Starting from the early 60s, Viktor Korchnoi has always been one of the top Soviet Grandmasters. As a four times Soviet Champion and a regular participant in the Candidates tournament, he actively participated in the battle for the chess crown, yet he was always overshadowed by a fellow countryman. In the 60s, both Petrosian and Spassky proved to be stronger and in the 70s, young Anatoly Karpov. Their individual clash in the 1974 Candidates final was won narrowly by the younger player. As it later transpired, Fischer’s abdication meant that the winner of this match effectively became the World Champion.
THE MATCH THAT NEVER HAPPENED
Upon his return to America after his triumph in the Match of the Century, Fischer was treated like a celebrity. He got invited to talk shows, his face appeared in almost every newspaper and magazine and numerous companies hurried to offer him lucrative sponsorship contracts. However, when everyone expected him to become one of the wealthiest persons in America, he surprised everyone by rejecting all offers – he considered it as an ‘exploitation’ and he considered that „None of the offers were in the interests of chess. Chess is the main thing.“
THE MATCH OF THE CENTURY
Ever since he qualified for the 1959 Candidates tournament at the age of 15, everybody realized there is something special about Robert James Fischer. By devouring chess books on a daily basis, Fischer single-handedly developed into the youngest grandmaster ever (at a time) and a world-class player. Already back then everybody “knew” it is only a matter of time until he becomes a World Champion.
However, due to his psychological instability and character traits, it would take him almost a decade to actually qualify for the World Championship match. After the controversial end to the 1962 Candidates Tournament, Fischer refused to participate in the 1964-1966 cycle, even though FIDE fulfilled his demand and abolished Candidate Tournament in favour of knockout matches. Then he also withdrew from the 1967 Sousse Interzonal. Only in the 1970-1972 cycle did he compete in the Candidates and break through to the World Championship final. And he did so in a breathtaking and spectacular manner.
However, as has become customary with Fischer things couldn’t unfold without some controversy. As a result of a lengthy dispute with Ed Edmonson, Executive Director of the US Chess Federation regarding the tournament format of the US Chess Championship, Fischer refused to participate in the 1969 National Championship, which was also the Zonal tournament for the next World Championship Cycle. The three qualifying places were won by Reshevsky, Addison and Benko. After some convincing, Benko decided to give his place to Fischer, as everyone was aware of Bobby’s strength at a time. FIDE didn’t object to this state of affairs, and Fischer was allowed to play in the Interzonal Tournament.
The Interzonal tournament held in Mallorca in 1970 marked the start of the legend. Although Fischer was leading the whole tournament, after 17 rounds he was just half a point ahead of Geller. But the 17th round turned out to be the start of the most amazing streaks in the chess history. After winning his concluding 7 games, Fischer won the tournament by a 3.5 point margin and qualified for the Candidates matches.
In the Candidates matches, miracles started to happen. In the quarterfinal, Fischer was paired against Mark Taimanov, a Soviet Chess Grandmaster who was also a classical pianist. In view of Fischer’s dominant performance at the Interzonal tournament, and his halo of invincibility, everyone considered him as a clear favourite, except from…Mark Taimanov himself. He dismissed Fischer are a “mere computer” and believed his own strength. Moreover, Mikhail Botvinnik agreed to guide Taimanov in this match and even put together a dossier about him and his games.
In any case, a tough struggle was expected, but instead, the match turned out to be a whitewash. After two hard-fought but deserved Fischer victories, the third game turned out to be the critical moment of the match. Many years later in an interview, Taimanov said:
„The third game proved to be the turning point of the match. After a pretty tactical sequence, I had managed to set my opponent serious problems. In a position that I considered to be winning, I could not find a way to break through his defences. For every promising idea, I found an answer for Fischer, I engrossed myself in a very deep think which did not produce any positive result. Frustrated and exhausted, I avoided the critical line in the end and lost the thread of the game, which lead to my defeat eventually.“
After the third game, Taimanov crumbled psychologically. It was especially apparent in the 5th game, in which he reached an easily drawn position and then blundered a rook after adjournment. The final score was devastating: 6-0 in Fischer’s favour. However, even Fischer himself said such a score didn’t reflect the true balance of strength. Nevertheless, his victory was impressive. After the match, Taimanov was severely punished by the Soviet authorities:
„The sanctions from the Soviet government were severe. I was deprived of my civil rights, my salary was taken away from me [all Soviet grandmasters received from their government a substantial salary], I was prohibited from travelling abroad and censored in the press. It was unthinkable for the authorities that a Soviet grandmaster could lose in such a way to an American, without a political explanation. I, therefore, became the object of slander and was accused, among other things, of secretly reading books of Solzhenitsin.“
In the semifinal, Fischer faced Bent Larsen, an inexhaustible optimist and second strongest Western grandmaster. Once again Fischer was considered a slight favourite, but once again a very tight struggle was expected. Many thought the catastrophe suffered by Taimanov was something that happens once in a century.
