Bobby Fischer becomes the first American to win the World Chess Championship

Bobby Fischer becomes the first American to win the World Chess Championship

On September 1, 1972, in what’s billed as the “Match of the Century,” American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeats Russian Boris Spassky during the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.

In the world’s most publicized title match ever played, Fischer, a 29-year-old Brooklynite, became the first American to win the competition since its inception in 1866. The victory also marked the first time a non-Russian had won the event in 24 years.

Fischer, who started playing chess professionally at age 8, won the U.S. Open Championship when he was 14 (he would go on to win it seven more times) and became the world’s youngest international grandmaster at age 15.

Fischer’s skills and age—and demanding, arrogant attitude—made him a pop culture phenomenon. He became the subject of books and movies and even inspired a song, “The Ballad of Bobby Fischer.”

Played during the Cold War, the Reykjavik match also carried political undertones. Fischer had already accused the Soviets of rigging the tournament system and didn’t mince words in his feelings about them, saying the match was “really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians … They always suggest that the world's leaders should fight it out hand to hand. And that is the kind of thing we are doing.”

Fischer missed the competition’s July 1 opening ceremony, after demanding more money, as well as a cut of TV and film rights. After a two-day delay—and a doubling of the prize purse by British millionaire Jim Slater—Fischer finally showed. A call from Henry Kissinger, national security assistant for President Nixon at the time, may have helped persuade him to compete, as well. “America wants you to go over there to beat the Russians,” he reportedly told Fischer.

“Fischer is known to be graceless, rude, possibly insane,” financier Slater once said. “I really don’t worry about that, because I didn’t do it for that reason. I did it because he was going to challenge the Russian supremacy, and it was good for chess.”

Spassky took the first game (Fischer blamed the TV cameras and ordered them to be removed). Fischer then forfeited the second game after some of his other demands weren’t met. Following much quarreling, the match resumed July 16 with a win by Fischer. Over 21 games, Fischer won seven, Spassky won three, and 11 were draws. Spassky resigned after 40 moves on the 21st game via telephone, with the final score set at 12.5 to 8.5

Fischer took home $156,250 in prize money for the feat, while the Soviet grandmaster Spassky, who was 35 and the reigning world champion, earned $93,750.

Fischer lost his world title by forfeit in 1975, when he refused to play against Soviet Anatoly Karpov in Manila after the competition’s governing body failed to meet all his demands.

Bobby Fischer

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Bobby Fischer, byname of Robert James Fischer, (born March 9, 1943, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.—died January 17, 2008, Reykjavík, Iceland), American-born chess master who became the youngest grandmaster in history when he received the title in 1958. His youthful intemperance and brilliant playing drew the attention of the American public to the game of chess, particularly when he won the world championship in 1972.

Fischer learned the moves of chess at age six. He attracted international attention in 1956 with a stunning victory over Donald Byrne at a tournament in New York City. In what was dubbed the “Game of the Century,” Fischer sacrificed his queen on the 17th move to Byrne to set up a devastating counterattack that led to checkmate. At age 16 he dropped out of high school to devote himself fully to the game. In 1958 he won the first of eight American championships. He became the only player ever to earn a perfect score at an American championship, winning all 11 games in the 1964 tournament.

In world championship candidate matches during 1970–71, Fischer won 20 consecutive games before losing once and drawing three times to former world champion Tigran Petrosyan of the Soviet Union in a final match won by Fischer. In 1972 Fischer became the first native-born American to hold the title of world champion when he defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in a match held in Reykjavík, Iceland. The tournament was highly publicized. The Soviet Union dominated chess all the world champions since the end of World War II had been Soviets. The Fischer-Spassky match thus became a metaphorical battle in the Cold War. In defeating Spassky 12 1/2–8 1/2, Fischer won the $156,000 victor’s share of the $250,000 purse.

When playing White, Fischer virtually always opened with 1. e4 (see chess notation). His victories commonly resulted from surprise attacks or counterattacks rather than from the accumulation of small advantages, yet his play remained positionally sound.

