On this day in 1972, in what’s billed as the “Match of the Century,” American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeats Russian Boris Spassky during the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
In the world’s most publicized title match ever played, Fischer, a 29-year-old Brooklynite, became the first American to win the competition since its inception in 1866. The victory also marked the first time a non-Russian had won the event in 24 years.
Fischer, who started playing chess professionally at age 8, won the U.S. Open Championship when he was 14 (he would go on to win it seven more times) and became the world’s youngest international grandmaster at age 15.
Fischer’s skills and age—and demanding, arrogant attitude—made him a pop culture phenomenon. He became the subject of books and movies and even inspired a song, “The Ballad of Bobby Fischer.”
Played during the Cold War, the Reykjavik match also carried political undertones. Fischer had already accused the Soviets of rigging the tournament system and didn’t mince words in his feelings about them, saying the match was “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.”
Fischer missed the competition’s July 1 opening ceremony, after demanding more money, as well as a cut of TV and film rights. After a two-day delay—and a doubling of the prize purse by British millionaire Jim Slater—Fischer finally showed. A call from Henry Kissinger, national security assistant for President Nixon at the time, may have helped persuade him to compete, as well. “America wants you to go over there to beat the Russians,” he reportedly told Fischer.
“Fischer is known to be graceless, rude, possibly insane,” financier Slater once said. “I really don’t worry about that, because I didn’t do it for that reason. I did it because he was going to challenge the Russian supremacy, and it was good for chess.”
Spassky took the first game (Fischer blamed the TV cameras and ordered them to be removed). Fischer then forfeited the second game after some of his other demands weren’t met. Following much quarreling, the match resumed July 16 with a win by Fischer. Over 21 games, Fischer won seven, Spassky won three, and 11 were draws. Spassky resigned after 40 moves on the 21st game via telephone, with the final score set at 12.5 to 8.5
Fischer took home $156,250 in prize money for the feat, while the Soviet grandmaster Spassky, who was 35 and the reigning world champion, earned $93,750.
Fischer lost his world title by forfeit in 1975, when he refused to play against Soviet Anatoly Karpov in Manila after the competition’s governing body failed to meet all his demands.