Probably not even Fischer in his wildest dreams could have expected another perfect result. But after six games, the scoreboard displayed the unthinkable: 6-0 in Fischer’s favour. Similarly like Taimanov, Larsen was let down by his nerves and optimism. He wanted to win the game at all costs and lost his objectivity in the process. As he himself said:
„You think I couldn’t have made a draw against Fischer? I could have done that with my eyes closed. I wanted to win!“
His perfect victories against Taimanov and Larsen are to this day probably the best match performances in the history of chess. Together with his seven wins in the Interzonals and the win in the very first game of the final match against Petrosian, Fischer’s victory streak consisted of 20 consecutive victories in the games against the world-class opposition. It is without any doubt one of the most impressive individual streaks in the history. No one else has dominated his contemporaries before.
However, I would like to play the devil’s advocate here. I think Fischer’s streak should be acknowledged, but not overemphasized. As I have argued at length in a previous post, I think we shouldn’t jump to proclaim Fischer greatest of all times solely on the basis of these results. The circumstances of those matches and the character traits of Larsen and Taimanov should be taken into consideration. I don’t think Fischer would be able to make such a streak in 20 tournament games, or if his opponents were, say, Korchnoi or Geller.
As already mentioned, in the Candidates final, Fischer played against the former World Champion, Tigran Petrosian. Despite being struck by a novelty in the very first game, Fischer navigated his way through complications, took advantage of his opponent’s uncertain play and gained his 20th consecutive victory. People already evoked Taimanov and Larsen’s matches, but here a ‘miracle’ happened. Petrosian won the very next game with the White pieces and ended Fischer’s run. After this, three draws followed, in which Petrosian was the one holding the initiative (especially in the third game, in which he allowed an unfortunate repetition of the moves).
However, starting from the game six, Petrosian ran out of steam and started playing much less strongly. Fischer, having gained the psychological edge, became unstoppable and ended the match with the series of four consecutive wins. Botvinnik’s comment on the match basically tells it all:
„When Petrosian played like Petrosian, Fischer played like an ordinary grandmaster. When Petrosian started making mistakes, Fischer was transformed into a genius.“
Finally, after so many years, Fischer has reached the World Championship final. Despite having to face an opponent he had never beaten before (Spassky had a +3=0-2 score against him), he was considered as a huge favourite. His stunning run in the Candidates has increased his rating to the record height of 2785, a full 125 points(!) more than Spassky’s 2660.
Even before the match started, it was already jeopardized by Fischer’s behaviour. The choice of venue was already an issue. Fischer insisted on playing in Belgrade or on the American soil, dismissing a generous offer from Reykjavik (125 000 dollars). In the end, Max Euwe exerted his authority as the FIDE president and chose Rejkjavik, threatening to default the challenger if he didn’t show up. However, even then, Fischer didn’t sign any sort of official participation agreement. He kept demanding an increase in the prize fund, a percentage of the television rights and other customary demands, such as improvement of lightning and cushion seats.
It has to be said that throughout his life, Fischer was well known for having a list of demands in virtually every tournament in which he appeared. Fischer’s demands have improved the conditions and rights of chess players worldwide ever since. If it weren’t for him, who knows when would have chess organizers started considering players and the conditions in which the tournaments are held and not only their pocket. However, I agree with Kasparov’s assertion that Fischer more often than not used these demands as psychological weapons. Petrosian’s remark is worth noting:
„Long before the start of play Fischer achieves all those privileges and conditions that he wants. At the same time, his opponent does not obtain and cannot obtain the same. It is hard for a player, when he knows beforehand that he is playing in that town or that venue where his opponent wants to play, that the lighting has been arranged in the order of his opponent, that one player is receiving an additional appearance fee and the other is not[…]All this creates in Fischer’s opponent a definite complex[…]“
Larsen wrote something similar:
„Many consider Fischer to be a ‘big child’, and to some extent, that is indeed so. However, it should not be forgotten that children are sometimes very cunning and contrive very cleverly to impose their will on others…“
(Quotes taken from Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors Part IV, pages 407 and 437)
Anyhow, mere days before the match start, Fischer still wasn’t present in Reykjavik. He even missed the opening ceremony of the match and kept demanding an increase of the prize fund. Only after English sponsor Jim Slater doubled the prize fund and wrote a personal letter to Fischer in which he said ‘Now come out and play, chicken!’ and Henry Kissinger made a famous, ‘We want you to fight for America!’ phone call, until Fischer finally appeared.
