On July 11, 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky met in Reykjavík for the 1972 World Chess Championship. The match, lasting 6 weeks, took place in Laugardalshöll and was one of the first major chess tournaments to be televised.
It was much more than just a chess match, however. Fischer’s victory over Spassky ended a decades-long monopoly the Soviet Union held over the international chess scene. At a time when the tensions of the Cold War seemed to be lessening, the match represented a reescalation of East v. West chess diplomacy. Fischer was especially notorious for his flamboyant character and personal excesses, even at one point refusing to play because the prize money wasn’t enough. Where the Soviet chess school emphasized their dominance as a victory of their system, Fischer represented Western greed and egotism, but also genius and creativity.
During its close to 60 years of publishing history, Iceland Review has covered major milestones in Icelandic history. Here, we revisit our original coverage of this historic match, written by Gísli Sigurðsson that thrust Iceland onto the world stage.
“Now began the intermezzo, the real war of nerves. Bobby Fischer failed to arrive in Iceland, and the days slipped by. He had been seen in New York, and it became known that Kissinger himself, Nixon’s righthand man, had been called in to induce Bobby to come to Iceland for the good of the country.”
“Fischer was like a man who does not dare to take the plunge. So somebody had to give him a push. A wealthy chess fan in Britain quite unexpectedly stepped into the breach. He offered to double the prize money, and Fischer could himself decide whether the victor was to receive all of it or to share it. ‘A magnanimous gesture,’ said Fischer, adding that now he had no option but to go to Iceland.”
“When the challenger failed to appear in the afternoon, a press conference was held. Dr. Max Euwe, President of the International Chess Federation, was very depressed. ‘I have two alternatives’, he said, ‘One is to cancel this match here and now. The other is to postpone it for two days’. Dr. Euwe chose the second alternative, to a great extent out of sympathy for the Icelandic Chess Federation, which had been put to much expense and trouble. The atmosphere was dismal; people were convinced that the whole thing was off.”
“But Fischer arrived at the eleventh hour, or maybe a little later. He hurried out of the plane into the car, rather like a hijacker expecting a hail of police bullets. The war of nerves was at its height, and Fischer seemed to be a bundle of nerves. He had come to fulfil an old promise — to beat the Russians. Now they had the next move: No match unless Fischer makes a formal apology. Much to everyone’s surprise this was soon forthcoming: ‘Dear Boris. Please accept my heartfelt apologies for my indecent behaviour by not attending the inaugural ceremony.'”
“The air was full of tension in the hall on Tuesday, 11th July. The world champion appeared exactly on the minute and played his first move. The clock ran for seven minutes. Then at last Fischer stalked onto the stage. People relaxed. And immediately in this game the challenger’s aggressiveness was revealed; people expected a very complicated position to develop with such chessmasters. But Fischer took all the pieces it was possible to take. However, in the 29th move he bit off more than he could chew. This was Fischer’s most serious slip in the whole match. That move cost him the first game.”
“The world champion maintained his dignity and sat down punctually to the second game. Time passed, and people became restless. The challenger did not appear. Then it became known that he did not intend to do so, and Fridrik Olafsson, Icelandic Grandmaster, tried to save the situation by talking to him in his hotel room, but he was not to be moved. People once more became pessimistic. The match appeared to have reached an impasse, and Fischer had even booked a flight back to America. The arbiters awarded a win to Boris Spassky in the second game.”
“The difference in the behaviour of the contestants was obvious. Spassky brought to mind an Olympian champion athlete when he walked in; he sat perfectly straight in his seat, always calm, looking relaxed, and he considered the situation from a certain distance. Fischer, on the other hand, shambled onto the stage in great strides; his gait was uneven, and his clothes always seemed to be crumpled.”
“But the dramatic moment when the world champion laid down his King for the last time never arrived. Instead, Boris Spassky telephoned to the arbiter. He seemed to be very tired. He would surrender the 21 st game, he said.”
“Robert James Fischer received this news quietly. While the audience applauded as never before, he signed something for the arbiter, then strode out into the rain where his bodyguard was awaiting the new world champion who had finally beaten the Russians. It was a smiling Bobby Fischer who took a dip in one of Reykjavik’s swimming pools that night with the World Press on his heels. ‘Iceland is a great country, I like it here.'”