Boris Spassky – Bobby Fischer

11 July – 31 August 1972

 

Reykjavik (Iceland)

 

Spassky

1

+

0

½

0

0

½

0

½

0

1

½

0

½

½

½

½

½

½

½

0

8,5

Fischer

0

-

1

½

1

1

½

1

½

1

0

½

1

½

½

½

½

½

½

½

1

12,5

 

The champion. Sad as it may seem, after winning the crown Spassky effectively stopped working on his chess, falling into the sin attributed to Petrosian. He had achieved his goal – now at last he could “relax”, the more so since Boris believed that when the need arose he would be able to pull himself together and get back into champion’s form!

 

In 1968-1969 he became the owner of his first two chess Oscars and he won the Chess Informant competition for the most beautiful game in the half-year (in the seventh, eighth and ninth volumes) three times in a row. After his victorious match against Petrosian he won by inertia in San Juan in 1969 with 11.5 out of 15 and in Leiden in 1970 with 7 out of 12. He headed the USSR team at the “Match of the Century” (1970), where he drew with Larsen in a mini-match (winning one game, losing one and ending one in a draw), and at the Olympiad in Siegen – there Fischer was defeated in a vital match with the Americans, but more of that later… Spassky secured his last great victory in Amsterdam at the IBM tournament, where the world champion shared first prize with Polugaevsky, with 11.5 out of 15.

 

Then it was third place in Gothenburg in 1971, behind Andersson and Hort; he shared sixth and seventh places with Tal in the Alekhine Memorial in Moscow (won by Karpov and Stein).

 

Fischer was flying at full speed towards the weakened Spassky, wiping the floor with his opponents. Knowing their “credit history” – the American had not beaten Spassky a single time before 1972, instead losing three times, and badly each time to boot – one might have supposed that Spassky knew the secret of how to beat Bobby.

 

The challenger. After Bobby Fischer pulled out of the interzonal tournament in Sousse in 1967 on grounds of illness, with 8.5 out of 10 and a guaranteed place among the candidates, he stated that he was giving up his campaign for the championship. However... after a two-year break he let himself be persuaded. He did not take part in the US championship, which was a qualifier for the interzonal in Palma de Mallorca, but fortunately for him Pal Benko agreed to give up his claim for $2,000 and yield his place.

 

After the “Match of the Century” – in 1970 in Belgrade, where the intractable Fischer unexpectedly – at the request of Larsen – allowed Bent to play first board for the Rest of the World chess team and defeated Petrosian 3:1, he was literally burning with desire to get into battle. And the 1970 interzonal was one of the most brilliant pages in Bobby’s biography – 18.5 out of 23! The American won the last six games, so that his opponents in the candidates’ matches could only pray that they would not be drawn against Fischer…

 

That year it was unrealistic to think about playing him on equal terms, never mind hoping to win. Fischer won the world blitz championship in Herceg Novi with a result of 19 out of 22, finished two points clear of his closest rivals in Rovinj-Zagreb with 13 out of 17, and took first prize with 15 out of 17 in Buenos Aires, where he beat Tukmakov into second place by 3.5 points.

 

The only disappointment in those years was the fact that Bobby lost at the Olympiad in Siegen to the world champion in the USSR – USA match. He scattered his other opponents like ninepins, ending with +8=4. But his defeat by Spassky perturbed Fischer so much that in Argentina he even asked Bronstein whether it was worth him joining the starting line-up for the interzonal. David’s answer was brief: “Yes!”

 

The secret of Fischer’s success was obvious – he played every game bar none to win! “These tactics are no guarantee against individual defeats, but they do bring more victories,” said Tal. “In Zagreb, for example, Fischer lost one game, as did Petrosian, but he beat him by 2.5 points thanks to having five (!) more wins.” A long row of ones stretched out alongside his name in the tournament tables…

 

It fell to Taimanov to play Fischer first. Mark was very well prepared, and had even asked Botvinnik for help before the match and brought three seconds with him to Vancouver – but nothing could help him. Bobby won 6:0 without a single draw.

 

Two months later in Denver, Larsen awaited him. The 6:0 miracle was repeated!

 

He found himself playing Petrosian in the final candidates’ match in Buenos Aires (Petrosian having beaten Korchnoi). Although the ex-champion’s shrewd home preparation caught his opponent unawares, Petrosian started the match with a defeat… Thus Fischer won 19 games in a row in the 1971 candidates’ cycle. This had never happened before in the history of chess.

 

Petrosian succeeded in winning the second game, hearing a storm of applause in his honour, but… after three draws he lost four games in a row – 2.5:6.5.

 

Botvinnik made a graphic comment on the outcome of the candidates’ cycle: “It’s difficult to know what to say about Fischer’s matches. Since he began playing them, miracles have started happening… His match with Taimanov was amazing, his contest with Larsen was even more so, and the Petrosian – Fischer match was simply astounding. In the first two the general public could understand everything, but what happened in Buenos Aires remains a mystery to this day. Petrosian essentially dominated from the first to the fifth game, and in the other four he ‘slipped down’ to the level of Taimanov and Larsen. Now Spassky is on the whole superior to Fischer. That is my firm opinion. But how the match between them will end, what its character and result will be, I would not like to try to predict. Miracles are happening in the world of chess!”