In 1975 Fischer refused to meet his Soviet challenger, Anatoly Karpov. The Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE the international chess federation) deprived him of his championship and declared Karpov champion by default. Fischer then withdrew from serious play for almost 20 years, returning only to defeat Spassky in a privately organized rematch in 1992 held in Sveti Stefan, Montenegro, Yugoslavia.

After defeating Spassky, Fischer returned to seclusion, in part because he had been indicted by U.S. authorities for violating economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and in part because his paranoia, anti-Semitism, and praise for the September 11 attacks alienated many in the chess world. On July 13, 2004, he was detained at Narita Airport in Tokyo after authorities discovered that his U.S. passport had been revoked. Fischer fought deportation to the United States. On March 21, 2005, Fischer was granted Icelandic citizenship and within days was flown to Reykjavík, the site of his world-famous encounter with Spassky.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.

The American Grandmaster Who Could Become World Champion

I f you ask the people who know Fabiano Caruana what Fabiano Caruana is like, they will tell you that Fabiano Caruana is, you know, just a normal guy.

He likes movies. He likes music. He likes to eat. He works out. He goes on dates.

Just a normal guy who is ranked second in the world in chess. A normal guy who was pulled out of school after seventh grade to do nothing but play the ancient and intricate game. A normal guy who is a hairbreadth away from prying the No. 1 position loose from probably the best player ever to play the game. A normal guy who, beginning Friday, will sit down at a table in London with this probably-the-best-ever player, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a grueling, weeks-long battle for the world championship of chess. A normal guy who could be the first American to win the title since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Real 99.99999999th percentile stuff.

I f you search the archives for Caruana, one of his earliest mentions you&rsquoll find is a television news segment from early 2001, when he was 8 years old and living in Brooklyn. &ldquoHere&rsquos the story of a boy who could be the next Bobby Fischer,&rdquo the host says. Caruana&rsquos mother, Santina, describes her son&rsquos play as art (&ldquoI just &mdash I can&rsquot take my eyes off him&rdquo) his coach describes him as &ldquomentally quite tough&rdquo and a chess club manager says he&rsquos sure to become a grandmaster and possibly world champion.

The 8-year-old Caruana: &ldquoI just think it&rsquos a fun game.&rdquo

Caruana, age 10, takes on 15 challengers simultaneously in Manhattan. He didn&rsquot lose a single game.

Keith Torrie / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Another early appearance was in 2002 in the New York Daily News. That story featured a photo of a 10-year-old Caruana in an oversized T-shirt staring at a chessboard and grasping a bishop. He was taking on 15 opponents simultaneously in Bryant Park in Manhattan. He didn&rsquot lose a single game.

When you look at stories like those, Caruana&rsquos championship bid seems preordained, the unavoidable result of an intense, prodigious and celebrated chess upbringing. But another quick search of the archives turns up dozens of other names that have also had their chess picture in the paper, and have also been teased by the press as The Next Bobby Fischer: Josh Waitzkin, Carissa Yip, Hikaru Nakamura, Eric Hicks, Jorge Zamora, Michael Wilder, Steven Zierk, Robert Lau, Gata Kamsky, Vinay Bhat, Ray Robson, Jordy Mont-Reynaud, Alan Tsoi, David Newmuis, Jeff Sarwer, Kayden Troff, Sam Sevian, etc., etc.

You almost certainly haven&rsquot heard of most &mdash or any &mdash of these people. None of them has played for the world championship of chess. Caruana will.

C aruana himself is a hard person to reach these days. After initially agreeing to provide FiveThirtyEight access to pre-championship training sessions, Caruana&rsquos managers (he has two) declined to make him available for an interview. So instead I turned to his father, Lou.

It all started with some squirming Lou told me. Caruana was just a normal kid.

&ldquoHe was fidgeting in school,&rdquo Lou explained when I visited him this spring in St. Louis. &ldquoSo to increase his concentration, we thought it would be a good idea if he started playing chess.&rdquo

The person who ran Fabiano&rsquos after-school chess program in Brooklyn made what was, in retrospect, perhaps the most important phone call in recent U.S. chess history, informing his parents that Fabiano exhibited a remarkable amount of talent for someone of such a young age.

