We all know about the famous world championship match that resulted in Bobby Fischer becoming World Champion, but many people do not know the incredible effort and high-quality play it took for Bobby Fischer to earn the right to play Boris Spassky in the first place.
Along the way, he needed to defeat two powerful Soviet chess players, including a former world chess champion, and one of the strongest players outside the Soviet Union. The ease with which he disposed of these three top players can mislead us into thinking they were not very good.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and all three players he defeated are remembered today as some of the strongest players of the mid-twentieth century. They were Mark Taimanov, Bent Larsen, and Tigran Petrosian!
Bobby Fischer Versus Mark Taimanov Candidates Quarterfinal
The first challenge waiting for Fischer after the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal was Mark Taimanov, after whom the Sicilian Taimanov is named.
This quarterfinal match occurred in Vancouver, Canada, from May 16th to June 1st, 1971.
Fischer would receive unexpected help from the decadence of the West that so many Soviet leaders spoke of during the Cold War. Mark Taimanov found the opportunity to purchase items unavailable in the Soviet Union so irresistible he unwisely decided to save money on his food bill.
Taimanov’s seconds, Balashov and Vasiukov, used their allowance of $11 a day to buy groceries. They had a kitchen in their room and cooked for him during the match.
Ignoring the advice of his seconds not to economize too much would lead to serious health problems for Taimanov. After game three, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and granted two rest days after completing game two.
Game two was such a long game it got spread out over three days and completed after Taimanov lost game three. There were two adjournments during game two, and losing game three before finishing this game would not have placed Taimanov in a good frame of mind.
Winning the first four games meant the match was effectively decided in Fischer’s favor.
However, in game five, Taimanov showed what he was capable of and played an excellent game. Fischer managed to reach a drawn position when the game got adjourned and won thanks to a blunder in this critical position:
Taimanov blundered the rook with 46.Rxf6?? and after 46…Qd4+ 47.Rf2 Ra1+, the king, is forced to leave the rook undefended. Unsurprisingly, after 47…Ra1+ Taimanov resigned.
Mark Taimanov – Robert James Fischer, 1971.05.27, 0-1, Fischer – Taimanov Candidates Quarterfinal Round 5, Vancouver CAN
In game six, Taimanov could have won with 14…Ne7 and regained some pride. Instead, despite the high quality of chess played in the match, the 6-0 score would prove disastrous for Taimanov’s chess career.
After the event, Taimanov reportedly said, “At least I still have my music.”
On his return to the Soviet Union, Mark Taimanov had his grandmaster’s salary taken away from him and was deprived of his civil rights. He couldn’t travel abroad and he was censored in the press.
During this time, Taimanov separated from his first wife, Lyubov Bruk.
In an interview in 2002, Mark Taimanov said that despite the dramatic outcome, he regarded his match against Fischer as the culmination of his chess career.
Bobby Fischer versus Bent Larsen Candidates Semifinal
Two weeks after his victory over Mark Taimanov, Fischer’s next match against Bent Larsen started on July 6th, 1971.
Denver won the right to host the match over Los Angeles. Both players objected to having the match in Los Angeles upon hearing that the venue there would be a secondary school.
During the 1960s, Larsen did well in open events in the States. His experiences of matches with terrible financial conditions in Europe made Larsen eager to play in the States.
Colorado suited Larsen nicely because he’d won the U.S. Open in Aspen three years earlier.
The prize money was $2000 for the winner and $1200 for the loser. Neither player had a second because Larsen had never used one in his entire chess career, and Fischer hadn’t reached an agreement with Evans.
By winning game one, Fischer forced Larsen to eat his words. Ahead of the match, Larsen said, “I will cause as much pressure on Fischer as I can. I’m sure if he loses the first game, this will upset him.”
Robert James Fischer – Bent Larsen, 1971.07.06, 0-1, Fischer – Larsen Candidates Semifinal Round 1, Denver, CO USA
Larsen, like Taimanov, complained of high blood pressure. This time Larsen believed the excessive dry heat caused it. After losing game four, a doctor diagnosed Larsen with high blood pressure, and four rest days were given.
Fischer had no objections and kept fit by playing tennis despite the heat. Larsen would later write that he could only play the first game before the heat got to him.
