Fifty years ago: Fischer leads 8:5

by Frederic Friedel
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.

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Fighting back

All black & white photos from the Icelandic Chess Federation Skáksamband Íslands.

Game 11 – Spassky takes on the Poisoned Pawn

After ten games the score was 6½-3½ for Fischer. The champion had not won since the first game, and of the last eight points had only scored 1½ points – from three draws. In Garry Kasparov On My Great Predecessors, Part 4 the 13th World Champion writes:

"It is interesting that no one, in my opinion, has drawn attention to a staggering coincidence: at that point the match score was 6½-3½ – if Fischer's zero for his default in the second game is discarded, we have the final result of his match with Petrosian! Thus if it had been the best of 12 games, as in the Candidates matches, Spassky would already have been on his way home ...

However, from this moment in the match the play took an even course. The champion calmed down and began fighting with the desperation of the doomed: he sensationally crushed his opponent in the 11th game (the only occasion where Fischer risked repeating a variation that had occurred earlier: the 7th game was also a Sicilian with ...Qxb2) and then he confidendy gained a draw in the 12th."

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, wrote:

"The [eleventh] game brought back memories of my first game against Fischer from the 1967 Sousse Interzonal, which he famously left after he was in the lead. He allowed his opposition only three draws, winning seven games. We played the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Sicilian Najdorf to which, faced by Fischer’s novelty, I added a poisoned knight. It started a new trend and the knight has been sacrificed in many different ways ever since. Bobby grabbed the horse with gusto, but made one single slip and had to find a difficult escape from the slippery slope to make a draw. ‘You added a colossal brick to the opening theory’, Larsen commented on the game.

But I also saw two different sides of Fischer. During the game Bobby requested more lights and eventually we moved to a different table, closer to the window. It felt like we were playing in a TV studio, but it was not enough for him. Two more lamps were brought in, and it was like playing chess on the beach in the midday sun."


Game 12 — A reluctant draw

Fischer made a stubborn attempt to recover the point, but although he obtained a small advantage in the early middlegame he found no way to press it, even with the two bishops. The game was finally drawn.

Game 13 – Fischer plays the Alekhine

In the magazine New in Chess vol 6/2012, 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 what happened in the next game:

"Game 13 puzzled many players even after it was finished. It was an epic battle and, according to Mikhail Botvinnik, the patriarch of Soviet chess, Fischer’s greatest achievement in the match. ‘Nothing like this had previously happened in chess,’ Botvinnik said. His former world championship challenger, David Bronstein, played the game over many times, and it was an enigma to him. ‘Like a mysterious sphinx, it still teases my imagination,’ he said. The game had an unlucky number, and it had all the drama of a swing game. With a win, Spassky would shrink Bobby’s lead to a single point.

In Garry Kasparov On My Great Predecessors, Part 4 the 13th World Champion wrote: "After the confident draw by Spassky in the 12th game "Fischer realised that obstinacy was not a good thing, and he decided temporarily to give up the Sicilian. For the first time in the match he employed the Alekhine Defence, which was another unpleasant surprise for Spassky."

Nikolai Krogius, assistant to Boris Spassky in his World Championship matches against Petrosian in 1969, and Fischer in 1972: "I will say frankly: no serious analysis of the variations for White in this opening had been made. This happened, because a number of experts, including Spassky himself, were convinced that Fischer was extremely constant in his opening tastes and that against 1 e4 he was unlikely to play anything except the Sicilian Defence."

In the November 1972 issue of Chess Life & Review, which today has become the official magazine of the US Chess Federation Chess Life, GM Robert Byrne reporting from Reykjavik, wrote:

Game 13 was a rousing battle. Fischer sprang a surprise Alekhine Defense, rapidly seizing the initiative and snatching a pawn. Since Spassky did not like the looks of the position he would be forced into if he played to retake the pawn, he sacrificed it permanently, going all out for a Kingside attack. An inaccuracy by Fischer fueled the onslaught to alarming proportions but at the crucial point the champion vacillated, drifting into a pawn-down endgame.

That might, perhaps, have been the end of the story, except that Bobby took matters too lightly and blew the win a few moves before adjournment. When the game was resumed he put an incredible effort into the endgame, sacrificing a Bishop, allowing his Rook to be imprisoned and, in effect, going for a win with King and five pawns against King and Rook. Spassky's draw was there but he was worn down after so many hours of play—he blundered' at the 69th move and lost.


On August 11th 1972, exactly 50 years ago, the 13th game adjournment session ended and Fischer had restored his three-point lead.

All material from Chess Life and Review, including GM Robert Byrne's original annotations, appear here courtesy of US Chess.

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.

On August 11th 1972, exactly 50 years ago, the 13th game adjournment session ended and Fischer had restored his three-point lead.


All material from Chess Life and Review, including GM Robert Byrne's original annotations, appear here courtesy of US Chess.

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.

Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 8/14/2022 07:55
marcguy: I guess that White can defend in your line 35...Nce4 after 43.Kf1 thanks to his pair of bishops.
dmccauley19 dmccauley19 8/14/2022 05:26
I was working at Chicken Delight and replaying these games with amazement!
marcguy marcguy 8/13/2022 06:55
A few comments on this article and the games herein:
I met Spassky at a reception in Reno, Nevada in 2005 and got to ask him some questions about the match. He stated that had Fischer played 14...Qb2 in game 11, he would have simply played 15.Nc3 repeating the position. He further opined that Fischer's Achilles heel was trying too hard to make something out of the position when it wasn't there.
In game 12, Fischer erred with 35.Qf3 (instead of Nxc5=). Incredibly, Gligoric in his book gives this a (!) With 35...Nce4 (instead of Rc8), Spassky could have given Fischer trouble after 36.Be5 Rc8 37.Qd1 Nd2 38.Ba6 Nf1 39.Bc8 Nd2 40.Bc3 Qb3 41.Qb3 Nb3 42.Bb7 Kf8. Is this a winning endgame Karsten? Interestingly, 25 years later Kamsky defeated Salov with this exact same opening but played 20.Nc6 (instead of Fischer's Bg3).
Kavalek's comment on his game against Fischer in the Sousse Interzonal is peculiar, implying that Fischer "escaped" with a draw after Kavalek's Knight sacrifice, when in fact the position was won for Fischer who misplayed it, so it was Kavalek who "escaped" with a draw, not Fischer.
The statement that Fischer played the Alekhine defense in a top level game in game 13 for the first time is incorrect, he played it against GM Walter Browne at Zagreb two years prior.
In Game 13, 22...Rfe8 is a mistake as 23.b3 (instead of Spassky's 23.f4) equalizes. Better were 22...a3, Be5, or Bd5. Had Spassky played 25.e6, 25...a3 is an adequate reply not mentioned by Byrne.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 8/13/2022 03:46
Karsten Müller: The 13th game indeed is amazing and many secrets still open. So is 41...Bd5? a mistake, after which Spassky's 42.Kg3!! draws. But there should be more to be found. It looks like a good endgame riddle to me...
Frederic Frederic 8/13/2022 01:56
@Seryhaber: the ChessBase replayer inserts it automatically. I will check with the programmers what we can do about it. Maybe let the program retrieve the nationality or the nation the player represented when the game was played.

Incidentally I can vividly remember how I was on a holiday in France and replayed the 13th game from a French newspaper, on a pocket chess board, in the car, trembling with excitement. I am doing these articles not just to inform readers whose parents were not born when it happened. I also do it to relive some of the most important moments of my chess life.
Seryhaber Seryhaber 8/13/2022 01:46
Hello and thank you for this article!
The flag for Spassky is not correct. In 1972 he represented the Soviet Union.