Fischer’s Opening Strategy in Reykjavik

To mark the 50-year anniversary of Fischer’s triumph in Reykjavik, I am publishing the full text of my analysis of his openings in the “Match of the Century.” It was first published in the September issue of British Chess Magazine and it was based on my previous writing of my weekly newsletter.

Let’s start with his openings with the black pieces.

Fischer started the match with the Ragozin, a surprising choice as he dropped that opening in 1961, but I am convinced that he was counting on Spassky transposing to a Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian. I am also convinced that he was sure that Spassky, faced with a surprise, would follow his own old game with Krogius from 1958, which he duly did. And in an obscure side-line following the game Spassky-Krogius, Fischer improved on move 14 to reach an equal endgame. The very first game showed that Fischer studied Spassky to the tiniest detail and could read his choices easily.

Then came the Benoni in Game 3. An epic game undoubtedly, but as the book “Russians vs Fischer” showed Fischer was walking on thin ice here. The book discovers that Spassky knew the best way to react to the incredible 11…Nh5, yet he spent masses of time (23 minutes on 12.Bh5) and chose an alternative plan which gave Black excellent play. It is quite perplexing that the World Champion wouldn’t trust his preparation in a match for the title!

The fact that Fischer chose the Benoni in Game 3, after trailing 0-2, shows his infinite belief that he was the stronger player. Many sources state that he was visibly nervous before the game, but he still played for a win with Black against the man who until that moment was beating him 4-0 with White, without draws!

The surprises continued in Game 5, when in another Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian Fischer employed the plan made popular by Portisch and Huebner. Fischer’s usual preference in the Rubinstein Nimzo was the move 4…b6 (for which Spassky probably prepared the lines with 5 Bg5, hence his move order of 4 Nf3 instead of the direct 4 e3), but for the match he prepared both the main line as in Game 1 and also the relatively unexplored Portisch/Huebner plan. After only 3 Black games it was apparent that Fischer prepared a lot of new lines and he kept on surprising Spassky by playing variations he’s never played before.

The use of a recently developed plan was not new for Fischer. In the second game of his semi-final match with Petrosian he used Hort’s move 7…Ne4 in the Grunfeld with 4.Bf4, introduced in the Palma Interzonal where he played. Fischer misplayed the opening later on, but subsequent games showed the viability of Hort’s idea.

In the cases when he played variations he had played before he encountered problems. The only exception was Game 7, where Spassky seemed to botch up his preparation in the Poisoned Pawn. The repeat of the Poisoned Pawn led to a disaster in Game 11 and even the main line with 7…Be7 led him to a lost position in view of Spassky’s superior preparation.

In contrast to his responses to 1 d4, Fischer started the match confident in his usual Najdorf and didn’t try to surprise Spassky, but the problems he faced forced him to apply the same surprise-based strategy against 1.e4 in the second half of the match when Spassky moved to 1.e4 exclusively.

Game 9 saw Spassky’s last attempt at 1.d4 and again he was met with a surprise. Fischer successfully used the Semi-Tarrasch in Game 8 of his semi-final match against Petrosian and this time he again introduced a novelty. The time spent on the moves is also curious: after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Fischer spent 8 minutes on 4…c5 (perhaps wondering whether to repeat the Ragozin/Nimzo from Game 1 with 4…Bb4) and after 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 spent 1 minute on 8…Nc6 (instead of the more usual 8…Bb4) and after 9.Bc4 (8 minutes by Spassky) whole 20 minutes on his innovation 9…b5. Later analysis showed that this is dubious and the modern treatment of the Semi-Tarrasch, as played by Kramnik, sees the development of the knight to d7 rather than c6. Still, Fischer’s surprise worked and the game was the shortest draw of the match (29 moves).

We see now that Spassky generally played 1.d4 in the first half of the match and he was met with continuous changes of openings and lines by Fischer, often never played by him before. This meant that the opening initiative was almost always with Fischer. 

As a result of this Spassky switched completely to 1.e4 in the second half of the match.

The change of strategy led to an immediate success in Game 11, Fischer’s only catastrophy in the match. This was the first time he repeated an opening, the Poisoned Pawn from Game 7, but this time Spassky was ready and the punishment was severe.

