Social and political consequences of Fischer–Spassky, 1972

I just finished watching the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. At the beginning, the film does a good job of building tension by framing the 1972 match with Boris Spassky as one of the great battles of the Cold War. Unfortunately, by the time the match ends, the film largely drops this angle. It does briefly show Fischer returning to a hero’s welcome, and at the very end of the film, before the credits roll, it credits the match with sparking a chess revival in the US. But none of this is specifically tied to the political pissing match which was the early focus of the film.

So maybe the Dopers here can fill me in: What were the consequences of Fischer’s win in 1972 vis-à-vis American–Soviet rivalry? Did the American press cover the result as they would any other international sports match, or did they specifically hold up Fischer’s win as a triumph of the American political and economic system? Did Fischer’s high-profile win prompt the American government to start funding its competitive chess players, the way Soviet players had been for years? And what was the response of the Soviet government and Soviet press to the match? Did they credit the loss to Fischer’s outrageous demands and unsportsmanlike behaviour, or did they accept the loss graciously? Was Spassky himself disgraced? Did the Soviet government redouble its efforts to win back the world championship, or did its attitude to and funding of chess continue more or less as usual?

A few months BEFORE that match, most Americans couldn’t have told you who Boris Spassky was. If you asked most Americans to name two chess players, they’d have drawn a blank.

The match was a huge story while a went on. I remember watching TV coverage from Reykjavik. Millions of Americans who’d never cared about chess before watched eagerly, and were thrilled when Fischer won. I remember Fischer making an appearance on a Bob Hope special shortly after. But before long, Fischer’s weird (and I mean REALLY weird) behavior caused the public to turn away from him and go back to ignoring chess completely.

When Fischer lost his title for not showing up to his next title defense, most people barely noticed, and couldn’t have told you who the new champion was.

I read somewhere that Fischer had given FIDE some outrageous number of demands, and refused to play when FIDE would only give in to (some outrageous number minus 1) of them. To be fair, the one they didn’t was one of the big ones; either the maximum number of games in the match or how many wins were needed to end the match early (Fischer-Spassky was best of 24 and I don’t think there was any “instant win” provision).

I can only imagine what Fischer would have said had he been asked to play under modern championship conditions, including the “speed chess sudden death” one (something like, one game, Black has 5 minutes on the clock, and White has 6, but a draw is treated as a Black win).

Nothing. Nothing that happened over a chessboard was going to affect the decades-long geopolitical rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union.

The better question is, what was the effect of the rivalry on the chess match? The answer, of course, is that the effect was profound. Chess world championships ordinarily attract little interest in America, but the Fischer-Spassky match, for three months, was the epicenter of the sporting universe. America went apeshit over Fischer.

The problem was, he went apeshit back. It was obvious early on that he was at best unbalanced and at worst a frothing bigoted jerk. He never fit very well into the role of the plucky underdog American standing up to the Soviet chess machine. That role would have to wait for the 1980 American Olympic hockey team.

Given the oceans of ink spilled over the match, I’m sure somebody somewhere held it up as the triumph of the American way. It never really took, though, because Fischer didn’t fit the part.

No. Among American government priorities, training better chess players would be somewhere around one billionth.

Good questions. I don’t read Russian and I wasn’t there, but my general understanding is that Spassky’s entourage started going off the rails during the latter part of the match, babbling about Americans interfering with his brain waves and other weird shit. But afterward, things did settle down. Because everyone on both sides had to admit that Fischer was an insanely fucking brilliant chess player. There was no disgrace in losing to him.

Spassky never regained the World Championship, but he continued to compete in high-level chess for many years. Most modern-day accounts of the Fischer match cast Spassky as the good guy. If he had been a total stickler for procedure he probably could have induced Fischer to forfeit; he didn’t because he recognized the importance of the match to international chess.