50 years of Fischer versus Spassky: The Cold War on the chessboard

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Reykjavík 1972: World Chess Championship in the Icelandic capital. The American Bobby Fischer challenges the chess superpower Soviet Union. The duel goes down in history as the “Match of the Century”.

Every move counts: Boris Spassky (left) versus Bobby Fischer (right)

Where's Bobby Fisher? It's July 1st, 1972. The National Theater in Reykjavík is getting agitated. The hall in which the “Match of the Century” is to be opened is well filled, but one seat remains empty. Robert (“Bobby”) Fischer, the challenger from the USA, is not there. And someone else is missing: Gudmundur Thorarinsson, the young head of the Icelandic Chess Federation. Thorarinsson, now 82 years old, remembers the scene: “I negotiated with Fischer's lawyer up to the last minute – it was always about money and all sorts of details.”

But in vain: The chess grandmaster from New York, who is known for his escapades, has not made a commitment. “I was 15 minutes late for the opening, hadn't prepared a speech and didn't know what to say on stage,” says Thorarinsson. He only made his decision a meter before the podium: Instead of canceling the fight, the Icelander played poker – and spontaneously officially opened the competition. Thorarinsson: “How would the chess world have progressed if we Icelanders had canceled the fight back then?”

Gentleman vs. Genius

Thorarinsson's spontaneous decision turned out to be correct: “I knew that Fischer had worked his whole life towards this title fight.” After an American patron had increased the prize money to -at that time incredible-$150,000, Fischer finally boarded the plane towards Reykjavík.

Press Rush: Everyone is interested in Bobby Fischer

Once there, he suddenly puts the sleepy Icelandic capital in the limelight of the world press. “The whole world was interested in the duel between East and West on the chessboard,” says Thorarinsson.

On one side of the board is Bobby Fischer from New York, who is as eccentric as he is brilliant (quote: “Chess is war on the board.”) –  and on the other, the confident and worldly Russian titleholder Boris Spassky. “Most Icelanders back then wished for a win for the likeable Spassky,” recalls Icelander Helgi Olafson, then a sixteen-year-old chess talent and later grandmaster: “Spassky was a gentleman.”

But Bobby Fischer provided the spectacle. The former chess prodigy keeps the world in suspense for a summer. It was not until July 11th that he finally sat down for the first game – and was defeated by Spassky. The American will not compete in the second round. He is bothered by noises and the light – and he suspects tricks by the Soviet team. Fischer refuses to continue playing and loses without a fight. A scandal: the competition for the world chess championship has barely started before it's over again.

Karl May publisher saves the match

The savior of the match is a German: main referee Lothar Schmid, himself a chess grandmaster and owner of the Karl May publishing house in Bamberg, finds a solution. From now on, the game will be played in a back room where there is usually a table tennis table. “Lothar Schmid was an excellent referee,” remembers Gudmundur Thorarinsson. The beginning of the third game was legendary. Schmid quickly pushed the two of them into their armchairs and shouted: “Now Play Chess!”

And Fischer played. The third game brought about a turning point in the competition. Spassky, perhaps a little upset by the back and forth, made mistakes and suffered an unexpected loss. From that moment on, Fischer took command of the chessboard.

Shaking hands over the chessboard: Boris Spassky (left) and Bobby Fischer

Helgi Olafsson: “Spassky was always interested in chess, so he kept playing despite Fischer's antics.” The Icelander regrets that then, as now, everyone only talks about Bobby Fischer: “We forget what a great player and sportsman Boris Spassky is.” But nothing helped – on August 31st, the time had come: After a win in the 21st round, Fischer is uncatchable with 12.5 – 8.5 in front. The sensation is perfect: the decades-long dominance of the Soviet Union in chess is broken. The USA didn't win the Cold War in Reykjavík, but they did win the fight on the chessboard.

Fischer myth

But the history of the 1972 World Chess Championship does not end with the closing ceremony. The match triggered a chess boom worldwide. Helgi Olafsson: “Suddenly chess was something that interested everyone and with which you could even earn money – even if you didn't come from the Soviet Union.” It's not just in Iceland that a whole generation of young chess grandmasters is growing up . The “Match of the Century” only really became a myth in the years that followed:  Fischer returns triumphantly to the USA, but the world champion soon poses new puzzles. Once again the question is: Where is Bobby Fischer?

The American withdraws and a defense of the world title does not materialize. The world chess association does not want to meet Fischer's catalog of demands and finally awards the title to the young Russian Anatoly Karpov in 1975 without a fight. After that, nothing more was heard of the chess player Bobby Fischer – until 1992. During the Bosnian War, Fischer competed in an unofficial but lucrative match against Boris Spassky in Serbia. Fischer once again shows his class and defeats his old rival for the second time. But this competition should shape the further course of life of the American: Since Serbia is subject to economic sanctions by the USA, the US authorities are now investigating him.

“A humanitarian action”

&nbsp ;“Fischer felt persecuted – and he was,” says Helgi Olafson. Supported by chess fans, the increasingly suspicious fisherman travels the world. He is making a name for himself with increasingly bizarre performances: Fischer advocates conspiracy theories, he expresses himself anti-Semitically and anti-American. The low point was reached in 2005: the ex-world champion was in detention pending deportation in Japan.

But the ex-champion is not forgotten in Iceland: “It was clear that something had to happen,” remembers Helgi Olafson. A committee is set up, led once again by World Cup organizer Gudmundur Thorarinsson. The goal: to bring Bobby Fischer to Iceland. “It was a purely humanitarian action,” says Helgi Olafson. Iceland's Foreign Minister manages to be persuaded to grant Icelandic citizenship to Bobby Fischer.

End of an escape : Bobby Fischer on the way to Iceland (2005)

Finally, an exit to Iceland is agreed with the USA and Japan. In March 2005 the time had come: a shaggy-bearded Bobby Fischer landed back in Reykjavík, the place of his great triumph. 

End of the line Reykjavík 

“He was a broken man when he came back to Iceland,” recalled Helgi Olafson, who supported the former world champion in his final years and has written a book about the time. “I made it clear to Fischer right from the start that I wasn't interested in his crazy stories,” says Olafson. After that, he usually got along well with the chess champion. “When Fischer suddenly stopped playing at the age of 29, he was just Bobby Fischer without chess, a man without a real life,” says Olafson. At least Fischer got some rest in his last years in Iceland.

In 2008 the American's health deteriorated. He mistrusted the doctors to the end and refused treatment for his kidney disease. Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the best chess player of all time, died in January 2008. According to Helgi Olafson, his last apartment at Klapparstigur No. 5 in Reykjavík is said to be in exactly the same condition as it was shortly before his death has left.

The book by Helgi Olafson “Bobby Fischer Comes Home – Saga of Friendship and Lost Illusions” was published in 2012 by “New In Chess” (ISBN: 978-90-5691-381-6 ).

Gudmundur Thorarinsson published a book about the duel in Reykjavík in 2022: “The Match of All Time – The Inside Story of the legendary 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Chess Championship in Reykjavik” (“New in Chess”, ISBN 978-94-9325-747-4).