The ‘Match of the Century’ – USSR v. Rest of the World, Belgrade 1970.

A blog post dedicated to a forthcoming work on the ‘Match of the Century’, written in collaboration with ‘Chess Informant’, featuring some background to the event and extracts from the new book.

The ‘Match of the Century’, between teams representing the USSR and the ‘Rest of the World’, took place in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, from March 29th-April 5th, 1970.

The possibility of such an event had been spoken about since the time of the famous USSR v. USA radio match of 1945, but the idea did not begin to take concrete shape until March of 1969, when M. Molerović of the Serbian Chess Union asked whether it would be possible to organise a match under the aegis of FIDE.  Following further discussions during the Petrosian-Spassky match, the preliminary agreement of the USSR Chess Federation was gained.  At the FIDE Congress in San Juan (1969), draft regulations were presented, and the ex-World Champion Max Euwe agreed to appear in the role of Captain for the Rest of the World team.  Full support from the authorities in Moscow proved to be forthcoming, and the considerable organisational abilities of the Yugoslavs proved equal to the task of ensuring that the match took place.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the contest in Belgrade, Chess Informant will publish an updated, expanded version of the original book on the event, SSSR – Sbornaya Mira, (edited by Tigran Petrosian & Aleksandar Matanovic and published shortly after the match).

Chess Informant 142

As announced in the recently-published Volume 142 of ‘Chess Informant’

The 1970 edition featured annotations to the games of the match (almost exclusively by the players themselves) and brief biographical information (essentially, summaries of their tournament and match records).  The commentary by the Soviet players was given in the original Russian, and that of the ‘Rest of the World’ team was presented in English.

For the new, expanded version I have translated the Soviet players’ commentary into English.  The book also includes translations of articles from the contemporary Soviet press (‘64‘,  Shakhmaty v SSSR & Shakhmaty (Riga) covering with the background to the match, the preparations of the Soviet team and the reactions of the Soviet chess establishment in the immediate aftermath of the event.  Detailed player biographies and summaries of the previous head-to-head contests between the players have also been included.  The book concludes with a retrospective look at the match, featuring extracts from interviews with some of the participants that were conducted many years later.

1970 - Row-URS Beograd

Dom Sindikata, Belgrade, 2nd April 1970. The 3rd round in progress, with Fischer and Petrosian in play on Board 2 as Taimanov (left), Larsen (centre) & Portisch (right) look on.

The following passage, from the introduction to the book, sets the scene in the centre of Belgrade, almost half a century ago.

In this unique event, two ten-player teams – one from the Soviet Union, the other from the ‘Rest of the World’ – faced each other over four rounds in a competition that captured the imagination of the chess world, and continues to fascinate to this day.  The games were played in front of two thousand spectators in the Great Hall of the Dom Sindikata (the House of Trade Unions), within sight of the Federal Assembly Building, home of the parliament of Yugoslavia.

We may picture the scene… on the brightly-lit stage, against the background of a blue curtain, black and orange pieces are displayed on the white and yellow squares of the demonstration boards.  Around them are ten operators, dressed in white.  In the hall itself, it is dark.

Outside, on Marx-Engels Square, the lights in the streets and in the surrounding buildings have been dimmed so that fans who had been unable to get hold of the sought-after tickets can follow the progress of the most interesting games on a giant illuminated demonstration board – a gift from the workers of the Yugoslav Atomic Centre.  Commentary on the games by International Master Milan Bertok is relayed to the crowds by loudspeaker.

[Sources: Kažić, B., ‘Match veka’, Shakhmaty v SSSR (6, 1970); Roshal, A. B., Na golubom fone, ‘64’ (№ 14, 3rd-9th April, 1970).]

1970 - Row-URS Beograd2

World Champion Spassky watches the progress of Fischer v. Petrosian; to Spassky’s left, Tal can be seen in play v. Najdorf on Board 9, while in the foreground, Polugaevsky faces Hort on Board 4. (Photo source: http://www.gpntb.ru.)

The Match

Virtually without exception, all of the World’s leading players took part in the event in Belgrade.  No fewer than six World Champions (past, present and future) were among the participants.

SSSR-Sbornaya Mira, p. 3

From the original book, ‘SSSR-Sbornaya Mira’ – the players’ signatures.

