Match of the century

In 1972, when Bobby Fischer challenged the Russian world chess champion Boris Spassky, the game competed for headlines with the Watergate scandal and Vietnam - and its repercussions reverberated across the Cold War world. In their new account of the super-power contest that made history, David Edmonds and John Eidinow tell the inside story of a battle in which nothing was black and white

Wednesday 21 January 2004 01:00
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It is 5pm on Tuesday 11 July 1972, the seats filling the arena of the sports hall in Reykjavik's featureless leisure complex are sold out. On the platform, the world chess champion, Boris Vasilievich Spassky, sits alone at the chessboard. He is playing white. Precisely on the hour, the German chief arbiter Lothar Schmid starts the clock. Spassky picks up his queen's pawn and moves it forward two squares. The Soviet Union's king of chess has begun the defence of the title that has been his since 1969, and his country's without interruption since the Second World War. He glances up at the other side of the board. The expensive low-slung, black-leather swivel chair, specially provided for his opponent, the American Bobby Fischer, is empty.

Fischer's gesture was a dramatic start to one of the most deeply symbolic and controversial moments of the Cold War. Every subsequent move would make headline news on television and turn chess pundits into media stars. Yet the title had existed since 1886, and since 1948 had rested in Moscow, the fruit of intra-Soviet duels of small interest outside the chess community. Now, it was sharing the front pages with Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Chile, Uganda, and the deepening Watergate scandal. Later, the match would become immortalised in film, on stage and in song. But why?

The answer had little to do with the intricacies of the game, with its pins and forks, its castling and fianchettoes, with the Sicilian Defence or the English Opening. What gripped popular imagination across the globe was the idea that this US-Soviet clash was both microcosm and symbol of the emnity between the superpowers.

The American challenger was convinced of his epochal role. The match was, he said, "really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians... They always suggest that the world's leaders should fight it out hand to hand. And that is the kind of thing we are doing... over the board".

Even though 1972 was the high point of détente - a year that saw a swelling stream of East-West accords - journalists and commentators went along with Fischer. For them, the chessboard had become a Cold War arena in which the champion of the free world was fighting for democracy against the stone-faced apparatchiks of the Soviet machine. The lone American star's success would do more than simply win him the title: it would dispose of the Soviets' boast that their chess hegemony reflected the superiority of the socialist system.

The reclusive and mercurial Fischer made an incongruous patriotic hero. And it was the American's dysfunctional personality that also ensured front-page column-inches for the match. Of unquestioned genius at the board, he was consumed by chess to a degree that surprised even other grandmasters. This obsession was accompanied by a notorious lack of social grace, a pachydermic insensitivity to others, and a capacity to strike real fear in his opponents. He was also fixated on the conditions under which he played. Over the years, he had insisted upon, and secured, greater and greater control over arrangements, proving himself ready to risk all to have his way.

Though not much was known about him in the West, the genial, ever-courteous Spassky could not have presented a greater contrast. The Sunday Times described him as "the more benign type of Soviet bureaucrat". However, behind the Soviet monolith, his peers saw him variously as artist, joker, nihilist - a free spirit. Most significantly, he was viewed as un-Soviet man (an epithet he cheerfully accepted). A Russian nationalist, he was a headache for the authorities in his refusal to toe the party line and honour his political role as a Soviet world champion.

All the participants, the Soviets, the Icelanders, and the sport's governing body (Fide), had forewarning that the course of the championship would not run smooth. In trying to secure a match agreement, they had been met by Fischer's procrastination and constant changes of mind, his incessant new demands, and by his scorned deadlines. The American even avoided signing the final version of the match rules.

The Soviets seethed at what they perceived to be Fide's bias towards Fischer. But state chess officials were incensed with Spassky, too, accusing him of being too conciliatory and of allowing the USSR to be humiliated in his anxiety to see the match take place. They were also very anxious about their champion's readiness. Much as they might have condemned Fischer's capitalist manners, they acknowledged his brilliance and single-mindedness. Spassky was seen as lazy and easily distracted, and forgetful of his duty to play "in a red shirt".

