Fischer v. Spassky

A legendary chess match hits the screen

J. Walter Green/Corbis
J. Walter Green/Corbis


It was a time when a chess match made front-page news and was covered on ABC’s Wide World of Sports alongside figure skating, skiing, and gymnastics. That the 1972 World Chess Championship in Rey-kjavik contested by the American Bobby Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky, carried a whiff of Cold War intrigue only increased its widespread appeal. This fall sees the release of Pawn Sacrifice, a film depicting the tense, epic encounter, with Tobey Maguire as Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Spassky. It explores Fischer’s bizarre, eccentric, paranoid behavior—something the critic and writer George Steiner witnessed firsthand. Steiner reported on the match for The New Yorker and eventually turned his long article into a book, Fields of Force: Fischer and Spassky at Reykjavik (1974). Describing Fischer’s strange genius, Steiner writes:

The cutting edge, the rapidity, the precision of Fischer’s intellect as a chess player, his memory for every aspect of the game are breathtaking. At certain very special levels, his cortex is operating under pressures and with an efficacy that ordinary men and women and, it would appear, most of his competitors cannot sustain. Almost the totality of his cerebral, nervous, even bodily resources are compacted to focus, to “laser in,” on a severely delimited area. … Whatever Fischer’s idiosyncrasies, there are abundant impulses to paranoia and unreality in chess itself, in the violence and autistic passion of the game.

The match lasted a month and a half, spanning 21 games, and in the end, Fischer defeated Spassky, ending a run of Soviet world domination in the event.

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Our Editors include Sudip Bose, Bruce Falconer, Stephanie Bastek, Jayne Ross, and Ellie Eberlee.


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