Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Hail the conquering American! Marking 50 years since Fischer’s epic win over Spassky

The times being what they were, I first learned the result from the newspaper I was delivering.

The afternoon Washington Evening Star’s front-page, top-of-the-fold headline for Sept. 1, 1972 — exactly 50 years ago this Thursday — proclaimed that Russian Boris Spassky had conceded the adjourned 21st game of the stormy match in Reykjavik, Iceland, by phone making Bobby Fischer the 11th official world chess champion and the first American to wear the crown. Fischer’s decisive 12½-8½ match win ended the Soviet Union’s quarter-century stranglehold on the title and set off a chess boom in the United States that has never been equaled.

The joy of that astounding win is inevitably colored by the long, sad aftermath, including the failure to organize a title defense match against rising Russian star Anatoly Karpov in 1975, the decision to strip Fischer of his title, his long exile from competitive chess during what should have been this prime, the sad rematch with Spassky in a disintegrating Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Fischer’s depressing legal, political, financial and psychological struggles in the years before his death from kidney failure in his beloved Iceland in 2008.

Happily, we can leave all that to the side for at least one column and focus on the truly important stuff — the chess. For despite the popular accounts of Fischer as a remorseless, unbeatable machine, there were a slew of interesting, hard-fought games played in Reykjavik, and Spassky missed several chances during the match to narrow the gap.

In the string of draws in the second half of the match, it was often Fischer who had to work to save difficult positions and preserve his lead. One of Fischer’s greatest accomplishments in the match was the fact that he never “lost” an adjournment, able virtually on his own to find the most accurate continuations while an army of top Soviet grandmasters was enlisted to help Spassky. “Basically,” admitted Soviet Chess Sports Committee head Viktor Baturinsky, “the Soviet leadership and the powers that be in sport were interested in just one issue: how to stop Fischer from becoming world champion.”

Fischer famously began the match with Spassky — whom he had never beaten before — in an 0-2 hole, with a silly endgame loss in the first game and a forfeit over match conditions in Game 2. The third game, played in a small back room away from the crowds at Fischer’s insistence, thus proved a turning point, with Black using a stunning opening innovation in a Modern Benoni, 11. Qc2 Nh5!? 12. Bxh5 gxh5, that rattles White and — as would happen repeatedly in the match — induced from nervous and uncertain responses from Spassky.

Just awful positionally was 17. Bf4 Qf6 18. g3? (one could almost call it the losing move given Black’s flawless exploitation of the kingside weakness, and even going into an opposite-colored bishop ending a pawn down can’t save White’s game. White resigned after Black’s sealed move of 41 … Bd3+, having no need to see lines like 42. Ke3 (Ke1 Qxb4+ 43. Kd1 Qb3+ 44. Ke1 b4 and wins) Qd1 43. Qb2 Qf3+ 44. Kd2 Qe2+ 45. Kc3 Qe1+ 46. Qd2 Qe5 mate.

Having finally beaten his great Russian rival, Fischer stepped on the gas, with four wins and four draws in the next eight games to essentially decide the contest. The last game in the amazing streak, Game 10, was representative of much of the play: Spassky as Black has a very playable game out of a Ruy Lopez Breyer, but Fischer pounces on an inaccuracy (better was 25 … axb5 26. Rxb5 Ba6, as 25 … Qxa5?! 26. Bb3! suddenly puts a lot of heat on black’s vulnerable f7-square.

Still, Spassky’s decision to sacrifice the exchange for two connected passed pawns on the queenside looks reasonable until one considers Fischer’s relentlessness and “Mozartean” ability to harmonize his play. Black’s proud pawns never get rolling, and somehow White manages to get a pair of passers of his own on the kingside. In the end, Black’s shredded defense cannot hold and 56 … Bxf6 57. Rd1+ Kc4 58. Rxc5+ Kxc5 59. Rxd7 is an elementary endgame win; Black resigned.

The game that his young paperboy read about in the newspaper came after a string of seven draws in which Fischer skillfully parried Spassky’s attempts to cut into his three-point lead. Yet again, the chess on the board was spirited, and yet again, Spassky would falter in the crunch. Just as in Game 10, Spassky sacrifices the exchange in this Sicilian to obtain two powerful-looking queenside passed pawns, and again gets nothing for his troubles in the face of Black’s accurate play.

The final sequence is a bit of a letdown, as Fischer’s move at time control, 40 … h5?! allowed some tricky drawing opportunities for White had he sealed the move 41. Kh3!. Instead, Spassky wrote down the inferior 41. Bd7? (see diagram), and overnight analysis gave Black a clear win with 41 … Kg4! and the push of the h-pawn. White resigned without showing up for play the next day and Fischer was the champion.

Spassky-Fischer, World Championship Match, Game 3, Reykjavik, Iceland, July 1972

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 Nh5 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+ White resigns.

Fischer-Spassky, World Championship Match, Game 10, Reykjavik, Iceland, August 1972

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 resigns.

Spassky-Fischer, Game 21, World Championship Match, Reykjavik, Iceland, August 1972

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Be3 Nf6 7. Bd3 d5 8. exd5 exd5 9. O-O Bd6 10. Nxc6 bxc6 11. Bd4 O-O 12. Qf3 Be6 13. Rfe1 c5 14. Bxf6 Qxf6 15. Qxf6 gxf6 16. Rad1 Rfd8 17. Be2 Rab8 18. b3 c4 19. Nxd5 Bxd5 20. Rxd5 Bxh2+ 21. Kxh2 Rxd5 22. Bxc4 Rd2 23. Bxa6 Rxc2 24. Re2 Rxe2 25. Bxe2 Rd8 26. a4 Rd2 27. Bc4 Ra2 28. Kg3 Kf8 29. Kf3 Ke7 30. g4 f5 31. gxf5 f6 32. Bg8 h6 33. Kg3 Kd6 34. Kf3 Ra1 35. Kg2 Ke5 36. Be6 Kf4 37. Bd7 Rb1 38. Be6 Rb2 39. Bc4 Ra2 40. Be6 h5 41. Bd7 Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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