A Soviet mother might admonish her child, with a touch of cultural superiority, “Don’t be like that man. He’s nekulturny!” (pron: nickel tour knee), meaning rude or uncultured.
That’s how the Soviets thought of Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer. They had every reason. Fischer was a loud, rude, erratic, fierce and demanding egomaniac. Unlikeable but undeniably, even historically talented.
Fischer was a chess prodigy. At age 14 he became the youngest ever U.S. Chess Champion and an angry high school dropout. By 15 he became both the youngest grandmaster ever and the youngest candidate for the World Championship. And that’s what Fischer was sure he deserved; to be world champion.
His opportunity came in 1972. He’d humbled twenty Grandmasters and earned the right to challenge the reigning World Chess Champion, Russian Boris Spassky.
Spassky was no slouch. Also a child chess prodigy, he became an international grandmaster at the age of 16. He was a product of the Soviet chess machine, where promising players were treated like pro athletes; groomed, trained and fielded for competition by government handlers. It was a system that had delivered world chess champions for twenty-four years running!
Spassky was the opposite of Bobby Fischer – suave, handsome, reserved, unflappable; a worthy champ who, in their five previous meetings, had never fallen to Fischer.
The Championship would be held in Reykjavik, Iceland, considered neutral ground. As the date of the contest approached, Americans, mostly indifferent to chess, began to take notice of their brash and eccentric standard bearer. Fischer’s antics made headlines; he demanded a brand new Mercedes at the airport, the hotel pool must be closed to everyone but him, he wanted 10 chessboards handmade by Iceland’s finest artisan. He would choose one before the match.
The media saw this contest between Russia and the US as a metaphorical extension of the Cold War even though the combatants fought the comparison.
Spassky was a patriot but a Russian patriot. He hated his Soviet handlers and never missed a chance to defy them.
Fischer said this contest “was really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians.” But it wasn’t their politics, it was their chess machine … and a little “tinfoil hat” paranoia that had KGB agents behind every bush.
The winner of the match stood to win $78K, an insane amount of money compared to the $1500 purses common at the time. But, days before the meeting, Fischer started making demands. He wanted part of the gate and the TV money.
Panicked producers argued and negotiated. Fischer threatened to stay at home. The whole event might have crashed and burned if it wasn’t for a financier and chess enthusiast who put up another $125K saying “Fischer is known to be graceless, rude, possibly insane but … I did it because he was going to challenge the Russian supremacy, and it was good for chess.”
Still Fischer missed the opening ceremony, rolling in just in time for the first match and it went pretty badly. He lost.
He forfeited the second game, complaining that the sound of the TV cameras was distracting. On the eve of his third match his associate ripped the spark plug wires from his Mercedes to prevent him driving to the airport. Henry Kissinger called and urged him to play.
At the same time The Soviet federation pressured Spassky to use Fischer’s behavior as an excuse to withdraw, but Spassky, ever the gentleman, agreed to play on, without the television cameras, in a side room with just one security camera view from the corner of the room. Fischer won that third game, beating Spassky for the first time ever.
Maybe Fischer’s antics wore Spassky down. He started making mistakes. It wasn’t until Game 11 that Spassky won again. And then didn’t take another match.
Finally, on this day in history, September 1st, 1985, Spassky didn’t show up for Game 21. He telephoned in his concession and returned, defeated, to an unsympathetic Soviet Union.
Fischer, after his win, disappeared from the game rejecting the celebrity America offered. He became reclusive and more mentally unstable. He wrote of his hatred of the Russians but also of his distaste for Jews and ultimately America. In 1992 he was offered a rematch against Spassky to be played in Belgrade. He won the match but because of sanctions against Yugoslavia, a US warrant was issued for his arrest. He sought and was granted asylum in Iceland, where he died in 2008.