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

We’re on a mini-break this week, but thought we’d get a head start on the 50th anniversary celebrations this year to mark the epic 1972 Fischer-Spassky match. Here are excerpts from a couple of previous columns looking at some of the leading players in the drama.

From the Dec. 1, 2015, column: The surprisingly sympathetic portrait in the recent Bobby Fischer biopic “Pawn Sacrifice” has sparked a renewed appreciation for the man swept aside by the American dynamo — star-crossed Russian great Boris Spassky.

As played by actor Liev Schreiber, Spassky in the movie is portrayed (accurately) as having a healthy ego, but also as a worthy sportsman capable of competitive grace and respect for his mercurial challenger, qualities that may have saved Fischer from himself during the historic match.

Spassky, it was later learned, was under great pressure from Soviet authorities to pack up and declare himself winner of the 1972 Reykjavik match by forfeit when Fischer was issuing new demands and missing multiple deadlines to appear to play.

He may be the only reigning world champion in chess history who would have agreed to Fischer’s demand in midmatch to move the play to an anteroom, allegedly because the television cameras were making too much noise. Spassky’s classy gesture to join in the audience applause after Fischer’s brilliant Game 6 win looks like Hollywood hokum but in fact actually happened.

Plus, how can you not like a grandmaster who, when asked which he preferred, chess or sex, replied that “it depends on the position”?

Fischer’s stormy career tends to overshadow all 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 tends to appreciate more and more as one rises through the ratings ranks.

It was 50 years ago this year that Spassky ran a gauntlet of fellow Soviet greats to qualify for his first world title match, defeating legendary GMs Paul Keres, Efim Geller and Mikhail Tal in a series of candidate matches for the right to challenge world titleholder Tigran Petrosian. Spassky would lose his first bid for the crown, but decisively defeated Petrosian three years later, setting up his historic 1972 date with Fischer.

Fischer rightly complained that the Soviet stars went easy on each other in qualifying tournaments for the candidates matches, but when paired against one another, it was a different story.

Spassky’s win over Geller in Game 6 of their 1965 semifinal match, won by Spassky 5½-2½, featured an audacious piece sacrifice that eventually forces 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 play that follows, Spassky never allows Black to build a fortress and eventually breaks through.

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

Thus: 20. Bxh7+!! (catching a grandmaster of Geller’s skill with the classic bishop sac on h7 is a feat 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 jettison his queen 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, massing his remaining pieces in the center of the board and forcing White to find a way to break through. But Spassky is up to 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. Qc8 Kf7 (Rc6 46. Qe8+ Nf7 47. Qe4+ Kh6 48. Rh2 mate) 46. Qf8+ Kg6 47. Qg8 Re7 (Rc6 48. Qe8+) 48. Bxe7 Bxe7 49. Qe6+ wins for White.


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

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

A genial, utterly natural performer before the TV cameras, Lyman was no slouch at 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. Check out his win over New Jersey master Edgar McCormick from the 1962 U.S. Open, where White continually 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 just leaves White a pawn down with no compensation) Bg4 14. h4!?, not bothering to recapture the piece in pursuit of a mating attack.

Black gives back the piece to seal the kingside with 15. f3 f6!? (Bc8!? 16. h5 Kg8! 17. hxg6 Nxg6 18. Qh6 Qd6! 19. Qxh7+ Kf8, and White still must justify his sacrifice) 16. fxg4 17. h5 g5, but Lyman will not be denied: 22. Nxh7+ Kg7 (see diagram) 23. Nxf6!? exf6 24. h6+ Kf7 25. h7 Ng6?? (finally cracking under the intense defensive strain; 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.

It’s 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, Candidates Match, Riga, Latvia, May 1965

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. c3 d6 9. h3 Nd7 10. d4 Nb6 11. Nbd2 Bf6 12. Nf1 Re8 13. N1h2 exd4 14. cxd4 Na5 15. Bc2 c5 16. Ng4 Bxg4 17. hxg4 cxd4 18. g5 Be7  9. e5 Bf8 20. Bxh7+ Kxh7 21. g6 Kg8 22. Ng5 fxg6 23. Qf3 Qxg5 24. Bxg5 dxe5 25. Rac1 Ra7 26. 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. Bf2 g5 37. Re1 Bf6 38. Kh1 Nb2 39. Re3 Nbc4 40. Re2 Nd6 41. Bd4 Ndc4 42. g4 Ke7 43. Bc5+ Kf7 44. Qb7+ Black resigns.

Lyman-McCormick, 63rd U.S. 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 O-O 8. Qd2 Nc6 9. O-O-O 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. Be2 cxd5 20. Nxg5 Qc8 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 dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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