Chapter One Match of the Century
Funny to be a war correspondent again after all these years. - Arthur Koestler
When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive. - Boris Spassky
It is five o'clock in the evening of Tuesday, 11 July 1972.The seats filling the arena of the sports hall, theLaugardalsholl, in Reykjavik's featureless leisure complex aresold out. On the platform, the world chess champion,thirty-five-year-old Boris Vasilievich Spassky, sits alone atthe 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 twosquares. The Soviet Union's king of chess has begun thedefense of the title that has been his since 1969, and hiscountry's without interruption since World War II. He glancesup at the other side of the board. The expensive, low-slung,black leather, swivel chair, specially provided for hisopponent, is empty.
Six minutes later, the American challenger, Bobby Fischer,arrives. A communal sigh of relief gusts through the hall.Because of his refusal to leave New York in time for thematch's opening, the first game has already been postponed andmany had feared that he might not appear at all: with Fischer,one can never be sure. Now a large hand reaches across thechessboard, plucks up the black king's knight, and places iton f6.
In the provincial and normally tranquil Icelandic capital,what is already being called "the Match of the Century" is atlast under way.
The World Chess Championship has existed since 1886. But withthis final, it is a front-page story for the first time; at$250,000, the prize money is nearly twenty times more than inthe last title contest, when Boris Spassky triumphed over hisfellow Soviet, the then champion Tigran Petrosian.
Why do the games make news on television and stars ofcommentators? Already a people's sport in the communist bloc,why does chess now become the rage in the West, the pastime ofthe moment, like the Charleston, canasta, or the Hula Hoop;what you talk about in the bar with strangers and over thedinner table with friends? The 1972 championship will becomeimmortalized in film, on the stage, in song. It will remainincontrovertibly the most notorious chess duel in history.There will never be another like it.
This has little to do with the games themselves. If it had,the Reykjavik tale could be left to the existing books andmyriad reports in chess volumes and articles that analyze thechess, game by game, in every detail. There are scores of them- for the most part, instant works. What turned thischampionship into a unique and compelling confrontation wasoff the chessboard, beginning with the conviction that historywas being made.
To Western commentators, the meaning of the confrontationseemed clear. A lone American star was challenging the longSoviet grip on the world title. His success would dispose ofthe Soviets' claim that their chess hegemony reflected thesuperiority of their political system. The board was a coldwar arena where the champion of the free world fought fordemocracy against the apparatchiks of the Soviet socialistmachine. Here was the High Noon of chess, coming to you from aconcrete auditorium in Iceland.
Given the mutual hostility of the two great power blocs of thecold war, such a reading of the encounter was inevitable. Butthe story can now be retold from a new perspective, strippedof cold war distortions, a story more nuanced and surprisingthan could be seen in 1972. The end of the cold war hasallowed access to people and records that reveal theindividuals inside the Soviet monolith. White House, StateDepartment, and FBI sources offer remarkable insights onofficial attitudes to the match and to Fischer. Far from beinga simple ideological confrontation, the championship wasplayed out on many levels, of which chess itself was only one.Reykjavik was the setting for a collision of personalities, ofmoral and legal obligations, of social and political beliefs.
However, in large measure, the sheer notoriety of the eventwas due to the presence of Bobby Fischer, a volatile genius,enthralling and shocking, appealing yet repellent.
In 1972, Fischer was still only twenty-nine, but he hadalready been at the summit of international chess for over adecade and the subject of increasing public fascination sincehe was a boy.