We now know that the champion arrived in Reykjavik ill-equipped for his opponent. He had misjudged Fischer's preparation and attitude. Determined to be free of the authorities and the KGB, he had declined to take an interpreter or, crucially, a team manager to stand up for his interests. His leading assistant, Efim Geller, was there purely as a chess player, and anyway, Spassky's relations with this hardline communist were always edgy. But he persuaded himself this would be "a feast of chess" - and that he would gain a historic victory.

To Fischer, the match was war, and war on his terms. With the opening ceremony looming, he remained in New York, haggling through his lawyers for more money. Would he, or would he not, show up? In a bizarre episode, he made it as far as Kennedy airport, only to catch sight of waiting newsmen and bolt. On Saturday 1 July, the opening ceremony went ahead in Reykjavik without him. From the White House, President Nixon's National Security Assistant, Henry Kissinger, put in a call to Fischer's hideaway - according to newspaper reports, telling him "to go over there and beat the Russians". Kissinger recollects it differently. He told us: "There was a difficulty in the operation, an upset. I just wanted Fischer to know his government wished him well." Then came a message from the London-based millionaire James Slater, offering to double the prize fund to $250,000. The offer was escorted by a taunt. "If [Fischer] isn't afraid of Spassky, then I have removed the element of money." Fischer decided to play.

Even with the challenger at last in Reykjavik, the fate of the match was still in the balance. Spassky was under pressure from Moscow; the chess and party authorities resented his enforced discomfiture and worried about his morale. Contrary to received opinion, the champion did not defy an order to return home. But, privately determined to remain, he did resist strong advice to make an honourable withdrawal. As it was, before a single chess piece was moved, the Icelandic organisers were plunged into fraught negotiations over Moscow's insistence that Fischer should apologise for arriving late and other transgressions. Carefully drafted by his advisers though it was, Fischer's letter of regret was still, for him, unprecedented.

That was only one crisis. Forty hours before the first game, the challenger inspected the hall. The table, the chessboard, the lighting, the proximity of the seating to the stage, and the cloth-swathed towers in which film cameras were hidden - all were declared unsatisfactory. With the world looking on, the Icelanders had to work non-stop to meet his idiosyncratic personal requirements.

That first game went to Spassky - after his opponent allowed his bishop to be trapped in the most extraordinary of blunders. "Unbelievable," the analysts chorused. But the American blamed his disastrous loss of concentration on noise from the film cameras: they must be removed, he raged. The Icelanders were counting on the income from the film rights to balance their budget, and sought a compromise. Fischer's rage grew more intense. He refused to appear for game two. Despairingly, the German referee, Lothar Schmid, declared it forfeited, giving Spassky an apparently unbeatable two-game lead. That night, Schmid could not sleep. "I thought I had destroyed a genius." And now the question was, would Fischer stay?

Once again, the organisers focused on ways to keep Fischer in the match - letting the apparently carefree world-champion await the capricious challenger's decision. In fact, Spassky was in deep dismay. He had no wish to retain the title by default. Visiting Reykjavik, the Soviet deputy minister of sport, Victor Ivonin, was alarmed at Spassky's psychological state: he noted how empty and overwhelmed the champion looked, how preoccupied with Fischer he was.

Fischer's aides whipped up telegrams from the US urging him to stay. Again there was a call from Henry Kissinger. With relief, the organisers heard the challenger would appear for game three - but only in a bare back room normally used for table tennis. Yet what justification was there for relocating? Iceland's chief auditory expert had measured the noise from the cameras: they were effectively noiseless, so, "either Fischer had extrasensory faculties," he says, "or this was part of a poker game".

Attempting a solution, Schmid suggested they begin the game in the auditorium and move if noise troubled either of them. Fischer and his legal adviser, the New York showbiz lawyer Paul Marshall, preferred unreason. If there were no disturbance, Marshall promised to create one: "I will go to the stage and take a big hammer and smash down the table." Unhesitatingly, the referee asked the champion to play in the offstage room. According to Schmid, "Spassky said, 'Pozhaluista' - 'That's fine by me'."

