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Bobby Fischer (VI): The war begins

Translated from E. J. Rodríguez

The 1972 world chess championship was the most transcendent sporting event of the 20th century and what we have been in the 21st century. It generated more journalistic attention than any other event, including the Olympic Games or the World Cup. Its political significance surpassed everything that until then could be imagined in a sports competition. Even the ruling domes of the two great superpowers followed every event to the minute. Media from all over the planet, eager to capture any details, showed up in Reykjavik, the small capital of Iceland. A modest country until then little known but suddenly marked on the map as the site of a clash of titans between the world chess champion, the Soviet Boris Spassky, and his ungovernable opponent, the eccentric and brilliant Robert James Fischer. The same Fischer that had jumped to the covers of the great publications during the previous year after crushing three rivals of the first magnitude with a demonstration of superiority never seen in the five recorded centuries of chess competition.

But when the match for the world crown is about to begin, Fischer has not bothered to board a plane headed for Iceland. What's more, he refuses to leave his hiding place in Manhattan. For the umpteenth time, his presence in a historical moment hangs by a thread. Through their lawyers expresses the desire to get more money. The whole world contemplates with astonishment – and with displeasure – his apparently cold and calculating attitude. The sporting event of the century will begin and one of the two protagonists has not made an appearance.

The applicant who was not there

We Icelanders have done everything possible to organize this championship and to entertain the world champion, as well as the applicant. But the applicant is not here. And I'm afraid that his behavior is putting Iceland against the United States. (Speech by the Icelandic Prime Minister at the opening ceremony of the championship).

The world champion thinks that it is an unprecedented fact in the history of chess that he is here ready to start the match and nevertheless has to be forced to wait for the aspirant. (Speech by the Soviet delegation at the opening ceremony of the championship).

Mr. Fischer, with all his bodyguards and lawyers, with his team of psychiatrists and medical advisors, with his tantrums and above all with his acute advertising instinct, has turned this year's championship into the news of the moment. And if Mr. Fischer has any moral criteria to which he clings, is that the most important thing in this game is not to win, but to raise as much money as possible. (Michael Nicholson, correspondent of the British ITN chain).

On July 1, correspondents from the five continents widely cover the opening ceremony of the match for the world championship of chess, already described by all the press as “the match of the century”. The event will be recorded by cameras and journalists from around the world, but it is very close to the great chess party that had been waiting for. On the contrary, the environment is very rarefied. They predominate the long faces, the expressions of perplexity and very especially the samples of annoyance when not of open anger. They are all there: the FIDE leaders, the Icelandic political authorities, the members of the Soviet delegation, the American ambassador … all except Bobby Fischer. A few hours after the official start of the final, he is still held in a friend's apartment in New York. It is ruining the festival to the rest of the planet, which impatiently waits for a white smoke from the eccentric aspirant to the throne.

Everyone is outraged with his attitude. Boris Spassky – or rather a letter of protest carefully drafted with the supervision of the Soviet authorities – shows his discontent through the text read by the delegation of the USSR during the opening ceremony. Within the world it is well known that Spassky likes Fischer, but that sympathy can not hide his irritation for what he considers a lack of respect. For his part, the Prime Minister of Iceland is even harder and says that Fischer's absence is an affront at the national level. His country is hosting the most important media event of its history and the fact that Bobby does not appear is an insult to his country. The leader warns that this behavior could worsen the anti-Americanism already latent in the progressive Icelandic society. The international press is also derogatory towards Bobby, especially after having had to spend respectable amounts of money in sending correspondents to the island, in addition to solving the logistical caroms that follow a competition that theoretically can last for weeks and even months Not even American journalists are too benevolent with the penultimate caprice of their great star, which is proving to be as unruly as the other great American athlete of international fame at the time, the controversial boxer Muhammad Ali. Fischer thus reinforces the image of eccentric genius, selfish and inconsiderate for whom little sports honor means. Even the highest authorities have a clear opinion on the matter: in the Kremlin they are aghast at the absence of the aspirant, although they privately rejoice at the possibility that the dangerous American does not show up for the final. In Washington, they see the rudeness of their national hero almost with shame.

But why is it so important for the whole planet to have a championship in which two men will only move pieces on a board? What makes the whole world so aware of the 64 squares, when until then chess had been a minority sport? What is at stake?

The cold war on a chessboard


List of all the FIDE World Champions (photo of the blog). In yellow, those that come from Russia or from territories that have belonged to the USSR.

