Mike Rowbottom

Tomorrow, in central London, Norway's defending world chess champion Magnus Carlsen will start the defence of his title against US challenger Fabiano Caruana. The 12-game match will be played at The College, in Holborn, under the auspices of an international organisation with the most inapt of mottos, namely "Gens Una Sumus" - We Are One People.

Since its inception in 1924, the World Chess Federation, or FIDE as it is known, has been riven by all manner of argument, controversy and political manoeuvring.

All the way up to the Second World War there was wrangling over how the world title should be contested, and who should contest it, with players vouchsafing their future schedules like heavyweight boxers.

A successful new start was made in 1948 when a contest for the vacant title involving the eight best players of the time produced an undisputed champ - Mikhail Botvinnik of the Soviet Union. And for 20 years there was a stable system of challenge matches which produced a succession of Soviet Union champions with Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian taking their turn at the top.

And then came Bobby Fischer. We will come back to him. But at this point I want to "castle" and continue with the tale of Divided People.

The epic sequence of five world title matches between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov between 1984 and 1990 produced scenes of extraordinary mistrust and rancour.

Five world title matches between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov between 1984 and 1990 generated a large amount of mistrust and controversy ©Getty Images
Five world title matches between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov between 1984 and 1990 generated a large amount of mistrust and controversy ©Getty Images

In 1993, Kasparov, whose relations with FIDE had always been testy at best, established a rival organisation, the Professional Chess Association, which conducted its own World Championship. There were thus rival world champions for 13 years until a reunion match was agreed and the Championship passed back into the purlieu of FIDE.

In more recent years, FIDE has endured a crisis at the top after its President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was placed on the US sanction list on November 25 in 2015 after being accused of facilitating transactions on behalf of the Syrian Government.

The situation came to a head in February this year when FIDE's Swiss bank, UBS, announced it would close their account following Ilyumzhinov's failure to remove himself from the sanctions list over a period of two years.

Last month saw the election of a new President, Arkady Dvorkovich, formerly the deputy Prime Minister of Russia. It looks as if FIDE may be heading for a period of stability.

Especially as the latest world title challenger, Caruana, has not kicked up a stink over the level of prize money on offer, or the unacceptability of the proposed match venue - as did Fischer back in 1972 ahead of what is still probably the best remembered world title challenge of all time against the then Soviet incumbent, Boris Spassky…

Fischer had been acclaimed as a chess genius ten years earlier, but after failing to earn the position of challenger for the title he claimed that the Soviet bloc had effectively frozen him and any other non-Soviets - but mostly and primarily him - from winning by agreeing to draw against each other.

According to reports, this was confirmed in 2002 by the man who had headed the Soviet team, Yuri Averbakh.

Fischer, meanwhile, said he would never again participate in a Candidates Tournament as he felt the format, combined with the alleged collusion, made it impossible for a non-Soviet player to win.

As a result of the controversy, FIDE altered the format of the event, replacing the round-robin system with a series of elimination matches.

US chess player Bobby Fischer, a troubled genius, arrives in Reykjavik in 1972 for what would be the best remembered world title challenge in history against Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union ©Getty Images
US chess player Bobby Fischer, a troubled genius, arrives in Reykjavik in 1972 for what would be the best remembered world title challenge in history against Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union ©Getty Images  

It took 10 years for Fischer and the world governing body to coincide, but by 1972 he had earned the right to challenge Spassky for the title.

The Cold War background meant the meeting resonated internationally and it was seen in terms of a lone American challenging a Soviet chess system that had dominated the world for more than a quarter of a century.

After agreeing to play in Yugoslavia, Fischer raised a series of objections and Reykjavik, in Iceland, became the final venue. Even then Fischer raised difficulties, mainly over money. It took a phone call from the United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a doubling of the prize fund by financier Jim Slater to persuade him to play.

Slater's bonus brought the prize money up to an unprecedented $250,000 (£192,000/€219,000) - worth around $1.46 million (£1.12 million/€1.28 million) in today's terms.

Fischer was keeping himself trim with tennis and swimming part of his preparation, but his challenge almost ended before it began as he played rashly to lose the first match, then forfeited the second over a dispute about the playing conditions.

