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Fisher's 1972 Match Was Cold War Battle

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[January 19, 2008]  REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) -- The historic chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet champion Boris Spassky was the Cold War played out with pawns instead of missiles, a combat of mind games between two masters at the height of their powers.

Dubbed the Match of the Century and played in 1972 in the then-obscure Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, it made Fischer famous - and vice versa.

It was in that same city that he died Thursday at age 64 - one year for each square on the board - an outcast from the chess world and estranged from the United States.

Fischer called the match nothing less than "the free world against the lying, cheating hypocritical Russians." The affable Spassky, backed by an all-powerful, state-sponsored chess machine, just wanted to play.

The Soviet Union had held the chess crown since the end of World War II, Spassky since 1969. It was clear the freewheeling Fischer - U.S. champion since 14, grand master since 15 - was the most serious threat to their dominance.

The obnoxious but brilliant boy from Brooklyn, N.Y., relished humiliating Soviet players, in part, he said, because they agreed to quick draws in qualifying games between themselves, then forced him to play long, tactical and physically exhausting matches.

Fischer's confidence rose as he vanquished a succession of world-class players with trademark attacks that employed offensive tactics to crush opponents, not just simply defeat them.

The Spassky match almost didn't come off. Fischer threatened to boycott the Reykjavik match after complaining about the small prize money.

London financier Jim Slater stepped in, matching the $125,000 put up by the organizers in Iceland, who also gave the players a share of the money from television and movie rights. The winner would get more than $231,000, the loser more than $168,000.

Fischer finally flew in at the last minute and was met by relieved Icelandic chess officials.

But there were more problems. Fischer complained about the lighting, the room temperature, the size of the chess board and the size of the table. Compromises were reached between the players on the lights and temperatures, the mahogany table was shortened, and the board was redone four times.

At one point, even Henry Kissinger intervened. "This is the worst player in the world calling the best player," the then-national security adviser is said to have told Fischer in a telephone call while taking a break from peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War.

Retired Associated Press correspondent Andrew Torchia, who covered the Reykjavik match for the AP, recalled the difficulty in dealing with Fischer's demeanor when the young chessmaster was asked questions by reporters at the tournament.

"Sometimes you'd get a question, and Fischer would just look at you - and go somewhere else," Torchia said.

The match was front-page news around the world. Chess was watched in bars across the United States.

Fischer lost the first game with a basic mistake, falling to the temptation to take a side pawn with his bishop, which was then trapped by Spassky's other pawns.

The American then complained about the TV cameras being too close to the players. For the second game, he refused to leave his hotel room.

Spassky sat by himself on stage for five minutes before leaving. Organizers waited an hour, according to international rules, before giving the win to Spassky by default.

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With Fischer now trailing 2-0, Spassky agreed to concede to the American's demand that they play the third game in a back room away from cameras. Fischer won the game, his first ever victory against Spassky.

Fischer followed with more wins - in the fifth, sixth, eighth and 10th games - and never fell behind Spassky again.

In the last game, Spassky was losing and under increasing pressure from Fischer. With his pawns under attack, Spassky resigned after his 41st move. Fischer was world champion, winning 12 1/2 points to 8 1/2 points, in 21 games.

"Chess is war on a board," Fischer once said. "The object is to crush the other man's mind."

Spassky was graceful in defeat - too graceful for many back in Moscow, who criticized his performance and for failing to cope with Fischer's arrogance. Spassky eventually became a French citizen.

Reached at his home Friday in France, Spassky said he was "very sorry" to hear of Fischer's death.

Fischer lost his world title in 1975 after refusing to defend it against Anatoly Karpov. He dropped out of competitive chess and largely out of view, spending time in Hungary and the Philippines and emerging occasionally to make outrageous and anti-Semitic comments.

He praised the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying "I want to see the U.S. wiped out," and described Jews as "thieving, lying bastards." Fischer's mother was Jewish.

An unofficial rematch with Spassky was staged in 1992 in Yugoslavia. Fischer again complained about playing conditions, and again won. But the game was in violation of U.S. economic sanctions imposed to punish Slobodan Milosevic, then leader of Yugoslavia.

In July 2004, Fischer was arrested at Japan's Narita airport for traveling on a revoked U.S. passport. He was threatened with extradition to the United States to face charges of violating the U.S. sanctions.

Fischer renounced his U.S. citizenship and spent nine months in custody before the dispute was resolved when Iceland - a chess-mad nation of 300,000 - granted him citizenship. He moved there with his longtime companion, the Japanese chess player Miyoko Watai, who survives him.

"(Fischer) was an exceptional figure, who made his mark not only on the history of chess but on the history of the world," said French chess commentator Jerome Maufras. "For some, he was a genius. For others, he was a crazy man."


Brian Church reported from London. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London and Jamey Keaton in Paris contributed to this report.


Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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