Nobody knew what was about to take place. Certainly nobody outside of the most knowledgeable people in the game. But in the summer of 1972, Bobby Fischer was about to play in the most famous world chess tournament of all time against Boris Spasky of the Soviet Union. What the world was about to witness had never been seen before; the first United States world chess champion.
What most people don’t understand about this tournament, aside from the significance of Fischer becoming the first United States world champion, is that this tournament turned chess from a seldom thought of sport to a craze that literally captured a nation and a world.
For the people outside of the United States, especially in countries where chess was very popular like the Soviet Union, it was the shock of Fischer first competing for the title in the first place and then the ultimate shock of him winning. This alone made headlines everywhere. Not only wasn’t he supposed to win but he was supposed to be beaten badly. And after losing the first two games, the second by forfeit because he refused to show up, it was almost certain that his fate was sealed. But Fischer made a miraculous comeback and stunned the chess world.
But in the United States, this tournament itself took on a whole different meaning. Sure, the country was eager to see if Fischer could do the impossible, but something happened that summer that nobody could have ever foreseen happening in the United States.
Chess set sales started to sky rocket. Kids were sitting out on their front steps and for the first time in history, weren’t playing the popular board games of the day or trading baseball cards, which was very popular especially in the summertime, but now they were playing chess. Kids who had never played the game in their life, were glued to their chess sets and their TV sets to watch the live coverage by a man who became a legend in his own right, Shelby Lyman.
People waited on Shelby’s every comment along with his guest stars, who were known masters and grand masters. It was like watching a real sporting event as the moves were wired in to the studio and recreated on the large chess board that was nailed to a wall in the studio. It was the best entertainment around that summer and the ratings for the broadcasts were through the roof. This was unheard of for a publicly owned TV station such as PBS.
Fischer ultimately won the tournament in 21 games by a score of 12.5 to 8.5. The world was stunned and the United States had a new hero. Sadly, the chess craze in the United States died shortly after the tournament ended, but for a very brief time chess was the king of sports in the United States and Bobby Fischer was its most famous hero.
We have yet to see anything like that summer since and it is doubtful that we will ever see it again.
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