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.
Halfway between Washington and Moscow, Reykjavík is the scene of a 1972 cold war stylized on the chessboard. Spasski was not a communist and Fischer was hardly a model American. While the majority of Icelanders were crossing their fingers for the gentleman from Leningrad, the media eagerly pounced on the challenger’s antics. Fischer refused the organizers’ chairs and had his own flown in from New York. The cameras were too close to him. In order to be photographed as little as possible, he was deliberately late for the games. For the second game he didn’t even play because he didn’t see his demands met and lost without a fight. The third game was moved to a basement room, where a battle of words broke out and referee Schmid had to persuade the opponents until they sat down at the board. The chess grandmaster and Karl May publisher from Bamberg often found the right words to prevent a break.
Chess became a sport
In any case, it wasn’t “the match of the century” from a sporting point of view, it was more of a one-sided affair. Despite his 0-2 start, Fischer’s victory was practically no longer in doubt after half the games. In contrast to the purely Soviet duels since 1951, which had always been played in Moscow for paltry prize money, chess suddenly got attention all over the world. In the west, chess became a sport and professional players could make a living from it. Fischer could have become one of the best-paid athletes, but he turned down all offers, became a member of a sect, devoured extremist writings and withdrew into a paranoid existence, from which he returned to the public 30 years ago.
From September 1, 1992, he fought an exhibition fight from the horror chamber in the rest of Yugoslavia, which was then banned because of the Balkan war. His opponent was Spasski again, the referee was Schmid. For his comeback, he got $3.65 million from Jezdimir Vasiljević, a Serbian financial swindler who was later convicted. Because Fischer violated sanctions against the rest of Yugoslavia, an arrest warrant was issued against him, which he tore up in front of the cameras. After that he went into hiding. In telephone interviews with Asian radio stations, he gave an insight into his anti-Semitic world view, praised the attacks of September 11, 2001 and made it clear that he wanted to be addressed not only as a “chess genius” but also as a “general genius”.
The chess world was ashamed of him. She owes a lot to the wacky American. Fischer had the first digital chess clock built and thus implemented the mode that is common today that you get time to think after each move. He invented a chess variant with a drawn starting position while maintaining castling between king and rook to save players from memorizing more and more opening variants. Most importantly, he helped chess achieve its commercial breakthrough as a sport.