How chess became a sport thanks to Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer

How chess became a sport thanks to Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer

M50 years ago, Boris Spasski called chief referee Lothar Schmid Reykjavik the most watched chess match in history comes to an end. At 12.50 p.m., the Russian title holder announced that he would not continue the 21st game that had been interrupted the day before and admitted defeat. Bobby Fischer heard from photographer Harry Benson that he was world champion. Only then did Schmid reach him. While Fischer was signing the form for the last game in the Laugardölshöll venue, Spasski went for a walk.

Their duel had the world in suspense before it even began. Fischer skipped the opening ceremony because he wanted to play for more than $125,000. Henry Kissinger, the US President’s National Security Advisor, begged him on the phone to go to Iceland. Only when the British investor Jim Slater had doubled the prize money did Fischer board the plane.

The year before he had won 20 straight games against big opponents and dominated the Candidates fights. Because he was superior to his contemporaries like no one before or after him, Fischer can be seen as the greatest player in history, says the current world champion Magnus Carlsen. The American was able to compete with the Soviets, who had dominated the game since the war, thanks to their chess publications, for which he had studied some Russian.

A game in Reykjavík

Back then, more than 20 cities competed to become the site of Fischer’s world champion coronation. There were also higher paid applications than Reykjavík. Iceland’s capital came into play because they were Spasski’s first choice and also willing to share the hosting with Fischer’s favorite Belgrade. After Belgrade’s withdrawal and months of back-and-forth, the World Chess Federation threatened the American with disqualification if he refused Reykjavík’s offer any longer. Much, much later it would turn out to be a stroke of luck for him. When Fischer was in extradition custody in Japan in 2004, Iceland offered him asylum. Instead of being in an American prison cell, he was allowed to spend the last years of his life on the island.

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