1972 World Chess Championship

“Both of these men were pawns of their nations.” Pawn Sacrifice‘s Director Edward Zwick on Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky

Still touted as “the most notorious chess duel in history” (Edmonds & Eidinow 2), the 1972 World Chess Championship – played in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland – featured a battle between American grandmaster Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Union’s defending champion Boris Spassky. Fischer’s eventual win at game 21 occurred after he performed an unexpected and unprecedented move against Spassky, who subsequently went on to resign before the next game. The win not only made Fischer an instant celebrity (not only in the chess world, but in general US popular culture and media, unusual even by today’s standards), but it also ended the Soviet Union’s 24-year reign of the Championship title. This game, as well as Bobby Fischer himself, serves as the inspiration for and backdrop of Chess the musical.

“The game is greater than its players.”  Molokov, Act Two

Importantly, the Championship happened during the Cold War context, although US-Soviet tensions were declining at the time. Because of the game’s existence during a period of uncertainty and anxiety, many have expressed that the significance of the match had nothing to do with the game of chess itself; rather, its significance “was off the chessboard” (Edmonds & Eidinow 2). In Bobby Fischer Goes to War, David Edmonds and John Eidinow argue that “the board was a cold war arena where the champion of the free world fought for democracy against the apparatchiks of the Soviet socialist machine” and that “Reykjavik was the setting for a collision of personalities, of moral and legal obligations, of social and political beliefs” (3). Thus, Fischer and Spassky were not just playing as young, independent chess prodigies – they were also seen as representing the complicated, intertwined, and evolving political histories of their respective countries.

In 2014, Edward Zwick directed Pawn Sacrifice, a biopic about the 1972 World Chess Championship match between grandmasters Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Spassky (Liev Schreiber). The scene above portrays the tension and shock surrounding the moment when Fischer performed an unprecedented move against Spassky and went on to win the game.

Works Consulted

Gligoric, Svetozar. Fischer vs. Spassky: The Chess Match of the Century. Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Edmonds, David, and John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All TIme.