Of all the matches that were never played, Fischer – Karpov or Fischer – Kortschnoi might have been the most interesting. What would have happened if Bobby Fischer had not retired after his victory against Spassky in 1972? In this article I would like to deal with this question and its psychological background.
Bobby Fischer quits
Unfortunately, Bobby Fischer (1943 – 2008) did not play any match or tournament for 20 years after he had won the World Chess Championship Match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972. It was not until 1992 that he played a rematch against Spassky and won 10-5 with 15 draws. However, no further tournaments or matches followed after that. In 2008, two months before his 65th birthday, Fischer died in his Icelandic exile. What impact did his retirement have on top chess?
If Fischer had continued to play, there would have been a World Championship Match against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 and perhaps even a World Championship Match against Viktor Kortschnoi in 1978. Both matches would undoubtedly have been very interesting for the chess world and probably very exciting and thrilling. But since 1974, Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Kortschnoi practically fought out the World Championship title between themselves in three matches, before a new contender for the title emerged in 1984 with the 21-year-old Garry Kasparov.
Why did Bobby Fischer retire so suddenly? If we want to get to the bottom of the probable reasons, we first have to go back to the year 1972.
Why Spassky lost in 1972
There has been much speculation about this question. Boris Spassky was born in 1937 and had become the World Chess Champion in 1969 by beating his predecessor Tigran Petrosian. Before the match in Reykjavik in 1972 started Bobby had never won against Spassky. The record was 3-0 with 2 draws in favour of the Russian. In the first match game, Bobby Fischer unnecessarily allowed a bishop to be trapped and lost the resulting endgame. That made it 1-0 for Spassky in the World Championship Match and 4-0 in the personal record between these two top players.
Then the second match game had to be played. After arguments over the television cameras that were supposed to broadcast the match, the eccentric American did not turn up for the game and Spassky took a 2-0 lead. Only with extreme difficulty Fischer could be persuaded to play the third game. He insisted, however, that the game would not be played in the designated playing hall, but in a table tennis room without any spectators. Spassky was kind and agreed. But that was still not enough for Fischer. As he again felt disturbed by the camera that was supposed to broadcast the game for the spectators, he refused to play again. This led to a loud argument between Fischer and the referee Lothar Schmid, which completely upset Spassky. He got up to leave the room, but Schmid strongly urged him to stay. The referee described what happened next as follows: “I took them both and pressed them by the shoulders down into their chairs and I said: ‚Play chess now!‘ And almost automatically, Spassky made the first move, 1.d4, the same he had played in game 1.” This was the beginning of Spassky’s downfall. For the first time in his life Spassky, worn down by the tiring arguments, lost a game to Bobby Fischer and was completely thrown off balance until the 10th game: 0-5 with 3 draws was the disastrous result of these eight games.
But in reality there was much more weighing on Spassky. The Russians had wanted him to abandon the match instead of continuing under such conditions. In this way, he also got into trouble with his own delegation.
It took Spassky a long time to recover from the psychological blow. By the start of the eleventh round he had overcome his trauma and managed to keep the match even in games 11-20 (1-1 with 8 draws). Then Fischer won the 21st game after 41 moves and the final score was 12.5-8.5 in his favour. If we disregard Fischer’s loss by forfeit in the 2nd game and the traumatic match phase for Spassky from the 3rd to the 10th game, we notice a balanced performance (2-2 with 10 draws). I therefore do not take it for granted that in 1972 Spassky was really a less ingenious chess player than Fischer. If things had gone normally, without the stressful arguments about TV cameras, the playing hall and the spectators, we might have seen a highly exciting and very balanced match. Spassky’s decisive mistake was to oppose the advice of the Soviet delegation and agree to play the third game in a ping-pong room under the circumstances described above. Thus he not only had to bow to the will of his opponent and give in to the pressure from the referee, but was also subjected to the wrath of the Soviet chess federation. All this led to the psychological breakdown that could be clearly seen in games 3 – 10. But Spassky was (and is) a good sportsman and a gentleman. He wanted to play against Fischer, and that’s what he did. Nobody knows how the final result would have turned out if these disturbing interferences had not existed. Spassky later said that Fischer would have won anyhow. On the other hand in 1972 he must have been convinced that he could successfully compete with Fischer. Otherwise he certainly wouldn’t have continued the match under those difficult conditions.
Spassky really should not have played on
Knowing today the impact Bobby Fischer’s World Championship win had on himself and the chess world, one might wish that on July, 16th, 1972 Spassky had actually left the ping-pong room and packed his bags for the flight home to Russia. That way, very likely Bobby Fischer would have remained an active chess player. He might not have got another World Championship Match, but he could have continued to play in high-level tournaments. Thus, in the following years, he could have played not only against Karpov, but also against Garry Kasparov, which would undoubtedly have been a great blessing for the chess world. Continuing his chess career might also have had a very positive effect on Bobby Fischer’s own life and fate.
