Match of the Century

From Academic Kids

The World Chess Championship match between challenger Bobby Fischer and defending champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, 1972, has been dubbed the Match of the Century. It is probably the most well-known world chess championship match, and also the most dramatic.



The match was played at the height of the Cold War. For a long time, the Soviet chess system had had a monopoly on the game at the highest level. Fischer, the highly eccentric young American, on the other hand, had been outspoken in his criticism of the system. For instance, he believed that USSR players gained an unfair advantage by agreeing to short draws among themselves in tournaments. Endowed with a fierce fighting spirit and a hater of agreed draws, Fischer had campaigned against this practice. He viewed the Soviets as hypocrites. The expectations on Spassky were enormous because for the Soviets, chess was part of the political system, part of life. While Fischer was no patriot ("Americans want to plunk in front of a TV and don't want to open a book..."), he too carried the burden of expectation because of the political significance of the match.

Fischer was extremely shy of the press. He didn't make it to Iceland for the opening ceremony. For a long time it looked doubtful that the match would be played at all, for it was proving impossible for FIDE to accommodate Fischer's myriad of demands, such as banning television cameras and a 30% share of the revenue from spectators. He opposed Spassky's proposals simply because they were Spassky's, and would at times be confounded when his rival's wishes happened to coincide with his own. Fischer's behavior was full of self-contradictions. He badly wanted to play the match, but would let it fall apart over apparently trivial issues. Finally, after a surprise doubling of the prize fund and much persuasion, Fischer acquiesced. Many commentators, particularly from the USSR, have suggested that all this was part of Fischer's plan to "psyche out" Spassky. Fischer's supporters say that winning the World Championship was the mission of his life, and that he simply wanted the setting to be perfect for it when he took the stage.

Spassky's seconds for the match were Efim Geller, Nikolai Krogius and Ivo Nei. Fischer's was William Lombardy. His entourage also consisted of lawyer Paul Marshall, whose role in the events of the following months would not be insignificant, and USCF representative Fred Cramer, who could best be termed 'complainer' in the light of events to follow. The match referee was Lothar Schmid, without whose extraordinary patience and resourcefulness the match would never have gotten underway.

Before the match, Fischer hadn't won a single game against Spassky. Of their five encounters, Spassky had won three and two had drawn. However, in the Candidates matches en route to becoming challenger, Fischer had demolished such stalwarts as Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen 6-0 (with no draws), and had won four games in a row in his match against former world champion Tigran Petrosian. He was, therefore, considered pre-match favorite.

Fischer's disastrous start

Template:Chess position Game 1.   Fischer played 29... Bxh2?

In game 1, after regular exchanges in a placid Nimzo-Indian, the position in the diagram on the left was reached after 29. b5. No one knows what went on in Fischer's mind when he blundered with 29... Bxh2? (see algebraic chess notation) in this rather lifeless position. Every chess beginner learns that the rook pawn is poisoned for the Bishop. Could Fischer really have missed 30. g3 h5 32. Ke2 h4 33. Kf3 h3 34. Kg4 Bg1 35. Kxh3 Bxf2 36. Bd2, trapping the bishop? Karpov has suggested that the reason was overconfidence. 29... Bxh2 would become Fischer's most famous move. Surprisingly, Fischer had good drawing chances with two pawns for the Bishop but he bungled again before adjournment. He resigned on move 56.

Fischer failed to turn up for the second game and lost by forfeit.

This was apparently due to another disagreement about cameras. With the score now 2-0, most observers believed that the match was over and Fischer would leave Iceland. Surprisingly, he did not, which some attribute to a phone call from Henry Kissinger and a deluge of telegrams in his support. Due to his sporting spirit and respect and sympathy for Fischer, Spassky agreed to play the third game in a small room backstage, out of sight of the spectators. This turned out to be a huge psychological blunder by Spassky.

The turning point

Template:Chess position Game 3.   Fischer played 11... Nh5!

In Lombardy's words:

When Bobby arrived, Boris was, as usual, seated at the table. Bobby did not sit down but went around inspecting the television equipment, and at this point Boris betrayed indignant agitation. Bobby tested the remote-control camera for possible sources of noise. Schmid watched the proceedings and became anxious. He felt the match once more was in jeopardy. Schmid took Bobby by the arm in an effort to get him to the playing table. Bobby brushed off Schmid's entreaties. "The American grandmaster permitted himself great liberty in his remarks, which were very disagreeable to hear," Spassky said later. Finally satisfied with the camera, Bobby settled down for the match.

