With the end of the reign of Mikhail Botvinnik, a new generation took over. For a while, the Soviets continued to dominate, but the rise of an American threatened their hegemony.

From 1948 until the summer of 1972, all the World Champions were citizens of the Soviet Union. The World Chess Federation, or FIDE, was the gatekeeper of the World Championship title, and was nominally in charge, but up to 1969, the most important matches were all run by the Soviet Chess Federation.

Mikhail Botvinnik, the “patriarch” of Soviet chess, had more or less held sway from 1948 to 1963, but he was finally dethroned by Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian from Armenia, which was then one of the constituent republics of the U.S.S.R. Though the Soviet Union and its grandmasters continued to have hegemony over the title until 1972, there was a growing threat from the West that would eventually break their hold over the chess world — though only temporarily.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was very difficult for a player from any country outside the Soviet Union to earn a shot at the world title. Soviet chess literature was the best available, giving their players access to the latest opening discoveries, which were hard for westerners to acquire. Also, internal competition in the U.S.S.R. was very strong which ensured the leading grandmasters kept fighting fit. Third, when a Soviet grandmaster played in an international event, he could count on tremendous trainers for preparation and as seconds during the competition itself.

There was a fourth factor, though its importance is far from clear. Soviet players were almost always the majority of competitors in the Candidates tournaments to select the challenger for the championship. Except in 1959, when there were equal numbers of Soviet and non-Soviet competitors, every Candidates tournament up to 1962 had a majority of players from the U.S.S.R.

This has frequently led to allegations that Soviet players colluded to ensure one of their number would always succeed. My personal view is that in the first three Candidates tournaments (1950, 1953, and 1956) no player from outside the U.S.S.R. was strong enough to be a serious threat. In 1959 a strong American contender, Bobby Fischer, emerged but as yet he lacked sufficient experience at elite level. He finished in a tie for fifth, behind all the Soviet competitors.

In the 1962 Candidates tournament – the last before the system changed to a series of elimination matches – Fischer was clearly the best non-Soviet player but his disastrous start probably made any possible collusion unnecessary.

Fischer was one of the two great players who emerged from the West to pose a strong challenge to the world title; the other was Denmark’s Bent Larsen. What characterized both grandmasters was a fierce and uncompromising will to win and a refusal to be intimidated by their Soviet rivals.

Larsen won many elite tournaments (so many that he was sometimes called “the tournament world champion”), but never became the challenger for the world title. Three times he reached the semi-finals of the Candidates, but he could get no further.

The brilliant, though psychologically unstable, Fischer was another matter. In 1959, the first time he reached the Candidates, he was only 16 and early in his learning curve. In 1962, he qualified for the Candidates again, this time after a storming success in the Stockholm Interzonal, in which he went unbeaten and won by a two-and-a-half point margin, including three draws and a win against the Soviets.

Fischer’s chances nominally looked even better because of a new FIDE rule that only three of the six qualifiers from the interzonal could come from the same country. That meant that the Soviet grandmaster Leonid Stein (who had won the play-off for sixth place in the tournament) was only a reserve. The last spot went instead to Fischer’s compatriot, the Hungarian-American Pal Benko, who was, on paper, a less formidable opponent.

In the 1962 Candidates tournament, Fischer’s disastrous start probably made any possible collusion against him unnecessary.

Fischer believed he was the favorite to become the challenger and when he did not win the Candidates, he loudly proclaimed it was because of collusion among the Soviets.

That may not have been the problem. Fischer had lost to Benko in Round 1, perhaps underestimating his colleague. The draw was also unkind because in Round 2 Fischer again had Black, and lost again, to the Soviet Efim Geller. In Round 5, Fischer racked up his third loss, despite playing White, this time to Viktor Korchnoi, another Soviet. The pressure of feeling he was one man against a team probably contributed to Fischer’s dreadful start.

Maybe the Soviets had a contingency plan to collude against Fischer, although Korchnoi has denied he was ever part of such an arrangement. In any case, after Fischer’s poor start, it probably became unnecessary for them to decide which of them should be the beneficiary of “free points.”

Still, there was at least outwardly some basis for Fischer’s allegations. There were five Soviets in the tournament. One of them, the ex-World Champion, Mikhail Tal, was in poor health and did not even manage to finish the competition. The four fit Soviets were content to play (mostly short) draws amongst themselves; the first decisive game between them that did not involve Tal came in the 15th round, when Geller beat Korchnoi.

