Endgame riddle solved: Spassky could have drawn!

by Karsten Müller
1/31/2024 – Last week we asked you to help us solve a historical riddle. Game 3 of the 1972 match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky left many open questions and new discoveries to be made. Charles Sullivan, Wolfram Schön, Zoran Petronijevic helped Karsten Müller resolve the riddles — and it turns out that Spassky could have held a draw!

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The Match of the Century

The “Match of the Century” between World Champion Boris Spassky and his challenger Bobby Fischer took place in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland.

After two traumatic games for Fischer at the outset, World Champion Spassky was leading 2-0 in the match. But then Fischer started to play and struck back by winning the third encounter.

But could have Spassky escaped with a draw? According to the analyses sent by Charles Sullivan, with the assistance of Wolfram Schön, Zoran Petronijevic and other ChessBase readers, the game could have indeed ended in a draw.

The most controversial point was whether 34.Kf1!! draws, as Charles Sullivan had claimed from the start — and it turns out that White can defend the fortress against all attacks.

So the conclusions are (find full analysis in the dynamic replayer below):

  1. 14...Qh4? overpresses and 14...Ng4 is more or less equal.
  2. 15.Bd2? is too slow. 15.f3 wins.
  3. 22.Rae1? loses. Amazingly 22.e5!! still holds.
  4. 23...Re7? is a mistake. 23...Rac8! wins.
  5. 34.Rxe4? loses and 34.Kf1!! amazingly would have defended still.

Relive the match with a fantastic 14-part narration by Frederic Friedel: Part 1 ... Part 14

Full analysis

Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen

Let endgame expert Dr Karsten Müller show and explain the finesses of the world champions. Although they had different styles each and every one of them played the endgame exceptionally well, so take the opportunity to enjoy and learn from some of the best endgames in the history of chess.


Karsten Müller is considered to be one of the greatest endgame experts in the world. His books on the endgame - among them "Fundamentals of Chess Endings", co-authored with Frank Lamprecht, that helped to improve Magnus Carlsen's endgame knowledge - and his endgame columns for the ChessCafe website and the ChessBase Magazine helped to establish and to confirm this reputation. Karsten's Fritztrainer DVDs on the endgame are bestsellers. The mathematician with a PhD lives in Hamburg, and for more than 25 years he has been scoring points for the Hamburger Schachklub (HSK) in the Bundesliga.
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CharlesSullivan CharlesSullivan 2/3/2024 09:38
Davidx1: I think that 15.f4 Ng4 16.h3 Bd4 (GM Pachman gave 16...Nxe3 17.Bxe3 Bxh3 as winning for Black, but he was wrong) is very interesting. Stockfish on my computer gives a variation that is wild: 17.hxg4 hxg4 18.Ne2 g3 19.Rf3 Qh2+ 20.Kf1 Qh1+ 21.Ng1 Qh2 22.Bd2 Bg4 23.Qd3 f5 24.exf5 Rac8 25.f6 Rc7 26.Rc1 Rf7 27.Rc4 Bxf3 28.Nxf3 Qh1+ 29.Ng1 Rxf6 30.Rxd4 cxd4 31.Qxd4 Ref8 32.Nd1 Qh5 33.Nc3 Qg6 34.Nge2 Re8 35.Be1 b5 36.Bxg3 Rf7 37.Bf2 Qc2 38.Qb4 a6 39.Qxd6 Rfe7 40.Qf6 Rxe2 41.Qg5+ Kf8 42.Qh6+ Kg8 43.Qg5+ draw by perpetual check.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 2/3/2024 11:22
countrygirl: Very good idea! I have mailed it to ChessBase.
countrygirl countrygirl 2/3/2024 07:16
Great analysis! And I'd thought the verdict on this game was cut and dried.

Perhaps ChessBase can now help Boris celebrate his recent 87th birthday by adding Spassky to its wonderful Master Class series?! (it's really, really strange NOT to have him, given that Mr Personality Smyslov is represented - and even two non-world-champions, Polgar and Korchnoi...)
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 2/2/2024 12:03
Davidx1: Yes good point. So we will see, if Sullivan's claim 15.f3! +- will stand the test of time. So the "extra dimensions of chess" are good of course. So I can always find new riddles...
Davidx1 Davidx1 2/1/2024 08:28
We know what Sullivan said is great and useful, but my methodical and normal attack (also proposed by Stockfish) 15f4 and 16 h3 should not be good...
And do you know why we don't know it ? Because chess is complex and there are many "extra-chess" dimensions.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 2/1/2024 06:36
Davidx1: Sullivan's 15.f3! (see his analysis above) should be stronger and winning. But of course to prove that over the board with the clock ticking is not easy at all...
Inspirus18 Inspirus18 1/31/2024 08:08
Mr. Charles Sullivan, you did a magnificent work, lots of thanks!
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 1/31/2024 05:52
CharlesSullivan: Really great work, Charles. Many thanks!
CharlesSullivan CharlesSullivan 1/31/2024 03:53
Samuel Reshevsky ("Reshevsky on The Fischer-Spassky Games [1972]) also thought Spassky had drawing chances with 41.Ke1 ("it is not clear how Fischer could have won"). Reshevsky correctly points out that 41...Qf3 does not win. He goes on to give a very good variation: 41...c3 42.Qg5+ Bg6 43.Qd8+ Kh7 44.Qxd6 c2 45.Qf4 Qxd5 46.Qd2 Qh1+ 47.Ke2 "and White could offer resistance." Play might have continued 47...Qe4+ 48.Qe3 Qc4+ 49.Ke1 Qxb4+ 50.Kf1 Qc4+ 51.Kg1 Qd5 52.Qh6+ Kg8 53.Qe3 Qd1+ 54.Kg2 b4, etc. Stockfish, at least, gives Black the win.
Davidx1 Davidx1 1/31/2024 02:39
after 14...Qh4, Stockfish 16, at long tempo, plays 15f4 (Stockfish 16 depth ≥ 40) Ng4 16 h3 and Fritz 19 responds with 16...Bd4!? with very interesting game.
Davidx1 Davidx1 1/31/2024 12:50
14..Qh4 is what it is but you have to prove it on the chessboard, without Stockfish, who doesn't know how to play,and without moving the pieces.
I'm two points down against the world champion and I just made a gesture of protest against this universal background of chatter and I bring my queen against your king,
I want to win.
I am Fischer too.