By Ian Rogers
As the Czech Railways Chess Train rolled around central Europe this month, a veteran Grandmaster revealed the answer to one of chess’ most baffling unsolved mysteries.
When the legendary Cold War world title match in Reykjavik between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was contested in 1972, Fischer lost the first game with a beginner’s blunder.
(In the diagrammed position Fischer played 29…Bxh2?? allowing his bishop to be trapped and doomed after 30.g3.)
“How could this happen?”, has been an unanswered question since Fischer lost that game, and forfeited the next. However Fischer’s decision not to turn up for game 2 at least had an explanation – an excessively loud film crew.
As the chess train paused on the border between Hungary and Slovakia, former World Championship Candidate Vlastimil Hort relaxed after taking the lead in the on-board tournament and disclosed that he had asked the very same question of Fischer while a guest of the American in Budapest in the 1990s.
“Bobby gave the point to Spassky,” said Hort. “It sounds crazy but that is what he said. Bobby was so confident that he would win the match that he gave away the bishop and the first game.”
Pictured above, GM’s Hort and Rogers.
According to Hort, Fischer even said that he considered throwing the third game as well but thought better of the idea, not because he felt that a three point margin against Spassky was too difficult to overcome, but because he feared that the world body FIDE would then find an excuse to stop the match and declare Spassky the winner. (The Soviets were already publicly complaining that the second round forfeit by Fischer was an insult to the reigning World Champion.)
So Fischer won the third game and the fifth and the sixth and the eighth and the tenth before, according to Hort, taking his foot off the accelerator and coasting to victory. (“Fischer referred to Spassky as my frenemy,” said Hort, “whereas everyone else was just an enemy!”)
Fischer’s explanation for his blunder is so incredible that the first inclination is to dismiss it as bravado by a player trying to explain away an awful move.
Yet Fischer was so confident and so strong in 1972 – he had recently come off a winning streak of 20 consecutive games – that Hort is sure Fischer made the blunder deliberately.
However there remain two nagging doubts.
One is that the variation 29…Bxh2 30.g3 h5 31.Ke2 h4 32.Kf3 h3 33.Kg4! Bg1 34.Kxh3 Bxf2 35.Bd2!!, keeping the bishop trapped, is just complicated enough to imagine Fischer might just have missed 35.Bd2.
The second caveat is that after giving away the bishop Fischer fought like a lion and very nearly held the game – in fact missing a draw at one point. (Had he done so, Fischer would probably have claimed that he was good enough to give Spassky a bishop head start and still draw.)
In any case historians now have Fischer’s story – whether they believe him or not is another question.