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The Cold War on a chessboard 50 years ago

#Cold #War #chessboard #years

50 years ago, the Cold War was transferred to a chessboard when Bobby Fischer of the United States took on reigning world champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in a thrilling East-West match dubbed the “Match of the Century”.

Around 50 million television viewers followed the two-month tussle in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, where chess’s enfant terrible, Fischer, tried to snatch the championship from the decades-long dominant Soviet Union.

AFP reports daily from the competition. This account is based on its reporting.

– Polar Opposites –

On one side of the table is Fischer, an eccentric, hard-fought 29-year-old former boy prodigy who, at age 12, ranked among America’s greats and has already won eight US championships.

Born in Chicago, Fischer grew up in the New York suburb of Brooklyn, where his older sister taught him chess from the age of six.

He became the youngest chess grandmaster in the world at the age of 15 and dropped out of school to concentrate on the game.

The AFP correspondent in Reykjavik says “he has few friends and doesn’t care about making any” and his motto is: “It’s not enough to defeat an opponent, you have to destroy them.”

He enters the competition having won 101 of his previous 120 games.

In the other place is 35-year-old Boris Spassky, a trained journalist and married father of two, who has been world champion for three years.

Born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1937, he was sent to an orphanage in Siberia during the Nazi German siege of the city in World War II.

A pure product of the Soviet chess machine, he began playing at age five and became world champion at nineteen.

As a sympathetic, modest character, he is the opposite of the argumentative fisherman.

– outbursts of anger –

Fischer is the first US-born player to attempt to win the title (since 1946 the two finalists have always been Soviet).

Neutral countries vie to host the game, which is eventually awarded to Iceland.

Fischer makes a number of demands before agreeing to participate. The venue, a sports hall, has to be soundproofed, fitted with new carpeting and the room temperature kept at 22.5 degrees Celsius.

However, on the eve of the competition, he still hasn’t shown up, and Spassky grows impatient.

Henry Kissinger, then US National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, calls Fischer and persuades him to attend.

AFP reports that the US champion “looks tired” as he lands in Reykjavik on July 4. He ducks out of the opening ceremony. An outraged Spassky demands an apology.

The competition finally begins on July 11, nine days late.

– ‘Scandal of the Century’ –

Spassky comes to the opening game 20 minutes earlier to “rapturous applause” from the 2,500 spectators in the sold-out hall. Fischer storms in at the last moment, “pushes past the photographers, rushes towards Spassky, shakes his hand” and sits down. The game is finally on.

The two proceed cautiously and on move 28 the game looks set to be drawn. But then Fischer makes two mistakes and gives up on the 56th move.

Struck by his loss, he demands that all cameras be removed from the hall. If the request is denied, he refuses to show up for the second game and loses it.

“Viewers are disappointed and upset,” reports AFP.

The Icelandic daily Timinn declares that the game of the century has become the “scandal of the century”.

As the third game looms, Fischer is nowhere to be found. Kissinger picks up the phone again. “Please continue the game,” Fischer later quoted him pleadingly.

The hall is full when the competition resumes on July 16, but the stage is empty. Spassky has accepted Fischer’s request that they play in a small back room normally used for table tennis (with a camera on the ceiling broadcasting the events outside to the main hall).

Some commentators see Spassky’s concession as a bad omen for the Russian losing the game.

The fourth is a tie and Spassky resigns the fifth.

The two are now head to head.

– Games for the history books –

Game 6 is one of the toughest of the competition. Spassky throws in the towel on move 41.

“I’m proud of that game, it was one of my best,” Fischer told AFP, adding, “When Spassky joined the crowd and applauded my win, I thought, ‘What a gentleman’.”

Spassky also abandons the 13th game, a chess masterclass, according to the AFP correspondent, who reported that after congratulating his opponent, Spassky “sits back thoughtfully for six minutes, his eyes absorbed in the chessboard”.

Fischer seems increasingly confident of victory. “He’ll be champion,” his sister Joan told AFP after the seventh game.

The Russian asks for the 14th game to be postponed and the next seven to be all draws.

Game 21, which goes to Fischer, turns out to be last. The next day, Spassky gives up the game and makes the still sleeping Fischer the 11th World Chess Champion with a final score of 12.5-8.5.

– From Hero to Zero –

Because the chessboard is considered a metaphor for great power politics, Fischer’s victory in the United States is celebrated as a symbolic victory of capitalism over communism.

Nixon invites Fischer to the White House.

A heartbroken Spassky returns to a frigid welcome in the Soviet Union, where he is banned from participating in chess competitions and placed under surveillance by the KGB, the secret police.

In 1976 he married a French woman and moved to Paris, but later the self-confessed Russian nationalist returned to Moscow.

Fischer never plays a chess competition again.

In 1975 he refuses to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov from the Soviet Union and therefore loses it. A conspiracy theorist with a deep hatred of “world Jewry,” he disappeared for years, only to resurface in 1992 for a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, despite the war-torn country under US sanctions.

In 2004 he gave up his US citizenship and later moved to Iceland, where he died on January 17, 2008 at the age of 64 – so many squares on a chessboard.

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