Tomorrow a chessboard will be auctioned off in New York City, with an opening bid somewhere north of $75,000. For that kind of money you’d picture a one-of-a-kind treasure beautifully crafted from the finest materials; perhaps inlaid with gold. The chess pieces themselves would be intricately carved ivories or bronzes. On the contrary, the auction block chessboard looks like most others: alternating light and dark wood squares with nondescript wooden pieces. Not much to look at – unless you know its epic history.
In 1972, in what was later dubbed “Match of the Century”, American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky met in Reykjavik, Iceland to play a total of twenty-one games of chess over a three month period. The match recognized history’s eleventh World Chess Champion, with Fischer emerging as the eventual winner. With the title Fischer claimed a purse that in today’s dollars would be almost $1.5 million. The chessboard in tomorrow’s auction was used in Fischer/Spassky games 7 through 21, replacing a stone board used for the earlier games.
The significance of the Fischer/Spassky match goes entirely beyond the crowning of another World Chess Champion. In the 1970’s the United States and its NATO allies, and Russia (then the Communist-ruled U.S.S.R) and its Eastern Bloc allies, were in the throes of a “Cold War” that defined the post-World War II tension between dominant world powers. The sociopolitical cultures of these “western” and “eastern” countries could not have been more different. Thus the chess match was seen as an allegory; especially with Fischer – the first American to ever compete for the title, taking on Spassky – the current World Chess Champion and one of five consecutive Soviets to hold the trophy dating back to the 1940’s. It was as if a feisty newcomer was speaking loudly for the first time. As former world champion Garry Kasparov described the outcome, “… the lone American genius challenges the Soviet chess machine and defeats it.”
The Fischer/Spassky competition attracted more worldwide attention than any chess match before or since. All twenty-one games were televised (though the third game had to be illustrated with move-by-move graphics since Fischer insisted on temporarily moving away from the cameras). In the years following the match, “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” became the best selling chess book ever published. The opening scene of the James Bond film “From Russia With Love” depicted a chess match with moves patterned after Spassky’s . Chess became supremely popular among American kids (maybe because Fischer was already playing in national championships at the age of fourteen).
I have a personal connection with the Fischer/Spassky match, as shown in the photo above. I learned chess at an early age thanks to the determination of my grandfather. He insisted on a game every time we were together, and most times he beat me. Today I have one of his chess sets as a precious keepsake. But my grandfather also urged me to participate in a school-wide chess tournament, and the trophy you see was the result. From then on my grandfather teased me by saying he wouldn’t play anymore unless it was for the trophy.
Notice the date of the school tournament; inside the same year as the Fischer/Spassky match. By wonderful coincidence I was competing at a time when chess was most prominent on the world stage.
My chess game never really matured from those grade school years – and Fischer and Spassky likewise descended into relative obscurity – but a marked impression was made by watching their 1972 match on television. Now whenever I see a chessboard I’m reminded the game is not just kings and queens surrounded by their armies. The successful bidder at tomorrow’s auction will hold an emblem of history – from a time when the world’s chess pieces were as divided as never before.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.