SI Vault
Larry Evans
September 11, 1972
After 16 years, Bobby Fischer's prophecy of becoming No. 1 in chess came true in a fashion even he could hardly have calculated
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September 11, 1972

A Steamroller Ride To The Summit

After 16 years, Bobby Fischer's prophecy of becoming No. 1 in chess came true in a fashion even he could hardly have calculated

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There were two Boris Spasskys in this match: the one in the first lap and the one in the stretch. After leading by two points in the first two games (one by forfeit) Spassky came unglued. He lost five and drew three in the next eight games. Not only was he trailing by three points, but Fischer had evened their lifetime score. In game 11, however, the Russian demolished a risky poison pawn grab in the Sicilian Defense, cutting Bobby's lead to two points.

From there on, in the remaining 10 games, Spassky was a tougher, fresher, more determined opponent. He lost two and drew eight, but these were for the most part hard-fought, exciting contests. Fischer was not just playing safe to inch in. He was trying desperately to widen his lead to prove the first half of the match was no fluke. If anything, Bobby was on the defensive as Boris continually pressed the initiative. Spassky sparkled with energy.

The Russian champion's preparation for the match, though extensive, was largely for a Fischer he never met in Reykjavik. Instead of clinging to a narrow range of pet lines, as in the past, Bobby broadened his repertoire delightfully. In the elimination matches last year against Mark Taimanov, Bent Larsen and Tigran Petrosian, Bobby played the king's pawn opening exclusively with white.

Against Spassky, however, he played everything under the sun, often from necessity. As black in 11 encounters he essayed four Sicilians, two Alekhines, two Nimzo-Indians, one Benoni, one Pirc and one Queen's Gambit Declined. Not one King's Indian. In game six he transposed into a Queen's Gambit Declined for the first time in his career, smashing a pet line Spassky had never before lost with.

Missed opportunities canceled out. In game one Bobby was too daring, trying to win a dead draw. In game seven he played too fast, carelessly allowing the Russian to escape with a draw. In game 13 Boris botched a drawn ending on move 69 in the eighth hour of play. Spassky drew games 14 and 15, which should have been routine wins. Bobby's mistakes seemed to stem from overconfidence, whereas Spassky suffered from curious lapses in concentration.

For the moment Fischer's crown is secure. But now that he has demonstrated that the West can produce a champion, other nations are eyeing his throne. In Brazil, Grand Master Henrique Mecking, 20, is subsidized to dedicate himself totally to chess. President Medici said, " Brazil won the world [soccer] championship with the feet. And now we must win with the head, too." Many young players are coming up fast, especially with the new money in the game, and the next challenger may be someone unheard of.

In addition to Spassky, another Soviet threat is Grand Master Anatoly Karpov, 21, who recently won super-strong tournaments in Moscow and Hastings. The most likely challenge will issue from Russia simply because chess there is a high art and the country has been producing great players for decades. If the Russians were getting a bit complacent, they now have a target. The government undoubtedly will redouble its effort to produce new grand masters on every level: schools, factories and youth groups. With four million registered chess players Russia may yet create more quality out of quantity. But with the increased interest in chess worldwide, no one can predict the direction the current surge will take.

What can be seen clearly is its source—the 29-year-old world champion whose antics at their worst cannot detract from his genius. During the height of the preliminary skirmishing in Reykjavik this summer, Boris Spassky summed it up better than most. "The world," said Spassky, "would be a dull place without Bobby."

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