 

Opinion. After the enchanting display in the candidates’ cycle, hardly anyone had any doubt that Fischer was “five minutes away” from being the world champion… Not even Spassky’s supporters. They could see that Boris had lost his former grip and thirst for victory, and that his team no longer included Bondarevsky, who knew how to get the champion in the right frame of mind – and his boat was drifting ahead with no rudder or sails… He had what it took for individual games, as in Siegen, but he was not ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of victory. Moreover, on the eve of the match in Reykjavik Spassky had got into an open confrontation with the USSR Sports Committee… The champion was obstructing not only all their attempts to interfere in his preparations for the match but also their attempts to subvert the match with Fischer itself.

 

As Botvinnik remarked with some acidity after the 1972 match, Spassky got more from one defeat than the ex-champion had received from all his winning matches taken together. The prize fund for the contest in Reykjavik was $125,000, an unprecedented sum for those days.

 

Originally the match was to have been divided between Belgrade (where Fischer wanted to play) and Reykjavik (Spassky’s choice), and an agreement on this had been signed in Amsterdam on 20 March 1970. But… a few days later the challenger stated that this did not suit him and that he would not play in either Yugoslavia or Iceland. FIDE immediately sent an ultimatum to the United States Chess Federation. If Fischer did not agree to a match on the previous terms by 4 April they would strip him of his challenger status.

 

Fischer did not reply within the specified time. But FIDE… did not take any action either! The whole point was that the world of chess was looking forward to this match too much, and Euwe, the president, was indulging Fischer excessively. Only on 26 April did the indignant USSR Chess Federation send FIDE a demand that it ensure the whole match be held in Reykjavik in accordance with the rules, saying that if Fischer refused it should deprive him of the right to a match and appoint a new challenger. This threat worked, and the challenger, with his back to the wall, was obliged to agree to play in the capital of Iceland.

 

But… he then demanded that the prize fund be doubled! Another trick? But there was not even time to accuse Fischer of being greedy, since Jim Slater, the sponsor, indulged his “latest whim” with a contribution of $125,000. In a personal message to Fischer he wrote: “Well, cocky, now go out on the stage and show them all that you’re not a coward!”

 

The wealthy chess lover was demanding proof of what Bobby had said immediately after his victory in the 1971 candidates’ cycle: “Any person with the least understanding of chess knows that it is I who have been considered the world champion for at least about ten years. That doesn’t mean that I shall always win. The Soviets will do everything they can, and even things they cannot, to destroy me. But I know I can beat Spassky – of course, if I carry on playing as I am now.”

 

But that would mean playing… The American, however, was present neither at the official opening of the match on 1 July nor at the draw on the following day. Euwe postponed the start for two days, which drew a strong protest from the USSR delegation, but not from Spassky, who wanted to play the match whatever it took.

 

But on 4 July, when Fischer did not appear for the repeat draw, Spassky lodged his own protest, writing that he felt insulted and demanding an apology from his opponent. Euwe again postponed the start of the match. Fischer gave an apology.

 

In the end the “match of the century” started nine days later than scheduled, on 11 July. They were playing to win the majority of 24 games. In the event of a 12:12 score the champion would retain the title.

 

The plot. The mysteries started in the first game: in a dead draw endgame Fischer suddenly took a “poisoned” pawn, and despite some inaccuracy on Spassky’s part he lost. But the American simply did not turn up for the second game, blaming his conduct on the fact that the Chester Fox company had filmed him during a game against his will, moreover with a camera mounted above the chess table… But he had signed a contract with them himself! The game was registered as a defeat for Fischer, and Spassky led by 2:0.

 

A rumour went round Reykjavik that the American had already left town. But Fischer had not gone anywhere. Instead the challenger issued a long list of demands, the chief of which was… that the third game be transferred to a closed room, And that filming be stopped. It took Schmidt, the chief referee for the match, two days to persuade Spassky to play without spectators. The champion held out to the last minute – but nevertheless gave in.

 

Many people considered this moral capitulation, the prime cause of Spassky’s defeat in the match. He played weakly, and Fischer reduced his lead to 2:1.

 

Years later Boris Spassky expressed a paradoxical thought: “There was only one way I could have won that match: before the third game started, when Bobby started to kick up a fuss, I could have conceded it! There was such an idea, but I was the chess king… and I could not break my word. I had promised to play this game. As a result I destroyed my own fighting spirit, and the match immediately turned from a festival into a lawsuit.”