It would be the turning point of the match.

After 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 c5 4. d5 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. Nc3 g6 7. Nd2 Nbd7 8. e4 Bg7 9. Be2 O-O 10. O-O Re8 11. Qc2, the position in the diagram on the right was reached.

Fischer demonstrated his acute intuitive feel for the position with 11... Nh5! It violates a whole slew of opening rules-of-thumb, but in this position Fischer's assessment that his kingside attack trumps the disadvantages of the move is correct.

Spassky continued in the passive style that he had employed in game 1 and which indeed had characterized his play ever since he ascended the chess throne. He lost after

12. Bxh5 gxh5 13. Nc4 Ne5 14. Ne3 Qh4 15. Bd2 Ng4 16. Nxg4 hxg4 17. Bf4 Qf6 18. g3 Bd7 19. a4 b6 20. Rfe1 a6 21. Re2 b5 22. Rae1 Qg6 23. b3 Re7 24. Qd3 Rb8 25. axb5 axb5 26. b4 c4 27. Qd2 Rbe8 28. Re3 h5 29. R3e2 Kh7 30. Re3 Kg8 31. R3e2 Bxc3 32. Qxc3 Rxe4 33. Rxe4 Rxe4 34. Rxe4 Qxe4 35. Bh6 Qg6 36. Bc1 Qb1 37. Kf1 Bf5 38. Ke2 Qe4+ 39. Qe3 Qc2+ 40. Qd2 Qb3 41. Qd4 Bd3+ 0-1.

Template:Chess position Game 5.   Spassky played 27. Qc2??

This was Fischer's first win against Spassky.

After the game, Fischer's spirits improved. Spassky, on the other hand, stopped believing in himself.

In the fourth game, Spassky employed the Sicilian as Black. He sacrificed a pawn in the opening and backed by some impressive home analysis, gained a strong attack, but failed to convert it into a win.

The fifth game was another Nimzo-Indian, and Spassky continued his passive style of play. After some aimless wood-pushing, he got into the position in the diagram on the left. Perhaps his game was lost anyway, but he gifted it to Fischer on a platter with 27. Qc2?? Bxa4 0-1.

By this time, Fischer was in a positively upbeat mood. He had drawn level, and although FIDE rules stipulated that the champion retained the title if the match ended in a tie, the effect of the fiasco of the first two games had been wiped out. He was confident of winning the match.

The juggernaut continues

Template:Chess position Game 6.   Fischer played 38. Rxf6!

In the sixth game, Fischer opened with 1. c4, one of the very rare instances he has not opened with 1.e4, nullifying Spassky's extensive opening preparation. Yet again, Spassky played passively. After 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bg5 O-O 6. e3 h6 7. Bh4 b6 8. cxd5 Nxd5 9. Bxe7 Qxe7 10. Nxd5 exd5 11. Rc1 Be6 12. Qa4 c5 13. Qa3 Rc8 14. Bb5 a6 15. dxc5 bxc5 16. O-O Ra7 17. Be2 Nd7 18. Nd4 Qf8 19. Nxe6 fxe6 20. e4 d4 21. f4 Qe7 22. e5 Rb8 23. Bc4 Kh8 24. Qh3 Nf8 25. b3 a5 26. f5, White had a crushing attack.

The game continued 26... exf5 27. Rxf5 Nh7 28. Rcf1 Qd8 29. Qg3 Re7 30. h4 Rbb7 31. e6 Rbc7 32. Qe5 Qe8 33. a4 Qd8 34. R1f2 Qe8 35. R2f3 Qd8 36. Bd3 Qe8 37. Qe4 Nf6 (diagram) 38. Rxf6 gxf6 39. Rxf6 Kg8 40. Bc4 Kh8 41. Qf4 1-0

After this game, Spassky joined the audience in applauding Fischer's win. Psychologically, he had already lost the match. He would later reluctantly refer to this game as the best of the match.

Game 7 was drawn, despite Fischer being two pawns ahead. In game 8, Fischer again played 1. c4, this time an English opening. Spassky gave up an exchange for little compensation, and it is unclear whether it was a sacrifice or a blunder. Fischer won, and he was ahead 5-3.