Fabiano&rsquos first tournament was soon after, in May 1998, in Queens. After that, he played every day. He played nights and weekends. He got even better. After six months, his dad stood no chance against him.

So they turned to a mentor. I met Miron Sher, a Russian-born grandmaster, in the predominantly Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where he has lived for the past decade. He carried a chess magazine featuring Caruana and Carlsen on its cover, so that I&rsquod recognize him.

Sher was Caruana&rsquos chess coach for &ldquofour years and 10 months, before he left to Spain.&rdquo Those were formative years, which saw Caruana&rsquos U.S. Chess Federation rating climb from 1300 (a player in the dubiously named &ldquofourth category&rdquo) to 2305 (a &ldquolife master&rdquo). Sher remembered those exact numbers correctly. We sat on a bench at the boardwalk, talking over crashing waves, staring at an ocean that stretches to the lands where Caruana came of age.

&ldquoFabiano does not think about a life without chess,&rdquo he said.

Caruana makes his move during an event with the Turinese Chess Club in 2008. Caruana became a grandmaster at the age of 14.

Pigi Cipelli/Archivio Pigi Cipelli/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Sher is 66 years old and has taught chess for 47 of those. Caruana was one of his most devoted students. Sher estimates that during Caruana&rsquos years under his tutelage, Caruana solved some 23,500 chess problems. Caruana&rsquos family invested in an early and expensive digital chessboard, imported from the Netherlands, which could be hooked up to a computer. Caruana studied David Bronstein&rsquos classic 1953 volume, 384 pages dense with chessboard diagrams and chess move notation. He studied former world champion Boris Spassky&rsquos collected games. He digested Mark Dvoretsky&rsquos &ldquoEndgame Manual.&rdquo

In 2004, when Fabiano was 12, the Caruana family decamped for Europe. The tournaments were stronger, the competition was tougher, and the top coaches were in greater supply. Caruana flew up the ranks. He became an international master in 2006. He became a grandmaster in 2007. He entered the world&rsquos top 100 in 2008 and has never left. In 2015 he was lured back to the United States. He became No. 2 in the world &mdash one match away from the pinnacle of his game.

And now, he&rsquos just a normal guy. I joined Yuanling Yuan, a top Canadian women&rsquos player with a degree in economics from Yale, in a Manhattan cafe. Caruana and Yuan met at (where else?) an international chess tournament in 2016. He&rsquos a normal guy. He&rsquos got friends.

I asked Yuan for her best Fabiano Stories &mdash what anecdotes encapsulate this normal guy? &ldquoLet me get a moment to collect my thoughts,&rdquo she said. Over the next half-hour, a handful of anecdotes, telling or not, emerged.

One, he often orders healthy food. Two, he&rsquos ridden on and enjoyed roller coasters. Three, he loves the game Plants vs. Zombies &mdash &ldquoIt&rsquos his nightly ritual.&rdquo Four, he yells and screams when he plays certain strategy card games. And five, if chess doesn&rsquot work out, he&rsquod become a bean farmer. (Or least that&rsquos the running joke, given the purported etymology of his first name.) In other words, he&rsquod be a normal guy.

C hess is a one-on-one game with a vaguely militaristic theme, which also makes it a game of rivalries: Fischer-Spassky, Kasparov-Karpov and, perhaps, Caruana-Carlsen. Add one more: Man-Machine. The battle between human chess players and their artificial intelligence counterparts is a defining one of the modern era. But it&rsquos a battle that the machines have already won. With the proper app installed, my iPhone would easily become the 2018 world chess champion.

Caruana, left, and Wesley So, the top American grandmasters, play in the Candidates Tournament in Berlin this past March. Caruana won the tournament, which sent him to the world championship.

Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images for World Chess

Indeed, one way to measure the strength of human players these days is to measure how often their moves agreed with the moves a computer would&rsquove made. has done this with its CAPS system, as did two scientists from Slovenia. Computers are the closest we have to a Platonic ideal of how chess should be played. As a result, top players train with them extensively. The defending world champion Carlsen matched the computer&rsquos moves 85.3 percent of the time &mdash more machine than man. Fischer did it 83.5 percent of the time.

