Making a jump on the 50th anniversary of the epic Fischer-Spassky chess match

We’re on a mini-break this week, but we figured this year we’d be ahead of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the epic 1972 Fischer-Spassky match. Here are excerpts from a few previous columns which watched some of the protagonists in the drama.

From the Dec. 1, 2015 column, the surprisingly likable portrayal in the recent Bobby Fischer biopic “Pawn Sacrifice” has sparked a newfound appreciation for the man swept away by the American dynamo — star-crossed Russian great Boris Spassky.

As played by actor Liev Schreiber, the film portrays Spassky (accurately) as having a healthy ego, but also as a dignified sportsman capable of competitive grace and respect for his mercurial challenger, qualities that may have saved Fischer from himself during the historical agreement.

Spassky, it was later learned, was under great pressure from Soviet authorities to pack up and declare himself the winner of the 1972 Reykjavik contest by forfeiting as Fischer made new demands and missed multiple deadlines to appear.

He may be the only reigning world champion in chess history to have agreed to Fischer’s mid-match demand to move the piece to a waiting room, allegedly because the television cameras were making too much noise. Spassky’s stylish gesture of joining in with the crowd’s applause after Fischer’s brilliant Game 6 win looks like Hollywood hokum, but it actually happened.

Besides, how can you not like a grandmaster who, when asked what his preference was, chess or sex, replied that “it depends on the position”?

Fischer’s stormy career tends to overshadow everything else from that period, but it was in the mid-1960s that Spassky first announced himself as one of the greatest players of all time, one with a harmonious and universal style of play that one appreciates more and more as one rises through the rankings.

This year marks 50 years since Spassky pitted fellow Soviet greats to qualify for his first world title match, beating legendary GMs Paul Keres, Efim Geller and Mikhail Tal in a string of contenders for the right. to challenge world title holder Tigran Petrozisch. Spassky would lose his first bid for the crown, but three years later he decisively defeated Petrosian, securing his historic 1972 date with Fischer.

Fischer rightly complained that the Soviet stars made it easy for each other in Candidate Match qualifiers, but when they were paired up against each other, it was a different story.

Spassky’s victory over Geller in Game 6 of their 1965 semifinal match, won by Spassky 5½-2½, included a daring piece sacrifice that eventually forced Geller—a particularly tough opponent for Fischer and one of the greatest Soviet players never to play for the world title— to surrender his queen. In the complex game that follows, Spassky never lets black build a fortress and eventually breaks through.

It’s a closed Ruy Lopez, but Spassky as White quickly blows it open when he catches the black knights on the wrong side of the board: 18. g5 Be7 19. e5! Bf8, and now an unexpected twist on a classic sacrifice gives White a decisive material lead.

So: 20. Bxh7+!! (Capturing a grandmaster of Geller’s skill with the classic bishop bag on h7 is an achievement in itself) Kxh7 21. g6+! Kg8 22. Ng5 fxg6 23. Qf3!, and White’s threats include 24. Qf7+ Kh8 25. Qxg6 and 24. Qh3, threatening mate on h7. Black has to throw his queen overboard with 23Qxg5 (Qd7 24. e6 is no better) 24. Bxg5 dxe5 25. Rac1, and White has a queen for two knights and two pawns.

Geller doesn’t make it easy by placing his remaining pieces in the middle of the board and forcing White to find a way to break through. But Spassky is up for the challenge, and after 43. Bc5+ Kf7 44. Qb7+, Black resigns as 44…Kg6 (Ke8 45. Qc8+ Kf7 46. Qd7+ Be7 47. Rf2+ and wins) 45. Dc8 Kf7 (Rc6 46 Qe4+ Kh6 48. Rh2 mate) 46. Qe8+ Kg6 47. Qg8 Re7 (Rc6 48. Qe8+) 48. Bxe7 Bxe7 49. Qe6+ wins for white.


From the November 19, 2019 column: It got a little lost in the shuffle, but we have to give a proper goodbye to fellow chess columnist and unlikely public television superstar Shelby Lyman, who died in August at age 82.