In 1972, the USA UU and the USSR dominated the world at will, representing two opposing ideologies that struggled to impose themselves to submit to their dictates as many countries as possible. It could be said that there was no nation that was not aligned in one way or another with one of the two sides. Both superpowers were openly enmity since 1945, although they had never faced each other directly in a war (beyond, of course, having more or less discreetly supported different contenders in a number of armed conflicts), so the accumulated tension he had to free himself in other ways, especially in an endless propaganda battle.

The most serious friction between the two superpowers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, had taken place almost a decade earlier and was no longer a topical issue. Although the public opinion had seen that crisis as an American victory –not in vain it had cost Nikita Khrushchev his political career–, the fact is that at a strategic level, the USSR had obtained not few advantages from the Cuban issue, advantages that compensated for the defeat. propaganda In addition, in 1972 the United States was also swallowing toads: its tremendous stumble in Vietnam was calling into question the prestige of its military machine, choked with the Vietcong Communists who in turn were being supported by the USSR. On the other hand, US policy was beginning to be undermined by a succession of scandals that affected several of the country's most important institutions. It's not that the US UU they could continue scrubbing the Missile Crisis to their rival, because they had their own reasons for shame. Another field of propaganda confrontation had been the space race, but while the arrival on the Moon had marked a final American victory, the Soviets could boast of having triumphed in all the initial stages, from putting into orbit the first satellite to send the first man to space. In addition, NASA and some of its main heroes – most notably Neil Armstrong – had refrained from politicizing the moon landing, sensibly remembering that victory belonged to all of humanity and implicitly acknowledging that it would never have been possible without the Soviet's previous exploits.


Before Fischer, only basketball offered a possibility of sports catharsis between the two superpowers.

So for decades the pulse between the two superpowers had been fought through an endless exchange of successes and failures on both sides, without seeming to be a clear winner. The world needed a catharsis, a definitive confrontation that would serve to declare even in a purely symbolic way which of the two sides was winning over the other.

Sport seemed a propitious vehicle to release part of those tensions, especially at a propagandistic level, and in fact the examples of sports events endowed with political significance have never been rare. But at that time there was no mass competition of interest where the two superpowers faced each other on equal terms. The most popular sports in the USA UU (baseball or American football) were practically nonexistent in the USSR. And European football, hugely popular among the Soviets, was barely practiced or even known by Americans. The closest thing to a direct confrontation in a media sport had been provided by basketball, a game that did have a lot of follow-up in both countries; Certainly, the clashes between both national teams had a strong political component ... but nobody escaped that the confrontation was unequal. Basketball was an American invention and the USA. UU They were still light years away from their competitors, to the point that they did not even need to send professionals to international competitions - at that time they were not allowed - because they were easily imposed by simply resorting to their college players. Everyone was clear that if the Soviets had any chance of beating the American team it was due to the absence of the NBA professionals. Something very similar happened with boxing, a sport universally appreciated and very popular in both superpowers but where the US hegemony was almost total, especially in the category of heavyweights, which most interest aroused among the public. Otherwise there were the Olympic Games, where apart from basketball, there was a too heterogeneous conglomerate of minority sports in which there were no great moments of collective catharsis to resolve the tensions of the Cold War.

Before Fischer's candidacy, so brilliantly won during 1971, chess had seemed the least appropriate means to stage that catharsis. First, because of its minority character in the West and practically everywhere except the USSR. And second, because the Soviet rule had been so overwhelming since the end of World War II that no one had entertained the slightest hope of evicting the Russians from the throne. Since 1948, all the world champions and all the aspirants without exception had come from the USSR, always trained in that unstoppable machine of producing talents that was the Soviet school of chess. Not a single Western or other player had managed to sneak into a world final. Never, not one. In fact, the Soviet propaganda used the game-science as a demonstration of the superiority of its educational system, its values ​​and the intellectual formation of its people. Certainly, in the USSR the chess players were authentic idols, media stars who had all the government support and exercised an insulting domination over the chess players of the rest of the planet.


In 1972 Taimanov was still a pariah in the USSR because of his defeat against Fischer. Spassky risked following the same wake.

However, the rise of Bobby Fischer had caught the USSR by surprise. As we narrated in previous episodes, the Soviets did not deny that Fischer was a genius in their own way, and even admired – with discretion, yes – the way in which he had managed to equate to the Soviet elite by means of an unprecedented solo work. His training, very unorthodox and far from the ultraprofessional preparation of the Russian Masters, had led him to a world final, something completely strange and unexpected. But in the USSR they had always tended to underestimate Fischer's potential, which the American had helped by voluntarily skipping two of the world competitions that were held every three years. Fischer had not appeared in the highest instance of chess since he was a teenager. But the 1972 Bobby had little to do with the 1962 one: ten years ago he had not been able to handle the Russians, but now, at 29, he was a real danger. He had swept all the best players in the world. Only the champion Boris Spassky remained an obstacle in his path.