The question of who would lead the Rest of the World team almost led to the non-appearance of both Bent Larsen and Bobby Fischer, but was finally resolved at the eleventh hour thanks to some extraordinary perseverance on the part of the Yugoslav organisers, commendable flexibility on the part of the Soviets – who could have insisted that Fischer took top board as originally agreed – and an uncharacteristically modest gesture by Fischer, when accepted Larsen’s claim to the top spot in the team.  With this sole exception, the line-up of the Rest of the World team was more or less in accordance with the players’ Elo ratings, and was announced well in advance of the match.  This allowed the Soviets to optimise their chances by a judicious choice of board-order.  Thus, for example, Vasily Smyslov, who had a favourable personal score against Sammy Reshevsky, was assigned to face the American on Board 5.  However, this seems to have led to considerable rancour and ill-feeling among some of the Soviet participants.  Mikhail Botvinnik, who was paired against Milan Matulović on Board 8, was so upset that he refused to have his photo taken with his team-mates on their departure from Moscow.

The USSR Chess Federation had been predictably thorough in its preparations for the event.  The team took part in what would today be called a ‘training camp’ on the outskirts of the Soviet capital, with leading trainers and theoreticians such as Isaac Boleslavsky and Semyon Furman present.  The famous chess journalist Aleksandr Roshal was given access to this camp and he subequently painted some remarkable vignettes of the activities there.  For example:

Isaac Efremovich Boleslavsky… helped the team members in their theoretical preparation.  I have called Boleslavsky by his name and patronymic since here he was christened ‘Academician’.  This grandmaster gave lectures to the entire team.  Admitted to one of these lectures, I was at first simply moved by the spectacle that had opened up to me.  On the entrance of Boleslavsky, the entire cohort of mischievous grandmasters, as if in a school lesson, jumped up and respectfully froze.  Outwardly, no-one expressed their surprise; the ‘Academician’ allowed himself to sit down and set about delivering the lecture.  Replies during the exercise he categorically avoided: “I did not give you the floor” (this, to Vasily Smyslov), “You do not understand such positions” (to Efim Geller).  Boleslavsky was harsh, but fair, and thanks to this, such lessons soon became mainstream and everyone was fascinated by the work.

[Source: A. B. Roshal, Vperedi – Bolshaya igra, ‘64’ (№ 13, 27th March-2nd April, 1970).]

The directors of the training camp also concerned themselves with the physical and psychological preparedness of the players.  Nevertheless, the Soviets’ ultimate victory in the match proved to be an extremely close-run thing.  Years later, Smyslov would recall:

As it turned out, everything was decided in my [final-round] game with Ólafsson.  I had the advantage in position.  But psychologically I proved to be in a very difficult situation.  All of the other games were finished, while we still had around an hour to play [in the first session].  The rest of the teams (both theirs and ours) crowded around and waited.  The final result depended completely on us.  To make a draw would mean a draw in the match as a whole.  Were I to win, we would win.  Were Ólafsson to win… Imagine the situation?!  I would then be the sole culprit.  Imagine how much nervous energy this game cost me!  One mistake by me, and the World team would be the victors…

This game, incidentally, our reviewers did not notice.  They picked out others, but everything was decided by it.  That’s why I at once told everyone that this victory remains for me one of the most memorable; in terms of its intensity it can only be compared with the one that made me World Champion.

[Source: Interview of Smyslov by N. Anzikeev – ‘Da ne prervetsya svyaz’ vremen!’, ’64’ (№ 8, 2002).]

Had Portisch not agreed a draw in a highly favourable situation in his game v. Korchnoi in the final round, the result could easily have been different.

RoW-USSR, Beograd 1970

The narrow victory in the match provoked considerable soul-searching on the part of the Soviets.  Particularly concerning was the fact that on the top 4 boards (the ‘Olympiad’ boards) they had been decisively defeated.  Tigran Petrosian wrote a lengthy article for Shakhmaty v SSSR, examining the faults that had been allowed to developed in the Soviet chess movement.

It seems to me that the root of the problem is that we have had a gradual unhealthy roll towards the side of the organisation of an enormous number of events, which should have led, and did lead, to a significant decrease in the requirements for obtaining various chess titles.  Previously – and in particular before the war and in the first post-war years – the acquisition of titles was, for people captivated by chess, as a rule, not an end in itself, but the logical conclusion of the study of essence of the game, the comprehension of the secrets of mastery, the accumulation of a certain chess culture and the natural appearance of great chess strength.  However for many today, the pursuit of “commissioned titles” has become a fetish, requiring only a relatively short-term effort and, naturally, less knowledge and a lower class of play.  “Freshly-baked” candidate masters, masters and grandmasters give birth to their own kind…  This process continues, and the saddest thing is that no end is apparent.