This serious setback forced Fischer to implement the same strategy of changing his openings after 1.e4 as well. But this was more problematic for him because playing almost only the Najdorf since the US Championship in 1963 he had less solid openings at his disposal.

Fischer’s choices of the Alekhine and the Pirc in games 13, 17 and 19 were the most puzzling for me in the whole match, due to several reasons. Even though Fischer played the Alekhine on several occassions in 1970, the opening is far from being solid enough for a World Championship match. And the Pirc even less so! Yet he still played them in 3 games.

I remember reading an interesting observation that Fischer didn’t know how to play solidly for equality, that he always needed dynamism and activity. Thinking along these lines, this was the only reasonable explanation I could find to explain his choices of those openings. 

The Alekhine Defence in Game 13 saw a very poor reaction by Spassky. His improvisation on move 7 in a very-well know theoretical position (7.Nbd2 on which he spent 17 minutes) was of low quality. It is surprising that on both first occassions with an opening (the Poisoned Pawn in Games 7 and 11 and the Alekhine in Games 13 and 19) Spassky reacted badly! And as “Russians vs Fischer” tells us, he was excellently prepared for all the openings! Puzzling indeed.

In Game 15 Fischer returned to the Najdorf and didn’t venture again in the Poisoned Pawn, choosing the line with 7…Be7. In view of Spassky’s superior preparation he was close to losing after the opening. This was another surprising choice because later Fischer would say that approximately after Game 13 he started to play safe, stopped looking for chances and was leaving it to Spassky to beat him. No reason not to trust him, but how does that go along with his opening choices with Black?

Game 17 and the Pirc Defence was perhaps the strangest choice. First about the move-order. After 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Fischer went 2…g6. This begs several questions to be asked: why did he allow the King’s Indian that would have most probably arisen after 3 c4 (and he didn’t play it in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing 1.d4)? Since Spassky was sticking to 1.e4 did he really know Spassky so well that he trusted him he wouldn’t switch to a 1.d4 opening once he abandoned them? And what was he trying to achieve by playing 2…g6 instead of 2…Nf6? The only explanation I could come up with for the last question was that he was avoiding 2…Nf6 3.f3, as Spassky played against Jansson in 1971.

To continue with the questions, did he intend something else after 3.c4 instead of a normal KID transposition, by leaving the knight on g8? And after Spassky’s 3.Nc3 (on which he spent 4 minutes, probably thinking to KID or not to KID) Fischer spent 4 minutes on 3…Nf6. Why? The only obvious alternative is 3…Bg7, so again, what was he trying to avoid?

The following few moves and the times spent on them continue to be mysterious. Being faced with an obvious surprise by Fischer, Spassky again, as in Game 1, chose a line from his youth, one he played only once in his life, in 1960 in Mar del Plata (incidentally a tournament where Fischer also played) – Fischer’s own pet line, the Austrian Attack. After 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 Fischer sank into a 15-minute think before choosing 5…c5. When playing the Austrian Attack with White Fischer convincingly demonstrated the strength of the line 5…0-0 6 Bd3, winning several good games with it. So it is perhaps understandable that he wanted to avoid it with Black, but why spend 15 minutes on that decision?

The game was very important theoretically and it established the best way to play for Black in that line of the Pirc (namely to play …Bg4 before White can prevent it by h3) and it was also notable for Spassky’s original middlegame plan of 11.Rad1 and 12.Bc4.

Game 19 saw the return of the Alekhine, with Fischer varying with 4…Bg4 instead of the 4…g6 from Game 13. Another first-ever by Fischer, but Spassky was prepared. I find an interesting parallel between this game and Game 5. Had Spassky taken 12.gxf3 (he took 20 minutes on that decision) the blocked character of the position would have resembled the one from Game 5. Why was Fischer luring Spassky in such closed positions, did he learn in his preparation that Spassky didn’t like them and played them less well? It was considered that Fischer didn’t like closed and blocked positions, but here he was actively pursuing them!