In three decades Fischer had gone from friend to enemy. At first the Russian chess players had considered him almost an adopted son, because Bobby began his precocious career as a disciple more – albeit at a distance – of the Soviet chess theory, a detail that he did not deny himself. Moreover, during his early years, the people of the USSR had looked at him with sympathy: having become a Grand Master at age 15 was an unprecedented event and, despite being an American, the Russians had shown considerable affection for him. the point that even the Soviet authorities had invited a fifteen-year-old Fischer to Moscow, treating him as one more Soviet star. In those years when chess had no political significance, the USSR showed more respect and admiration for Bobby even than his own native country.

But Fischer, who never married anyone, soon began to become a “denaturalized son,” as Pablo Morán said in one of his recommended books on the American. At age 19, let's remember, he had challenged the Soviet establishment by publicly denouncing the irregular handling of the Russian Masters in the high competition. That made him, at least in the field of propaganda, the public enemy number one of that communist chess with which he himself had learned to play. From that moment the Moscow press treated him with paternalism and condescension, if not with open contempt. However, in the USA UU his attitude had made him the prototype of an American hero, a hero almost of a film: individualist, self-made, faced alone with the whole battalion of Soviet professionals. The poor boy from Brooklyn who with the sole help of his talent was challenging a whole system.

So in 1971, during that crushing march to the final where Fischer had never seen three of the best players in the world, including two Soviets like Mark Taimanov and former world champion Tigran Petrosian, the Soviet condescension cracked. considerably. The chances of victory for the American were not negligible and there were even those who considered him the clear favorite for the final. It was true that he had never won the champion Spassky, not once during his entire career. But the statistics showed that, in general, his game had become as powerful as the current king of chess ... if not more. So in Moscow, no matter how much they wanted to keep their confident attitude out of doors, the alarm reigned. The political commissaries and even the KGB began to harass the Soviet chess players, especially Boris Spassky and his team of assistants. The Kremlin wanted the champion to guarantee victory, so important to maintain the propaganda status of the regime. The champion, irritated and astonished, did not enter the game and was outraged by the demands of the Communist Party: "This is a sport, how do you want to guarantee victory? Nobody can guarantee a victory in sport ». Spassky claimed that he was in a position to defend the title, but he refused to talk about a 100% chance of winning. Logically, it should be added. However, that was not enough for the Party. The Party wanted the impossible: to make sure in advance that the world throne would not end up in the hands of an American, which would constitute a huge media and political debacle. But it was impossible to sign an anti-Fischer insurance and that made the Kremlin bosses very, very nervous.

The free world needs Fischer

In the United States, meanwhile, madness had been unleashed. Until then chess had had a very limited follow-up, although the strong personality, records and the peculiar biography of Fischer had made him a very famous figure from years before. But when he managed to qualify for the final an authentic wave of hysteria around his person was unleashed. That turned him – to the surprise of many – into the bastion of the West, into the first sword of the free world. He was the man who was going to defeat the Russians. Nothing less.


Fischer had an ambivalent attitude toward his increasingly unbridled fame.

The press pursued him wherever he was, most of the time getting only irritate him and cause him to show even more elusive. He constantly received phone calls, including countless proposals from female fans – although he, who did not disdain the attention of the opposite sex, continued with his worries when it came to finding a stable partner who did not want him only “for being Bobby Fischer” – and many companies that wanted to get their services for advertising campaigns, which was always denied with open contempt. It is very famous anecdote of a brand of shampoo that offered a considerable amount of money for lending to advertise your product: Fischer, before responding, asked for a sample of the shampoo that should be announced … and shortly after responded with a letter in which He said, “Your product is crap, I can not ethically advertise this.”