Caruana, too, can play like a machine. This summer he faced Wesley So, another top American grandmaster, in a rapid game with hefty pro-chess-circuit implications. After 25 moves, Caruana, with the white pieces, faced this position:

Something like bishop to f4 seems natural (at least to me) here, since it would attack the black pawn. But Caruana opted for something more subtle: He moved his rook to a2, which gives black a very hard time when white later moves his pawn to b4, exposing an attack on black&rsquos bishop. called the move &ldquounnatural.&rdquo Robert Hess, an American grandmaster, told me it was &ldquospectacular&rdquo and &ldquoan extremely strong and obscure move.&rdquo

It&rsquos also the move the computer recommends.

But Caruana can also play like a human being. &ldquoI think Fabiano&rsquos chess is testy,&rdquo Sher said. &ldquoHe is a sharp player. He is an emotional player.&rdquo

Just a normal guy with quirks and idiosyncratic preferences. A guy, for example, who favors the Petrov defense. &ldquoFrankly, the Petrov is what I think about when I think of Fabi, since that&rsquos &lsquohis&rsquo opening,&rdquo Hess said. &ldquoHe&rsquos found a way to not just try to equalize with it, but also play for more than just equality.&rdquo That opening &mdash in which Caruana has the black pieces and mirrors the white pieces&rsquo first two moves &mdash looks like this and was exhibited to great effect in a game from this year&rsquos Candidates Tournament, which sent Caruana to the world championship.

Running on my laptop, Stockfish, the powerful chess engine, assesses black &mdash Caruana, in this case &mdash with about a half-pawn disadvantage after the first two moves. Nevertheless, Caruana won the game.

C aruana has toiled for most of his normal life in a game that is abnormal. Chess is a complex forest of strategies and tactics that at its most elite levels is unnavigable to the rest of us. And here&rsquos where the argument for Caruana&rsquos normalcy, his relatability, starts to crack. Sure, he likes food and movies, just like me or you. But his skills are so elevated that they are not visible with the naked eye. What he does is abnormal.

Chess is best experienced through metaphor &mdash and not only because it&rsquos so complex. Basketball, for example, is also incredibly complex yet readily enjoyable without context. The real reason is aesthetic. I can tell &mdash immediately and innately &mdash when LeBron James does something rare and amazing on the basketball court. I can tell simply because I&rsquom a human being. I cannot tell &mdash immediately or innately &mdash when Caruana does something rare and amazing on a chessboard. Often, I cannot even tell when I&rsquom supposed to be able to tell this. Neither, in many cases, can grandmaster match commentators, hired to shed light for us patzers. Caruana and Carlsen breathe such rarefied air that no one, except themselves and maybe five other humans, can truly appreciate what they do. It must be lonely.

Chess has been unquestionably popular in the United States exactly once: in 1972, when Fischer beat the Soviets. But Caruana&rsquos camp does not seem eager to try to re-create the phenomenon, or to reinfect the population with Fischer Fever.

&ldquoThe Fischer comparisons are just based on Brooklyn,&rdquo Lou said. &ldquoI don&rsquot see any other similarities. They played in the same places they played in the parks.&rdquo

It&rsquos a short journey geographically from one grandmaster&rsquos old stomping grounds to the other&rsquos &mdash barely more than a mile from Fischer&rsquos old apartment to the synagogue where Caruana learned the game &mdash but a far lengthier one culturally and psychologically. To capture public attention and dollars, elite chess matches, with their impenetrably complex abstraction and faint military theme &mdash knights, castles, capturing and so forth &mdash must take place in front of a relevant geopolitical backdrop.

Chess needs a war. And Fischer had one. When Fischer played Spassky for the title in Reykjavik in 1972, the match was superconcentrated with American-Soviet implications: a lone, swashbuckling Yankee genius battling the hegemonic Soviet chess machine.

Where is Caruana&rsquos war? Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Norway have been sunny since about 1776. But the result of no conflict is no interest, and the result of no interest is no money, and the result of no money is no interest, and so on.

Fischer, according to popular accounts after he won the title, was more recognizable than anyone save Jesus Christ. Fischer also turned out to be a monster &mdash a virulent anti-Semite who praised the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Despite Lou&rsquos nonchalance about the inevitable comparisons, competitive chess in America can escape neither the bright glare of Fischer the sublime artist nor the cold shadow of Fischer the paranoid, racist conspiracy theorist.

