Bobby Fischer

Dutch National Archives

‌In the summer of 1972, an unlikely hero held the United States in thrall for 22 days. And then chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer finally said, “Checkmate” to Russian Boris Spassky. On August 2 in Reykjavik, he became World Chess Championship, the first American to win the title. Fischer was also the first non-Russian to take the title in 24 years. The victory came right in the middle of the Cold War between the two countries, and later historians have considered Fisher’s win as a geopolitical victory.

Fischer’s opponent Spassky was portrayed as an epic example of the Soviet’s “chess machine” that had dominated this event since its 1886 origins. And even though Fischer was badly-behaved and controlling, he did manage to make it so an American won and a Russian lost, which guaranteed him celebrity status in the U.S. Not bad for a 29-year-old from Brooklyn, even if he had been a chess pro since he was 8 years old.

Great chess, bad behavior

Fischer was a donkey the entire bout. He accused the Soviets of “fixing” the competition, missed the opening ceremony July 1 (he arrived in Iceland July 4), and wouldn’t play all until the purse was doubled. (He won $156,250, Spassky took home $93,750.)  He and Spassky eventually played 21 games. Spassky won three, 11 were played to a draw and Fischer won the title by winning his seventh game Aug. 2.

The end of Fischer’s reign

Fischer’s unique blend of skill, showmanship, and sheer arrogance took him to the top as the winner of this “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik. One of those same traits caused him to relinquish the world title in 1975. Slotted to play the Soviet’s Anatoly Karpov in Manila that year, Fischer was compelled to forfeit his title because he simply refused to play. Not that he doubted his chess-playing ability. Instead, Fischer was a control-freak to the point of paranoia. He made many demands of the WCC’s governing body. When they wouldn’t meet them all, his reign as the only world chess champ from America came to an abrupt end.