[Source: T. V. Petrosian: Kakie izmenenia, ‘Shakhmaty v SSSR’ (№ 6, 1970).  The article first appeared in the Belgrade newspaper ‘Politika’.]

Petrosian’s article ends with the question:

Will there appear in the chess world a new Larsen, Fischer, Portisch or Gligorić, or will there appear from the great group of talented young masters in our country a new Tal or Spassky?

Within six months, the 20-year-old Anatoly Karpov would share 1st-2nd place with Leonid Stein in the star-studded Alekhine Memorial tournament in Moscow (ahead of the likes of Spassky, Smyslov, Tal and Korchnoi).  Petrosian’s question had been answered…

The Games

Many of the games in the match subsequently became famous.  One may point, for example, to Spassky’s celebrated win in only 17 moves v. Larsen in the 2nd round, or Fischers’ two convincing victories v. Petrosian.  The prize for the best game in the match by a Soviet grandmaster went to Efim Geller, for his 1st-round win v. Svetozar Gligorić. 

The players’ annotations to two of the above-mentioned games may be downloaded at the following links:

Fischer-Petrosian, 1st match-game, Rest of the World v. USSR, Belgrade 1970

Geller-Gligoric, 1st match-game, Rest of the World v. USSR, Belgrade 1970

Geller-Gligoric, 1st round

Geller v. Gligorić, as it appears in the original 1970 book on the match.

It has been a considerable pleasure to work on this project with my colleagues in Belgrade.  I sincerely hope that the book will prove popular with chess enthusiasts, thereby helping to cement the special place of the ‘Match of the Century’ in the history of chess.

21 thoughts on “The ‘Match of the Century’ – USSR v. Rest of the World, Belgrade 1970.

    • Hello Thomas. Glad you enjoyed it. The book’s publication has understandably been delayed by the ongoing global health emergency, but I believe it is due to be printed and distributed some time in April.

  1. Douglas, thank you for all your work.
    I hope the book is indeed published in April. I don’t see any mention of it yet on Chess Informant’s website.

    • You’re welcome. 🙂 Not, it’s not there yet but I understand that it is ready to be printed and will hopefully be distributed along with the next volume of ‘Chess Informant’. But of course, everything is quite uncertain at the moment…

      • Thank you, Douglas. Your work is terrific! Is it a labor of love?
        The Chessbase articles on “The Match of the Century” currently running cannot hurt sales of the book.
        ~ Neil Kulick

  2. The book is out now! Just ordered it – and i am really looking forward to read it. Right now i am reading Kings book on Khan – good stuff.

    • I ordered it a few days ago. I am looking forward to receiving and reading it.
      I hope that the recent Chessbase articles on The Match of the Century will fuel interest in the book.

      • Hello Neil, I hope you’ll enjoy the book. The interest in it seems to be high; the recent articles on the event in the on-line chess press can only have helped!

  3. Dear Mr Griffin, I ve just received the Book of the match of the Century and it´s Fantastic!!!, the History, the games, and also the pictures; but what I like more is how the Book is presented. Congratulations for the Book and for this Blog that is Outstanding!!!
    Alfonso Gisbert…….from Barcelona

  4. My brother Alfonso Gisbert has just sent to me a new copy as a present of “The Match of the Century”, The idea, the structure, the comments and the wonderful photos, everything makes this book an extraordinary cbook for chess lovers. I have just received it and from what i have just seen the editing is superb !

    Thank you very much Mr. Griffin for this excellent treat

  5. Quite a month for history chess books. As well as this one, have ordered the second volume of the Lasker series. Thanks too for the nice articles on this blog.

      • I am very much enjoying your book. Have just noticed a small blemish in the profile of Bent Larsen on page 30, first line think some word(s) are missing after strong {tournament } Maybe stating were it was,

      • Hello, John. Thanks for pointing this out. I don’t suppose there will be a second edition, but if there is…
        But I’m glad you’re enjoying the book, nevertheless!

  6. Thanks for your commentary. Why did Portisch agree to a game 4 draw with Korchnoi? Also, how do I get your new book? Regards, Steve

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