In the summer of 1972, a maverick American took on a gentle Russian in an epic battle of wits and nerves in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. Chess was never the same again.
It would no longer remain a leisurely pastime, patronised mostly by Soviets. It would suddenly become a global sport. The World championship title match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky did to chess what the 1983 World Cup did to Indian cricket.
Everyone was curious about this strange game played on a little board of black-and-white squares: there surely must be something to it if newspapers and television channels around the world were making such a fuss over it.
It was the height of the Cold War. Here was a brilliant young American pitted against an experienced campaigner from the Soviet Union. For 24 years, the World chess champions had spoken only one language: Russian. No American had ever won the World title.
But, Fisher was no ordinary American. He was no ordinary human being. He was among the world’s greatest geniuses ever.
He was certainly the favourite in Iceland. But Spassky was never going to be a weak rival. He had never lost to Fischer. In fact, in their five meetings, Spassky had won three and drawn two. And he was the defending World champion, after beating compatriot Tigran Petrosian in 1969.
Fischer had earned the right to meet Spassky in stunning style. In the qualifying event, called the Candidates tournament, he thrashed Mark Taimanov of Soviet Union 6-0 in his first match, and then crushed Bent Larsen of Denmark by the same margin. That is the equivalent of scoring 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 wins in the fourth round and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon — remarkable, considering Taimanov and Larsen were were exceptionally strong players, and no pushovers. In the final, Fischer had it slightly tougher against Petrosian, a former World champion himself, winning 6.5-2.5.
Fischer’s performance in that Candidates tournament almost defies belief. It remains the greatest run ever at the highest level in chess; he won 17 out of the 21 games he played, losing just one and drawing three, against the best players of the world.
The highly temperamental Fischer did travel to Reykjavik. He took more time than he should have to reach there though.
He missed the opening ceremony, and caused a two-day postponement of the match; he demanded — and got — more money, and made a lot of noise, about the size of the chessboard and the presence of cameras, among other things.
The possibility of the world’s greatest chess match ever not taking place at all was looking very real. But, Fischer relented. The prize-money had now been doubled to $250,000, thanks to British banker and chess enthusiast Jim Slater.
So, on July 11, the battle the world had been waiting with bated breath finally got underway. There would be 24 games, and Fischer needed to score 12.5 points to claim the crown while Spassky would remain the champion in the case of a 12-12 tie.
Fischer, who arrived at the Laugardalsholl Sports Exhibition Centre some 10 minutes after his opponent, made his opening move, lost the first game following a costly mistake with his bishop on the 29th move.
He forfeited the second game after his demand to remove the cameras was rejected.
Suddenly, Fischer, the overwhelming favourite, was trailing 0-2. That is the beauty of sport. It never ceases to surprise.
In the third game, which Spassky sportingly agreed to play in a small room, the American won — his first career victory against the Russian.
After drawing the fourth game, Fischer won the fifth, and the scores were level at 2.5-2.5. A brilliant win in the following game made it 3.5-2.5, putting Fischer in the lead for the first time.
Spassky even joined the audience to applaud his rival’s brilliance in the game.
Fischer went on to post victories in the eighth and 10th games, and he looked to be cruising along at 6.5-3.5.
Spassky though bounced right back, winning the 11th.
But that would be his last win in the match. He lost the 13th game, and the next seven were drawn.
Fischer brought an end to the spate of draws with a win in the 21st game. Spassky conceded his defeat over telephone after the game was adjourned (those days the game was adjourned to the second day if there was no result after 40 moves).
Fischer won the match — dubbed as the Cold War played with pawns instead of missiles — 12.5-8.5 on September 1.
“World chess will never be the same again,” wrote Michael Lake in The Guardian in his report from Reykjavik.