History of the Chess World Championship 1960 – 1975

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Bobby Fischer, World Chess Champion, wasn’t a trendsetter – he was a trend breaker!

Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky all preceded him, for almost three decades, as Soviet World Chess Champions.

Finally this chain of dominance was broken! Fischer took on the might of the Soviet Chess School and won the ultimate crown.

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Tigran Petrosian 1963-1969

In 1963 Tigran Petrosian took the World Chess Champion title away from Botvinnik with 5 wins, 2 loses, and 15 draws.

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Tigran Petrosian was nicknamed “Iron Tigran”

When Boris Spassky challenged him for the crown three years later, Petrosian won the match. This hadn’t been done since Alexander Alekhine defeated Bogoljubow back in 1934.

The 1966 match was played to the best of 24 games with a 12-12 tie allowing Petrosian to retain his title.

Petrosian secured the title after game 22 when he led 12-10, but they agreed to play the last two games anyway. This made the final match score 12 ½ – 11 ½ in Petrosian’s favor.

Watch Petrosian’s trademark exchange sacrifice in this free video by GM Alex Lenderman:

Undaunted, Spassky would defeat Geller, Larsen, and Korchnoi in the next Candidates round. This earned him the right to play a rematch, in 1969

Spassky won this match 12½ – 10½ to become the World Chess Champion.

Here is Spassky’s final victory in the 1969 World Championship match in game twenty-one. The next two games ended in draws which were enough to give Spassky the World Chess Championship title.

Spassky – Petrosian, Moscow, 1969, # 21 World Championship, 1-0

Boris Spassky 1969-1972

After winning the title of World Chess Champion, Boris Spassky won a chess tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He then tied his match against Bent Larsen in the USSR versus World, in Belgrade.

Boris-spassky
Boris Spassky

Spassky did well in tournament play, as World Chess Champion, winning one tournament outright, and tying for first in two others.

In this video, GM Alex Lenderman analyzes Spassky’s knight Sicilian sacrifice:

All of this took place in the two years leading up to his World Chess Championship match against Fischer, in 1972.

Bobby Fischer 1972-1975

Winner of the “Game of the Century” at the age of 13, Bobby Fischer was a true child chess prodigy.

bobby fischer 1972
Bobby Fischer 1972

Leaving no doubt in people’s minds, Fischer became the youngest ever US Champion, 14 years old, and grandmaster, 15 years old, at the time.

Later, Fischer would record the only perfect score in the US Championship, at the age of 20.

His most well-known match was the 1972 world chess championship match against Boris Spassky.

The Road to the 1972 World Championship Match

Unsurprisingly, the road to the 1972 world chess championship match was a controversial one for Bobby Fischer.

He accused the Soviet players of agreeing to short draws between themselves in Candidate tournaments. This left them well-rested for their matches against him.

Fischer wasn’t one who took early draws himself.

In his Candidates matches, Fischer beat both Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen, two strong grandmasters, by a perfect score of 6-0 in each match. Nobody had ever done this before.

He encountered much stiffer resistance from Tigran Petrosian and only won this match with a score of 6 ½ to 2 ½.

There was a lot of pressure on Fischer going into this championship match. No American born in the United States had ever become a world chess champion.

World Chess Championship Match 1972

Because it was held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972, the Match of the Century took place during the Cold War. 

This gave the game the added dimension of being seen as a political confrontation between the superpowers.

Spassky, a Soviet, was defending his crown against Fischer, an American.

This was going to be the most widely covered match in chess history at the time. Still, it took the intervention of the Secretary of State to convince Fischer to play.

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Only one other American had ever held the title. That was Wilhelm Steinitz, who became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1888.

Spassky was attempting to keep the World Chess Championship from escaping the Soviet grasp. The Soviets had kept the title amongst themselves for the past 24 years, since 1948.

Despite going into the match rated 125 Elo points higher than Spassky, 2785 to 2660, Fischer had yet to win against him.

Both Spassky and his coach Geller had plus scores against Fischer. Spassky hadn’t lost a game to Fischer in five attempts. His record was 3 wins, 2 draws.

The match came close to not even happening. FIDE president Max Euwe allowed a 2-day postponement, British investment Jim Slater doubled the initial prize money of $125,000, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Fischer.

