Cold War in Reykjavik as Fischer breaks Soviet defender Spassky

Boris Spassky v Bobby Fischer: 64 alternately black and white squares became the unlikely battleground in 1972 as the champion…

Boris Spassky v Bobby Fischer:64 alternately black and white squares became the unlikely battleground in 1972 as the champion, from Russia, defended his title against a brilliant but eccentric American, writes Damian Cullen

SO, WHICH rivalry had the biggest influence on the world? The impact of the most high-profile and enduring sporting rivalries is always loud, but usually localised. And, almost universally, they lack non-sporting significance.

Certainly few have been used as an alternative battleground for two nations at war.

First, there was chess. Then, there were four million competitive players in communist USSR. And, in the middle of the Cold War, came a challenger to Soviet dominance of the sport, from, of all places, the US.


Bobby Fischer was born to be the world chess champion. In July, 1956, at just 13 years of age, he became the youngest ever US Junior champion and the following year the Chicago native was the youngest US champion (both records still stand).

Victory at home led to the Portoro Interzonal in 1958 and Fischer's performance in Slovenia qualified him (by now, at 15, the youngest ever Grandmaster) for the Candidates' Tournament - an elite event which is the final step on the road to challenging for the world championship. Aged 16, Fischer finished fifth in Yugoslavia - with four Soviet players above him.

It was a sensation.

The year after Fischer finished second in prestigious Argentinian event, Mar del Plata - losing only to new Soviet star Boris Spassky.

The Leningrad player had six years on Fischer, and was another child chess prodigy - setting all the equivalent national records Fischer would. At 18, he won the 1955 World Junior championship and secured a seat at the Candidates' Tournament - the 19-year-old finishing in the middle of the 10-member tournament.

However, being a chess prodigy in the US and one in the Soviet Union were not the same. Fischer was already being hailed as the greatest American exponent of chess by the 1960 Mar del Plata. Spassky, on the other hand, was still struggling to hold his own near the top of the Soviet table.

In their first meeting across a chess table, the 23-year-old Soviet player's experience told against the 17-year-old and, after changing trainers - moving from one who was attack-minded to one with a more conservative outlook - Spassky began to justify the enormous expectation that had followed him since, aged just 10, he defeated the Soviet champion Mikhail Botvinnik during an exhibition game.

In 1965 he reached the Candidates' final, defeating Latvian Mikhail Tal to earn a shot at the world champion - Tigran Petrosian. Spassky lost, but then finished ahead of Petrosian in the important Santa Monica event in 1966 (his 11½/18 a half a point ahead of Fischer). He had to take the Candidates' Tournament route once more and in a rematch with Petrosian, in Moscow in 1969, Spassky won - 12½/23.

Spassky and Fischer had begun the 1960s with the weight of expectation on their respective shoulders. Spassky finished the decade as the world champion. Fischer's chess career, however, was a rollercoaster ride of brilliant performances and trademark tantrums, wild accusations and statements.

After publicly complaining the Soviet Union players were conspiring to help each other in the Candidates' Tournaments (and despite the organisers agreeing to move to a knock-out format to eliminate this possibility) the American spent much of the 1960s out of the international scene.

In fact, Fischer - who died earlier this year - would become as famous for his political comments as for his chess genius and his legacy was damaged by his many outrageous remarks - which included detailing his hatred of Jews and, in later years, his love for all things anti-American.

Soon after Spassky became the world champion, Fischer's career also met an upward curve. At the beginning of 1970, Fischer beat former world champion Petrosian in Belgrade, before also taking the Interzonal and then, in 1971, again beating Petrosian in the final Candidates' match.

He could now challenge Spassky for the world championship. What followed has been called the Match of the Century.

Never before or after has a chess tournament, or perhaps any sporting event, taken on such non-sporting significance. This was not Spassky v Fischer. It was the USSR v US.

In the book, Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow relate the story of how, during one of the Fischer-Spassky games, a reporter was sent out in New York to nearby public houses. He reported back that of the 21 pubs with televisions he visited, three were tuned into a Mets baseball game and 18 were showing two men staring at a chessboard.

In fact, the clash almost didn't take place. Fischer didn't want it to take place in Iceland and needed US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger to call and appeal to his patriotism before he agreed.

"I have been chosen to teach the Russians some humility," the 29-year-old, who had never won a game between the two in five attempts, declared.

In the Soviet Union, chess was interwoven with the political system. The East had been home to the world champion since 1948. Losing to an American was unthinkable.

The fate of a nation has rarely depended on the result of a sporting endeavour. But that was how the match-up between Fischer and Spassky was portrayed in the lead-up to Reykjavik in 1972.

Fischer failed to appear for the opening ceremony and, at the last minute, the prizefund was doubled to $250,000. The American even tried to restrict use of, and even ban, television cameras at the event.

In the first game Fischer took a unusual risk and it backfired. The second was lost when the American forfeited the game in a row over playing conditions.

The USSR had won the opening battles comfortably. Fischer, however, returned to the table and won seven of the next 19 games, losing just one (with 11 draws). The new champion became an instant national icon in America and was treated as a war hero.

The Irish Times covered the contest in detail, often on the front page. The letters page was full of comment on the match in Iceland throughout July and August, 1972. On Saturday, September 2nd, 1972, the newspaper reported there was a new world chess champion, the first (and only) American to hold the crown.

On the front page, newspaper reported: "Spassky resigned by telephone. The audience (about 2,500) burst into rhythmic applause and rose. Fischer, still busying himself at the chessboard, again nodded, looked uncomfortable, glanced at the audience from the corner of his eyes and rushed off.

'What a way for it to end,' said a visiting American chess player with a pained look.