The 1972 Chess World Championship

Photo By: J. Walter Green

Article by Felipe Chertouh

The 19th of January 2018 marked the ten year anniversary of Bobby Fischer’s death, and yet, talk of the schizophrenic grandmaster still remains. Fischer played Spassky for the world championship title in 1972, and it was only then that the once relatively obscure game of Chess boomed into total popularity. However, the importance of this competition was not only driven by the chess-playing ability of both grandmasters. The political overtones surrounding the competition during the height of the Cold War played an even bigger part (Smith 2). The two men competing for the title of ‘World Champion’ represented the extremes of American and Soviet cultures, and it felt like the reputation of the two most powerful nations in the world rested on the shoulders of two ostensibly unstable geniuses. The entire world watched.

The 1972 competition was contested for over two months. The tournament was scheduled to allow for a maximum of twenty four games over that time period. However, the World Chess Federation’s plan to do so did not go smoothly due to Fischer’s unrealistic expectations of what his rewards should be for coming to Iceland to play. Fischer demanded no cameras during the match as they disrupted his concentration, $500,000 for showing up, and no interviews (Sudetic 3). Smith deduced what happened next: Unfortunately for Fischer, when arriving at the airport, he was swarmed with reporters. So he turned around, and sprinted towards the exit. It was at this point that the troubled genius, Bobby Fischer vowed never to play again. In spite of that vow, he did show up to play Spassky; however, that was only after President Nixon’s National Security Assistant, Henry Kissinger, put in a call to Fischer’s hideaway and convinced him to play (Smith 4).

On August 8th, 1972, Bobby Fischer sat down to play his first match against Boris Spassky. Before the match began, “President Nixon sent Fischer his ‘personal congratulations’ and assured him that ‘I [President Nixon] will be rooting for you [Fischer].’ ” (qtd. in Malik 6). On that very day, “the New York metropolitan area was swarmed with phone calls protesting the station’s programing.” (Wills 1). Reportedly, viewers were demanding the producers drop the coverage of the Democratic National Committee, so that they could resume watching the Chess World Championship match. “Fischer vs Spassky was the Cold War’s supreme work of art, embodying abstract purism, incipient paranoia, [and] sublimated homicide” (Malik 9). Viewers all over the United States wanted to see the poor kid from Brooklyn single handedly take down the Soviet Empire in what the Soviet’s deemed as their own game. The USSR has long regarded Chess as the key to asserting intellectual superiority over the decadent West, and Fischer defeating Spassky would have been considered a victory for the United States over the USSR during the Cold War.

Spassky won the first encounter between the two, with Fischer resigning after he blundered his bishop on the thirty-second move. Fischer failed to show up for the second game due to his new demand to “play in a ping pong room” not having been met, and hence forfeited a point. Spassky agreed to Fischer’s location demand for the third game, and Fischer won the match. Fischer and Spassky proceed to draw the fourth game, and Fischer won the fifth game. Upon return to the main-stage, Boris Spassky and Robert J. Fischer would play what is now now regarded as the “match of the century.” Fischer played a never-seen-before defense as black and hence kept Spassky on the edge of his seat for all forty one moves of their game. Eventually, Spassky conceded and resigned the match. However, his method in doing so was peculiar. Rather than stopping the clock and shaking Fischer’s hand, Boris Spassky simply stood up and applauded Fischer for his brilliant game of Chess. It was a historical moment, not only for both grandmasters, but for the rest of the chess-playing world as well. From then on, Fischer was victorious. At the age of twenty-nine and seven months: Bobby Fischer was crowned the first ever American world champion.

It was an incontrovertible victory for Capitalism, Democracy, and the United States of America, but ironically not so much for Robert James Fischer. After his victory he had nothing left; he had already proven everything he felt he had needed to prove. The final screen show of Pawn Sacrifice reads: “He [Fischer] turned down millions of dollars in endorsements, forfeited his title [to Anatoly Karpov], and disappeared from public view.” The years 1972 to 1975 marked Fischer’s brightest and darkest moments as the Messiah of Chess. Eventually, Fischer who had asserted victory for the United States lost his American citizenship after violating U.N sanctions in 1992 for playing a Chess match in Yugoslavia (Pawn). Bobby went from being the King on the board to a measly Pawn in the world who was ultimately sacrificed for the supposed ‘greater good’ of his nation of birth. The king had lost control of the board and his crown with it.