Boris Spassky crushes Fischer’s Najdorf

When we last left the 1972 World Chess Championship, GM Bobby Fischer had just won game six in brilliant fashion to take the lead. By Game 11, the situation was only deteriorating further for defending champion GM Boris Spassky, and his back was against the wall. Spassky had also lost his next two games with Black and could only draw two games with White. As a result, Fischer now led 6.5-3.5 (five wins to two with three draws).

In other words, Spassky’s margin had gone from plus-2 to minus-3 in only a third of the scheduled games – from game three through game ten, Spassky had lost. five times and only held three draws. The reigning world champion desperately needed a reprieve.

It seemed unlikely when Fischer went to one of his strongest openings in Game 11 of the match, the poison pawn variation of the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian defense. Just as Fischer had never defeated Spassky before 1972, he had never lost to an opponent with this opening variation.

Boris Spassky won three games during the game and each of them was weird in its own way. The first game was decided after two blunders by Fischer in a tied final. The second game was gifted – the challenger refused to play. As for Game 11, it’s a mix of both things: mistakes and the feeling that the real Fischer didn’t show up for the duel. This happened for a reason – the dreaded Soviet team prepared a new move in one of the most critical lines of Najdorf’s defense. After being caught opener, Fischer felt the pressure. This explains why he only played the Najdorf once more in the remaining games of the match and avoided the poison pawn variation when he did.

Now Fischer had lost a game of Poisoned Pawn. And after that match, he only played 40 more serious matches in total, all of them against Spassky. In none of them did he play the same line, apparently convinced even in their match 20 years later that Spassky would have the advantage.

Spassky was officially credited with three wins in this championship game. In the first game, Fischer played the dubious 29…Bxh2 and lost in 56 moves. In game two, Fischer didn’t even show up. In the historical interpretation of the game, these two games received an asterisk, especially the second one, for obvious reasons. But this contest was purely Spassky at his best.

It was the first, and ultimately only game of the match that Spassky won more than Fischer had lost. According to Computer Chess.com at its deepest level of analysis, Spassky played with an overall accuracy of 99.4% and not as much as a single inaccurate move.

World Chess Championship 1972 Fischer Spassky 50th Chess.com
Even against Fischer’s suboptimal defense, Spassky never slipped.

As older chess players, Queen’s Gambit as fans and readers of this series of articles know, major chess events used to adjourn games after 40 moves to be completed the next day (until the advent of chess supercomputers makes this practice obsolete). Game 11 didn’t need a postponement, Spassky had won so much.

The game was a strong reminder that Spassky wasn’t just Fischer fodder. This player was the world champion! It’s too easy to think of Spassky as “the guy who lost in 1972” and not as one of the best players in history, someone who could win at any position.

Spassky was not just fodder for Fischer. This player was the world champion!

That doesn’t help, as Fischer won by four points despite those two weird losses at the start, 1972 was still considered a rout. And fair enough.

But after 11 games, Spassky is down just two points with 13 games still on the schedule. And as the defending champion, he would only have to tie the game to remain champion.

Although things away from the board had calmed down in relation to the build-up to the game and the first two games, Fischer was still responsible for a random meltdown, and no one could tell how he would react if the game got much closer. (In fact, there was a little-known near-disaster for the 17th game of the match, when Fischer was coasting in the actual games.)

In the 12th game that immediately followed, Spassky finally got another draw with the black pieces. It was his first draw with Black since the fourth game of the match. This Cold War proxy battle was not quite over yet.

Game 13 was another story for another time (but soon!).


Previous articles on the 50th anniversary of Fischer-Spassky:

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