A Forgotten Cold War Victory

Bailey Pickle, Student of PHS

Noah Sweet
Bailey Pickle, junior; October Student of the Month

The following article was submitted to the Pirate Log by junior Bailey Pickle.  Opinions stated in submitted articles are not the reflection of the opinions of the Pirate Log, its sponsor, or the administrators of PHS. 


Bobby Fischer, often regarded as the best chess player of all time, took it personally when he sought a victory for the United States against the USSR during the World Chess Championship of 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland (also Fischer’s future home). Boris Spassky, the world champion at the time, played for the Soviet Union. In fact, the title had been held by a Russian since 1948. An American hadn’t been World Champion since Willhelm Steinitz in 1888.


In the months leading up to the World Championship, Fischer spent the majority of his days preparing. Fischer researched Spassky’s previous games, looking to understand exactly how he played. He studied moves, mathematically looking for every possible move his opponent might make. He also physically prepared. Chess games are naturally long, but they get even more drawn out and strenuous at the biggest championship on Earth. He wanted to develop a better endurance. He lifted weights and swam as well as doing grip strengthening activities so that when he shook Spassky’s hand, it would hurt.


Fischer had a deep hatred for Russians (perhaps because his estranged father was likely Russian) and his emotions were raging. His lifelong goal was the World Championship. Yet, on the first day of the championship, Fischer was nowhere to be found. He was in the United States. He had decided that he wasn’t going to show up. It wasn’t until Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor, called him and pleaded with him to that he decided to play.


This championship took place at the height of the Cold War. The stakes were high for both grandmasters playing. Spassky did not want to be the first Russian in decades to lose the championship. Fischer had something to prove; even Fischer himself admitted that the United States favored physical sport over what he called intellectual activities (chess), but he wanted to change that. All over the world, not just America and the Soviet Union, this championship was being watched carefully.


Once in Reykjavik, Fischer was as dramatic as ever, saying that he refused to play because the lights were too bright, that there were too many cameras, and that Spassky might cheat. He also demanded a larger reward and a more comfortable chair. The people running the event complied with him. The lights were dimmed, cameras were gotten rid of, he was offered a larger prize fund, and they convinced him that Spassky wasn’t cheating. Then, game one commenced. There were 24 games scheduled, each game won earns the winner one point, draws award both plays half a point. The first player to earn 12 points wins. If there is a draw, the defending player will retain the title.


During the first game, Fischer sacrificed a bishop which resulted in a loss. Afterwards, this would be called a simple mistake and many were surprised that he didn’t see that. Game two, Fischer does not even show up, claiming the “bright” lights would affect his playing ability. Spassky wins by forfeit, making it 0-2. Before game three, Fischer demanded that all cameras be removed. Spassky, the good sport, agreed to just play away from the cameras if it meant Fischer would actually play him.


Perhaps the cameras did make a difference for Fischer after all, because he won that game. Games 4, 7, 9, 12, and all 14-20 were draws. Fischer went on to win games 5, 6, 8, 10, 13, and 21. Spassky only went on to win game 11. The final score was Fischer – 12.5 and Spassky – 8.5.  


Bobby Fischer became the World Chess Champion on September 12th, 1972. The United States rejoiced. The next world championship was scheduled to be played in 1975 in Spain where Fischer was to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov (USSR). Fischer, who was likely suffering from a mental breakdown, forfeited his title. Karpov, therefore, became the world champion by default. Karpov remained the champion for the next ten years.