50 years ago: Bobby Fischer is the 11th World Champion!

by Frederic Friedel
9/1/2022 – After twenty games the score was 11½-8½ for Challenger Bobby Fischer, who needed 12½ to win the title. In game 21 he had the black pieces, gained a distinct advantage, but then allowed Boris Spassky to get a drawn position. However, when the still-reigning World Champion adjourned, he sealed a losing move. The next day, September 1st, 1972, resigned by telephone on. At 2:35 p.m. Chief Arbiter Lothar Schmid congratulated Fischer and announced in the hall that Bobby was the new champion.

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Fischer triumphs in the final game

On August 30th 1972, 50 years ago, the adjournment of the 20th game ended, and Challenger Bobby Fischer still had his three-point lead. He could win the match by scoring 12.5 points, whereas World Champion Boris Spassky needed 12 points to retain his title.

In Chess Life & Review January 1973, p. 20, Robert Byrne wrote of the 21st game:

One of the most important opening innovations [Fischer] produced in the match came this time in a variation of the Sicilian Defense he had never before shown any liking for. It cashiers one of the chief attacks available to White, Black obtaining a small but clear advantage.

However, just when Bobby seemed to be succeeding in the struggle, Boris came up with a finely judged Exchange sacrifice which should have left little question about the draw. Unfortunately for him, he then blundered monstrously, throwing away the fruits of his intrepid defense and going down to defeat. Spassky's resignation by telephone disappointed the fans, who wanted to see the endgame technique the old and new champions took for granted. At the final banquet, Fischer was still going over the variations resulting from Spassky's sealed move, 41.Bd7, pointing out the various desperate traps still at White's disposal. Thus ended "The Match of the Century."

All material from Chess Life and Review,including GM Robert Byrne's original annotations, appear here courtesy of US Ch. Here is Robert Byrne's commentary in Chess Life & Review January 1973, pp.20-21:

