Classic Game – Fischer v Spassky WCh 1972 (Game 6)

A Game of Placid Beauty!

This game is famous for a few reasons:

  • Fischer was a 1.e4 player and had the maxim "best by test". Despite his opponents having the chance to prepare against Fischer's certain 1.e4 throughout his career, he would play it with great success - Fischer's opening knowledge was superb.

    Here in game six of the world championship (with the scores tied at 2.5-2.5), the opening preparation of Spassky went "out the window", to quote Susan Polgar in the documentary "Bobby Fischer against the World".

  • Placid Beauty

    Antony Saidy called this game - "A game of placid beauty"

  • The game is a technical marvel. Spassky makes no serious errors (no blunders) and most of his moves are very logical. However, white's technique is so good that he is reduced to poor passive defence.
  • The game is very instructive in terms of developing an attack methodically (creating and capitalising on open lines, development and knowing when to exchange).

    The exchange sacrifice at the end is a beautiful, albeit a natural finish to a wonderful game.

The Game

[Event "Reykjavik 1972"] [White "Fischer, Robert J"] [Black "Spassky, Boris"] [Site "Reykjavik 1972"] [Result "1-0"] [Date "1972"] 1. c4! {This was a huge move - for a player who relied entirely on a repertoire of 1.e4, this was a gamble!}1...e6 2. Nf3 d5 {Spassky chooses a very solid line, laying his claim to the centre} 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bg5 O-O 6. e3 h6 {In many lines, this is a useful move for black, not least because it eliminates any later back-rank ideas} 7. Bh4 b6 8. cxd5 {It may seem more natural to develop the Bishop with 8. Bd3 - however, in many lines, black wants to play the trade ...dxc4 opening up the a8-h1 diagonal to his Bishop. Fischer clarifies the position instead of losing a tempo after 8.Bd3 dxc4 9. Bxc4 Bb7 where the loss of time gives black a better game than in the chosen line} 8... Nxd5 9. Bxe7 (9. Bg3 {and like the 8.Bd3?! line above, white is wasting time - Fischer must have seen this going into 8. cxd5}) 9...Qxe7 10. Nxd5 {The dynamics of the position are interesting - the main conflict is between white's knight on c3 and the black knight on d5 - which should be exchanged? White would get a nice pawn structure, say after 10 Bd3 Nxc3 11. bxc3 but suddenly the half-open c-file is gone and black has more freedom to play a later ...c5, maybe preceded by ...Nd7 - the black queen may also monopolise the queenside with Qa3 later and black can consider endgame goals of converting the a-b-c pawns at a later stage. Fischer decides therefore, before black also has chance to answer Nxd5 with Bxd5, say after 10. Bd3 Bb7 11. Nxd5 Bxd5 to close off the a8-h1 diagonal. The remainder of the game is very instructive to show how Fischer never lets Spassky get any kind of grip on Q-side activity} 10...exd5 11. Rc1 {immediately making ...c5 less attractive and getting the half-open c-file. This develops the most appropriate piece.} 11...Be6 (11...Qb4 12. Qd2 {after the trade c7 is weak and a big target. If instead, the queen retreats, white has developed even further whilst black has wasted two moves - white should have an edge}) (11...Nd7? 12. Rxc7)(11...Bb7 {is solid but the Bishop is not on a great diagonal and it's still a hassle to get the knight into the game.}) 12. Qa4 {A few idea behind this move. 1. It is not needed for any king-side duties so it goes to the Q-side. 2. The knight on b8 can't get into the game and the light squares around black's queenside are controlled by white. 3. Basic development - the queen occupies a more useful square than d1} 12... c5 {Spassky tries to get some control of the centre and open the game. He is castled so this is safe and once there is activity for all his pieces, it could be hard to win this for white. However...} 13. Qa3! {1. Exploiting a pin against e7 2. Attacking c5 with another piece} 13... Rc8 {Spassky lends support to c5 but already the development of Black is starting to get very difficult} (13...Nd7 {may have been better to get the last minor piece into the game with about an equal game}) 14. Bb5 {1. Development - it's the last minor piece for white. It's been left this long for good reason - all the preceding moves have served a higher purpose. 2. Going to b5 to keep an eye on that diagonal and also to entice...} 14... a6 {Spassky of course knew he could not take the bishop but a6 creates some space for his rook on a8 with the plan Ra8-a7 and some control of the 7th and supporting the knight getting into the game} 15. dxc5 bxc5 {A nice idea to give black three pawn islands (a6, c5-d5 and f7-g7-h6) to white's two (a2-b2 and e3-f2-g2-h2) - Any pawn ending is likely to favour white already. It will also be hard for black to get both rooks onto the d and c file without interfering with development - white can do it in two moves, should he wish 1.0-0 and 2. Rfd1} 16. O-O Ra7 17. Be2 {the pin is broken so the bishop has to retreat. e2 is a natural square, supporting the knight and leaving a clear path for Rfd1 (on d3 black may have later ideas of ...d4)} 17...Nd7 18. Nd4 {white exploits yet another pin and gets ready to trade off the knight for the bishop. Whilst it isn't the most open position, Fischer soon sets into motion a plan to blow the centre wide open!} 18... Qf8 19. Nxe6 fxe6 20. e4 d4 (20...dxe4 {and black has 4 isolated pawns that white can pick off at will}) 21. f4 {part of the plan to open up the position and give maximum coverage to the bishop} 21... Qe7 22. e5 {taking away good squares from the knight and halting e6 so a later f5 has to be met with some exchange of the e pawn, leading to an open position - without e5 first, a later f5 could run into ...e5 and the closed position massively favours the knight} 22... Rb8 23. Bc4 Kh8 24. Qh3 {hitting e6, supporting f5 and getting away from the Q-side where nothing is going on - b2 is loose but white has lots of activity in compensation} 24... Nf8 (24...Rxb2 25. Qxe6 Qxe6 26. Bxe6 {and white has a great march of the f and e pawns to come supported by the bishop, whereas the knight has no happy future. True black has the d and c pawns but they are already shaky - white threatens the simple Bxd7 when c5 is loose} 26...Rb5 27. Bc4! {and the black pawns are held in their tracks, whereas white's are ready to march!}) 25. b3 a5 26. f5 exf5 {27. f6 was threatened, exploding black's defence!} 27. Rxf5 Nh7 28. Rcf1 Qd8 29. Qg3 Re7 30. h4 Rbb7 31. e6 {passed pawns must be pushed and it is so well supported - absolute thorn in black's side!} 31... Rbc7 32. Qe5 {just look at all white's pieces - they couldn't be on better squares!} 32...Qe8 33. a4 Qd8 34. R1f2 Qe8 35. R2f3 Qd8 36. Bd3 {closing in on the other useful light diagonal} 36... Qe8 37. Qe4 Nf6 38. Rxf6! {Absolutely - black's entire defence relies on this move - so get rid of the defender - black's other pieces are just observers now!} 38... gxf6 39. Rxf6 Kg8 40. Bc4 Kh8 41. Qf4
(Click on the save icon in the game window to download a PGN of the game!)