For Spassky, as for Schmid, there was worse to come. Entering the back room, Fischer caught sight of a closed-circuit TV camera, there to carry the moves to spectators and journalists, and was immediately possessed by rage, shouting, "No cameras!" When Schmid protested that he was disturbing the champion, Fischer yelled at him to shut up. White-faced, Spassky told Schmid that if the quarrelling did not stop, he would return to the stage and demand to play there. Schmid was panic-stricken. Fearing Fischer's final departure, he pleaded with Spassky to stay, and pressed both men down into their chairs. "Boris made the first move and I started the clock."

So, at 5:09pm on 16 July 1972, the World Chess Championship match was saved. For Spassky, the outcome confirmed that no good deed goes unpunished. He lost this third game to a furious Fischer attack. "I'm crushing him with brute force!" Fischer crowed. In Moscow, the future champion, Anatoli Karpov, judged Spassky's confidence to have been shattered. And so it seemed. Once Fischer gained the upper hand, it was rare for his opponent to recover. By game 11, with Fischer leading 6.5 to 3.5, it looked as though the champion, too, would be steamrollered. He had committed several outrageous gaffes. By game 13, grandmasters speculated he was a broken man. It is to his credit that he did not submit. Drawing on huge reserves of strength, he fought on for eight more punishing and some- times dazzling games, though never finding a breakthrough. He finally surrendered his crown only on 1 September in game 21.

To this day, some Soviet participants believe their champion was the victim of dirty tricks. At the time, the Moscow chess authorities were sceptical: he was more likely the author of his own misfortune. None the less, the suspicion ingrained in the Soviet character brought the KGB into the match. Was Spassky a victim of psychological warfare or parapsychology, of drugs or electronic interference? We now know that two leading Soviet psychiatrists were sent to Reykjavik to look for evidence of psychic manipulation; that a sample of Spassky's orange juice was sent to a KGB lab- oratory; that the hall was surveyed for radiation. The KGB had heard that Fischer might be computer-assisted: "too difficult" was a technical officer's assessment.

Then these shadowy figures contemplated active measures to defend the champion. At the end of July, a KGB officer reported the launching of a rumour involving a device hidden in Fischer's leather chair. Three weeks later, before game 17, Efim Geller issued a press statement asserting that "non-chess means" were being deployed against Spassky. Letters had been received, he claimed, warning that electronic devices and chemical means were being used; they mentioned Fischer's chair.

Reykjavik was raucous with laughter. Dutifully, the Icelandic chess authorities investigated, declaring the hall and the chairs clean. But a contemporary American observer of the tests, who saw an X-ray of Fischer's chair, recorded "a loop-like object" inside the seat. Had a KGB operative followed up their rumour by concealing such a device? Did someone, dreading the impact on the match, decide to bury it? Then, as the contest drew to a close, rumours swept Reykjavik that Spassky was intending to defect. Were these, too, a KGB gambit, to explain away the champion's poor performance?

Fischer's achieving the world crown, his only goal, destroyed his raison d'être and his grip on reality. He recast Reykjavik as a battleground, but the match turned out to be the last real chess war he would wage (though two decades on, he met Boris Spassky for a replay in Yugoslavia). Much of the interest in chess that the Reykjavik match had generated disappeared with him. Becoming a near-total recluse, he has now descended into a paranoia marked by violently anti-Semitic and anti- American rantings.

Spassky, meanwhile, lived to fight another day at the summit of grandmaster chess: the message had gone out from party bosses that he was to be treated in a civilised manner. He was even allowed to marry a Frenchwoman and to move to Paris while still representing his country.

Was it a Cold War battle? For Fischer and the Western press and public, unquestionably yes. But for Nixon, Kissinger, and the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, no. For the USSR chess authorities, Spassky's was a political failure - led astray by idealism, he had ignored his responsibilities to the state - as well as a defeat at the board. But they also accepted that the solitary American genius had taught their system quite a lesson. It was a lesson well learnt. With Fischer's failure to defend his title in 1975, the crown reverted to the USSR - as they believed, its rightful home.

'Bobby Fischer Goes to War', by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, is published by Faber & Faber, £14.99

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