[Event "Reykjavik World Championship (21)"] [Site "Reykjavik"] [Date "1972.08.31"] [Round "21"] [White "Spassky, Boris Vasilievich"] [Black "Fischer, Robert James"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B46"] [WhiteElo "2660"] [BlackElo "2785"] [Annotator "Byrne,Robert"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "1972.07.11"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "21"] [EventCountry "ISL"] [SourceTitle "MainBase"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. e4 c5 {Was Fischer going to justify the "poisoned pawn" variation at this late stage of the match? No, he wasn't, but the move put the spectators on tenterhook.} 2. Nf3 e6 {Bobby has defeated this line of the Sicilian so often, it's a wonder he could bring himself to try the Black side of it. But he knows what Boris likes against it and is all prepared.} 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 ({Fischer's favorite has been} 5. Bd3 {which after} Nc6 6. Nxc6 bxc6 {leaves the way open for} 7. c4 {which Petrosian played against him in game 7 of the Buenos Aires match. Had Bobby no fear that Boris would use his own weapon against him? Perhaps he intended to take the game into entirely different channels by 5...d6 and ...Nd7.}) 5... Nc6 6. Be3 Nf6 7. Bd3 d5 8. exd5 exd5 $1 {Here is the novelty. This recapture with the Pawn is excellent, since the White minor pieces are bunched ineffectively to work on the isolated pawn.} ({ The previously tried} 8... Nxd5 {leads to the inferior game after} 9. Nxc6 bxc6 10. Bd4) 9. O-O Bd6 10. Nxc6 $2 ({Some way of avoiding this strengthening of the Black center had to be sought; either} 10. Be2) ({or} 10. Bf5 {to simplify might have been tried,}) ({but not} 10. h3 {because that leaves White open for a later ...Bc7 and ...Qd6.}) 10... bxc6 11. Bd4 O-O 12. Qf3 Be6 ({As ever, Fischer prefers the solid, clear continuation to the obscurity arising from} 12... Ng4 $6 13. h3 Qh4 ({not} 13... Nh6 $2 14. Qh5) 14. Rfe1 c5 $6 15. Nxd5 $1 {when the complications are in White's favor.}) 13. Rfe1 c5 14. Bxf6 Qxf6 15. Qxf6 gxf6 {Black's two Bishops and half-open b-file give him a clear advantage in this ending, which might have arisen from a Scotch Opening.} 16. Rad1 Rfd8 17. Be2 Rab8 ({Had Bobby realized what Spassky was up to, he might have chosen } 17... Be5 {for} 18. Bf3 Bxc3 19. bxc3 Rab8 20. Rb1 d4 $1 {is strong for Black.}) 18. b3 c4 $1 19. Nxd5 $1 {The Exchange sacrifice saves day!} ({ The situation looked desperate for White, since} 19. -- Bb4 {threatens,}) ({and } 19. Na4 {loses to} Bf5 $1) 19... Bxd5 20. Rxd5 Bxh2+ 21. Kxh2 Rxd5 22. Bxc4 Rd2 23. Bxa6 (23. Bd3 {does not trap the Rook as some excited onlookers thought–} Rxf2 24. Kg3 Rd2 25. Kf3 a5 26. Rg1 Re8 {does not permit White to approach it.}) 23... Rxc2 24. Re2 Rxe2 25. Bxe2 {Spassky's strong connected passed pawns and Fischer's weak Kingside pawns guarantee that this ending is a draw.} Rd8 26. a4 $1 Rd2 27. Bc4 Ra2 $1 (27... Rxf2 $2 {throws away any hopes Black might have, for White forces a Queen after} 28. a5 Ra2 29. a6 Kf8 30. b4 Ra4 ({Nor can Black hold the pawns by} 30... Ra1 31. b5 Ke7 32. b6 Kd7 33. a7 Kc6 34. Bd5+ $1 Kxd5 35. b7) 31. b5 Rxc4 32. a7) 28. Kg3 Kf8 29. Kf3 Ke7 30. g4 $4 {It can only be "match fatigue" that leads Spassky to such a blunder as this, giving Fischer the first chance he has had to create a passed pawn.} ({ After} 30. Kg3 {and} -- 31. f4 {Black could forget about winning.}) 30... f5 $1 31. gxf5 (31. g5 f6 {gets the passed pawn anyway.}) 31... f6 32. Bg8 h6 33. Kg3 Kd6 34. Kf3 $4 {Spassky plays now like a man dazed:} (34. f4 {preventing the strong invasion of the Black King, would still draw.}) 34... Ra1 35. Kg2 Ke5 36. Be6 Kf4 37. Bd7 Rb1 38. Be6 Rb2 39. Bc4 Ra2 40. Be6 h5 {[#]} 41. Bd7 ({ The game was adjourned at this point, Spassky having sealed} 41. Bd7 {but it was not resumed for Boris resigned. Black wins by} Kg4 42. b4 ({If} 42. Bc6 { then} h4 43. Bf3+ Kxf5 44. Bd5 Kg4 45. Bf3+ Kf4 46. Bd5 Rb2 47. Bc4 Kg4 {wins.} ) 42... h4 43. a5 h3+ 44. Kg1 Ra1+ 45. Kh2 Rf1 46. a6 Rxf2+ 47. Kg1 Kg3 48. Bb5 h2+ 49. Kh1 Rg2 {and mate next move.}) ({Even the best defense,} 41. Kh3 { (instead of 41.Bd7) would not hold the game:} Rxf2 42. a5 h4 $1 43. a6 Kg5 44. b4 ({Or} 44. Bd5 Ra2 45. Bb7 Ra3 46. Kg2 Kxf5 47. b4 Kg4 48. b5 h3+ 49. Kf2 h2 {and wins:} 50. b6 Rxa6) 44... Rf3+ 45. Kg2 Kg4 46. b5 h3+ 47. Kg1 Kg3 { and mates as in the previous line.}) 0-1

The book Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, first edition 2004 by Harper Collins, describes the end of the match:

Adjournment came at move forty-one. Spassky seemed exhausted. He invested only six minutes’ thinking time on his last move, which was then committed to paper and handed over to Schmid, who carefully sealed it in the adjournment envelope. Fischer signed the flap, a standard security check. Now the audience could relax and chat, and as they rose from their seats, the conversation was of who held the positional edge. Most amateurs would have rated the prospects for either side as about even. However, the experts realized Spassky’s struggle to retain the title was over; his doughty fight back had collapsed and the grandmasters were predicting a Fischer victory. In Moscow there was already an acceptance that their man had lost: the champion had told Geller that there was no point in fussing over the analysis. Spassky knew he had not sealed the best move.

The following day, there was an audience of 2,500 people, some of whom had arrived early to guarantee a good seat and all of whom had paid $5 in the expectation of witnessing an exciting denouement. Fischer bounded in late, looking confident but, surprising for one who normally took care to appear impeccable, dressed in a hastily selected and still unpressed blood-red suit. For a change, Spassky’s seat was the one empty.

Two hours earlier, at 12:50 P.M., the champion had put in a call to the arbiter Lothar Schmid. He officially informed Schmid of his resignation; he would not go to the adjourned session. Schmid had had to phone Euwe: Could he accept a resignation by telephone? Euwe ruled this was permissible. Fischer was not informed and might not have found out until later, had the Life photographer Harry Benson not bumped into Spassky at the Saga hotel as the now ex-champion was on his way out for a walk. There followed a flurry of calls. Benson rang Fischer, who rang Schmid, insisting that, if true, this resignation must be put in writing. Schmid wrote something out himself but said Fischer would still have to show up at the scheduled hour for the adjourned session.