In his prime, Fischer fired a powerful flare, and its bright light drew massive public attention. Caruana, even if he wins, may not have the candlepower. He may not rival Jesus Christ for name recognition. But maybe that&rsquos OK. Maybe that&rsquos what makes him just a normal guy after all. A normal guy alone, hiking deep in the forest.

H ere&rsquos a chess story, in the form of an old Buddhist legend. A shepherd is tending his flock on the boundless steppe. After countless miles of wandering, he happens upon two gods who had descended to Earth. The gods were sitting on rocks, playing chess. The shepherd is, needless to say, rapt by this scene and stops to watch the game. The gods, undisturbed, ponder and move their pieces while the shepherd stands, transfixed. The gods move the shepherd watches. Eventually, the game ends and the gods ascend to heaven. The shepherd snaps to and wearily rubs his eyes. He looks down to find that his clothes have deteriorated to ash, his wooden crook has crumbled, his sheep are long dead and he has aged into a decrepit old man.

H ere&rsquos an old Caruana family legend. While traveling in Europe, years ago, Caruana and his parents boarded a plane &mdash one of many planes that he&rsquos boarded in his young life. Once seated, he immediately pulled out a little chess set and began to play the game that has come to define him. The plane taxied and accelerated and took to the sky, cruising high above the earth at hundreds of miles an hour toward their destination. A rapt and oblivious Caruana kept playing, transfixed. Eventually he looked up, turned to his father and asked him a question.

&ldquoWhen are we going to take off?&rdquo

S her told me one more chess story. It was about another Soviet former world champion, Tigran Petrosian. Someone once asked Petrosian which was the happiest day of his life. &ldquoThe day I became world chess champion,&rdquo Petrosian said. That person then asked him which was the unhappiest day of his life.

&ldquoThe day after that,&rdquo he said.

FiveThirtyEight will be covering the world chess championship match, which begins Friday, here and on Twitter.

Bobby Fischer: Born A Chess Prodigy

Bettmann/Getty Images 13-year-old Bobby Fischer playing 21 chess games at once. Brooklyn, New York. March 31, 1956.

Bobby Fischer’s filial dysfunction did not hamper his love for chess. While growing up in Brooklyn, Fischer started to play the game by six. His natural ability and unshakeable focus eventually brought him to his first tournament at just nine. He was a regular in New York’s chess clubs by 11.

His life was chess. Fischer was determined to become a world chess champion. As his childhood friend Allen Kaufman described him:

“Bobby was a chess sponge. He would walk into a room where there were chess players and he’d sweep around and he’d look for any chess books or magazines and he’d sit down and he would just swallow them one after another. And he’d memorize everything.”

Bobby Fischer quickly dominated U.S. chess. By the age of 13, he became the U.S. Junior Chess champion and played against the best chess players in the United States in the U.S. Open Chess Championship that same year.

It was his stunning game against International Master Donald Byrne that first marked Fischer as one of the greats. Fischer won the match by sacrificing his queen to mount an onslaught against Byrne, a win lauded as one of “the finest on record in the history of chess prodigies.”

His rise through the ranks continued. At age 14, he became the youngest U.S. Champion in history. And at age 15, Fischer cemented himself as the chess world’s greatest prodigy by becoming the youngest chess grandmaster in history.

Bobby Fischer was the best America had to offer and now, he would have to go up against the best other countries had to offer, especially the grandmasters of the U.S.S.R.

Fischer Flounces Out

This didn’t sit well with Bobby Fischer who had become entirely enamored with his own point of view and he was unwilling to compromise on any aspect of his plan. He was invited to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975. He refused, ostensibly because of the rules, and his title was forfeit. Karpov became the World Champion without so much as pushing a single pawn.

There was (and continues to be) speculation that Bobby Fischer bowed out at this time because he was afraid of Karpov who was, to be fair, a more formidable opponent than Spassky had been and he’d had the entire weight of the USSR’s substantial chess machine thrown behind him to create the perfect player to take on Fischer.

