45 years ago today in Reykjavik, Iceland the World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer of the United States and Boris Spassky began. This was much much more than a chess tournament. It was at the height of the Cold War and prestige was on the line. The Soviets dominated chess and their government placed a high priority on developing outstanding chess players. Soviets had held the title for 24 consecutive years. There was no such effort in the US- Bobby Fischer was a great player and had done some remarkable things on the chess board up until this time [he won his first of eight US Championships at the age of 14} but the 29 year old Fischer had yet to win the World Championship.
It was touch and go whether Fischer was even going to show up. He had a list of demands of the organizing committee and said they weren’t meeting his demands. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger- a chess player- ended up calling Fischer and asking him to play for the country. Anyway- he did show up for game 1. Now to win the World Championship- it is a grueling ordeal- it’s not one chess match. You had to reach 12 1/2 points to win. A win in a match gave you one point, a draw was worth a half a point.
In the first game Fischer made a blunder one move 29 [at this level of chess the slightest mistake usually means doom] which led to his resignation on move 56. The next game Fischer didn’t show up- the organizers hadn’t met his demands. So Fischer was starting out down 2 points to 0. There were those who felt it was all over you don’t overcome being down 2-0… but Bobby Fischer did- he won the World Championship in game 21 by the final total of 12 1/2 points to Spassky’s 8 1/2 points.
The Fischer- Spassky World Championship Match- captured the imagination of the world- and in the United States there was a chess boom that has never been seen before or since. Everyone was buying chess boards and playing chess. I was eleven at the time. I recall my father and his friend Bill-[who had played chess for some time} getting together often and playing. Chess clubs were springing up all over the country.
Books have been written about Fischer and about this match with Boris Spassky- Fischer’s story is fascinating and so is the story of this match. There is an exceptional documentary if you have HBO On Demand- called “The World Vs Bobby Fischer” and a movie came out a couple years ago about this match starring Toby McGuire as Fischer called “Pawn Sacrifice” which is pretty good.