The match was over.

We hand over to Brad Darrach, journalist and film critic, who wrote one of the most influential books on Bobby Fischer — first published in 1974, and still a fascinating read. Get a copy — mine (pictured) cost $2.95 a couple of decades ago. In it Darrach describes the final hours of the match in greater detail:

At 3 A.M. on Friday, September 1, 1972, Spassky lay in bed and stared into the drab reverse twilight of a northern dawn. In the twenty-first game, Bobby had fooled him in the opening and in irritation Spassky had sealed a move that left him less chance of drawing than Bobby had of winning. A careless fluff had cost him his last hope of leaving a stain on Bobby's triumph and a doubt in Bobby's mind. Now all he could do was go down fighting. And yet ... did he really want to let that arrogant Bobby rip off his scalp on the stage of the playing hall while thousands cheered? Spassky decided that for his own sake and for the sake of his country he must make a more carefully managed exit.

At 1 P.M., Harry Benson dropped by the Saga. To his surprise he saw Spassky stride out of the elevator, Krogius at his heels. When he saw Benson, Spassky broke into a big smile and casually handed him the news beat of the summer.

"Hello, Hahrry! There is new world champion! I have just resigned."

Benson's face fell. "I'm sorry to hear that, Boris."

"Don't be sorry," Spassky said. "It is sporting event and" — he shrugged — "I lost. Bobby is new champion. So! Now I must have walk." And off he went.

Benson called Bobby. "Congratulations! You're the world champion."

"Yeeaah?" Bobby was pleased but suspicious. "How ya know?"

"Spassky resigned. He told me so himself."

"Ya sure?"

When Lombardy arrived, Bobby was still hunched over the analysis board, eyes blazing. "How do I know it's not a trick to make me stop workin' so he'll win? Tell Schmid I demand to see Spassky's resignation in writing!"

At 2:25, Schmid was beside himself. Almost half an hour after game time, Bobby had not shown up to claim his victory. Schmid had refused to make Spassky come to the playing hall and write the word "resigned" on his score sheet — was Bobby taking his revenge?

At 2:30, Bobby burst onstage, looking surly-shy. "Ladies and gentlemen," Schmid announced in a sweat of relief, "Mr. Spassky has resigned it by telephone at 12:50 o'clock." Loud applause. Bobby winced and half looked up from the score sheet he was signing. "Mr. Fischer," Schmid continued, "has won this game . . . and he is therefore the winner of the match."

Thunderous ovation. Bobby scowled as if he wished they would all go away. The ovation faltered, then swelled into rhythmic clapping and stamping. Hastily, as if afraid all those people were coming after him, Bobby bolted through the curtain and was gone. Applause subsided into exclamations of incredulous exasperation. "You mean," an American visitor asked, "this is how it ends?"

This was how it began, the reign of King Bobby.

At the resumption of the game, at 2:50 pm, Friday, September 1st, Lothar Schmid announced in the hall that Bobby was the champion, as Spassky had resigned this game. There was a great deal of applause, and people seemed a bit reluctant to leave. At last, Bobby had accomplished his goal; he was World Champion. I looked around at the people, and noticed a small man in a wheel chair, crying. I took him to be John W. Collins, Bobby’s teacher many years before. He was there to see it.

Chief Arbiter Lothar Schmid congratulates Bobby Fischer on September 1st 1972 at 2:35 p.m. [Credit J. Water Green/Associated Press]

On Friday September 1st 1972, exactly 50 years ago, the adjournment of the 20th game ended, and Bobby Fischer was the new World Chess Champion.

In Garry Kasparov On My Great Predecessors, Part 4 the 13th World Champion writes:

My Great Predecessors IVBy winning ahead of schedule with the score 12½-8½ (+7–3=11), Robert James Fischer became the 11th chess king in history! Two days later, 3 September, the closing ceremony was held and the FIDE President crowned him with a 'laurel wreath' made out of Icelandic silver birch leaves.

