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How lighting flipped the switch for Bobby Fischer

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. It’s 1972, and after a string of remarkable victories against Taimanov, Larsen and Petrosian, Bobby Fischer earned the right to compete for the World Championship against the reigning champion, Grandmaster Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.

Played during the Cold War, the subtleties of the affair were lost on no one. The American Fischer was clearly positioned to challenge Spassky at the game which had been dominated by the Soviets for decades. Each piece was, in its own way, a missile, and the battles fought over the board had political connotations.

Through months of negotiations, never-seen-before levels of media coverage and an eye-watering $250,000 prize pool (roughly equivalent to £1.5 million today), it felt like the entire world was watching nervously. By the start of game one, there was a near-frenzy of excitement and attention - totally unheard of for the game of chess.

The Match of the Century

Game one was a close affair. After six gruelling hours, the American was clearly uncomfortable and irritable, and the players reached what should have been a drawn position. Fischer, who had complained about the poor lighting of the Laugardalshöll in Reykjavik, miscalculated and blundered his bishop on move 29. In despair, he resigned just a few moves later, and lost the first game. Under great duress, he then forfeited the second game, refusing to play another move until the playing conditions were improved.

The event organisers buckled, removing the chandeliers, and softening the ambient lighting of the hall. They prevented any further flash photography during playing time, all in an effort to please Fischer. Eventually he returned to a modified playing hall, satisfied - yet still down 2-0, he had a tremendous amount left to do.

Within three games Fischer would equalise the score, and after defeating Spassky in game 6, he took the lead. This game was regarded as the most significant of the match, with Fischer playing to near-perfection. Even Spassky joined the rapturous applause for the brilliance of his opponent, a gesture which Fischer later admitted overwhelmed him. After taking the lead, the American was unstoppable, eventually winning 12½ - 8½ after game 21.

A man against the world

One of the amazing aspects to Fischer’s victory is that he won more-or-less single-handedly.

For years, the Soviet Union had been heavily invested in the game of chess, using it as an arm of the Communist doctrine, in an attempt to prove intellectual superiority of its population. The Soviets gave out state-sponsored professional chess contracts, which were accompanied by a history of chess-teaching unheard of elsewhere in the world. After each game, Spassky was surrounded by multiple world-class players who assisted his analysis of the positions on the board. If we compare that to Fischer, who had been forced to win every dollar he earned through the game of chess, who taught himself Russian in order to be able to study from the best Soviet Chess books, and was only supported by an ageing William Lombardy, to consider positions between games, the victory seems even more impressive.

Fischer was a clear underdog and played the most scintillating series of games the world had ever seen, as he defeated Spassky, completing a humiliation of the Soviet Union in the process.

It’s 51 years since Fischer’s incredible victory set the world alight, and today on International Chess Day, we hope this retelling inspires you to get a board out of a dusty drawer and play a few games.

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  • matthew traynor
    05 Mar 2023

    Lets applaud Boris Spassky for being Chess' greatest sportsman. AFter all he could have left without playing this match and kept his title. Boris had affinity for Bobby. Lets not forget Spassky rising and applauding Bobby'sgreat win in Game 6 using the 1. c4. Spassky also came to Fischer aid during his enprisonment in Japan. Boris offer to stay with Bobby in his jail cell. Without Spassky's sacrifice, Bobby's full greatness would not be realize. To Boris Spassky, Chess Greatest Sportman, I salute you!!!!

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