Although he was very annoyed by the journalistic harassment, he gave several interviews to well-known journalists, among them the famous presenter Dick Cavett, leaving us an interesting document where he is unusually relaxed and smiling, and where he seems much less naive than in that other television interview given ten years before and in which he had released everything that went through his head. Now he was more careful with his words-strange phase in his life, as we now know-although his most naive side had not completely disappeared. He himself said during that brief but revealing interview that “I have not changed too much, only now I manage a little better with people and the press.” Be that as it may, that affable Bobby looked more like the people in his circle knew … as long as it was good, of course. He was not yet the monothematic fanatic of later times and his immense charisma, which probably unwittingly unleashed, had captivated the public. Several things are revealed in the interview, especially interpreted in light of what we know of his biography. For example, when Cavett asks him if he makes money with chess, Fischer responds “he could earn more money … but he's getting better”. What does not count, although today we know it, is that he fought against all odds –frequently to the detriment of his own personal image– to obtain fairer economic conditions for chess players. Not in vain, even champion Spassky called him, more seriously than in jest, “the president of our union”. When Cavett tells him that people expect to see a short chess player with glasses and is surprised to find a guy with swimmer's back and athlete's makes, Fischer defends the importance of staying in good physical shape for chess, something that the public of the set is taken as a joke (to the surprise of Fischer himself) but that today constitutes a basic foundation for any chess champion. We also see that as usual he points out the importance of hard work, as well as admitting that until he gets the title, "I do not have too much life beyond chess". And of course, it manifests its fierce competitive spirit:

—What is the greatest pleasure of chess? When you see the opponent in trouble?
—The greatest pleasure is when you destroy his ego.
—For real?
—Yes. (laughs)

Transformed into the new Albert Einstein, his popularity reached heights worldwide with which only athletes could compare like Muhammad Ali or Pelé. Charisma is something that can not be manufactured, and the press found a vein in Fischer. His figure inspired thousands of new fans: licenses in federations in many countries skyrocketed, as did the sales of chess boards and manuals. Suddenly, the dream of many parents was to have a Bobby Fischer at home, because his name had become synonymous with genius. Naturally, the Western press and the US Government. UU they did not repress themselves when exploiting the possibility of delivering a painful blow to the USSR where it hurt the most, chess. The game of escaques – whose virtues Lenin himself had glossed – had been a fundamental part of Soviet ideology since the 1917 revolution. Chess and USSR were almost synonymous … but now he was nothing less than an American who threatened to destroy that hegemony. What else could you ask? Fischer, with his fondness for pinball, rock music and Coca-Cola; with his unmistakable Brooklyn accent. The kid who had grown up four steps from a baseball stadium, who had played on the outdoor boards of Manhattan. Tall, imposing, intriguing. A genuinely American champion who seemed purposely designed for the rejoicing of the media of his country and of the entire world. I had it all.

Everything except, returning to narrate the championship, the desire to go to Iceland.

While everyone is waiting for him in Reykjavik, Fischer has already announced that the economic package proposed for the match (125,000 dollars at the time, about 600,000 euros to be divided between the two contenders) seems insufficient. He wants more money, or he will not play. It also claims a percentage of television rights and the collection of ticket offices. Suddenly it vanishes when the capitalist democracies are using it as the main propaganda weapon. It is irritating the same public that adores it. For the Americans, the championship is a matter of national honor, of defense of a system of life. But for Bobby it seems to be limited to the usual: money. No one can understand that he is going to miss this opportunity to proclaim himself champion and to transform himself into the greatest icon of the West during this stage of the Cold War. Not to go to Iceland, many think, would be making fun of millions of people who have begun to follow him very closely, trusting that he will strike a mortal blow at the smug communist pride.

The opening ceremony is celebrated without him. Nobody dares to assure that there will be a final.

But on July 3, two days after that presentation ceremony he had not bothered to attend, a British magnate named James Slater offered $125,000 from his pocket to double the prize purse, sending a telegram to Bobby that said something as well as “There you have the money. Now go and play.”

Hours of unbearable tension


The affable Boris Spassky was a stranger to the Western press, obsessed with Fischer.

To everyone's relief and as soon as he knew that the economic prize had doubled, Fischer left his refuge and flew to Iceland. Upon his arrival, at the airport, he was awaited by a very excited crowd. But Bobby was already in an extreme state of concentration, so he quickly got into a car and vanished in the direction of the house he had designated. His tumultuous appearance contrasted with the previous arrival of Boris Spassky, who had signed autographs and allowed himself to be entertained by the fans, but which had awakened less expectation. Spassky, even being the champion, was a virtual unknown to many ordinary citizens beyond the Soviet borders. Bobby, the aspirant, was the big star.

We said that during 1971 Fischer had shown an insulting level of play, transforming into a bigger than life figure. Not only was it a matter of fame: recent American demonstrations provided good reasons for Spassky to be concerned.