Finally, I would like to talk about Lothar Schmid’s role as referee of the 1972 World Chess Championship. We have to acknowledge that he wanted to save the match, but nevertheless I would like to say clearly that in my opinion he made a mistake on July 16th, 1972. The third match game took place under conditions that were quite unacceptable for Boris Spassky. If a player does not agree to play in the designated playing hall, even after concessions had been made with regard to the cameras and they were demonstrably no longer audible where Spassky and Fischer had to play, the referee should have disqualified Fischer and stopped the match. Many chess fans won’t like this, but let’s imagine that at a world athletics championship one of the finalists insisted that he would not run the 5000 metres in the stadium, but only on the sports field of a nearby primary school, without any spectators or TV cameras. Such a participant would very quickly be replaced by another one, and rightly so! The least Lothar Schmid should have done would have been to adjourn the match for a couple of days until an acceptable arrangement was achieved. (a)
Why did Fischer not play against Karpov in 1975?
From a psychological point of view, Bobby Fischer had nothing to gain after becoming World Champion in 1972, but everything to lose. With the World Championship title, what he had been convinced of since 1963 had come true, namely that he and no one else was the best chess player in the world. When it came to defending his title in 1975, Bobby might have suffered the greatest possible catastrophe, namely defeat in the upcoming World Championship Match. His status of the world’s best chess player would have been destroyed in an instant and his ego might have been severely damaged. The German grandmaster Dr. Helmut Pfleger, a well known doctor and psychotherapist, described Fischer’s mental state since 1972 as follows:
His paranoia must have grown considerably (…) In the past, Fischer only had in mind to crush his opponents; since 1972 he has been fleeing from them. All the stories and rumours about what he has been up to in these 20 years [1972 – 1992] come down to one thing: he is always on the run (…) Chess is everything to him, and in this domain he can no longer achieve anything. Instead, his latent instability has broken through and virtually flooded him with fear. (b)
Besides Fischer hadn’t played a single tournament or match game for three years. So he will have considered what his chances were in a World Championship Match against his challenger Anatoly Karpov, and that might have made him fear the worst. Why?
Karpov was born in 1951. In Leningrad in 1973, aged only 21, he had won the interzonal tournament tied with Viktor Kortschnoi, and achieved an outstanding result of 79.4 % (13.5 out of 17). In the candidates’ quarter-final he beat grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky 3-0 with 5 draws. At the 1974 Chess Olympiad in Nice, Karpov already played on board 1 for the Soviet Union and achieved a sensational result of 10-0 with 4 draws. Then Karpov won the candidates’ semi-final against Boris Spassky clearly (without any psychological gimmicks) with 4-1 and 6 draws. In the final against Viktor Kortschnoi, things also went wonderfully at first: After 18 games Karpov was already leading 3-0. In the final phase, however, he got into trouble, lost two more games and in the end just managed to secure a narrow 3-2 victory by drawing the last three games.
Karpov-Kortschnoi, Tilburg 1986 | Photo: Dutch National Archive
Karpov’s only weakness: his stamina
We can assume that Fischer, although he had retired from competitive chess, nevertheless followed Karpov’s career closely. He thus noticed that Karpov had won 52 of a total of 131 tournament and match games in 1973 and 1974, and had lost only 4 of them. The 24-year-old Russian thus posed a serious threat to Fischer’s World Championship title. He certainly also studied Karpov’s games in detail and realised that this challenger would probably be difficult to deal with. Besides Karpov was supported by an excellent team of Soviet chess experts. But it is very likely that Bobby Fischer detected one weak point, because two of those four defeats came after Karpov had played 18 exhausting match games against Kortschnoi and was obviously struggling with stamina problems. So, in order to beat Karpov for sure, he absolutely had to prolong a World Championship Match against him. The longer it lasted, the greater the chance of winning it.
In this context it suddenly becomes clear why Fischer insisted that the 1975 World Championship Match should be scheduled for ten wins. Draws should not be counted. He could thus hope that such a match would last long enough to tire Karpov. But when he then also demanded that he should retain the title in case of a 9-9 without having to play for a tenth win, Karpov and the Soviets rejected such demands showing that they had learned from the debacle of 1972. The World Chess Federation was also no longer willing to accept Fischer’s conditions. The match was cancelled and Karpov became the new World Champion.
Fischer might have played against Kortschnoi
Viktor Kortschnoi was born in 1931 and thus 20 years older than Anatoly Karpov. He had already belonged to the absolute top of the world for a long time. In the 1973 Leningrad interzonal tournament he scored as many points as Karpov and drew against him. In the candidates’ quarter-final, he defeated the Brazilian grandmaster Henrique Mecking 3-1 with 9 draws, and in the semi-final he defeated former World Champion Tigran Petrosian 3-1 with one draw. At the 1974 Chess Olympiad in Nice Kortschnoi played on board 2 and achieved a result of 8-0 with 7 draws. (c) So he didn’t do quite as well as Karpov, but at least he did almost as well as Karpov, against whom, as already mentioned, he lost the candidates’ final over 24 games with 2-3 and 19 draws. However, if you look at Kortschnoi’s overall record in 1973 and 1974, you’ll notice a clear difference. In the ChessBase Mega Database I found a total of 117 tournament and match games from these two years, of which Kortschnoi won 40 but lost 18. In contrast, Karpov’s record was 52 wins with only 4 losses!