 

But it was not this game but the fourth that Spassky considered the key game of the match. He caught Fischer with a variation, but… decided against the continuation which he and his trainers regarded as the strongest and missed his chance of a win. “After Fischer’s mistake in the opening I had an opportunity,” Spassky lamented. “This game was tense and packed with combat: in a word, it was interesting. But that’s where I came unstuck…”

 

In the fifth game the world champion blundered on the twenty-seventh move – and immediately laid down his arms. The score was level at 2.5:2.5, and the American now held all the initiative… His game was becoming stronger and more confident by the day, and Spassky simply could not cope with the hail of blows that rained down on him from all sides. In the match for the crown the “conservative” Fischer was using the full range of openings, playing solidly and accurately.

 

Fischer played well in the sixth game, but Spassky played badly. The challenger moved into the lead, 3.5:2.5. Before the seventh game the trainers insisted that the champion take a time-out, but he wanted his revenge! Spassky played a line sacrificing three pawns and got into a bad position, but managed to create an attack and saved half a point. But the eighth game, and then the tenth, again went to Fischer. The last of these was also Bobby’s best game of the match. And Boris was by no means the underdog in it.

 

The score stood at 6.5:3.5. But the champion, who had nothing to lose, calmed down and loosened up, and the match drew level. Spassky won the eleventh game and confidently steered the twelfth to a draw. It seemed that the battle in the match would flare up with new force.

 

But the thirteenth game was one of the most enigmatic ever played in world champion matches, and its final position was one of the most colourful… The black pawns were stubbornly trying to queen, and white was run off its feet trying to stop them. Fischer won – 8:5!

 

Having restored his three-point advantage, Fischer yielded the initiative for a while. But Spassky could find no way of converting positions with an advantage into victories. Thus he “spoiled” his endgame in the fourteenth; he achieved a strategically winning position but made a tactical mistake in the fifteenth; he put the pressure on in the sixteenth game, but they all ended in draws. There was no way to narrow the score… “In the last eight games of the match I felt almost all the time that I had Fischer in my hands, like a big fish,” Spassky complained after the match. “But the fish was slippery, and it was difficult to hold it, and somewhere I let it go. And the psychological torment started again. I had to start everything all over again!”

 

In the seventeenth game Spassky attacked again, but again it was a draw. In the eighteenth, after his mistake, it was Fischer who had the chance of a win, but… In the nineteenth game the champion had his last real chance to get a grip on the elusive title, but the challenger managed to stand his ground! The twentieth game was a boring draw. In the twenty-first an easily perceptible disappointment could be discerned in Spassky’s play, and Fischer was able to bring the match to a victorious conclusion – 12.5:8.5.

 

Thus the hegemony of the Soviet chess players had been broken for the first time since 1948, and a 29-year-old Grandmaster from the USA – Robert James Fischer – took the throne.

 

Game. Fischer - Spassky , tenth game:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 O-O 9.h3 Nb8 10.d4 Nbd7 11.Nbd2 Bb7 12.Bc2 Re8 13.b4 Bf8 14.a4 Nb6 15.a5 Nbd7 16.Bb2 Qb8 17.Rb1 c5 18.bxc5 dxc5 19.dxe5 Nxe5 20.Nxe5 Qxe5 21.c4 Qf4 22.Bxf6 Qxf6 23.cxb5 Red8 24.Qc1 Qc3 25.Nf3 Qxa5 26.Bb3 axb5 27.Qf4 Rd7 28.Ne5 Qc7 29.Rbd1 Re7 30.Bxf7+ Rxf7 31.Qxf7+ Qxf7 32.Nxf7 Bxe4 33.Rxe4 Kxf7 34.Rd7+ Kf6 35.Rb7 Ra1+ 36.Kh2 Bd6+ 37.g3 b4 38.Kg2 h5 39.Rb6 Rd1 40.Kf3 Kf7 41.Ke2 Rd5 42.f4 g6 43.g4 hxg4 44.hxg4 g5 45.f5 Be5 46.Rb5 Kf6 47.Rexb4 Bd4 48.Rb6+ Ke5 49.Kf3 Rd8 50.Rb8 Rd7 51.R4b7 Rd6 52.Rb6 Rd7 53.Rg6 Kd5 54.Rxg5 Be5 55.f6 Kd4 56.Rb1 {Black resigned.}

 

Conclusions. The idea of staging a Spassky – Fischer rematch was born at the closing banquet after the match in Reykjavik. Euwe even said that there were already several proposals, in particular from Las Vegas, with a prize fund of a million dollars. Neither of the opponents objected, especially as Fischer was intending to defend his title at least once a year, “not once every three years, like these Russians”. But… despite the fact that both opponents were willing, and the idea itself did not contravene the rules, Euwe still decided not to table the proposals at the FIDE Congress, fearing that it would split the federation.

 

The point was that the USSR Sports Committee took an ambiguous stance with regard to commercial “world championship” matches. Also, after Spassky’s defeat they had a new favourite, Karpov, so it would be awkward for them to support the ex-champion who had “slipped up”. And the idea of a rematch died of its own accord.

 

Everyone was waiting for the new world champion to take to the chess board and show what he could do…