How this game has been shown on Film

In the movie "Pawn Sacrifice", this game is a special focal point. The emphasis of the opening move c4 stuns the commentators. Fischer remains relaxed throughout and is rewarded by a standing ovation from Spassky.

In "Bobby Fischer Against the World", it's also remarked how Fischer considered Spassky's conduct at losing this game the mark of a truly great sportsman.

In spite of Spassky's loss here, he had already been immortalised in the James Bond Film From Russia with Love showing his stunning win over Bronstein in 1960.

Key Lessons from the Game?

We would like to focus on three particular ideas from this game which are quite instructive:
  1. Exchanging the right pieces at the right time
  2. Bishop against knight
  3. Final exchange sacrifice

Piece Exchanges

This is a common dilemma - do we exchange or not and which pieces should we exchange and when?

We have two possible exchanges to consider in this position:
Exchange of Bishop for Bishop; and exchange of Knight for Knight.

How should we approach this?

  1. Avoid obvious errors
  2. Evaluate which exchanges are best and whether white or black should execute it
Firstly, there are obvious errors to avoid, since the bishop is attacked twice and defended once. (9. e4?? Nxc3 10. bxc3 Bxh4 and black wins a piece).

We should decide which trades we want to make. Let's look at the imbalances in the position.

For White:

  • Ownership of the half-open c-file
  • Castle king-side (half-open c file and bishop pair make queenside castling less likely)
  • Development lead so ownership of more space and squares

For Black:

  • Open lines already for the bishops to get into the game
  • Safe, castled king
  • If unopposed, black will complete development and equalise

In the given position, if black exchanges the pieces (e.g. ..Bxh4 or ..Nxc3) it is to their benefit as Nxh4 takes a white knight away from centre losing time and bxc3 looks strong but the pawns on c3-d4-e3 protect black's development from the attack on these files, particularly the half-open c-file.

White wants to make the exchanges but which ones?

If he doesn't exchange the bishop, he must either accept the ...Nxc3 line or go in for the complications after 1. Nxd5 where black can choose between

1...Bxh4 2. Nxc7!? Bxf2+ 3. Kxf2 Qxc7 and whilst white's losing castling rights isn't too bad, black has exchanged some pieces and released some positional tension and equalised or the prosiac:


Fischer chose 9. Bxe7 Qxe7 (9...Nxe7 closes lines and un-develops a good piece) 10. Nxd5 exd5 where he maintained a small advantage. Specifically the light-squared bishop and b8-knight have a hard time developing.

Bishop v Knight

It was a commital decision to go into this line as there is not so much differentiating the white and black position. Fischer spends some effort now on blasting open the centre, to ensure the bishop exerts maximum control.

The next three moves are e4!, f4 and e5! This fixes the white pawns on dark squares, gains space and ensures the eventual f5 break has maximum effect.

Exchange sacrifice

[Event "Converting a winning ending"] [Site "Chess Toolkit (Author = TQM.)"] [Date "2017.02.19"] [Round ""] [White "Fischer, Robert J"] [Black "Spassky, Boris"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "N/A"] [Annotator "TQM"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "4q2k/2r1r1p1/4Pn1p/p1p2R2/P2pQ2P/1P1B1R2/6P1/6K1"] [PlyCount "44"] [EventDate "2017.02.19"] [EventType "Endgame Study"] [EventCountry "GB"] 1. Rf6 gxf6 2. Rxf6 Kg8 3. Bc4 Kh8 4. Qf4 {and the queen and rook will win h6 and guarantee the win of further material}
Spassky executes the best defence but Fischer removes the best defender for a forced win. The sequence is not 100% obvious to lead to the final position but the exchange sac is tempting for general reasons too:
  1. The defensive pieces are much more passive than the attackers
  2. The white pieces are optimally developed whereas the defenders are not
  3. The value of the minor piece (knight) in this position massively outweighs the value of having both rooks for the attacker

Other games from the 1972 World Championship

All Games from the 1972 World Championship

Re-live the drama of Reykjavik! The entire 1972 game collection is available here.
We will also see in a later article how things panned out when they met again in 1992!

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