However, what bothered Boris Spassky most was not Fischer's level of play, but the excessive politicization of the event. He considered himself a patriot, but not a communist; He was one of the few Great Teachers who did not belong to the CPSU apparatus. He was in Reykjavik to play a sporting title, not to settle the geopolitical balance of the two superpowers, even though the entire world press was bent on describing the confrontation in almost warlike terms. In other words: Spassky was fed up. During the last year the Soviet authorities had not left him alone. The Kremlin's obsessive message was always the same: Fischer must be won, Fischer must be beaten … an increase in political pressure on the champion that ended up being counterproductive. Spassky had carefully prepared the match, but began to tire of the fact that the entire Soviet system seemed to rest on his back and already before the final showed his distaste with symptoms of rebellion that worried his trainers and by extension the Politburo. A good example of his attitude prior to the event: he was looking for an appropriate sparring to play a series of preparatory games, the young and promising talent Anatoly Karpov – future world champion as we all know – whose game reminded Fischer in many ways. Karpov belonged to a new generation of players who, unlike Spassky, had modeled his game by studying the games of the American. Karpov had been formed within a new paradigm erected by the American and even being a product of the Soviet talent factory, it was one of the first swords of a new “Fischerian generation”. For this reason, Karpov's “active positional” game turned him into an ideal sparring, since that was precisely the style Fischer used to play with. But Spassky received with reluctance the news that Karpov should be measured. He agreed to play a game against him, which he won easily, and decided that he had enough. Astonished Karpov told the team of coaches that the champion had no intention of playing even a second game of preparation. No one could make Spassky change his mind. As it was for the moment the world champion was untouchable, but his attitude of visible neglect was very worrying for the Moscow authorities.

Spassky regretted being the only man whom Fischer had not bowed yet, because that made him the last soldier in charge of defending the Soviet pride trench against the Brooklyn hurricane, representative of western capitalist decadence. That was not with him. He was a chess player, not a politician or a military man. Maybe Fischer, because of his fiery personality, was accustomed to dealing with tensions, confrontations and external pressures in all kinds of competitions. But Spassky, a calm and extremely correct guy for whom chess was a civilized game between educated people, could hardly feel happy under all that pressure.

However, the truth was that Bobby was not comfortable with such politicization either, and as Spassky carefully avoided falling into the previous ideological game. He also did not like to present the final as that dispute between superpowers in which, despite himself, he had become. Paradoxically, the two protagonists of the event that had the world in suspense were the only ones who had no intention of describing it as an international political battle. Two chess players who maintained a good personal relationship but appeared suddenly portrayed as enemies, leading very disgustedly a war of cyclopean proportions that threatened to get out of control until turning the championship into a torturing experience. The state of nerves of both opponents was delicate and it is not surprising. Rarely, if any, have two athletes been under such scrutiny by the entire planet. Whether they wanted it or not, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky had the Cold War in their hands. Absurd, but true.

Finally, after many vicissitudes and gossip, with a Fischer held in his house in Iceland, he could start the championship. On July 11, 1972, the first game was to be played. The final would consist of a series of 24 games – or less if any of the opponents reached 12.5 points –, in which a tie at 12 points would allow Spassky to retain the crown. It was the most important moment in the life of Bobby Fischer, who had been dreaming about the title and struggling obsessively to get it since he was a lone child moving cheap pieces in his tiny apartment in Brooklyn.

First game: the first shock

When you participate in a normal tournament, you can enjoy playing chess. But in the world championship the negative emotions are imposed on the positive ones because you want to annihilate your opponent. This is the world championship. In addition to creativity, the world champion must have killer instinct. (Boris Spassky)

Everything is prepared in the impressive Laugardalshöll pavilion in Reykjavík. A spectacular stage for a spectacular event. On it, a board designed according to Fischer requirements and a set of Staunton pieces also requested by him.

Champion and aspirant sit before the board. Both have a serious expression on their face. They start to play. The whole world is watching.


The board during the first game: a perfect technical draw before the strange and unexpected move of Fischer.

Spassky, with white, move first. Fischer responds with the defense Nimzo-India, a regular of his repertoire. No surprises The champion is cautious and in expectation. The aspirant too. Fischer rushes to simplify the game to arrive as quickly as possible to a final phase with few pieces, his great specialty, and avoid a complex half game in whose intricate twists the imaginative Spassky would move like a fish in the water. The Russian does not resist the simplification of the game and also seems content with a quiet game. The game is even and, foreseeable in a first contact, is heading for a technical draw. After only 28 moves, each of the rivals has stayed with their king, a bishop and six pawns. They are a manual tables. It seems to have reached a stalemate and everyone waits for the signing of the draw so that the contestants retire to their quarters, where they will be mentally prepared for a second game in which the fireworks will probably begin (and began, even though that second game would never be played ... but now we'll talk about that). With such an important title in play, neither of them seems to want to risk too much at the beginning. Logical. Better to use the first game to get used to the environment and check that the opponent has come prepared. The very thing in the inaugural battle is to be conservative and try above all to avoid making mistakes.

