May - June 2006 Review
Bobby Fischer Goes to War:
How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary
Chess Match of all Time
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
2004 HarperCollins Books
A few quick facts: in 1972 there were only 90 GM’s, and according to the book there are now about 550. The world championship order is: Steinitz 1886–1894, Lasker 1894–1921, Capablanca 1921–1927, Alekhine 1927–1935, Euwe 1935–1937, Alekhine 1937-1946, 1947 there was no living champion, Botvinnik 1948–1957, Smyslov 1957-1958, Botvinnik 1958-1960, Tal 1960-1961, Botvinnik 1961-1963, Petrosian 1963-1969, Spassky 1969-1972, Fischer 1972-1975, Karpov 1975- (I believe Kasparov took the title in 1985, and Kramnik in 2000). There are over 300 billion legal ways to make the first four moves in chess. There are more variations in a typical game of chess (1080) than there are atoms in the universe. And there are even more ways for the game to turn out (10117).
Bobby Fischer was born in 1943 in Chicago. He was not raised by his biological father, a Hungarian. His mother was very intelligent, receiving multiple degrees and learning several languages. Bobby learned chess at age 6. He joined the Manhattan chess club at age 12, and a year later met future Grandmasters William Lombardy and Robert Byrne. He won the US Junior Chess Championship at age 13. He became the US chess champion the next year at age 14! That year he traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time to play chess, but did not do well, and was supposedly rude, and was asked to leave. He did, however, play in the 1958 Interzonal tournament, scoring 6-2-0, and became the youngest International Grandmaster ever. He later met Danish GM Bent Larsen, who helped him with his preparation. At this time he often cried after losing games.
Fischer met Boris Spassky for the first time in 1960, and ironically they shared first place at the tournament. Two years later, Fischer won the next interzonal, the first non-Soviet to ever win it (the interzonals started after 1945). However, he lost in the zonal tournament, and accused the Soviets of cheating by pre-arranged draws (which later turned out to be true). Fischer was such a talented player, not to mention coming from a capitalist country, his complaints were heeded, and the round-robin system was scrapped in favor of knockout matches. It was about this time that many players started saying that Fischer had a strange effect on them, draining their power of concentration and stamina. Maybe it was his IQ---estimated as a teen to be 180.
Three years later, in 1963, Fischer qualified again for the Interzonal, winning all 11 games against his American opponents. But he complained even more about the tournament system, and voluntarily sat out of the interzonal. Three years later, he easily won the US title again, and did play in the 1967 interzonal. He played Spassky twice in that tournament, losing one game and drawing one. In two other separate tournaments, Spassky also won one game and drew one. During this time, Fischer was a member of a Jewish sect called the Worldwide Church of God (he later vehemently rejected Judaism). He was not supposed to “work” during the weekends, and that made tournaments very hard to attend. The constant rescheduling of his games put him under a lot of stress, to the point that he completely dropped out of the interzonal tournament. He did not play tournament chess again for two years. Although Fischer by now had a terrible reputation in the greater chess community, he was known to always be a gentleman over the board.
The Leningrad-born Boris Spassky also became a Grandmaster at a very young age. In 1966, at the age of 29, he challenged the world champion, Tigran Petrosian, for the title, and lost. Two years later, he defeated Efim Geller, Bent Larsen, and Viktor Korchnoi, losing only 2 of 26 games. In 1969 he faced Petrosian for the second time for the world champion title, and this time Spassky won, 6-13-4. Spassky was well-known to be anti-Soviet, but since he was the world champion, the authorities more often than not turned the other cheek when he made anti-communist statements. Many of his chessmates were not so fortunate. Spassky became world champion by intense concentration and suppression of emotion---however the stresses of the tournaments often made him physically ill afterwards.
The next time Fischer and Spassky met to play, it was in the 1970 Olympiad. Spassky had white and played 1 d4. Fischer responded with the Grunfeld defense, but lost again. Later that year, both players of course competed in the interzonal. Both made the cut, and in the candidates matches there were eight players left to see who would face Spassky: Fischer, Taimanov, Hubner, Korchnoi, Uhlmann, Geller, Larsen, and Petrosian. Not an easy crowd to beat! The Soviets tried to study Fischer’s style, and found out that he preferred a knight to a bishop in the endgame. That is strange, since in another book it claims that Fischer went out of his way to preserve his bishops. No one could successfully study Fischer’s style. He crushed Taimanov, 6-0, Larsen 6-0, and Petrosian, 6.5 to 2.5. Fischer finally made it to the world championship in 1972.
Of course, the Soviets still tried to study Fischer’s tendencies, and focused on his relatively narrow opening repertoire. Unfortunately for them, Spassky was now the defending world champion, and often refused the advice of his trainer and helpers. Later, this attitude cascaded into a blame game and finger-pointing by his entourage to avoid being punished by the KGB. Spassky also made enemies with former champion Mikahail Botvinnik. Supposedly Viktor Korchnoi had studied Fischer’s play the most, but he also did not get along with Spassky. While Spassky was studying, an agreement was made for the championship to be in Iceland (which was initially chosen by the Soviets, even though it had an American military base there). The prize fund was a total of $125,000, which quickly doubled to $250,000, thanks to an English businessman.
Fischer quickly began complaining about the tournament conditions, even before he arrived. In fact it took a call from the US Secretary of State to motivate Fischer to even go to play! For those interested, Spassky’s rating before the tournament was 2660; Fischer’s was a whopping 2785. By the way, 90% of the commentary on the actual games is from Chessbase, not the book. The first game was a Nimzo-Indian with 3 ...d5, and was basically uneventful until Fischer blundered on move 29, losing his last piece (a bishop) for two pawns. It was a mistake that even a 1500-rated player would probably not have made.