The match generated unprecedented media interest. It has to be remembered it was played at the height of the Cold War. Many people perceived Fischer as a lone genius on a task to dethrone the whole Soviet system. An exceptional and gifted individual like Fischer was a hero American public needed. It is not surprising that despite being an ‘ordinary’ World Championship Match, due to its significance it was labelled ‘The Match of the Century’ (Kasparov himself christened it as ‘Battle of Gods’).
Finally, on 11th July 1972, the match started. Already in the very first game, miracles started to happen. In a dead drawn endgame, Fischer captured a poisoned pawn and after multiple adventures went on to lose. Afterwards, he claimed the presence of TV cameras disturbed him and demanded their removal from the playing hall. After failing to appear for the second game, he defaulted. Spassky gained the 2-0 lead and the fate of the match once again hung by a thread.
At this particular moment, Spassky played a noble move (or committed a fatal blunder, depending on how you look at it). He agreed to play the third game behind the curtains, in a closed room, away from the TV cameras. There, Fischer beat him for the first time in his life and gained the necessary confidence and Fischer hurricane had started. By switching from e4 to d4 from the first time in his life in game 6 (a possibility mentioned by Korchnoi before the match that wasn’t taken very seriously by Spassky) he completely threw Spassky off the balance. After 10 games, the score was already 5-2 in Fischer’s favour and although the second half of the match was more peaceful, the outcome was never in question. After 21 games, Fischer won the match with the 12.5-8.5 result and became the 11th World Champion.
1971 INTERVIEW WITH FISCHER:
1972 INTERVIEW WITH FISCHER:
After the customary Zonal Tournaments, the Interzonal tournament of the 1967 – 1969 World Championship Cycle took place in Sousse, Tunisia. 23 players battled for six places in the Candidates, since Boris Spassky (as a loser in the 1966 World Championship Match), and Mikhail Tal (as the loser in the final Candidates match in 1963-1966 cycle) had their spots reserved.
Over the course of the first ten rounds, the main pre-tournament favourite, Robert James Fischer, set up a furious pace, starting with seven wins and three draws. However, at this particular moment, he suddenly decided to withdraw from the tournament. You see, due to him and Reshevsky having religious feelings (Reshevsky was a Jew and Fischer a Seventh Day Evangelists), they couldn’t play on particular days. It presented a serious challenge for the organizers, who scheduled a couple of their games to be played on the free days. Reshevsky agreed, but Fischer being Fischer refused to play these games and was defaulted twice. After the second default, he travelled to Tunisia on the day of his game against Larsen. Not even USA ambassador was able to convince him to return and play. After his third default, he withdrew from the tournament and his previous results were annulled.
A lot has been written about Fischer’s decision. Personally, I agree with Kasparov’s observation that Fischer’s awareness of his inferiority to Spassky at a time was the main reason for such a behaviour:
„Fischer was a young man, already capable of great feats, he was ready for a real fight and could have gone at least as far as the final Candidates match, in which he would most probably have met Spassky. Stop – is this not the clue to Fischer’s behaviour in Sousse? For some, seemingly irrational reasons he withdraws from the tournament, but thanks to this he avoids a very dangerous match with Spassky, who was crushing everyone in turn at that time. Fischer was not yet the 1970-72 version of Fischer and he might well have faltered.
