The Laugardal Room in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was completely silent. And yet, inside, there were 2500 people. It was hot in Reykjavik and it was the 2nd of July 1972. The heat dilates the bodies and the throats, although dry, have a tendency to utter words and the words break the silence, at first in a low and mixed tone, almost like a buzz. of wasps, then sound and spaced so that they make themselves understood.
On a dais, at a convenient distance from the audience, were two apparently comfortable chairs, and between them, a valuable oak table with marble squares inlaid and thirty-four magnificent Staunton chess pieces.
It’s wonderful to realize that a game of chess when it starts has only thirty squares free, isn’t it?
In July 1972, 50 years ago now, there was one of the fiercest moments of the Cold War, that psychological battle between Americans and Russians for the military supremacy of the world. Reducing it to what would take place in the Laugardal Room between the Russian Boris Vasilievich Spassky and the American Robert James Fischer might have tinges of ridicule, but that is exactly what happened.
At 17:00 local time, Spassky, born in Laningrad (old St. 1943. Bobby liked to tease, to be seen and talked about. «I will defeat all the European grandmasters and I will be better than Emmanuel Lasker who was world champion for 27 years!». Those who read his sentences muttered: “Bullshit…”.
As time went on, the heat in the Sala Laugardal became dull enough that no one felt truly comfortable in their cramped places. The noise of conversations rose to the decibel scale.
There were angry people.
Bobby Fischer didn’t show up.
He hadn’t even bothered to fly to Reykjavik yet. She was still in the United States.
Never before had anyone been able to so blatantly despise the start of a world championship.
The organizers didn’t know what to do.
Referee Lothar Schmidt and the president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), former world champion, Dutchman Max Euwe, met in an emergency. A new deadline was set for the inaugural departure: 4th of July. If Fisher was not present by noon he would be disqualified.
All theories hovered between the pages of the newspapers. The main one indicated that Bobby Fischer was unhappy with the prize money awarded. An English millionaire immediately took action and offered £50,000 to each of the contenders.
Would it be enough to entice Bobby?
The truth is that on the 4th of July, at 7 am, Fischer disembarked in Reykjavik from the plane that had transported him from the United States. Members of the organization immediately escorted him to his quarters and did their best to keep him away from the avid ferocity of the media.
Spassky was deeply irritated. And with good reason, let’s face it. He publicly stated that, by breaking the established rules, Fischer had personally offended him.
Public opinion and the Soviet press unconditionally supported the world champion. It demanded reparation and punishment for the American player. Along the way, Bobby’s friend, Grandmaster Lombardy, and his attorney Paul Marshall, tried to find an amicable solution to the conflict.
On July 6, after Euwe had come to recognize that the American’s conduct had been reprehensible, Spassky received a letter from Bobby with an apology. At one point it said: “Dear Boris, please accept my sincere apologies for my disrespectful behavior in not attending the opening ceremony. I just got dragged into my little war with the Icelandic organizers over money. I personally offended you and your country, the Soviet Union, in which chess occupies such a prominent place. (…) I know you are a sportsman and a gentleman and I feel especially happy to be able to play games with you that will certainly be interesting. From your very affectionate Bobby Fischer!».
Anyone who knew Bobby saw Paul Marshall’s finger in this letter. It was decidedly not the style of the American champion. But for what it was, it served wonders.
The organization decided that the draw would take place at eight in the evening. Bobby arrived forty-five minutes late.
In the first game it would be up to you to play with black. The day was set: July 11th. The Laugardal Room filled up again, this time with renewed excitement. Fischer was restless and distracted. But, in the end, each victory in one of the tournament games was worth the winner something like ten thousand dollars. On the 56th move, he gave up. All observers agreed that he was at a distinct disadvantage from the start. Defeat was predicted right after the first moves. The world champion was taking advance.
The second match was scheduled for the 13th of July. Fischer waited uselessly. He simply didn’t set foot there. The referee waited patiently for one hour, the time allotted for the defaulter to withdraw. Spassky could not hide his annoyance. And yet he already had the pleasant two-point lead in two games.
People are astonished. They don’t know what to think.
Did Fischer go to the trouble of traveling to Reykjavik to miss a single game? Was he as psychologically unbalanced as many commentators claimed?
