to 0, agreed to have the games played in a backroom with a single television camera that didn’t make any sound, and no audience.
There are people who think that Fischer’s antics up to this point were all designed to psyche Spassky out.
Based on how things went from here, it might have just worked.
After spotting Spassky, the world champion, a full two games, Fischer managed to win game 3, his first-ever win against Spassky. He tied game 4 and won game 5.
Game 6 was one of the greatest games in chess history. Fischer never before used an opening move called the Queen’s Gambit. In fact, he was quite vocal about how it was a bad opening move.
The Soviets purposely never bothered to prepare for this because they thought it was out of the question that he would ever use it.
Fischer crushed Spassky so bad, that at the end of the game Spassky was amused and actually applauded Fischer.
After this, Fischer had the championship in the bag. Spassky only won one more game. The match ended after game 21 with the final score of 12 ½ to 8 ½.
Fischer returned to the United States a celebrity. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He appeared on the Tonight Show. He received over a million dollars in endorsement deals and turned them all down.
It was the last public chess tournament that Bobby Fischer participated in for 20 years.
He became increasingly paranoid and recluse. He began spouting conspiracy theories, and he spent years on the run from American law enforcement. Many people believe he may have suffered from schizophrenia.
In 1975, he was stripped of the world championship because he refused to defend it.
After Fischer was no longer the champion, the Soviet chess machine went right back to dominating the world of chess. They owned the world championship for another 30 years.
Bobby Fischer actually played Borris Spassky again in 1992 in Serbia where he beat him again 17 ½ to 12 ½.
He appears to have never lost his genius for chess.
After the Serbian match, he stayed with the Polgar family, which I did a previous episode on. He spent several weeks helping teach the Polgar sisters.
In 1981 he stayed briefly with Canadian grandmaster Peter Biyiasas. Fischer played 17 games with him and beat him in all 17.
Bobby Fischer died in 2008. Before his death, there were rumors of him appearing online and playing chess under an assumed name. Grandmaster Nigel Short was beaten 8 games in a row online by someone he believed to be Bobby Fischer, given his level of play and knowledge of other great players.
Borris Spassky is still alive at the age of 84. He is the world’s oldest surviving world champion.
The world chess championship was the first of two great competitions between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972. In chess, the United State beat the Soviets at their game.
In the other competition, the Soviets beat the Americans at their game. That happened on the basketball court.
…but that is a story for another episode.
The associate producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Thor Thomsen.
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