And then Fischer does it. Nobody knows why. No one has ever understood what was going on in his head when he did it. But he unexpectedly sacrifices a bishop in exchange for two pawns, in an inexplicable move that looks more like a beginner's mistake than the play of a world-class Grandmaster. Spassky, even without showing it in his generally hieratic face, is stunned. The analysts do not know if they are attending a genius that they still can not understand or a blunder that would be even more difficult to assimilate. The correspondents boil with excitement and the audience tries to capture the essence of the play. That is going to become great news, because no one would have imagined such an unnecessary blow in the middle of a quiet game. The president of the Icelandic federation sums it up sharply: “a single movement and we will come out on all the covers of the world.”

But the play is not a genius. In fact it is a mistake, and a mistake too thick to believe that Fischer has been able to escape by good. What do you intend with that play? Some think that his intention was simply to confuse Spassky, forcing him to think more than necessary, worrying in vain about the possible consequences of that useless play. Others believe that he refused to sign boards that seemed to be sung, that he did not want a draw and that he decided to launch a suicide tactic in the hope that the pressure could be with Spassky. And others, like Kasparov in his famous analysis, believe that the nerves played a trick on Fischer and led him to calculate erroneously, making him see a ghostly continuation until the victory that only existed in his head. Anyway, we will never know what was the intention of the American or if that was really a monumental mistake – he himself never clarified it – but Fischer made that play and Spassky simply tried to take advantage of it. Soon things seemed decided in favor of the champion.

Even so, and with the game apparently lost, Bobby continued to play with his usual combativeness and even touched a small chance of getting a draw. But the situation of inferiority in which he had put himself was not something that a world champion was going to miss. Finally he had to surrender. 1-0 for the Russian. Spassky had defeated him once more. Fischer gets up, quickly shakes the hand of his rival and quickly vanishes from the stage as he usually does when he suffers a painful defeat, while he seems to leave a hesitant Spassky with the word in his mouth. The next day, the world press raves about the strange movement of the American; many simply attributed it to nerves. Many others thought that Fischer still felt inferior to Spassky (although Bobby had never expressed that feeling openly, quite the contrary) and that this terrible mistake was a product of that inferiority complex, or the desire to avoid a draw and win All coast. In short, all speculation.


Body to ground! Bobby the Terrible has just discovered that the cameras bother him. And the final, of course, begins to be in danger at that moment.

What they had not noticed was a detail that seemed unimportant, mostly as usual in Fischer, but that would end up acquiring a huge significance. During that first game and while he sat waiting for Spassky's play, Bobby had turned in his chair to look directly at one of the cameras that recorded the event. Then he had got up to say something to the referee. What was happening? Well, apparently the engine noise of those cameras bothered him. One of many complaints Fischer always made to the organizers. Or not…

The psychological war begins

Before the second game, Fischer asked for the cameras to be removed from the venue. The organizers refused, saying that he seemed to be the only individual in the entire pavilion who was bothered by his sound or who even caught it. The American insisted: the cameras had to be removed. The Icelanders refused again.

And Fischer, in reply, did not attend the second game.

At the appointed time there was once again an empty chair in the room. This time it was the chair that Bobby had to occupy before the board. Spassky was forced to wait for the 60 minute mark before disqualifying a player by default. His face seemed expressionless as usual, at least in the eyes of the public, but those who knew him well knew that he was actually being consumed by nerves. The members of the Soviet delegation began to fear – rightly – the devastating effects that Fischer's unexpected maneuvers could have on Spassky's spirit. Imagine the situation, dear reader: you are the world champion, you are defending (in spite of yourself) the pride of your country and of a whole huge political system, with all the planetary press recording every one of your gestures, the television cameras focusing on it live and the KGB blowing on the neck. And you spend a long hour sitting alone at the board, or walking around the stage, not knowing if your opponent will appear. Uncertainty turned those 60 minutes into an endless agony for Spassky. With the Kremlin watching, with the White House watching, with the entire planet watching …

After an interminable wait – how true is that “time is relative” – ​​it was finally the time of disqualification and the referee decreed the defeat of Fischer by default: 2-0 for Spassky. On paper and even in the absence of 22 games, that seemed a difficult advantage to overcome. More against a player as solid, flexible and full of resources as the world champion. The championship was very uphill to Fischer. Most correspondents and experts agreed: it was very difficult for Bobby to turn the score around. In theory, that was very good news for Spassky. With just no effort, he had an advantage that could be definitive if he avoided making serious mistakes during the rest of the match. But in the Russian delegation they were not too calm. They knew too well that Boris Spassky was very agitated and that it was nothing like the quiet championship he would have liked to play.