Was it a psychological ploy? Spassky won a somewhat boring technical game thereafter. After the game, Fischer began to complain more and more about the playing conditions, to the point that he didn’t even show up for the second game. It’s inconceivable to me that he would not play the second game, which Spassky won by forfeit. Some speculate that it was a psychological ploy to make Spassky feel guilty about an empty win. Later, Anatoly Karpov said that Spassky didn’t recognize the psychology behind Fisher’s absence, and added that had Petrosian been the defending champion, he would have ‘licked his chops and gobbled up that second point’. Fischer had already booked a flight back to New York. The only way he would play is if it was in a back room, away from the several-hundred member audience. He got his wish---Spassky conceded this request.
Game three was pivotal: Spassky was the defending champion, was up two games to none, and had the White pieces. Fischer played a Benoni defense and made an interesting, if not dubious move 11, ...Nh5. Spassky’s bishop was on e2 and quickly took the knight after Fischer had casted kingside, thus ruining the pawn structure in front of his king. But Spassky could not take advantage of this and was slowly, methodically crushed. The match was on. Game four had Spassky playing a Sicilian defense and resulted in a draw. In Game five, Fischer played a true Nimzo-Indian defense and defeated Spassky in 27 moves, after a blunder on move 26. Game six had Fischer play a rare opening for him---the English. Fischer played a great tactical game, utilizing several pins, and won. The seventh game featured Fischer playing a Najdorf Sicilian, successfully taking a pawn on b2 with his queen. Spassky actually played a great tactical game, but could only manage a draw.
Game eight had Fischer playing another English opening. Spassky blundered on move 15, moving a pawn protecting one of his rooks and losing the exchange to a bishop. Fischer’s tactics in this game were much better than his opponent’s, and he won in less than 40 moves. Spassky became physically ill after this game. In game nine, Spassky decided to play 3 Nf3 instead of 3 Nc3, to avoid the Nimzo-Indian defense. He could only manage a draw with this variation. Game ten had Spassky playing a Ruy Lopez. Fischer sacrificed a pawn on move 26, to set up a very impressive 7-move combination, and ended up an exchange ahead for a pawn, winning the endgame later.
Game 11 saw the frustrated Spassky switch plans and start playing 1 e4 again. The game turned into another Najdorf Sicilian, with Fischer again taking the supposedly poisoned b2 pawn. But this time Spassky and his team prepared well for this pawn grab by the Black Queen. Spassky played the game brilliantly; it was probably his best game of the championship. It took him 17 more moves to win Fischer’s queen, but in the meantime Spassky created all kinds of pins and forks. Fischer resigned on move 31. Game 12 had Fischer play the English opening AGAIN (he hadn’t played the English opening 3 times in any tournament before this). The interesting thing about his choice of the variation of the English is that it basically transposed into a typical Queen pawn game---the opening that Spassky played the most. It was almost as if Fischer was taunting Spassky by trying to outplay him with his own expertise. This game ended in a draw.
Game 13 saw Spassky again play 1 e4, and this time Fischer responded with Alekhine’s defense---Nf6. Spassky advanced his e-pawn, and the battle was on. This game was absolutely fantastic. The maneuvering and intermezzos by both sides was spectacular. Fischer allowed his bishop to be taken, in exchange for what turned out to be a four-pawn advantage for black. Spassky desparately tried to save the game, but Fischer had three connected passed pawns and won in 74 moves. It was one of the best games I’ve ever seen. Game 14 had Fischer again playing the English! For the second straight time, he could only manage a draw, probably because he had so much less experience with this opening. Game 15 was a Sicilian that resulted in Fischer drawing by repetition. Game 16 was a drawn Ruy Lopez. Game 17 was again a Ruy Lopez that was fairly boring. Game 18 had Spassky playing 1 e4, with Fischer countering with the Pirc defense. For some strange reason, Fischer voluntarily gave up the exchange, and looked like he was losing, but managed to draw the game. Game 19 was a drawn Sicilian. Game 20 had Fischer again playing Alekhine’s defense. Spassky give up two minor pieces for a Rook and pawn, but could only manage a draw. Game 21 was again a drawn Sicilian. This was the seventh draw in a row.
Game 22 was the final game of the match. Another Sicilian, but this time Spassky took too many chances with white. In the middlegame, Spassky probably blundered by allowing a combination in which he won a pawn, but lost the exchange to a bishop sacrifice, then rook capture by Fischer. Fischer played the endgame perfectly and won. There are many people who wonder why Spassky played the championship so badly, but in reality he only blundered away a few games. There are many games that Fischer played where he would have beaten ANYONE across the board.
The Soviets accused Fischer of playing mind games, hypnotizing Spassky, etc. (even thinking that there was some cheating device in his chair). Spassky’s opening advisor Efim Geller was convinced that their opening preparation was leaked to Fischer. Whatever really happened, the bottom line is that Spassky was not prepared for Fischer’s opening deviations, and could not come back from an early deficit. Looking at their FIDE ratings, it’s not a shock to think that Fischer, rated 125 points higher, would have ended up with a plus 4 score. Spassky only won 3 games, and none after game 11. 2785 vs. 2660 for 22 games will in all probability result in a match win for the higher-rated player. Spassky was not crushed by Fischer---he was simply outplayed.