However, we think this is probably unlikely. Fischer wasn’t the type of man to fear a game of chess, but he was the type of man to throw a massive tantrum over his own ego.


Bobby Fischer, who became the first American to win the world chess championship, only to resign it undefended, will play a $5 million exhibition match here against Boris Spassky, the Russian he defeated for the title 20 years ago, a Yugoslav promoter said Friday.

The match would end nearly two decades of seclusion for Fisher since he played Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, in perhaps the most publicized and widely followed chess match in the history of the game. It would also likely be viewed as a violation of the international sanctions against Yugoslavia imposed by the United Nations in an effort to half the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The U.S. government has adhered to the sanctions` provisions so strictly that even Yugoslavs with the right to Social Security payments have had their checks cut off. Fischer is an American citizen Spassky holds French citizenship and lives outside Paris.

The promoter of the match, Jezdimir Vasiljevic, owner of a Belgrade-based bank, said at a news conference that Fisher arrived in the Yugoslav capital Friday and will announce in a videotaped statement Saturday that he has signed a contract to play Spassky.

The match is scheduled to begin Sept. 2 on the island of Sveti Stefan, a once down-at-the-heels fishing village converted into an exclusive hotel by President Tito, Yugoslavia`s longtime Communist ruler. The competition will end with a series of games played in Belgrade, said Vasiljevic, who now runs the hotel.

Spassky, speaking from a vacation home in Allemont, France, in a telephone interview with Robert Byrne, a grandmaster and the chess columnist of The New York Times, confirmed that Fischer had agreed to the match.

''Yes, Bobby Fischer and I have signed a contract to contest a `world championship` match. I`ve received an advance, but Bobby wants the amount kept secret,'' Spassky said with enthusiasm. ''He pulls me out of oblivion. He makes me fight. It`s a miracle and I am grateful.''

The contract calls for the two grandmasters to play until one gains 10 victories, Vasiljevic said. Under the contract, the winner would receive $3.35 million and the loser $1.65 million. The match would be declared a draw if each player won nine games, and the two contestants would share the prize money equally.

Fischer, now 49, won the world championship in 1972, defeating Spassky, now 55, in one of the most celebrated chess matches of all time.

The brash, eccentric Fischer retired from chess two years later, becoming the only champion in history to forfeit his title without suffering defeat.

Fischer went from beloved chess player to US enemy

Fischer went into hiding and would not appear in the public eye playing chess again until the early '90s. And despite being of Jewish background himself, he lost a lot of public esteem with his anti-semitic views (via Haaretz).

Even though he didn't defend his title years earlier, Fischer reappeared in a rematch with Spassky in 1992. What seemed like a simple rematch between two old opponents turned out to be a major diplomatic controversy that changed the outcome of his life.

Robert (Bobby) James Fischer

As the 11th World Champion from 1972-75, Bobby Fischer interrupted the Cold War Soviet hegemony of chess. His phenomenal skill was apparent from an early age. He won the U.S. Open in 1957 and was the youngest person to gain first place in the U.S. Chess Championship in 1957/58. He would go on to win all eight of the United States Chess Championships in which he participated, and in the 1963/64 competition he became the only player to achieve a perfect score in the event. My 60 Memorable Games, which Fischer authored in 1969, is widely considered one of the greatest pieces of chess literature. He made valuable contributions to opening theory and was renowned for his opening preparation and endgame technique alike.

Fischer is best remembered, however, for his win at the 1972 World Championship, defeating Boris Spassky in the most famous match of modern times. From 1970 to 1971, Fischer won 20 consecutive games in world championship qualifying events—an all-time record. These included victories over world-class players such as Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen. After defeating former world champion Tigran Petrosian in the 1971 Candidates Match, there was a record 125-point differential between the ratings of number-one ranked player Fischer and Spassky, the second-ranked player. The first non-Soviet player to earn the title in 24 years, Fischer won the championship after 21 games. His thrilling rise to the top of the world of chess and his landmark victory in the “Match of the Century” greatly increased the popularity of chess in the United States. Fischer’s world championship win was especially impressive considering that the American player lacked the state support that the Soviet Union offered to its champions. While there were only 5000 registered players in the United States in 1960, there were five million in the Soviet Union during the same year, making training for his eventual world championship run even more challenging.