And here, before the eyes of two thousand guests, there occurred an episode which, in my view, reveals Fischer better than any words. After handing him the envelope with the check, Euwe held out his hand for a handshake. 'But Fischer is in no hurry. He opens the envelope and carefully studies the cheque. Euwe's hand remains suspended in mid-air. Finally, after satisfying himself that everything is in order, he carefully folds the cheque and puts it in the inside pocket of his jacket. After this, having shaken the President's hand, he quickly returns to his table. Here he silently tucks into a steak, but firmly rejects a glass of wine. On the stage, in the meantime, speeches in honour of the new champion are being made. After finishing his meal, Fischer looks around absent-mindedly. Suddenly his gaze brightens and he fishes for something in the inside pocket of his jacket. Surely he isn't going to verify the cheque again? No. He extracts his worn pocket set, sets up some position and, oblivious to his surroundings, is soon lost in thought.' (Krogius)

'In the second half of the match he played very well,' Fischer admitted in an interview after the match. 'I felt that I was really under enormous pressure in the later games. Except for the very last two or three. But over the course of six or seven successive games I experienced constant pressure. It was terrible...'

The fact that Spassky had been able to overcome his crisis is indicated by his evaluation of Fischer's play, made soon afterwards: 'I did not notice creativity in his chess. Technique, practicality, pragmatism, energy and striving for a battle — this is what I very much liked in him. I realised that he is an exceptionally strong player. But, of course, he also has very serious deficiencies. His main deficiency is that he plays chess somehow very purely, like a child. Now this constitutes his strength, but later it may harm him, especially in a complicated struggle. Then other qualities will have to be displayed: more refinement, great experience. There are several players who understand the game better than him.'

In the magazine New in Chess vol 6/2012, pp.60-68, GM Lubomir Kavalek, who was in Reykjavik for the Match of the Century, both as a journalist and, in the second half, as one of Fischer’s seconds, describes how he interviewed Fischer after the match. It was a present from the new champion for the work Kavalek had done during the games. The interview was broadcast on Voice of America, which estimated that some 250 million listeners tuned in to listen. Kavalek presented a tape of the interview to the World Chess Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.

Are you satisfied with the result, with the quality of the games?

‘I am pretty happy, Lubos, with the score,’ Bobby said. ‘I mean, I forfeited one game, so it’s really 12½-7½ in games we actually played. You have to remember that there was lot of tension associated with this match. Under the circumstances, I think, I did a pretty good job.’

What do you think about Spassky’s play?

‘I wouldn’t say he played his best. I would say he played pretty much what I expected, judging by his performances before the match. He seems to be in a slump in the last couple of years, and I wasn’t expecting a dramatic turnabout.’

What does the world title mean to you?

‘I think, it’s a very important victory over the Russians, you know. They have been using this as a propaganda thing for many years, this world title. Now it’s taken away from them; they are not going to be happy. It gives them something to think about. But for me personally, it opens up opportunities to play more chess, the kind of chess I want to play.’

What will change in your life?

‘Well, a lot of money. There seems to be an awful lot of money coming my way. That’s basically about it!’

What kind of future plans do you have?

‘I think, if the money is there, if there is a nice offer, I would consider playing Spassky a return match, if he is willing, if his government lets him.’

Even next year?

‘Possibly next year, I would say certainly within two years.’

During the recording a man from the U.S. Embassy brought a telegram from President Nixon, which Bobby read on tape, obviously touched:

Dear Bobby,

Your convincing victory at Reykjavik is eloquent witness to your complete mastery of the world’s most difficult and challenging game. The Championship you have won is a great personal triumph for you and I am pleased to join countless of your fellow-citizens in extending my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to you.

Sincerely yours, Richard Nixon

Kavalek reports that the Coca-Cola company offered $100,000 to the U.S. Olympiad team on condition that Fischer take part. Bobby would get $50,000 and the other players $10,000 each. Bobby considered playing in Skopje Olympiad, but in the end he didn’t go. He had just won the most gruelling match of his life and that was it for him.

The magazine Chess Life started in 1946 as a bi-weekly newspaper, usually eight or twelve pages long. In 1961 it was converted to a slick-covered magazine, and in 1969 it merged with Chess Review, the other leading U.S. chess magazine. The magazine was published under the title Chess Life & Review starting with the November 1969 issue until 1980, when it returned to the originalname. Today Chess Life, together with the bi-monthly Chess Life Kids, is the official magazine of the United States Chess Federation and possibly the most widely read chess magazine in the world.

The 8th American Open in the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California, was covered by three TV and three radio stations, which broadcast material druing news hours. This attracted many visitors, and in the February 1973 issue of CL&R, on page 71, we find mention of a special guest:

"One of these spectators was none other than the new World Champion, Bobby Fischer. He made his appearance without fanfare during the last round. However, he no sooner entered the room than he was enveloped in a swarm of autograph seekers and camera buffs. I'm sure that Bobby would have enjoyed chatting with some of his friends who were present, and to have watched and studied some of the games. But this was not to be. His appearance at a chess tournament has the same effect as the arrival of a great movie star at a Hollywood premiere. Such is the burden that accompanies fame! Bobby endured the accolades of his admirers for about twenty minutes and then departed."