Whatever the truth about whether collusion occurred, Fischer (still angry about the Soviet “cheating”) decided not to play in the next championship qualifying cycle, despite the fact that the Candidates had been changed to a series of matches. He then inexplicably withdrew from the 1967 interzonal while leading. Finally, in the 1970–1972 cycle, Fischer kept himself together long enough to reach the final and win the title.

While Fischer’s absence or presence shadowed the 1966, 1969 and 1972 World Championship cycles, there was one constant, colorful figure involved in all three final matches: the Russian grandmaster Boris Vasilievich Spassky. Born in 1937, Spassky was recognized early on as a great talent and played in his first Candidates tournament in 1956. His rise was interrupted by a traumatic last-round loss to Tal in the 1958 Soviet Championship, after which Spassky failed to qualify for the next two Candidates tournaments while Tal won and lost the World Championship, all in the space of a year.

Spassky’s resurgence in the early 1960s culminated in his winning the 1965 Candidates match series, in which he defeated three great Soviet rivals in turn: Paul Keres, Efim Geller, and finally Tal. Petrosian was 37 years old and had not won any tournament outright during his three years wearing the crown when he faced Spassky for the Championship in 1966 so it was perhaps not surprising that Spassky was considered by many to be the favorite because of his more attractive playing style and superior recent record. The one factor that was clearly in Petrosian’s favor was that he had more match experience.

The match opened in Moscow on 16 April 1966. It began with six consecutive draws — two weeks without a decisive game! Spassky paid dearly for his failure to convert the advantage of being up a pawn in Game 5 because Petrosian found his form and won the seventh and tenth games. Game 10 was especially impressive. With both kings exposed down an open g-file, Petrosian played a surprising double-exchange sacrifice to seize the initiative and snatch victory from what seemed like the jaws of defeat two hours earlier. Once again he proved himself to be the supreme defender with ice-cool calculation.

Game 12, however, was a dramatic and almost decisive turning point. After another brilliant exchange sacrifice, Petrosian failed to find the correct follow-up. What should have been a creative masterpiece ended in a draw. The missed chance shook Petrosian’s confidence and Spassky won Game 13. After another run of five draws, Spassky won again in Game 19 to level the match with just five games to go.

But now “iron Tigran” pulled himself together and won Game 20, following it up with a draw with the Black pieces. With time running out in Game 22, Spassky answered 1 d4 with the provocative 1…b5, but this led to another defeat. The score was now 12-10 so Petrosian was sure of retaining the title as the best that Spassky could do would be a tied match. He did win Game 23, but after 77 moves the 24th game was drawn and Petrosian had won by 12.5-11.5.

Surprisingly, this was the first time since 1934 (when Alekhine won his second match against Bogoljubow) that a world title match had not ended in either a tie or victory for the challenger. If nothing else, that provides a measure of Petrosian’s calibre as a champion.

As loser of the match, Spassky was seeded into the 1968 Candidates match series. Again he defeated Geller, followed by Larsen in the semi-final and Korchnoi in the final.

Thus, three years after Spassky’s big disappointment, he had another opportunity and this time the younger grandmaster would not be denied. Petrosian immediately took the lead by winning with the Black pieces in Game 1, which was played on 14 April 1969. Spassky equalized in Game 4 and took the lead by winning Game 5. In Game 8 he extended his lead to 3-1, but it was too soon to count the defending champion out.

Three years after Spassky’s big disappointment, he had another opportunity against Petrosian, and this time he would not be denied. 

By winning back-to-back victories in Games 10 and 11, Petrosian leveled the score, after which there was a run of five draws. It had become an eight-game match. In that final third, Spassky recharged his will to win. Victories in Games 17, 19, and 21 (broken by a Petrosian win in Game 20) brought Spassky to the brink of victory. Petrosian now needed two wins and a draw just to tie the match — an unlikely outcome. Spassky carefully held the draw with Black in Game 22 and in Game 23, playing White, he secured the last half point he needed to become World Champion. Since the score was now 12.5-10.5, the 24th game was not required.

The 1966 and 1969 Championships were hard-fought and exciting in their own way, but nothing could have prepared Spassky, or the chess world, for the tempestuous 1972 title match.