Even with all of this, Fischer never arrived in time for the opening ceremony on July 1st, 1972.

Soviet commentators described all these demands and actions by Fischer as a ploy to unsettle Spassky psychologically. Fischer’s supporters countered by saying this was nothing unusual from Fischer.

Match Conditions for the World Chess Championship Match 1972

The match was a best of twenty-four games, with Spassky keeping the title if it ended 12-12. Wins would count for 1 point and a draw ½ point.

They would play three games per week on a Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Adjournments would be played the following day.

Saturday would be a rest day.

Each player was allowed 3 postponements for medical reasons during the match.

Play Finally Starts on July 16th, 1972

In typical fashion, Fischer arrived late for the start of game 1. Spassky played 1.d4 and waited nine minutes before Fischer arrived, shook his hand, and played 1…Nf6.

Fischer played the Nimzo Indian Defense but ended up losing his bishop for two pawns. Despite having opportunities for a draw later in the game Fischer lost.

After his loss, Fischer made more demands. He wanted all cameras removed from the playing hall, and when this was refused he chose not to appear for game two.

Thanks to this forfeit Spassky was leading 2-0 after two games.

Spassky allowed game three to be played in a small backstage room away from spectators. Pal Benko thought this was a psychological mistake by Spassky.

In the third game, Fischer allowed Spassky to shatter his kingside pawn formation. Fischer believed his attack would provide adequate compensation.

This proved to be true. Unsettled by Fischer’s approach, Spassky didn’t play the best moves and gave Fischer his first victory of the match.

Fischer’s victory in game three was his first-ever against Spassky.

Spassky – Fischer, Reykjavik, 1972, Game 3 World Championship, 0-1

There was a draw in game four and Fischer won game five playing the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Although game six started with 1.c4 it quickly transposed to the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Tartakower Variation. This was another first for Fischer who had never played 1.d4 before in a serious game.

Amazingly he played it perfectly and took the match lead (3 ½ to 2 ½) with this victory.

Fischer also won game seven. This was followed by two draws in games eight and nine. After nine games Fischer was leading the match 5 ½ to 3 ½.

Fischer won games ten and thirteen but Spassky stayed in the match with a win in game eleven (below). Games fourteen to twenty all ended in draws.

Spassky – Fischer, Reykjavik, Game 11, World Championship, 1-0

The Final Game in the Boris Spassky – Bobby Fischer Chess World Championship

The final game was game twenty-one. Fittingly, Fischer surprised Spassky by playing a variation of the Sicilian Defense he’d never played before – the Taimanov variation.

Fischer was up an exchange when the game was adjourned. 41.Bd7 was Spassky’s sealed move but he called Lothar Schmid, the match arbiter, to say he was resigning.

This gave Fischer the point he needed to become World Chess Champion.

Spassky – Fischer, Reykjavik, 1972, Game 21 World Championship, 0-1

Bobby Fischer Forfeits the World Title

Bobby Fischer wasn’t at all happy with the current system for World Championship matches. Before the match, he expressed his opposition to the 12 ½ points format.

He felt it wasn’t fair because it encouraged the match leader to play for draws (a strategy he employed himself with a draw in seven consecutive games).

All these draws gave Spassky little chance of getting back into the match.

Fischer wanted a return to the system used in the first World Chess Championship match between Steinitz and Zukertort.

The match conditions were the first to 10 wins. Draws didn’t count, and if the score was tied 9-9, the champion retained the title with the prize money split equally.

A FIDE Congress in 1974 agreed to the 10 wins but rejected the 9-9 tie and an unlimited number of games. Fischer responded by refusing to defend his title.

In 1974 Anatoly Karpov won the candidates tournament by narrowly defeating Viktor Korchnoi in the final (12 ½ – 11 ½).

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Anatoly Karpov

Fischer’s refusal to defend his title made Karpov the world chess champion by default.

In Conclusion

Although their reigns as world chess champions were brief, Petrosian and Spassky played a significant role in chess history.

As World Champion, Bobby Fischer lit up the chess world in spectacular fashion. His influence continues to be felt to this day.

Although his life away from the chessboard was full of controversy, there is no doubt Bobby Fischer was one of the strongest chess players to ever play the game.

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