Fifty years ago, Bobby Fisher of the United States defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in the thrilling East-West War, dubbed the “Match of the Century.”
The fight, which lasted two months in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, was attended by about 50 million TV viewers, where the giant chess fisherman set out from the Soviet Union to win the championship, which had dominated the game for decades.
AFP covered the tournament daily. This account is based on his report.
On one side of the table is Fisher, a fantastic, intensely competitive 29-year-old ex-boy wonder who maintained his place among America’s greatest players at the age of 12 and has already won eight U.S. chess tournaments.
Born in Chicago, Fisher grew up in a Brooklyn suburb of New York where his older sister taught him chess at the age of six.
At the age of 15, he became the youngest chess grandmaster in the world and left school to focus on the game.
“He has few friends and they don’t care about making anything,” says an AFP correspondent in Reykjavik, with the motto: “It’s not enough to defeat the enemy, you have to crush them.”
He entered the tournament by winning 101 of the previous 120 games.
In the second seat is 35-year-old Boris Spassky, a trained journalist and married father of two, who has been a world champion for three years.
Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1937, he was sent to an orphanage in Siberia during the Nazi German siege during World War II.
A pure product of the Soviet chess machine, he began playing at the age of five and became a juggernaut at the age of 19.
A favorite, polite character, he is an opponent of Cantencars Fisher.
Anger of anger
Fisher is the first American-born player to claim the title (since 1946, the two finalists have always been the Soviets).
Neutral countries host the match, which is ultimately awarded to Iceland.
Fisher makes several demands before agreeing to participate. The venue, sports hall, soundproofing, new carpeting and room temperature should be kept at 22.5C.
But on the eve of the tournament, he has yet to show up and Spasky is getting impatient.
Henry Kissinger, who was U.S. National Security Adviser under President Richard Nixon, called Fisher and persuaded him to participate.
AFP reports that the US champion “looks tired” when he lands in Reykjavik on July 4. He walked out of the opening ceremony. Angry Spassky has apologized.
The competition starts on July 11, nine days late.
‘Scandal of the Century’
For the “loud applause” of the 2,500 spectators in the packed hall, Spassky arrives 20 minutes early for the opening game. Fisher comes in at the last moment, “pushes behind the photographer, runs to Spassky, shakes hands” and sits down. The game is finally on.
The two move cautiously and on the 28th move, the game seems to be heading towards a draw. But then Fisher made two bad moves and resigned on the 56th move.
Stunned by his loss, he demanded the removal of all cameras from the hall. When the request is denied, he refuses to show up in the second game, he loses.
“The audience is frustrated and annoyed,” AFP reported.
The Icelandic daily Timin announced that the match of the century has turned into a “scandal of the century”.
Fisher was nowhere to be found as the third game began. Kissinger picks up the phone again. “Please, keep playing,” Fisher later quoted him as requesting.
When the competition resumes on July 16, the hall is packed, but the stage is empty. Spassky agrees to Fisher’s demand that he play in a small room normally used for ping pong (the ceiling camera broadcasts the event in the main hall outside).
Some commentators see Spassky’s concessions as a bad omen for the Russians, who are losing the game.
The fourth match ended in a draw, with Spassky resigning at number five.
The two are now hugging each other.
Games for history books
The 6th game is the toughest of the tournament. Spassky threw the towel on the 41st move.
“I’m proud of this game, it was one of my best games,” Fisher tells AFP, adding: “When Spassky joined the crowd to celebrate my victory, I thought, ‘What a gentleman.’
Spassky also resigned from the 13th game, a chess masterclass, according to an AFP correspondent who said that after congratulating his opponent, Spassky “meditated for six minutes, losing his sight in chess.”
Fisher is more and more confident of victory. “He will be the champion,” his sister Joan told AFP after the seventh game.
The Russian asks that the 14th game be postponed and the next seven are all draws.
Game 21, which goes to Fisher, was the last. The next day Spassky resigned from the game, Fisher, who is still asleep, became the 11th world chess champion with a final score of 12.5-8.5.
Hero to zero
Chess is seen as a metaphor for the politics of great power, Fisher’s victory is celebrated in the United States as a symbolic victory of capitalism over communism.
Nixon invited Fisher to the White House
The broken Spassky returned to an icy reception in the Soviet Union, where he is banned from participating in chess competitions and is being held under the supervision of the secret police KGB.
In 1976, he married a French woman and moved to Paris, but the self-confessed Russian nationalist later returned to Moscow.
Fisher never plays another chess tournament.
In 1975, he refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov of the Soviet Union and therefore lost. A conspiracy theorist hating the “world jury”, he disappeared for several years at a time, re-emerged in 1992 for a match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, despite the war-torn country being under US sanctions.
He renounced US citizenship in 2004 and then moved to Iceland, where he died on January 17, 2008 at the age of 64 – the number of squares on a chess board.