In its technical details, the match was the same – best-of-24 games, at the rate of three per week in five-hour sessions, with unfinished games completed the following day. Of course, superficially, there were some changes: It was not played in Moscow, the challenger was not a Soviet grandmaster, and both the preliminaries and the earlier course of the match were highly unpredictable.

But all of that really just scratches the surface of what happened and the circumstances surrounding the match.

In the years that Fischer was trying to earn the right to play for the title, the dark side of his character, which became apparent subsequently, had not yet fully emerged and was known only to a few American players who had close contact with him. In his struggle to become World Champion, Fischer had the support of the vast majority of western chess players. Chess was then seen as a theater of the Cold War, albeit a minor one, largely because the Soviet bloc had long used sport in general, and chess in particular, as a propaganda weapon.

Fischer had often been his own worst enemy in the 1960s. He opted out of the qualification series leading to the 1965 Candidates (although the format had been changed to matches to answer his objections), while in 1967 he had withdrawn from the Interzonal tournament in Sousse, Tunisia, when he was in the lead and seemed certain to qualify for the Candidates.

In 1970, he was persuaded to return to chess and Benko, who had earned a place in the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal based on his finish in the previous United States Championship, ceded his spot to Fischer. Fischer dominated the interzonal. Then in the 1971 Candidates matches, he thrashed three strong grandmasters in turn (Mark Taimanov, Larsen, and Petrosian) to earn the right to challenge Spassky.

The Soviet Chess Federation had long before identified Fischer as the main threat to their supremacy. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives, chess journalists Dmitry Plisetsky and Sergey Voronkov were able to publish Russians Versus Fischer (Everyman Chess, 2005) which detailed some of the plans made in the Kremlin to thwart the mercurial American genius. Another good source for the match itself is Bobby Fischer Goes To War, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Harper Perennial, 2005). A short article like this one cannot of course go into the complicated negotiations that preceded the match and the arguments that broke out in the early stages, so readers who want to know more are referred to those books.

The match nearly did not take place. All the previous World Championship matches had been played between citizens of the U.S.S.R., who were essentially salaried officials of the Soviet State to whom prize money was only a minor bonus. With an American involved, cash suddenly became a big issue.

Naturally Fischer did not wish to play in Russia, nor Spassky in America. With a western challenger at last, FIDE opened bids to host the match and several cities made bids of $100,000 or more, which was huge money for chess in those days. The players were asked to state their four preferences in order. Fischer’s first choice was the city that offered the most money — the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade — while Spassky preferred Reykjavik, capital of the small chess-loving nation of Iceland. FIDE President Max Euwe tried to negotiate an arrangement where each would host twelve games but eventually this fell through. Belgrade withdrew and Reykjavik was awarded the whole match.

For Fischer, the announced prizes were insufficient and almost to the last minute there was doubt about whether he would travel to Iceland. Eventually, a combination of the doubling of the prize fund, thanks to the intervention of English businessman Jim Slater, and phone calls from Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser, urging Fischer to consider the national interest, persuaded him to play.

The match began at 5pm on 11 July 1972 (one week behind schedule because Fischer had arrived late) and opinions were divided over who was the favorite. Spassky was quite confident of success — he led 3-0 in their previous encounters, having drawn both his games with Black against Fischer and won all three times he had the first move. Moreover, Spassky had won their most recent game, playing on the top board for the Soviets in the 1970 Siegen Olympiad.

Fischer had a secret dossier on Spassky that the U.S. Chess Federation had commissioned from international master Robert G. Wade.

On the downside, he had become complacent and lacking in motivation since becoming World Champion. Early in 1972 he fell out with his long-time trainer Igor Bondarevsky and his team of seconds this time were led by grandmaster Efim Geller. Spassky was a lazy man who preferred sport to opening analysis. Bondarevsky was probably the only trainer who had been able to make him take training seriously.

Fischer, on the other hand, had done very deep preparation for his opponent. In public, he was never parted from his “little red book,” a collection of Spassky’s games produced by the German publisher Wildhagen. In secret, what Fischer really relied upon for knowledge of his opponent was a much more complete dossier on Spassky that the United States Chess Federation had commissioned from international master Robert G. Wade, the editor of the Batsford chess book series. This had been researched over many months in Wade’s extensive library in Blackheath, south London. Little of what occurred in east European chess escaped Wade’s notice. He had extensive contacts behind the Iron Curtain and owned, for example, numerous bulletins of obscure Soviet and east European tournaments. Wade had sets of the Moscow Central Chess Club Bulletin (a publication not officially sold abroad) and he subscribed to the newspaper Sovietsky Sport.

