Doubled Pawns (3)

The 1972 Fischer-Spassky match took place just after I finished my formal studies and started my first job. For players of my generation it was part of our chess education, and for many of those a few years younger it provided the inspiration for them to take up serious chess.

It was fascinating to read a recent (January 2015) interview with Boris Spassky, in which he said that he always had a good relationship with Bobby and that they kept in touch after the match.

I guess history is what happened before you were born, or at least before you became aware of a subject. For me, Lasker, Alekhine and Capablanca are history, although if the latter two had lived longer they might not have been. For my pupils today, the Fischer-Spassky match is ancient history, but those of us around at the time will remember well what happened.

In the first game Bobby took a risk, making what on the surface appeared to be a childish blunder losing a piece. Fischer then demanded the removal of all cameras. His demands were refused and he defaulted the second game. He booked a ticket on a flight back to the US but, after an intervention from Henry Kissinger, was persuaded to remain in Reykjavik and continue the match.

Spassky sportingly agreed to play the third game in a small backstage room out of the audience’s view. This is what happened. Bobby was commanding the black pieces.

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 e6
3. Nf3 c5

Fischer proposes a Modern Benoni, having avoided the dangerous lines where White plays an early f4. This opening, first popularised by Tal who scored a string of brilliant victories with it in the 1950s, leads to complex strategical and tactical battles. It’s a pity it’s seen so rarely in top level events these days. Perhaps the elite players consider it not quite sound.

4. d5

And Spassky accepts the challenge.

4… exd5
5. cxd5 d6
6. Nc3 g6
7. Nd2

Of course we all tell our pupils not to move pieces twice in the opening but this is a standard idea for White in the Modern Benoni. The knight is heading for c4 where it will hit the potentially weak d6 pawn while supporting an eventual pawn break with e5. Meanwhile, the f-pawn is now free to move to f3 to support the centre, or perhaps to f4 to support e5.

7… Nbd7
8. e4 Bg7
9. Be2 O-O
10. O-O Re8

A standard position in this opening. White’s most popular choice here is a4, another standard move in this opening, clamping down on Black’s potential queenside pawn break with b5. The more immediately ambitious f4 is the second most popular choice, with Spassky’s move coming in third.

11. Qc2 Nh5

This is the move that startled me, along with the rest of the chess world, back in 1972. Fischer voluntarily allows his kingside pawns to be shattered: again something we all tell our pupils not to do. Of course this isn’t the only move, and in fact hasn’t been played very often since this encounter. The sober choice is a6, but Black’s most popular option here is the almost equally startling Ne5, giving White the very tempting option of kicking the knight with f4. After 11… Ne5 12. f4 (White usually prefers a more cautious approach) Neg4 13. Nf3 Black has tried a variety of tactical ideas: 13… c4, 13… Nxe4 14. Nxe4 Bf5 15. Bd3 c4 and 13… Nh5 14. h3 f5 15. hxg4 fxg4, all of which demonstrate the richness of this opening.

12. Bxh5 gxh5

Here, 13. a4 would transpose into another top GM game played about 10 weeks later, which saw White extinguishing Black’s kingside pressure and engineering a central breakthrough with 28. e5. Perhaps it’s this game which put everyone off the whole idea.

Gligoric-Kavalek Skopje Olympiad 1972
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 e6 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. e4 g6 7. Nf3 Bg7 8. Be2
O-O 9. O-O Re8 10. Nd2 Nbd7 11. a4 Ne5 12. Qc2 Nh5 13. Bxh5 gxh5 14. Nd1 Qh4
15. Ne3 Ng4 16. Nxg4 hxg4 17. Nc4 Qf6 18. Bd2 Qg6 19. Bc3 Bxc3 20. bxc3 b6 21.
Rfe1 Ba6 22. Nd2 Re5 23. f4 gxf3 24. Nxf3 Rh5 25. Qf2 Qf6 26. Re3 Re8 27. Rae1
Qf4 28. e5 dxe5 29. Re4 Qf6 30. Qg3+ Kh8 31. Nxe5 Rg8 32. Rg4 Rxg4 33. Nxg4 Qg6
34. c4 Rf5 35. Nh6 Rf6 36. Re8+ Kg7 37. Rg8+ Kxh6 38. Qh4+ 1-0

13. Nc4 Ne5
14. Ne3 Qh4
15. Bd2

15. f3, to prevent Black’s next move was suggested as an improvement. Now Fischer gives Spassky no choice but to straighten out his pawn formation.

15… Ng4
16. Nxg4 hxg4

There’s a big difference between this and the Gligoric game: Gligo’s knight was on the more useful c4 square rather than c3.

17. Bf4 Qf6
18. g3

Creating some weaknesses. This was criticised at the time and Bg3 was suggested as an improvement.

18… Bd7
19. a4 b6
20. Rfe1 a6
21. Re2 b5
22. Rae1 Qg6
23. b3 Re7
24. Qd3 Rb8
25. axb5 axb5
26. b4 c4
27. Qd2 Rbe8

Boris’s sickly e-pawn will not live very long.

28. Re3 h5
29. R3e2 Kh7
30. Re3 Kg8
31. R3e2 Bxc3
32. Qxc3 Rxe4
33. Rxe4 Rxe4
34. Rxe4 Qxe4

Bobby is a pawn ahead with a winning position: as usual the presence of bishops of opposite colours favours the attacker. Fischer is remorseless.

35. Bh6 Qg6
36. Bc1 Qb1
37. Kf1 Bf5
38. Ke2 Qe4+
39. Qe3 Qc2+
40. Qd2 Qb3
41. Qd4 Bd3+

In this game Fischer was happy to allow doubled pawns in front of his king in order to gain the two bishops and some piece activity. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea in the position, but from my 1972 perspective it was extraordinary that it was playable at all, and good enough to bamboozle Boris.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy ( or and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities ( as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.