It may be an “OK, boomer” moment, but many of us got our first taste of high-level chess from Lyman’s low-tech but phenomenally popular explanation of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match for Albany, New York. PBS station. Lyman would write a long-running syndicated daily chess column for Newsday that was picked up by dozens of newspapers across the country.

A genius, all-natural performer in front of the TV cameras, Lyman was no slouch on the chessboard, a Marshall Chess Club champion and a strong New York master at a time when New York was the center of American chess. Watch his win over New Jersey master Edgar McCormick of the 1962 US Open, where White constantly throws fuel on the bonfire in search of checkmate.

Lyman reveals his aggressive intentions with 10. Bh6!? Bxf3 11. Bxg7 Bxd1 12. Bxf8 Kxf8 13. d5! (Qxd1 Qxd4 White just leaves a pawn with no compensation) Bg4 14. h4!?, without bothering to recapture the piece while pursuing a mate attack.

Black returns the piece to seal the kingside with 15. f3 f6!? (Bc8!? 16. h5 Kg8! 17. hxg6 Nxg6 18. Dh6 Dd6! 19. Dxh7+ Kf8, and White still has to justify his sacrifice) 16. fxg4 17. h5 g5, but Lyman is not refused: 22. Nxh7+ Kg7 ( see diagram) 23. Nxf6!? exf6 24. h6+ Kf7 25. h7 Ng6?? (finally cracking under the intense defensive tension; black holds the position with 25…Qc7! 26. Rf1 [h8=Q Rxh8 27. Rxh8 Nd3+ and wins] Nbd7 27. Qg5 Rh8) 26. h8=N+! (Forcing and aesthetically pleasing, though 26. h8=Q also works) Nxh8 27. Rh7+!, and Black resigned.

They are curtains after 27…Ke6 (or 27…Kg8 28. Qh6 Qd7 29. Rxh8+, winning easily) 28. Bg4+ f5 29. Bxf5+ Kf6 30. Bd7+ Kg6 31. Qf5 mate.

Spassky-Geller, Candidate Competition, Riga, Latvia, May 1965

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. OO Le7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 OO 8. c3 d6 9. h3 Nd7 10. d4 Nb6 11. Nbd2 Lf6 12. Nf1 Re8 13. N1h2 exd4 14. cxd4 Na5 15. Bc2 c5 16. Ng4 Bxg4 17. hxg4 cxd4 18. g5 Le7 9. e5 Bf8 20. Bxh7 + Kxh7 21. g6 Kg8 22. Ng5 fxg6 23. Qf3 Qxg5 24. Bxg5 Qd3 Re6 27. f4 Nac4 28. fxe5 Nxe5 29. Qxd4 Rd7 30. Qe4 Be7 31. Be3 Nbc4 32. Rcd1 Rxd1 33. Rxd1 Nxb2 34. Qd5 Kf7 35. Rb1 Nbc4 36. Re Ref2 G5 38. Kh1 Nb2 39. 40. Re2 Nd6 41. Bd4 Ndc4 42. g4 Ke7 43. Bc5 + Kf7 44. Qb7 + Black resigns.

Lyman-McCormick, 63rd US Open, San Antonio, August 1962

1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Nf6 3. Nf3 Nxd5 4. d4 g6 5. c4 Nb6 6. Nc3 Bg7 7. Be3 OO 8. Dd2 Nc6 9. OOO Bg4 10. Bh6 Bxf3 11. Bxg7 Bxd1 12. Bxf8 Kxf8 13. d5 Bg4 14. h4 Ne5 15. f3 f6 16. fxg4 Nxg4 17. h5 g5 18. Ne4 c6 19. Le2 cxd5 20. Nxg5 Dc8 21. Qf4 Ne5 22. Nxh7 + Kg7 23. Nxf6 exf6 24. h6 + Kf7 25. h7 Ng6 26. h8 = N + Nxh8 27. Rh7 + Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at

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