The early course of the match was depressing for western fans. Just as the first game looked as if it would end in a draw, Fischer snatched a “hot” pawn allowing Spassky to trap his bishop on h2. Analysts later found ways Fischer might have still saved the endgame but he adjourned in a lost position. Fischer then started to argue about noise from television cameras and defaulted the second game when his demands were refused.

The match arbiter, German grandmaster Lothar Schmid, saved the match by negotiating a solution whereby the third game would be played in a closed room without cameras. Against advice that he should refuse, go home and claim the match, Spassky agreed to the compromise. Perhaps he felt the need to test himself against Fischer to discover who was really the stronger, but the concession put him at a psychological disadvantage.

 Fischer, two points down in the match already, played the risky Modern Benoni Defense. His move 11…Nh5, allowing the doubling of his h-pawn, was a shocking surprise, undoubtedly prepared at home. Spassky could not resist the positional trap, and for the first time in his career lost a game to Fischer. Although no one knew it yet, the game changed the course of the match.

The match was a sensation. A large global audience followed the drama in Reykjavik through newspapers and other media reports, and started to play the game themselves. Probably no single event has ever contributed so much to the popularization of chess, particularly in Western Europe and North America, as the Fischer-Spassky match.

The match was also the genesis of an interesting publishing innovation. Many leading grandmasters had come to Iceland to watch the match first-hand, including Svetozar Gligorić, a strong Yugoslav grandmaster who had played in three earlier Candidates cycles. Gligorić had been commissioned by an English publisher to write an “instant book” about the match — writing up each game immediately after it was done, followed by rapid typesetting so that the book was published within a few days of the end of the match. It was a considerable commercial success and set a trend for rapidly publishing books after subsequent matches up to the 1990s.

In Game 6, Fischer surprised Spassky by opening 1 c4, which he had only played twice before in tournaments. 

After Game 3, the match returned to the public playing hall. Following a draw in Game 4, Fischer won again with Black in Game 5 to level the score. In his career, Fischer had almost invariably opened 1 e4, a move which he proclaimed was “best by test.” But in Game 6 he surprised Spassky by opening 1 c4, which he had only played twice before in tournaments. Play transposed to a Queen’s Gambit and Fischer won. In Game 8, he repeated the English Opening and won again.

Fischer’s lead became 5-2 after he won Game 10 with a return to his long-term specialty, the Ruy Lopez, but in Game 11 the Russian got one back by employing a prepared innovation to defeat Fischer’s lifetime favorite, the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf Sicilian. Game 12 was then a relatively uneventful draw.

Game 13 could be crucial: would Fischer repair his pet defense and play the Sicilian again? That afternoon, I accompanied Bob Wade to the offices of one of England’s daily newspapers in Fleet Street, for whom he was writing reports on the match. We were shown to a room with a chess set, typewriter, telephone, and Reuters teleprinter, where we waited impatiently for news to come through, for, of course, there was no internet in those days. Every few minutes the machine would clack into action and deliver the latest set of moves.

The first surprise was that Fischer employed Alekhine’s Defense, 1 e4 Nf6, which he had only played a few times previously in his career. Tense play followed in which Spassky sacrificed a pawn for unclear compensation and both sides understandably made slight errors. At move 25 Spassky missed an unclear opportunity to launch an attack, after which the American seized the advantage and adjourned in a favorable position. The next day Fischer completed the victory with ingenious endgame play to restore his three-point lead.

That game may have broken Spassky. Seven draws followed, in some of which the Russian had chances but could not land a killer blow. Finally Fischer clinched victory in the 21st game, by a margin of 7 wins to 3 (including the defaulted game) and eleven draws. The last three scheduled games were not required.

It was the zenith of Fischer’s career and it appeared that chess had entered a new age, one in which the Soviets did not hold ultimate sway. But it was not to be. Soon after, Fischer began his steep descent into reclusiveness, anti-semitism, and paranoia, and he ceded the World Championship without a fight to a new rising Soviet star, Anatoly Karpov, who would take the game to a whole new level and engage in some of the most epic matches in history.


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.