In 1948, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) organized the first Chess World Championship after WW2. Its winner was Mikhail Botvinnik. Further Chess World Champions were Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky. All of them represented the Soviet Union.

But in 1972, Spassky faced Robert James Fischer in the Match of the Century and lost. In the middle of the Cold War, with the Vietnam war still raging.

In an interview with Bill Kristol (I. Chess and Politics in Soviet Russia, Conversations with Bill Kristol, 2016), former Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov said

That’s why the Spassky defeat – Boris Spassky’s defeat in 1972 when Bobby Fischer took the crown from the hands of the Soviet Chess School. Since 1948, you know, chess title was firmly in the hands of Soviet players. This event was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War. Big intellectual victory for the United States, and you know, a hugely painful, almost insulting defeat for the Soviet Union, because Bobby Fischer was a great player but he was like a lonely warrior. A guy from Brooklyn taking on the mighty Soviet Chess School.

Kasparov calls it a crushing moment.

That's also quoted by Wikipedia, speaking of the "global significance of the match". And the Cold War timeline also includes it. But there's nothing further on it in the match article's section on the Aftermath (just about chess). So Kasparov's quote is all we got and he was born in 1963, i. e. was 9 years old when Fischer won the match.

Did the 1972 Chess World Championship influence the relationship between the USA and the Soviet Union and if so, how?

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    I should point out that Bill Kristol is famous among the US punditocracy for always being wrong. Seriously. A web search for "Bill Kristol is always wrong" today brought me hits from diverse sources such as Salon, the WaPo, an Austrian Economics website, The Federalist, and Rachel Maddow. Jon Stewart asked him to his face in an interview, "Are you ever right?" I've seen his continued employment cited as conclusive proof against meritocracy.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 25, 2019 at 14:47
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    @T.E.D. I quoted the transcript, but even when you listen to the interview (don't worry, it's right there at the beginning, maybe 1 min and 30 sec in), Kasparov himself said that, not Kristol. Jun 25, 2019 at 14:59
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    Ah, that's better. Kasparov these days mostly surfaces publicly to take calculated political digs at Putin and those who deal with him. Not a fan of Putin myself, but I always wonder exactly what chess move Kasparov is making with his statements (and that includes this one). Still, in my experience, even his punditry about US politics has a far better track record of accuracy than Kristol's.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 25, 2019 at 15:08
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    @T.E.D. Source seems to be Lucy Whitney's March 2017 article for The Cavalier Daily. Jun 26, 2019 at 13:15
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    @LarsBosteen - In Basketball and Soccer tap-ins count the same. Punditry, I'm not so sure...
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 26, 2019 at 14:00

1 Answer 1


Minimal, it would seem. Hype and temporary 'bragging rights' aside, the championship was politically (not to mention economically) insignificant compared to events which happened just before, during or shortly after, such as President Nixon's visit to Moscow in May 1972, SALT I / II, and the 1973 oil crisis. A period of US - Soviet détente was already underway and would continue until the late 1970s. Détente may have facilitated the Fischer - Spassky showdown, but the showdown had no discernible effect on détente, however big a news story it was at the time.

In the New Yorker article Game Theory: Spassky vs. Fischer revisited which reviews David Edmonds and John Eidinow's book Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time, professor and Pulitzer Prize for History winner Louis Menand notes that:

One possible reason for the world’s interest was the Cold War, and for most of their book Edmonds and Eidinow play up the Cold War aspects of the match. This makes it a little surprising when, at the end, they discount the whole idea.

In the words of the book's authors (Edmonds and Eidinow),

...the championship took place in the high blossoming of détente....Though almost all accounts of Fischer-Spassky couch the match in geopolitical terms, they are, in this respect, curiously misleading. The encounter might have been seen by the public and written up by the press as a cold war showdown, but in the kremlin and in the White House, East-West showdowns were not on the agenda.

According to the article, the authors argue that, on an official level, neither the Americans nor the Soviets were enamoured with their respective 'representatives':

American officials, on their side, regarded Fischer mainly with fear and loathing. [Then National Security advisor Henry] Kissinger’s intervention seems to have been motivated by personal interest in the game, rather than by grand strategy. The State Department informed the American chargé d’affaires in Reykjavík to spend no government resources on Fischer’s behalf, and the chargé’s own deepest desire was to get Fischer off the island as quickly as possible....

And, on the other side, Spassky was far from a typical Soviet-era athlete. He was a patriot, but a Russian patriot. He hated the Bolsheviks and had little respect for the Soviet system (though he was careful to extract the rewards to which he believed his accomplishments as a sportsman entitled him). It gave him pleasure to ignore advice offered by Soviet officials, and in Iceland he made his seconds and other handlers miserable with frustration by his insistence on doing things his own way.

Further, there was apparently no evidence that either the Americans or the Soviets tried anything 'underhand'; it seems that neither side thought the stakes were particularly high in terms of the Cold War:

Edmonds and Eidinow speculate vigorously, but they can’t find any proof that the K.G.B., or anyone on Fischer’s team, did anything underhanded. They also conclude, somewhat reluctantly, that official Soviet involvement in the match was not unusually intense, and that the press coverage was entirely non-ideological. This was, they properly note, a period of superpower détente.

As a consequence of losing,

Back in Moscow, Spassky and his team were subjected to a humiliating postmortem, and Spassky’s travel privileges were suspended (a standard Soviet response to failure in international competition).

Fischer, on the other hand,

was received in the U.S. as a national hero — Richard Nixon sent him a congratulatory telegram, inviting him to the White House.

But this was short-lived and

After...a few grudging public appearances,... Fischer went off the radar screen.

So, while the world may have been "hooked' for a while, only the game of chess seems to have been affected. The profile of chess rose in America, as it did in other countries. Fischer forfeited his title in 1975 and Anatoly Karpov dominated the chess scene for the next 10 years (1975-85).

If you are looking for a sporting event which did have an impact on political events, the best candidate would probably be the 1969 Football War between El Salvador and Honduras, but even here the football match in question was more a symptom of other, underlying, causes. Also of interest is the India–Pakistan cricket rivalry, but here the sport has generally served more to calm relations than inflame them (despite the intense rivalry).

  • Agreed. While the match made a lot of news at the time, it soon became clear that Fischer was, at best, eccentric, and unrepresentative of the US way of doing things, Jun 25, 2019 at 12:51
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    @JohnDallman: I would say that the US way of doing things is coming to resemble Fischer's modus operandi more and more closely!
    – TonyK
    Jun 25, 2019 at 18:16
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    There have also been times when politics impacted the outcome of a sporting event, most notoriously an event that happened the same year as the Fischer-Spassky match, namely the 1972 Olympic gold medal game in basketball.
    – C Monsour
    Jun 25, 2019 at 18:51
  • @CMonsour exactly. Never wonder why Americans distrust international bodies.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 26, 2019 at 0:52
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    On Spassky not being a supporter of the Soviet system, it's worth noting that he and Botvinnik were the only famous Soviet chess players who refused to sign the letter condemning Korchnoi for defecting in 1974. Subsequently, Spassky emigrated to France in 1976 and only moved back to Russia in 2012, long after the fall of the USSR. According to Wikipedia, he describes himself as "a Christian and a monarchist", two qualities that would definitely not have endeared him to the Soviet authorities.
    – C Monsour
    Feb 28, 2021 at 14:19

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