Previous articles

Fischer vs Spassky – 50 years ago
7/11/2022 – Half a century ago, exactly on this day, the most famous chess match in history began: Boris Spassky vs Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland. Five year ago we celebrated the event by reporting on it, game for game, as if it was all taking place live. Today we bring you links to all the reports we published at the time, starting with our full report on the drama that surrounded game one. It contains original film footage which nobody should miss.

Bobby Fischer in Iceland – 50 years ago
7/19/2022 – Fifty years ago, after the disaster he suffered in game one, Bobby Fischer was on the verge of abandoning the entire event and returning home. The challenger continued his vigorous protest, and when his demands were not met, Fischer did not turn up for game two. He was forfeited and the score was 0-2. Bobby booked a flight back to New York, but practically at the very last moment decided to play game three – in an isolated ping-pong room!

50 years ago today: Fischer-Spassky, game six
7/24/2022 – Today we offer readers a glimpse of what had been happening behind the scenes of “The Match of The Century”, especially in the Russian camp, exactly fifty years ago. A tense Boris Spassky, cajoled by seconds Efim Geller and Nikolai Krogius, nevertheless failed to perform, to the dismay of his friends and admirers. It’s also the story of a gamble that could have hurtled Bobby down the precipice in that fateful Game 6 of the match. A cautionary tale and object lesson for aspiring players. 

Fifty years ago: Fischer leads 6½:3½
8/4/2022 – After the first two traumatic games World Champion Boris Spassky was leading 2-0 in the Match of the Century. But then Fischer started to play and struck back: in the next eight games he scored 6½ points, chalking up a 6.5-3.5 lead. Games 8, 9 and 10 were quite spectacular, and are the subject of today's report – exactly fifty years after game ten. Younger players will also learn about "adjournments" and how exactly "sealed moves" were handled. Some were born after these practices were abandoned.

Fifty years ago: Fischer leads 8:5
8/13/2022 – After ten games in the World Championship match in Reykjavik, 1972, the score was 6½-3½ for Challenger Bobby Fischer. The match seemed virtually over – in the last eight games Boris Spassky had only managed to score 1½ points. In game 11 Spassky took on the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf Sicilian. "Fighting with the desperation of the doomed: he sensationally crushed his opponent in the 11th game" (Kasparov). In the twelfth he held Fischer to a comfortable draw. And then came the 13th round. Fischer played, for the first time in a top-level game, the Alekhine Defence. It turned into one of the most exciting battles of the match, and is beautifully annotated by GM Robert Byrne. 

50 years ago: Fischer leads 9:6
8/18/2022 – Fischer leads by three points. The Match of the Century was coming to a head, with Spassky, despite all his efforts, unable to reduce the deficit. "I felt that Fischer was like a large fish in my hands," he lamented, "one that was slippery and hard to hold on to. At certain moments I let him slip. And then again the psychological torment would begin. Everything had to be begun again from the start ..." Spassky was beginning to feel despondent.

50 years ago: Fischer-Spassky, Secret weapons?
8/25/2022 – After draws in games 14 and 15, Fischer still had a three-point lead in the World Championship match, and the Spassky side was getting nervous. The Champion was fighting hard, but not getting any points. Suspicion arose that Fischer might be using secret weapons: hypnosis, devices planted in the lights or the chairs, and even perhaps assistance from an "IBM" (Russian for "computer" at the time). All this was formally investigated, while Fischer continued to coast. 


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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turok turok 9/3/2022 08:46
sp spassky gets crushed n all he does is criticize bobbys play even after knowing of the russian collusion to try n eliminate bobby from defeating their iron curtain of chess
Poiuy Trewq Poiuy Trewq 9/3/2022 04:13
Kein Wunder, als Deutscher sind Sie so ein Perfektionist! ;-)
Frederic Frederic 9/2/2022 09:44
@Poiuy Trewq: I switched on the report at 16:35 CEST, which was 2:35 pm in Reykjavik. Both Europe and Iceland did not have summer time in 1972, during the match. So I believe I switched on the report an hour before Bobby became World Champion -- exactly 49 years and 23 hours ago. Not quite so auspicious, right?!
Poiuy Trewq Poiuy Trewq 9/2/2022 02:43
You did nothing wrong, it is that such a moment is of course timeless...
Frederic Frederic 9/1/2022 10:25
Did anyone notice I switched this on at 4:35 p.m. German time -- an attempt at ultimate auspiciousness. What did I get wrong?