How Bobby Fischer Won the Cold War of Chess

Bobby Fischer

In this post, we’re going to step back in time to September 1, 1972, when the “Match of the Century” pitted American Bobby Fischer against Russia Boris Spassky. The match received more publicity than any other in the history of the game. Fischer, the 29-year-old from Brooklyn, became the first U.S.A. representative to win the competition since its 1866 inception. It was also the first time a player for a country that wasn’t called Russia had won the contest in 24 years.

Fischer, who began his professional chess career at just eight years of age, won his first U.S. Open Championship when he was only 14. As it turned out, that would be the first of eight titles in that particular competition. Just one year later, he went on to become the youngest international grandmaster of all time, at just 15. Fischer was a pop culture icon thanks to two his age, skills, and arrogant, demanding attitude. He became the subject of films and books and even had a song named after him.

Political undertones and a call from Kissinger

The Reykjavik match, played at the time of the Cold War, had a political B plot attached to it. Fisher had said that the Soviets had rigged the tournament system and made it very clear what he thought about them. Fischer had said that the match represented a free world competing against the hypocritical, cheating, lying Russians. He added that Russia would always say that it was the responsibility of world leaders to fight hand to hand and that that was exactly what they were doing. Years later, the fictional bout between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago took on a similar meaning with regards to the Cold War in Rocky IV, but this chess match was real.

Political undertones and a call from Kissinger
Political undertones and a call from Kissinger

Fischer failed to attend the opening ceremony. He demanded more pay, in addition to a percentage of film and TV rights. He finally showed after Britain’s Jim Slater doubled Fischer’s pay. Fischer may have also been influenced by Henry. Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security assistant, made a phone call to Fischer. Kissinger had reportedly told Fischer that his country wanted him to compete against the Russians, and win.

Spassky won the opening game, although Fischer put it down to the television cameras and insisted that they be removed. Due to some of his other demands not being met, Fischer forfeited the next game. After a lot of arguing, the matched continued on July 17. Over a 21-game match, Fischer won seven, with Spassky winning three and 11 games resulting in a tie. After 40 moves in game No. 21, Spassky reigned over the telephone. The final score was 12.5 to 8.5. Fischer was awarded prize money of $156,250 for his victory, while the 35-year-old Spassky still did well, taking home $93,750. Fischer forfeited his world title in 1975 after refusing to play in Manila against the Soviet Union’s Anatoly Karpov due to the governing body of the competition denying all of his demands.