The following day, in a letter sent to the organization, he again lists a series of complaints: he complains about the excessive movement of the room, the photographers who are never still, the television cameras that lean too much on him.
He states that he is not in a position to play for the title and that, if they want him to continue, it was necessary to move the stage of the games to a small room attached to the Laugardal Room, completely remove the public and the photographers and stabilize the cameras at a reasonable enough distance. . Without it, nothing is done. I was ready to go home.
Spassky is consulted. The organizers meet with Schmidt and with Golmbeck, who in the meantime had replaced Euwe in office.
In an interview given at the time to the New York Times, Bobby surprised many people with the open way he exposed his personality: “Boys, like me, who never had a father, are like wolves. They always fight. Robert James Fischer (who spoke of himself in the third person many times) is an extraordinary man. His world is the chessboard and in his moves there must be movement and, at the same time, art. Anyone who fails to understand this is to be pitied. At age 15, Fischer was champion of the United States; at 28 he is the best player in the world and at 29 he will be officially world champion! ».
He definitely didn’t have a milligram of modesty. The world at your feet!
The championship restarted under the American’s demands but Ludek Pachaman, who wrote the wonderful The Match of The Century, the story of the Reykjavik match between Fischer and Spassky, always rejected the theory that the former had taken advantage from the moment they accepted. your requirements. Overworked nerves sometimes lead to extreme behavior, he acknowledged. But he also assumed that the Sala Laugardal was more prepared to host a concert or a play than a series of games that would exhaust the patience of both competitors.
The title was decided by the best of 24 games and Spassky had acquired those initial two games of advantage which left Bobby in a bad situation. Despite everything, on July 22, at the end of the sixth game, the American had already taken the lead by 3 1/2 – 2 1/2 (the win was worth a point and the draw was half). From there until the end, on the 31st of August, Fischer resolutely climbed to the highest point in chess of all time. According to Pachman: “His style is innovative and offensive and his attacks are always well-founded. The defense achieves a very effective countergame».
Bobby Fischer became world champion in the 21st game. Since the 22nd of July he had won four more, lost one more and drawn the rest. It was as if a hurricane had passed through Reyjkavik, followed passionately by people from the four corners of the planet, many of them for the first time clinging to television screens through which analysts and great masters explained in detail, with the help of trays, the virtues and the mistakes of the two competitors. On the day he was officially sworn in as the title winner, he asked aloud to everyone and himself: «What is Robert James Fischer going to do now?». Nobody could answer. And it soon became apparent that he himself had no idea either.
There is no doubt that he definitely entered the gallery of the great of the great, of eternal myths, where inimitable characters such as Alekhine appear, who announced checkmates more than twenty moves in advance, needing, for that, to calculate hundreds and hundreds of thousands of probabilities, or the amazing Cuban dandy, Raúl Capablanca, a diplomat by trade who traveled around Europe reducing chess to the simple abstraction of being able to play (and win!) more than twenty games simultaneously blindfolded. If we think about the gigantism of this brain exercise, we can imagine two players with the same ability playing more than twenty games at the same time without needing boards.
But Bobby was Bobby. After that hot summer Reijkjavik refused to return to any other official match. He lost the title to Valery Karpov for lack of appearance and fell into a dark dementia in which his life was plagued by a Soviet conspiracy bent on destroying his brainpower. He joined a religious sect, fled to Japan, continued to consider himself world champion for the simple reason that no one could beat him after the Reykjavik epic. Garry Kasparov, later world champion, wrote of him: “Bobby Fischer got stuck in the game. He got mentally lost inside it, he got lost in the depths of the board and never managed to recover his way back ».
Spassky and Fisher met again. 20 years ago. On the 4th of September 1992. In a small town on the outskirts of Belgrade for an awareness campaign for the victims of the war in Serbia. Or for money, more precisely, if we remember the fat, bearded figure who appeared as if he had just emerged from a homeless shelter. Bobby won again. He continued to play as if his life depended on it. And making all the pieces dance on the 64 houses in a completely wild dance. “No one can ever force me to play in a way I don’t want to. I like to play until I just have my king on the board. All for all!”.
Robert James Fisher, the Lone Wolf, has the world arguing around a board and the masters furiously studying his unpredictable moves. Even trapped between the squares, he caused fear. He always caused fear.