In the end, missed opportunities for a draw and choosing to play for the win cost Larsen the match. After the match, Fischer said, “I played pretty well.”
Fischer had won the Candidates quarterfinal and semifinal in a clean sweep (6-0) against two of the world’s best players. Unsurprisingly the next match would prove more challenging against a former world champion.
Bobby Fischer Versus Tigran Petrosian Candidates Final
The first eight games in the other semifinal between Petrosian and Korchnoi were all draws. By this time, Fischer had defeated Larsen and was awaiting either Petrosian or Korchnoi.
Petrosian won game nine and drew the next to decide the match in his favor.
Many people alleged Korchnoi was asked to throw the match because it was believed Petrosian had a better chance against Fischer. Larsen did not believe the rumors and wrote, “This is incredible nonsense for me.”
Later, Anatoly Karpov would confirm the truth of this rumor and reveal that Korchnoi stepped aside. In return for stepping aside, Korchnoi got promised the chance to play in three major international tournaments.
The three international tournaments were in Hastings, Amsterdam, and Palma de Mallorca.
Buenos Aires Hosts the Candidates Final
The match between Petrosian and Fischer occurred in Buenos Aires, which edged out Belgrade. Buenos Aires offered $12000 to Belgrade’s $10000 and was Fischer’s preferred venue.
The match was scheduled to take place from September 30th – October 26th, 1971
Despite arriving in Buenos Aires suffering from the flu, Bobby Fischer refused to delay the start of the match due to illness.
During a press conference the day before the match started, Petrosian was asked if he thought the match would go the full twelve games. Annoyed by the question, Petrosian said it was possible he might win the match in less than twelve games.
Fischer was confident he would leave Buenos Aires the winner before the start of the 12th game.
The match got off to an exciting start when the first game got interrupted by the lights going out after Petrosian played 14…0-0-0. The lights would also go out again in game eight, but for a much shorter period.
Fischer remained seated at the board and responded badly with 15.Bc4 allowing 15…Rhg8. After 16.Rd1 it was Petrosian’s turn to blunder with 16…Bf5 instead of 16…Rxg2.
Petrosian would later say that in his preparation, he intended to play 16….Rxg2 but could not say at the time why he did not play the move.
Nowadays, chess engines favor 15.Bd3 instead of 15.Bc4, and give black a substantial advantage after 16…Rxg2.
Robert James Fischer – Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1971.09.30, 1-0, Fischer – Petrosian Candidates Final Round 1, Buenos Aires ARG
After losing game one, Petrosian leveled the match immediately by winning game two.
The next three games ended in draws, with Petrosian coming under fire from observers for heading straight for the draw with the white pieces in game four.
Observers Begin to Consider the Unthinkable
People were surprised by Fischer’s play thus far in the match, and many were considering a Petrosian versus Spassky match for the world chess championship.
Unfortunately for Petrosian, the Fischer who demolished Taimanov and Larsen reappeared at game six.
Initially, both players stayed at the same hotel, but Fischer decided to move to another hotel. Coinciding with this move, Petrosian began to slip into a bad mood despite holding his own in the match.
Fischer won the next two games, and Petrosian asked for a break due to illness. Something he refused to do earlier in the match.
The diagnosis this time was not the high blood pressure that plagued Taimanov and Larsen but low blood pressure.
When play resumed, Fischer only needed two more games to wrap up the match and finished with four consecutive wins – games six, seven, eight, and nine.
Robert James Fischer – Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1971.10.26, 1-0, Fischer – Petrosian Candidates Final Round 9, Buenos Aires ARG
Fischer won an astonishing seventeen of the twenty-one games in his three matches and suffered his only defeat in game two against Petrosian. He destroyed two of the strongest chess players along the way and proved his suspicions of the Soviet chess conspiracy were accurate.
Winning the World Championship is undoubtedly the highest honor in chess. Still, it should not detract from winning the Interzonal and Bobby Fischer’s excellent match play in the Candidates matches.
Mark Taimanov was unfortunate to run into Bobby Fischer at the height of his chess career, and Bent Larsen deserves credit for shunning draws and playing for a win.
There is more to becoming a chess legend than winning the world chess championship. Bobby Fischer is undoubtedly a chess legend, considering how strong our fascination with him remains after fifty years.
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