7/4/13 - the greatest chess match of all time

In today's encore selection -- the Soviet Union's masterful Boris Spassky versus America's unpredictable Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess match of all time. At the time, it was a proxy for the cold war between the U.S. and Russia -- fought without nuclear weapons. It was Ali versus Frazier, the Yankees versus the Red Sox, and the Superbowl all rolled into one. Spassky was the reigning champion and the USSR was dominant in chess:

"In May of 1972, chess champion Boris Spassky anxiously awaited his rival Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland. The two men had been scheduled to meet for the World Championship of Chess, but Fischer had not arrived on time and the match was on hold. Fischer had problems with the size of the prize money, problems with the way the money was to be distributed, problems with the logistics of holding the match in Iceland. He might back out at any moment.

"Spassky tried to be patient. His Russian bosses felt that Fischer was hu­miliating him and told him to walk away, but Spassky wanted this match. He knew he could destroy Fischer, and nothing was going to spoil the greatest victory of his career. ...

"Fischer finally arrived in Reykjavik, but the problems, and the threat of cancellation, continued. He disliked the hall where the match was to be fought, he criticized the lighting, he complained about the noise of the cameras, he even hated the chairs in which he and Spassky were to sit. Now the Soviet Union took the initiative and threatened to withdraw their man.

"The bluff apparently worked: After all the weeks of waiting, the end­less and infuriating negotiations, Fischer agreed to play. Everyone was re­lieved, no one more than Spassky. But on the day of the official introductions, Fischer arrived very late, and on the day when the 'Match of the Century' was to begin, he was late again. This time, however, the consequences would be dire: If he showed up too late he would forfeit the first game. What was going on? Was he playing some sort of mind game? Or was Bobby Fischer perhaps afraid of Boris Spassky? It seemed to the as­sembled grand masters, and to Spassky, that this young kid from Brooklyn had a terrible case of the jitters. At 5:09 Fischer showed up, exactly one minute before the match was to be canceled.

"The first game of a chess tournament is critical, since it sets the tone for the months to come. It is often a slow and quiet struggle, with the two play­ers preparing themselves for the war and trying to read each other's strate­gies. This game was different. Fischer made a terrible move early on, perhaps the worst of his career, and when Spassky had him on the ropes, he seemed to give up. Yet Spassky knew that Fischer never gave up. Even when facing checkmate, he fought to the bitter end, wearing the opponent down. This time, though, he seemed resigned. Then suddenly he broke out a bold move that put the room in a buzz. The move shocked Spassky, but he recovered and managed to win the game. But no one could figure out what Fischer was up to. Had he lost deliberately? Or was he rattled? Unset­tled? Even, as some thought, insane?

Bobby Fischer (right) plays Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972.

"After his defeat in the first game, Fischer complained all the more loudly about the room, the cameras, and everything else. He also failed to show up on time for the second game. This time the organizers had had enough: He was given a forfeit. Now he was down two games to none, a position from which no one had ever come back to win a chess champi­onship. Fischer was clearly unhinged. Yet in the third game, as all those who witnessed it remember, he had a ferocious look in his eye, a look that clearly bothered Spassky. And despite the hole he had dug for himself, he seemed supremely confident. He did make what appeared to be another blunder, as he had in the first game -- but his cocky air made Spassky smell a trap. Yet despite the Russian's suspicions, he could not figure out the trap, and before he knew it Fischer had checkmated him. In fact Fischer's un­orthodox tactics had completely unnerved his opponent. At the end of the game, Fischer leaped up and rushed out, yelling to his confederates as he smashed a fist into his palm, 'I'm crushing him with brute force!'

"In the next games Fischer pulled moves that no one had seen from him before, moves that were not his style. Now Spassky started to make blunders. After losing the sixth game, he started to cry. One grand master said, 'After this, Spassky's got to ask himself if it's safe to go back to Rus­sia.' After the eighth game Spassky decided he knew what was happening: Bobby Fischer was hypnotizing him. He decided not to look Fischer in the eye; he lost anyway.

"After the fourteenth game he called a staff conference and announced, 'An attempt is being made to control my mind.' He wondered whether the orange juice they drank at the chess table could have been drugged. Maybe chemicals were being blown into the air. Finally Spassky went pub­lic, accusing the Fischer team of putting something in the chairs that was al­tering Spassky's mind. The KGB went on alert: Boris Spassky was embarrassing the Soviet Union!

"The chairs were taken apart and X-rayed. A chemist found nothing unusual in them. The only things anyone found anywhere, in fact, were two dead flies in a lighting fixture. Spassky began to complain of hallucina­tions. He tried to keep playing, but his mind was unraveling. He could not go on. On September 2, he resigned. Although still relatively young, he never recovered from this defeat."


Robert Greene


The 48 Laws of Power


Penguin Books


Copyright 1998 by Joost Elffers and Robert Greene


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