Not without reason did Petrosian write on the eve of his second match with Spassky (1969): It sometimes seems to me that Fischer did not start the Amsterdam Interzonal tournament in 1964 and withdrew from the event in Sousse because he was afraid of losing a match to one of the candidates. After all, then the halo of invincibility around „Bobby the genius“ would be greatly tarnished and the practical American would no longer be able to dictate good financial conditions from the organisers of those tournaments who wanted to see him in the list of participants.“
(Source: Garry Kasparov On My Great Predecessors, Part Four, Page 334)
In any case, after Fischer was gone, another Western player, Bent Larsen, shone and won the tournament a point and a half ahead of Korchnoi, Geller and Gligoric. Apart from these four, Lajos Portisch and Samuel Reshevsky qualified for the Candidates matches. The pairings were determined at the concluding banquet of the Interzonal tournament. The matches were played throughout 1968. After three very convincing victories (5.5-2.5 against Geller, 5.5-2.5 against Larsen and 6.5-3.5 against Korchnoi), Spassky repeated Smyslov’s feat from the 1954-1957 cycle and qualified for the World Championship final for the second time.
World Championship Final started on 12 April 1969 in Moscow. The time control was 2 hours and 30 minutes for 40 moves, followed by 1 hour for subsequent 16 moves. From the very start, it was obvious Spassky had learnt a lot from the previous match. This time, he played strictly the main lines with the Black pieces – Queen’s Gambit Declined and Tarrasch Defence. Although he began the match with a loss in the very first game, he regained the initiative rather quickly and with the wins in the fourth, fifth and eight games, he gained a commanding lead.
Petrosian, however, didn’t falter and managed to level the scores after winning the tenth and eleventh games. Still, in contrast to their 1966 match, Spassky was more psychologically mature and managed to endure such a blow. After a series of five draws, he won the 17th and 19th game and in the end, after 23 games, won the match with the 12.5 -10.5 score and became the tenth world champion.
After the controversy regarding the „Russian pact“ in the previous edition of the Candidates tournament, FIDE decided to change the format of the 1963-1966 World Championship qualifying cycle. Instead of the all-play-all tournament, Candidates knock-out matches were introduced for the first time in the history.
The cycle started with the customary Zonal Tournaments. Compared to the previous cycle, another Zone was added, increasing the total number to 10. 24 players from the Zonal tournaments qualified for the Interzonal tournament, held in Amsterdam in 1964. Of the strongest players in the world, only Fischer was absent, who, despite winning the Zonal 1963/1964 US Championship in tremendous fashion (11/11), refused to participate.
The Interzonal tournament was dominated by Soviet players. First six places winners were Smyslov, Larsen, Spassky, Tal, Stein and Bronstein. Alas, due to the rule restricting the number of the players from the same country to three, Stein and Bronstein weren’t allowed through. Borislav Ivkov and the winner of the Reshevsky – Portisch mini-match became the candidates instead. The afore-mentioned six, together with Mikhail Botvinnik (the loser of the 1963 match) and Paul Keres (second in the 1962 Candidates) formed the final line-up. When Botvinnik declined his invitation, Efim Geller, 3rd place winner in the 1962 Candidates, was seeded directly instead.
The Candidates matches were held during 1965. After beating Keres, Geller and Tal quite convincingly, Spassky qualified for the World Championship final and a match against Petrosian.
The match started in Moscow on April 9, 1966. Before the match, most of the people thought Petrosian has no equal in positional play and that tactical positions are his weak spot. Apparently, Spassky was of the similar opinion. His match tactics consisted of playing offbeat, objectively dubious, opening systems, in hope of creating tactical complications and outplaying Petrosian in an irrational struggle.
Such an approach completely backfired. In the first 12 games, Petrosian scored two victories, was winning in several other games and dictated the course of the match. He fully took advantage of Spassky’s dubious positions and with numerous exchange sacrifices (Petrosian’s patent)
frustrated his opponent. In the second part of the match, Spassky altered his approach and started
playing “normal” openings. After his wins in 13th and 19th games, it seemed he is back in the match. But Petrosian immediately struck back in the 20th game. By building upon his success, he clinched the match and defended his title.
Petrosian’s victory was fully deserved, as the words of the main arbiter O’Kelly testify:
„Petrosian’s superiority was felt throughout those two months. There were few theoretical improvements since the challenger did not follow the trodden path. Spassky very often violated the principles and laws of theory and paid dearly for it. Many people are disappointed with Spassky’s play. At times he was overcautious, sometimes too reckless, but the “Iron Tigran” never gave his adversary any chance of success. Spassky’s performance surprised some leading GM’s, who thought he would do much better. The outcome, however, was decided’ by Petrosian’s greater experience. Spassky is a talented player, but has little experience and is too young. But he will show his worth at some future time.“
Spassky himself commented he considered Petrosian as „first and foremost, a stupendous tactician“. However, he clearly drew his lessons from this match. He only had to wait another three years to demonstrate it.