The U.S. Chess Trust

Larry C Morris NYTimes at the Manhattan Chess Club in 1971, a crowd gathered around a speed match between Bobby Fischer (left) and Andrew Soltis

A Story of Chess (Especially in America)

Chess originated from the two-player Indian war game, Chatarung, which dates back to 600 A.D. In 1000 A.D, chess spread to Europe by Persian traders. The piece next to the king was called a ferz in Persian, defined as a male counselor to the king. The Europeans concocted a more romantic imagery, and changed the ferz to a queen.

At that time, the queen was the weakest piece on the board. The bishop was also a short-range piece. Because the queen and bishop were so weak, the game was much slower than it is today. It took a long time for a player to develop the pieces and even longer to checkmate the enemy king.

Medieval chessplayers often started out with midgame starting positions to speed up the game. Medieval chess was extremely popular. Sometimes, a game of chess was used an excuse to allow a young man and woman intimate time alone. At the end of the 15th century, the rules underwent a sudden sea change. The queen transformed from the weakest piece on the board to the strongest! At the same time, the bishop became the long-range piece that it is today. These changes quickened the games pace. The battle was intensified. Mistakes were harshly punished, tabiyas were no longer necessary, and violent checkmates were executed much more often than before. The inventor of these changes is unknown probably the new rules were not thought up by an individual, but came about from collective experimentation. These new rules were standardized by the 16th century advent of mass production and the printing press. The faster paced game was more suitable for organized play, chess notation, codified rules, and strategy books.

American chess was fortuitously trumpeted by founding father and chess aficionado Benjamin Franklin, who in 1750 penned The Morals of Chess.Franklins article praises the social and intellectual development that chess inspires. Franklin himself was known to while many hours away on chess, especially against beautiful women.

Paul Morphy, born in 1837 in New Orleans is hailed as the first American chess legend. After winning the 1857 American Chess Congress, Morphy accepted an invitation to Europe to take on the best players in England, France, and Germany. He crushed Adolph Anderssen, who was considered to be Europes leading player. There was no world championship at the time, but Paul Morphy was unofficially acknowledged as the best player of his time. He was the first American to be recognized as the best in a cultural or intellectual field. Paul Morphy quit chess soon after returning from Europe, and attempted to start a law practice. He was unsuccessful, and later went mad, believing that friends and family were out to kill him. He died at 1884 of a stroke while taking his customary midday bath.

The first U.S Championship was held in 1845, and the first womens championship was held in 1937. The National Chess Federation, which promoted many of these tournaments, later became the USCF, officially founded in 1939.

In 1972 USCF membership doubled due to interest in Bobby Fischer’s rise to the World Championship. Bobby Fischer was born in Brooklyn in 1943, learned the rules at 6 and became the youngest ever U.S Champion in 1957. He played Boris Spassky for the World Championship in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a theatrical match involving scene changes, last minute no-shows and prima-donna-like requests to change the lighting, the height of the toilets, etc. Spassky added little of the aforementioned drama! It is the most celebrated match in chess history, touted as a Cold War intellectual battle. Fischer won the match 12.5-8.5. Shortly after, Fischer followed in the footsteps of Morphy and dropped out of chess. He now lives in Iceland. There is a U.S. warrant for his arrest because in1992 he played a $3-million rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, violating Washingtons prohibition on American’s doing business there. He is also wanted for tax evasion.

Today the USCF organizes, promotes chess around the country, publishes the most widely read chess magazine in the world, Chess Life, and maintains and updates a ratings database for over 100,000 players. U.S. Scholastic chess is booming. Thousands of children compete each year in national scholastic tournaments. The 2005 SuperNationals, held in Nashville, TN, hit a record high of 5230 participants!