Template:Chess position Game 13.   After 61. Bf8

Spassky took a time-out before game 9. By now Fischer's psychological battle was proving impossible for him to handle. The ninth game ended in a draw in only 29 moves. The players' behavior, however, provided for much entertainment, with Fischer rocking back and forth in his chair and Spassky imitating him, which one spectator described as "two dead men dancing". At this point the Soviet establishment asked him to return to Moscow and claim the match by default. At considerable risk, Spassky refused. Fischer won the tenth game, in a sharp Ruy Lopez opening, a favorite of his. Spassky pulled one back in the next game with an opening novelty in the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Sicilian Najdorf. The twelfth was drawn. The 13th game swung one way, then another, and was finally adjourned with Fischer having an edge in a sharp position but no clear win. The Soviet team's analysis convinced them that the position was clearly drawn. Fischer stayed up until 8 am the following morning analyzing it (the resumption being at 2.30 pm.) He hadn't found a win either. Amazingly, he managed to set traps for Spassky, who fell into them and lost. Spassky's seconds were stunned, and Spassky himself refused to leave the board for a long time after the game was over, unable to believe the result.

1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. Nf3 g6 5. Bc4 Nb6 6. Bb3 Bg7 7. Nbd2 O-O 8. h3 a5 9. a4 dxe5 10. dxe5 Na6 11. O-O Nc5 12. Qe2 Qe8 13. Ne4 Nbxa4 14. Bxa4 Nxa4 15. Re1 Nb6 16. Bd2 a4 17. Bg5 h6 18. Bh4 Bf5 19. g4 Be6 20. Nd4 Bc4 21. Qd2 Qd7 22. Rad1 Rfd8 23. f4 Bd5 24. Nc5 Qc8 25. Qc3 e6 26. Kh2 Nd7 27. Nd3 c5 28. Nb5 Qc6 29. Nd6 Qxd6 30. exd6 Bxc3 31. bxc3 f6 32. g5 hxg5 33. fxg5 f5 34. Bg3 Kf7 35. Ne5+ Nxe5 36. Bxe5 b5 37. Rf1 Rh8 38. Bf6 a3 39. Rf4 a2 40. c4 Bxc4 41. d7 Bd5 42. Kg3 Ra3+ 43. c3 Rha8 44. Rh4 e5 45. Rh7+ Ke6 46. Re7+ Kd6 47. Rxe5 Rxc3+ 48. Kf2 Rc2+ 49. Ke1 Kxd7 50. Rexd5+ Kc6 51. Rd6+ Kb7 52. Rd7+ Ka6 53. R7d2 Rxd2 54. Kxd2 b4 55. h4 Kb5 56. h5 c4 57. Ra1 gxh5 58. g6 h4 59. g7 h3 60. Be7 Rg8 61. Bf8 (diagram) h2 62. Kc2 Kc6 63. Rd1 b3+ 64. Kc3 h1=Q 65. Rxh1 Kd5 66. Kb2 f4 67. Rd1+ Ke4 68. Rc1 Kd3 69. Rd1+ Ke2 70. Rc1 f3 71. Bc5 Rxg7 72. Rxc4 Rd7 73. Re4+ Kf1 74. Bd4 f2 0-1

The endgame

The next seven games were drawn. Fischer, with a three point lead, was content to inch towards the title, and Spassky seemed resigned to his fate. The off-the-board antics continued to be as interesting as they ever were, and included a lawsuit against Fischer for damages by Chester Fox, who had filming rights to the match (Fischer had objected to the camera team, forcing Fox to sell his rights), a Fischer demand to remove the first seven rows of spectators, and Spassky's claims that Fischer was using electronic and chemical devices to 'control' him, resulting in an Iceland police sweep of the hall. The 21st was the final game. Spassky played badly in the endgame and the game was adjourned with a big advantage for Fischer. Spassky resigned the game by telephone, which Fischer made a big fuss about, but could finally be convinced that the rules allowed it.

The final score was 12.5 - 8.5 in favor of Fischer.

See also: chess terminology


  • Svetozar Gligoric, Fischer vs. Spassky - The Chess Match of the Century, Simon and Schuster.
  • Pal Benko and Burt Hochberg, Winning with Chess Psychology, McKay Chess Library
  • The Fischer story - A mystery wrapped in an enigma ( by William Lombardy

External link

de:Match des Jahrhunderts


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