Knowing the history of Bobby Fischer, many fear leaving Iceland at that very moment. And it seems that he was willing to do it. In the White House they are so concerned that Richard Nixon has given an order to the national security adviser and key figure in Washington, Henry Kissinger, to personally telephone Fischer and persuade him to continue defending the homeland honor in front of the USSR. The White House does not want Fischer to leave. Perhaps at the express request of the president of the United States Bobby decides to continue playing, because at this point Washington considers it unacceptable that he submits to his country to a humiliation urbi et orbi. They say that the phone call impressed Fischer, who supposedly ended the conversation in an almost martial tone by responding “yes, sir” to the exhortations of the cunning and convincing Kissinger. Although the detail is little home with the usual attitude of Bobby, this is how the anecdote is told. Anyway, the genius of Brooklyn decided to stay in Iceland … but, yes, he continued to refuse to play in the presence of those cameras.


Unusual image: the world champion waiting in vain for the applicant to appear.

The organizers called an expert in acoustics from the University of Reykjavik to measure the noise emissions of the happy cameras. The expert measured the sound with his devices and concluded that it could hardly disturb Fischer, that it was not possible to distract him from the game. The organization, then, continued refusing to withdraw them, which would mean giving up precious graphic material of the event. Then Bobby demanded to play the third game in another scenario, an isolated room. An exceptional measure that a player can request in case of feeling overwhelmed by the environment, but that obviously seemed inappropriate since no one except him considered the official scenario inappropriate. The organization asked Spassky if he consented to play the third game in isolation, in the ping-pong room.

All the members of the Soviet expedition-trainers, advisers, etc. –begged Spassky to refuse to play that third game under the conditions set by Fischer. Moreover, they begged him to abandon the championship and return to the USSR, given that the American was disrupting the tournament with his irrational demands. If Spassky left, FIDE would hardly dare to take the title because it was Fischer who had refused to play in normal conditions. Everyone already knew the long history of fights between Bobby and the organizers of several tournaments: Spassky could leave knowing that he would remain a champion, because if the title were stripped, the entire planet would consider it a flagrant injustice and would request an immediate rematch. In one way or another, the abandonment in protest of Spassky would leave in bad place his capricious rival. But Boris Spassky did not listen to the wise advice of his environment. He did not want to leave. He lent himself to play the third game. What Fischer wanted to do in an isolated room? Agree.

Look where you look: a bad decision.

The psychological debacle of the champion

At this point, it may be time to talk about the personality of Boris Spassky, without which you could not understand the debatable – although generous – decisions he made in such circumstances. Although the western press presented him as the perfect stereotype of Russian chess player and typical product of the Soviet factory – cold, distant, mechanical – and although his usually inexpressive face made the task easy to the propaganda of the opposite side, the truth was that the real Spassky did not correspond at all with that image. It could even be said that if he was presented in that way in the West, he owed more to ignorance than simply to political double intentions.

Because Boris Spassky was a gentleman, to the fullest extent of the word. The real life Spassky could not be less like the Spassky of the newspapers. We would not be exaggerating at all if we affirmed that he was one of the noblest competitors who have gone through the world of sports. He was a sensitive and well-intentioned individual, whose honesty went to extremes counterproductive to himself. At that moment, before the third game, he could have left with all the advantages: he would probably retain the title and also receive official support from the Kremlin, which is not insignificant given that Mark Taimanov was still a pariah at that time. the USSR in the wake of his defeat against Fischer. Leaving Iceland, the world champion would save all kinds of problems and would get rid of a final that was taking on very unpleasant colors. His delicate spirit was coming down, so taking a plane to Moscow was the most beneficial attitude for himself, which they would not have censured even in the West. At that moment, even the American media were fed up with Fischer and would have understood that Spassky said "there you stay".

But Spassky did not want to leave the match. His vision of sport as a competition between gentlemen prevented him from retaining his title in the offices, something that seemed indecorous and ignoble. He wanted to compete on the board. With all that was at stake and with the consequences that could have for his personal life a defeat against Bobby, Spassky displayed a nobility that verged on foolishness.

Desperate, the members of his team tried something else: if he did not want to leave Iceland, he could at least refuse to play the third game in a ping-pong room. He might not show up and let Fischer get a free point: not only would he still be ahead on the scoreboard, but he would override the psychological advantage Bobby was getting from the events. Spassky felt bad about the easy point obtained in the second game: returning him, he would regain his well-being and make it clear that he was upset with a Fischer who always tried to impose his own conditions even over the wishes of the champion. It was a good proposal, but there was no way to convince him either.