The following is a list of the USCF Presidents & Executive Directors throughout its history from 1939-2007:

USCF Presidents & Executive Directors

  • President, George Sturgis (1940-1942)
  • President, Elbert Wagner (1943-1947)
  • President, Paul Giers (1948-1950)
  • President, Harold Phillips (1951-1954) / Executive Director, Ken Harkness (1953-1960)
  • President, Frank Graves (1955-1957) / Executive Director, Ken Harkness (1953-1960)
  • President, Jerry Spann (1958-1960) / Executive Directors, Ken Harkness (1953-1960), Frank Brady (1960-1961)
  • President, Fred Kramer (1961-1963) / Executive Directors, Frank Brady (1960-1961), Joseph Reinhardt (1962-1963)
  • President,Ed Edmondson (1964-1966) / Executive Director, Ed Edmondson (1965-1976)
  • President, Marshall Rohland (1967-1969) / Executive Director, Ed Edmondson (1965-1976)
  • President, Leroy Dubeck (1970-1972) / Executive Director, Ed Edmondson (1965-1976)
  • President, Frank Skoff (1973-1975) / Executive Director, Ed Edmondson (1965-1976)
  • President, Geo Koltanowski (1976-1978) / Executive Director, Ed Edmondson (1965-1976)
  • President, Gary Sperling (1977-1981) / Executive Directors, Martin Morrison (1977-1978), Richard Meyerson (1978), Gerald Dullea (1979-1987)
  • President, Tim Redman (1982-1984) / Executive Director, Gerald Dullea (1979-1987)
  • President, Steve Doyle (1985-1987) / Executive Director, Gerald Dullea (1979-1987)
  • President, Harold Winston (1988-1990) / Executive Director, Al Lawrence (1988-1996)
  • President, Maxim Dlugy (1991-1993) / Executive Director, Al Lawrence (1988-1996)
  • President, Denis Barry (1994-1996) / Executive Director, Al Lawrence (1988-1996)
  • President, Donald Schultz (1997-1999) / Executive Director, Mike Cavallo ( 1997-1999)
  • President, Bob Smith (1999-2000) / Executive Director, George De Feis (2000-2002)
  • President, Tim Redman (2000-2001) / Executive Director, George De Feis (2000-2002)
  • President, John McCrary (2000-2003) / Executive Director, George De Feis (2000-2002) , Frank Niro (2002-2003)
  • President, Beatriz Marinello (2003-2005) / Executive Director, Bill Goichberg (2004-2005)
  • President, Bill Goichberg (2005) / Executive Director, Bill Goichberg (2005)

Internet Chess & Computer Technology

The most important development in chess in the past decade has been Internet chess and computer technology. There are numerous Internet chess venues such as the ICC and yahoo chess in which amateurs and professionals practice their openings, network and compete for cash prizes and rating points. ChessBase software allows any serious player to access a database of over 2 million games. Before the rounds of major tournaments, players frantically search their opponents games on ChessBase, hoping to determine their opponents chess style or which openings they favor.

Press coverage of computer peaked in 1997, when the Deep Blue computer developed by IBM defeated Garry Kasparov. Garry lost by the narrowest of margins, 2.5-3.5, and played well below his standard in the critical game. Still, many consider this match to be the death knell of humans’ chances when playing against computers. The silicon beats are not permitted to play in most international and U.S. championships.

The future of American chess is promising. Chess is increasingly covered by mainstream media, and since the game has rarely appeared on U.S. television, there is room for growth here. Another untapped chess market is the female population. Right now only 3-5% of USCF members are women. Raising this number would substantially increase USCF membership and also improve the image of chess. Schools across the country are adopting chess as part of the regular curriculum. The United States Chess Federation, and its presence in and Chess Life magazine hope to raise the profile of chess all over the country, for every demographic.

Related Historical Readings

The Birth of the Chess Queen (2004) by Marilyn Yalom Feminist historian Marilyn Yalom examines the cultural contexts of the queen’s birth and metamorphosis to the strongest piece on the board.

Bobby Fischer Profile of a Prodigy (1973) by Frank Brady – Eloquent biography of Bobby Fischer, written by Dr. Frank Brady, a long time American chess supporter and organizer.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War ( 2004) Detailed account of the 1972 match between Fischer and Spassky, written by the best-selling authors of Wittgensteins Poker.

U.S Chess Championship 1845-1996 by Andrew Soltis and Gene McCormick- a history of the most prestigious event in America.