Fifty years ago, a decision process that had been going on for more than four months and was covered extensively by the press came to an end. On 2 May 1972 FIDE President Max Euwe awarded the world championship match to Reykjavik and set an ultimatum to both players until four days later. The approval of Boris Spassky was a formality, as the Icelandic capital was the Russian’s first choice from the start. But would Bobby Fischer finally accept, or would the reluctant American forfeit his challenging right to Tigran Petrosian?
All earlier FIDE matches were staged in Moscow for peanuts. Now 15 cities made formal bids and at least a handful more entered the race later on.
15 cities had made formal bids until the deadline on New Year’s Day, and at least a handful more cities from Las Vegas to Sydney entered the race later on when the process became deadlocked. All earlier world championship matches since FIDE had taken control over the title had been staged in Moscow with peanuts as prize money. The interest in the Fischer match overwhelmed the world federation. Both players were asked to pick their three favourite cities, but their lists didn’t overlap.
Euwe initially awarded half of the match to Belgrade, Fischer’s first choice, and half to Reykjavik. Nobody was really satisfied with that. Fischer kept pressing to add income from ticket sales or TV rights to the prize money, which eventually led Belgrade to drop the bid. The American had been fighting for better conditions since long, and now was the time to cash in. His insistence brought new life to professional chess in the West, where it had been in decline since 1930.
Fischer cabled from his training camp that he accepted Euwe’s decision. However, two months later he did not enter a plane to Iceland until Jim Slater, an English businessman, doubled the prize money.
Slater went on to sponsor junior chess and awarded significant cash amounts for the first Englishmen to get the grandmaster title, bankrolling England’s rise to become the second nation in chess behind the Sovietunion. The match had a huge impact in Iceland, which became the country with the highest ratio of grandmasters to inhabitants. Even failed bids helped chess. Germany may not have gotten the “match of the century” but it got the Dortmund Chess Days. Canada didn’t host Fischer and Spassky, but the sponsorship of the biggest French language newspaper La Presse endured and led to the Tournament of Stars in 1979 in Montreal.
Germany got the Dortmund Chess Days, Canada got the Tournament of Stars, and English chess got Jim Slater.
Back to the future. In the coming months, TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines and websites will willingly report and reflect on the anniversary of the biggest chess event in history if they become aware of it. This is an opportunity for chess organisations, but few seem to be prepared.
Chess can rely on the World Chess Hall of Fame for preserving its heritage.
There is no sign that the organisers of the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Madrid and the Chess Olympiad in India will pick up the anniversary. The Dortmund Chess Days have a segment on their website but nothing planned for this year’s edition. The Icelandic Chess Federation had at some point been looking for sponsors to bring the world championship to Reykjavik in 2022, but the pandemic and the delay in the chess calendar killed the enthusiasm. At this year’s Reykjavik Open Fischer and Spassky were hardly a footnote, but Iceland is planning to hold the Fischer Random Chess World Championship in October. Word from London is that the anniversary will be highlighted at ChessFest on 17 July.
The one place chess can rely on for preserving its heritage is the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis. For the 40th anniversary in 2012 it ran the photo exhibition “Icon among Icons” by Harry Benson who had accompanied Fischer over a longer period. Now preparations are underway to dedicate all three floors to the 50th anniversary. Curator Shannon Bailey shared her plan with ChessTech: The first floor will tell Fischer’s story from his childhood to right up until the 1972 match. The second floor will all be about 1972, the match and its reception, showing some items owned by the World Chess Hall of Fame’s sponsor Rex Sinquefield. The third floor will tell about the aftermath of the match, the Fischer Boom, the growth of American chess up to Saint Louis’ place in it today.