Therefore Fischer could clearly see that a challenger Kortschnoi would be relatively easier to beat. Likewise, he might have realised that the longer a match lasted, the stronger Kortschnoi played. So we can assume that if Kortschnoi had been his challenger in 1975, Fischer would probably not have insisted on ten wins, but would have agreed to a shorter match format.
Another reason for my assumption that Fischer would have been much more likely to get involved in a World Championship Match against Viktor Kortschnoi is that he knew him from previous encounters. From 1960 to 1970 they played a total of eight tournament games against each other, of which each won two, while four ended in draws. In addition, Kortschnoi and Fischer played each other twice in a blitz tournament in Herceg Novi in 1970. Kortschnoi won the first blitz game, but lost the second. Fischer, however, had never played a single game against Karpov, so this opponent would have been much more difficult for him to predict.
Two games Fischer – Kortschnoi
Let’s have a look at the two most interesting games between Fischer and Kortschnoi:
My prediction: A close fight with slight advantages for Fischer
When you look deeper into the ten Kortschnoi-Fischer games, you notice that Kortschnoi had a slight initiative, although the final result was even. But let’s not forget that Fischer was only 17 at the time of their first game and just 19 during the five games played in 1962. This undoubtedly meant an advantage for Viktor Kortschnoi, who was twelve years older, as he had considerably more experience than his youthful opponent. If Kortschnoi and Fischer had met in a World Championship Match in 1975 or 1978, this would have been reversed, because in that case a 32- or 35-year-old Fischer would have faced a 44- or 47-year-old challenger, which would almost certainly have favoured the younger Fischer.
So if a World Championship Match Fischer – Kortschnoi had actually taken place in 1975 or 1978, I believe that regardless of the length of the match, a very exciting and close race could have been expected. The decisive question in this context would be how Fischer would have coped with the several-year absence from tournament play. But even if Kortschnoi had taken a two-point lead at the beginning of such a match, I think Fischer would have had a very good chance of winning in the end. However, if Kortschnoi had succeeded in hitting Fischer badly in the “warm-up phase” (three or more points ahead), Kortschnoi might even have become the new World Champion.
Karpov would have had a more difficult task
I see the situation differently in a World Championship Match Fischer – Karpov, if ten wins had been required. Despite his enormous playing strength, I don’t think Karpov would have been capable to deal with a long lasting match against Fischer over 30 or more games. Both in the candidates’ final against Kortschnoi in 1974 and in the World Championship Match in 1978, and even in his first match against Kasparov in 1984/85, Karpov had serious problems as soon as the match started to drag on.
Fischer – Karpov
Unfortunately I cannot show you any authentic games on the subject, but at least I’ll give you a small foretaste of what might have happened in a Fischer – Karpov match. A few years ago I had the funny idea of running a computer simulation of the 1975 World Championship Match by using the Fischer and Karpov personalities of Ed Schroeder’s chess engine Rebel 13. This experiment resulted in a in a clear 10-4 victory for Fischer if ten wins had been required and a closer 6-4 victory for Bobby Fischer if they had played for only six wins. Of course, this experiment should not be taken too seriously, but at least some nice games were produced. Let’s take a look at two of them:
Amazingly, after its fourth win the Karpov personality of Rebel 13 didn’t win a single game. However, this might indeed have happened in an actual World Championship Match Karpov – Fischer. (Or maybe not, who knows?) Once the Bobby Fischer express has really got going after a three-year break, it’s hard to stop it! That actually sounds quite plausible. (d)
In my opinion Karpov would have had better chances against Fischer at a World Championship Match in 1981. At that time Karpov was 30 years old, while Fischer was already 38. In 1981 Karpov defeated the 50-year-old Kortschnoi for the first time decisively by 6-2 with 10 draws, while he had won the other two matches in 1974 and 1978 by a narrow margin of only one point.
What do you think?
What a pity that Bobby Fischer retired in 1972. We’ll never know what really would have happened and how chess history would have changed, if he had continued to play. But we are free to speculate. How do you think a World Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov or Bobby Fischer and Viktor Kortschnoi would have turned out? It would be nice if our readers interested in chess history would share their opinions.
More about Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Kortschnoi can be found here:
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(a) The following article by Frederic Friedel offers a good report of the events surrounding the fateful third game of the 1972 World Championship Match:
(b) These quotes are from the book “Brett vorm Kopf” by Dr. Helmut Pfleger and Gerd Treppner, Munich 1994, p. 245/246.
(c) Kortschnoi also played some games on board 1 when Karpov paused or didn’t want to play with the black pieces, for example against Torre and Timman (cf. Kortschnoj, Ein Leben für das Schach, Dusseldorf 1978, p. 110).