On September 1, 1972, in what is known as the “Match of the Century”, American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
In the world’s most publicized title match ever played, Fischer, a 29-year-old Brooklynite, became the first American to win the competition since its inception in 1866. The victory also marked the first time that a non- Russian won the event in 24 years.
Fischer, who started playing professionally chess at the age of 8, won the US Open championship at age 14 (he would win it seven more times) and became the youngest international grandmaster in the world at 15.
Fischer’s skill and age – along with his demanding and arrogant demeanor – made him a pop culture phenomenon. He has become the subject of books and films and even inspired a song, “The Ballad of Bobby Fischer”.
Played during the Cold War, Reykjavik’s match also carried political undertones. Fischer had previously accused the Soviets of rigging the tournament system and didn’t mince words in his feelings about them, saying the match was “really the free world against the lying, infidel and hypocritical Russians … They suggest always that the leaders of the world must fight. he hand in hand. And that’s the kind of thing we do.
Fischer missed the competition’s opening ceremony on July 1, after demanding more money, as well as reduced television and film rights. After a two-day delay – and a doubling of British millionaire Jim Slater’s purse – Fischer finally showed. A call from Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security assistant at the time, may have helped persuade him to participate as well. “America wants you to go over there to beat the Russians,” he reportedly told Fischer.
“Fischer is known to be merciless, rude, possibly crazy,” financier Slater once said. “I really don’t care about it, because I didn’t do it for that reason. I did it because he was going to challenge Russian supremacy, and it was good for chess.
Spassky took the first game (Fischer blamed the TV cameras and ordered them to remove them). Fischer then lost Game 2 after some of his other demands were unfulfilled. After much wrangling, the match resumed on July 16 with a victory for Fischer. In 21 games, Fischer won seven, Spassky won three and 11 were draws. Spassky resigned after 40 strokes in Game 21 over the phone, with the final score pegged at 12.5-8.5
Fischer won $ 156,250 in prizes for the feat, while the 35-year-old Soviet Grandmaster Spassky and reigning world champion took home $ 93,750.
Fischer lost his world title by forfeit in 1975, when he refused to play against Soviet Anatoly Karpov in Manila after the competition’s governing body failed to respond to all of his requests.