Fischer’s choice for what turned out to be the last game of the match was excellent and I wonder why he didn’t come up with it earlier. Again a first-ever, this time in the Sicilian, 2…e6 instead of the “automatic” 2…d6. (Curiously enough, in Game 20 of their match in 1992, the first game of that match where Spassky played 1.e4, after 1…c5 2.Ne2 Nf6 3.Nbc3 Fischer again played 3…e6, signalling that he wanted to play something else than the Najdorf. Here the most probable is the Scheveningen after 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 d6, but Spassky played 4.g3).

After 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 there came 4…a6, a move he so convincingly dismantled with White in Game 7 of his match with Petrosian. So the first question, what did he have in mind against his own choice of 5.Bd3? My guess is 5…Nc6, as Petrosian played, and after 6.Nxc6 dxc6, instead of Petrosian’s inferior 6…bxc6. The positions after 6…dxc6 are much calmer and more solid, quite in line with Fischer’s admission that he wasn’t trying to look for chances in the second half of the match. And being a Sicilian, it still offers more dynamism and activity than other openings. Still, this is why I think his choice was good, because he finally found a solid and safe line for Black.

But Spassky stayed in line with his established way to reacting to surprises, he chose a line he played before. The system with Be3 and Bd3 brought him the title with a draw from a winning position in Game 23 of his match with Petrosian in 1969, but Fischer played an important novelty after 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bd3 d5 (the game Spassky-Petrosian went via a different move order 7…Qc7 8.0-0 Ne5) 8.exd5 exd5! and Black was already equal. Fischer’s love for old games was crowned by employing a move played by Adolf Anderssen in 1877!

Fischer’s strategy with Black turned out to be very efficient. His frequent changes of openings and sub-lines coupled with Spassky’s predictability and bad first-time reactions enabled him to have the opening initiative in most of the games. The only opening disaster he had was when he himself was predictable, but he didn’t let that happen again.

Now let’s take a look at Fischer’s openings with White.

Fischer’s first White was Game 4 when he immediately felt the might of the Soviet preparation team. The Sozin served Fischer so well throughout his career, but the Soviet camp wasn’t wasting their time. Fischer has always been absolutely convinced in his preparation and he confidently repeated the Sozin, but Spassky played a line that is considered one of the best today. Even Kasparov played it against Short in their match in 1993! It is notable that Fischer didn’t sense the dynamics of the position and played the tame 12.a3 (spending 7 minutes on it) instead of the natural 12.e5, the only move to offer White chances for an advantage. Spassky’s analysis was very deep and he was close to winning, but Fischer escaped.

This first game was a very important lesson to Fischer. Starting from Game 6 he invariably changed his openings after a setback. What is curious though is that he didn’t immediately apply the same recipe with Black. Perhaps he was lulled by his successful Game 7 where Spassky’s first take at the Poisoned Pawn was rather meek.

Game 6 is one of the best known in chess history, Fischer opening with 1.c4 for only a second time in his life (the first one was at the Palma Interzonal against Polugaevsky, a famous Najdorf player himself; I am not counting the last-round forfeit win against Panno, again at Palma, when he knew Panno wasn’t going to play) but from an opening perspective and knowing the inside information from the invaluable “Russians vs Fischer” Spassky was well-prepared there as well. The only problem was that he didn’t play what he knew was good. As in Game 3 with the Benoni, Spassky again showed mistrust in his preparation. In both cases he gave Fischer an easy ride through the opening and lost convincingly.

I wondered why Fischer decided to play 1.c4 and not 1.d4. Words aside (“I have never opened with 1.d4 on principle”) I think he was trying to get Spassky into a reversed Sicilian, i.e. 1…e5, as the latter had repeatedly played in his match with Larsen in 1968. Another point was made with his move-order. After 1.c4 e6 Fischer played 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 and I think this was particularly aimed against Spassky’s Tarrasch Defence, which he successfully played in his title-winning match with Petrosian in 1969. By keeping the knight on b1 White has more options against the Tarrasch and Fischer must have prepared them well.

In Game 8 Fischer didn’t see a reason not to repeat the successful 1.c4 but he was met with a surprise. Spassky went for the Symmetrical English, a variation he’d never played before. The opening gave Spassky a good game, but he was in awful form in this period and just blundered the game away soon enough.