Playing in an isolated room: the moment that helped to psychologically break down Spassky.

The champion, to faint of his own, lent himself to play the third game in that ping-pong room that had the only presence of the referee and a silent closed circuit television. An alien environment for a professional chess player … but not so much for Fischer, of course, who had been behaving like an alien since its inception. Accessing Fischer's wishes, Spassky was loaded with a psychological slab that marked the entire first half of the match. Bobby had got away with it. He did not seem to have trouble concentrating playing in that strange situation, but Spassky was mentally touched. He played badly, far below his true level. And lost.

The champion was still ahead, 2-1, but the organized commotion had undermined the concentration and would take time to recover. Nobody applauded Bobby's first victory over Spassky in his entire professional career. There were no reasons. Even the American media had to admit that poor Boris was in a delicate situation. That game was a black point in the final: although Fischer had proposed an interesting and daring theoretical novelty – allowing Spassky to undo his castling, a very unorthodox measure to be Fischer – everyone was clear that the champion had lost because of his mental state and that in other conditions I could have fought with more energy to try to get the third point. As the Soviet expeditionaries had feared, Spassky's nerves failed … and the fault was, of course, Bobby Fischer. The Russians began to accuse the genius of Brooklyn of having embarked on a psychological war to destabilize the champion. It was well known in the world that Spassky did not possess the stony character of a Petrosian, for example. Maybe he protested officially against Fischer's behavior but ended up always pleading his handling. A champion who, so kindly, could be said to be stupid (in a good way, of course).

The fourth game was again played on the main stage after several of Fischer's demands were met: withdrawal of the cameras (due to which we have hardly any images of the event today), emptying several rows of the audience … By the way, in that departure Fischer arrived late, something used to him but that did not sit well with the champion as we will see later. Spassky raised a theoretical novelty that he had prepared at home with his team, something that certainly surprised Fischer and could well have given the Russian his third point, which would have greatly increased their chances of retaining the crown. But Spassky had never liked to memorize long lines of movement in advance-partly out of laziness and partly because it seemed aesthetically undesirable to win “by heart” -and he preferred to rely on his intuition. Already before the game he had told his trainers that he did not need to learn all the variants, only the important thing, even though the home analyzes showed a very probable way to victory. He said that when new variants arose "I will find the solution on the board". Undoubtedly, apart from his nervous agitation, Spassky sinned too confident in this game. It would have been enough to study in depth the strategy to defeat the American.

And once on the board, he did not find the way to victory as he had thought. Even starting with an advantage thanks to the previous analysis, he found an agile defense of Fischer and paid for his lack of preparation. He had to content himself with signing a draw in a game that a priori considered won. 2'5-1'5. Spassky realized that he had squandered a valuable cartridge because of his tendency not to study enough.

That affected him considerably and he reached the fifth game very decentralized, even demoralized despite going ahead on the scoreboard. Of course, this time it was he who appeared late: for once, wanted to return the taunt to the rival and now it was Fischer who had to wait several minutes before the board. But it worked: Bobby learned the lesson and would not be delayed for the rest of the match. It was the only and almost insignificant psychological victory for the champion. Because, for the rest, Spassky was not with his five senses in the game: in the twenty-seventh movement he made a terrible mistake that cost him defeat and that led to the fans and analysts to release an exclamation almost of physical pain. It was very evident that the champion was still playing below his level. Fischer had just equalized the score to 2.5 points, but he still had not convinced anyone. Many people were upset by his behavior and not a few, even in the West, began to feel bad for Spassky, who clearly had a lot of work struggling to regain composure.

Bobby Fischer needed to do something that reminded the world why he was there. He had pestered everyone with his hobbies and had obtained a couple of scantly convincing victories against a clearly disoriented opponent. Little thing for the man who during 1971 seemed to have taken chess to another level. The sympathies towards the aspirant were fading quickly. The Soviet press did not stop denouncing with bitterness – and also with enough charge of reason – the way in which Bobby was denaturing the championship. Even if he already had a draw on the scoreboard and had nullified Spassky's initial lead, the American prodigy had started the match by disappointing everyone. If he wanted to inscribe his name among the greats of chess history, he would need more than questionable victories based on his opponent's psychological weakness. I had to start playing like a big one … otherwise, and even if I finally got the title, no one was going to want to recognize him as the great chess player that he certainly was.

… and then the sixth game came.