With the meteoric and unpredictable challenger apparently poised to call the whole thing off, Spassky - a comparatively placid and normal human being - agreed to Fischer's demand that the third game be played in a back room, away from the television cameras.

What had already been billed as the Match of the Century was turning into an irresistible human drama which took a grip on the public imagination that no other world chess challenge before or since has managed to do.

I can speak personally here. As a nascent and hugely unpromising chess player I was involved to the point where I extended my scrapbook logging duties from athletics and football (West Ham United and England) to what Fischer once memorably described as "war over the board", the object being "to crush the opponent's mind".

I am reading now the report from the Radio Times on the struggle the BBC had to interview "the highly temperamental chess genius who for the past ten years has been declaring himself to be the best player the game has ever seen" for their preview programme "This Little Thing Between Me and Spassky".

How Time viewed the impending chess
How Time viewed the impending chess "Match of the Century" in 1972 between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer ©ITG

The producer, Bob Toner, describes the long wait endured in an Amsterdam hotel seeking to speak with Fischer. "Fischer is a complete loner," he said. "He talks to nobody and he doesn't listen. Chess is his whole world. It is all he lives for, and people are mere incidentals."

When the complete loner eventually assents to an interview with James Burke, he clams up - until Burke mentions the NASA space programme, with which he is fascinated, and all proceeds happily for an hour….

Fischer's erratic performance in game one is assessed by The Guardian's chess correspondent, Leonard Barden. "Spassky is one up, and Fischer has lost by a schoolboy error in a drawn position," he writes. "Was it hallucination or a case of crossed wires in the brain of a human computer?"

My own account of game two reads: "This game went automatically to Spassky. An hour after the match was scheduled Fischer still had not turned up, therefore Spassky became the winner after moving P-K4 and waiting. There was a dispute over the television cameras. Fischer claimed that they put him off."

As the third match tipped Fischer's way, Spassky's psychologist Nikolai Krogius comments: "It is remarkable that Fischer could come back and play so strongly after all the drama before today."

A report from correspondent Michael Lake explains how Fischer, despite being disadvantaged by having the black pieces, effectively won his match before sealing his 41st move in an envelope overnight. The next day Spassky had thought better of the side room - where there was continuous noise from traffic and children playing at the back of the theatre - and successfully argued for the match to return to the main hall.

However, the cameras that had been recording the action exclusively therein were banished - much to the chagrin of the exclusive rights holder.

Fischer now began to forge ahead. 

His victory in game six was so audacious that it provoked a hurricane of applause from the audience - and even Spassky joined in. Fischer was reported by his camp to have been "touched" by this - but at the time he did not acknowledge it in any way. War over the board.

At the start of the 17th game, with Spassky down 9½-6½, the mood changed. The Soviet player's seconds circulated a letter accusing the American of using "non-chess means".

"Mr Fischer's numerous 'whims', his demands to the organisers, his constant late arrivals, his demands to play in the closed room etc, have been deliberately aimed at exercising pressure on the opponent, unbalancing Mr Spassky and making him lose his fighting spirit," they claimed.

The mood shifted again as Boris Spassky's camp complained about Bobby Fischer employing
The mood shifted again as Boris Spassky's camp complained about Bobby Fischer employing "non-chess" means ©ITG

The second also said he had received letters saying "electronic devices and chemical substance" inside the hall were being used to influence Spassky. The letters additionally mention Fischer's chair, which it was claimed he "twirls and swivels like a pendulum to hypnotise Spassky". There was suspicion too over the special lighting that had been established over the stage at US request...

Fischer responded to this bold gambit with one of his own - insisting the match would have once more to resume in the noisy little room. Spassky was not having that. 

The organisers rushed to smooth the troubled waters, removing the front two rows of seating near where the players sat, and moving two further rows backwards. Play resumed.

When Spassky resigned by letter in the 21st game, the title was won by the American, by 12½-8½ points.

"What happens to chess when Fischer is champion?" asked Barden. "A large new public has become aware of the game as a competitive sport rather than a gentle intellectual pastime."

That legacy is about to become evident once again.