Even though he was twice successful with 1.c4 Fischer was nevertheless surprised in Game 8 so for Game 10 he returned to 1.e4. He had enough time to prepare something against the Classical Sicilian from Game 4 but it was only in Game 18 that it was revealed what that was. Spassky chose the Breyer Variation in the Ruy Lopez for Game 10 and Fischer used the rare (at that time) plan with queenside expansion with 13.b4. Coincidence or not, this plan was frequently used by Kavalek in the late 1960s, and Kavalek was in Reykjavik and helped Fischer with analysis of adjourned games. Still, Spassky reacted well and the game was of high quality. Spassky didn’t play badly, but Fischer played better and won deservedly.

Game 12 saw the return to 1.c4. Probably Fischer again needed some time to prepare something against the Symmetrical English from Game 8, but Spassky returned to the Queen’s Gambit, only this time opting for the Orthodox Variation instead of the Tartakower. This game was a rare case of Fischer trailing behind on the clock throughout the game. An evenly played game where Fischer didn’t get much out of the opening.

The repeat of 1.c4 in Game 14 saw Fischer vary again after the surprise with the Orthodox from Game 12. This time he changed the variation and chose 5.Bf4 instead of the 5.Bg5 in the QGD. Spassky was fine after the opening and this game finally convinced Fischer that he cannot hope for much in the QGD. From the next game he went back to 1.e4 (or perhaps he considered 1.e4 easier to play when he didn’t look for winning chances himself).

Game 16 saw another Ruy Lopez but Fischer showed his pragmatic side and played the Exchange Variation. The variation brought Fischer an almost 100% until then (only Smyslov managing a draw in Monaco in 1967) but he couldn’t hope for much against Spassky’s preparation. But this was the Fischer who stopped looking for chances and didn’t mind the draw. This game convinced Spassky that he must go back to 1…c5 if he were to try to play for a win with Black.

Games 18 and 20 revealed what Fischer prepared against the Classical Sicilian and it was the Richter-Rauzer Attack. Small detail in the move-order of Game 18. After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 Fischer played 3.Nc3. He played 3.d4 in Game 4, so why the change? In the blitz tournament in Herceg Novi in 1970 Tal played that same move-order against Fischer and then Fischer played 3…e5. If Black wants to play the Najdorf after 3.Nc3 he has two options: 3…Nf6 and 3…a6. Fischer played 3…a6 on three occassions and never 3…Nf6. He probably didn’t like the possibility of 3…Nf6 4.e5, a line which Larsen and Keres used in the 1960s and, perhaps more importantly, Huebner used in his match with Petrosian in 1971 (though the game was quickly drawn). Was he trying to trick Spassky with the 3.Nc3 move-order? We will never know since Spassky played 3…Nc6 and after 4 d4 soon there was a Rauzer on the board. (In Game 20 Spassky played 2…Nc6.) The complicater Rauzer saw a fascinating struggle, perhaps too complicated for Fischer’s taste with so few games remaining. 

In Game 20 Fischer employed another move used by Kavalek, 10.Be2 instead of the main line 10.Nf3 as played in Game 18. Spassky introduced a novelty immediately, 10…0-0, and by Kavalek’s admission this was something they hadn’t analysed! Fischer spent 17 minutes on his next move and soon allowed a simplifying combination by Spassky that brought about an equal endgame. It was a passive endgame for White and Fischer drifted into an uncomfortable position, but he held it confidently.

Fischer scored his White wins in Games 6, 8 and 10, in the first half of the match when Spassky was playing badly. He scored his Black wins in Games 3, 5, 13 and 21 – the first two when Spassky was playing badly, the third in the most complex game of the whole match and the last one when Spassky probably already gave up. It is a rare case that in a World Championship match one player has more wins with Black than with White, but recent history has seen two more cases: Anand in his match with Kramnik in 2008, winning two with Black and one with White and Carlsen against Anand in 2013 with the same ratio.

To sum up this lengthy analysis of Fischer’s openings we can conclude that his strategy to change his lines after a surprise or setback was an outright success. There were moments in the openings when a certain move or move-order prompted a deeper investigation or thinking on my part and I found that captivating, to try to enter the mind of the great player and understand why he made that decision or what his intention might have been. As mentioned in the beginning, I have thought about the match in Reykjavik so much and I hope you will find this kind of analysis as fascinating as I did.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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