How Chess Pieces Came Alive During 1972 Fischer-Spassky Match
As spectators watch, the chess pieces move into position before the game begins. Image: YouTube.

How Chess Pieces Came Alive During 1972 Fischer-Spassky Match

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Saturday, August 6, marks the 50th anniversary of a remarkable event. Because it occurred in 1972, are you thinking of the Fischer-Spassky world championship match? However, GM Bobby Fischer and GM Boris Spassky were not the principal actors.

Laugarvatn, a small town of 200 in Iceland
Laugarvatn, a small town of 200 in Iceland, is located next to the lake Laugarvatn and gets its name from it. Photo: Local Icelander.

Living Chess at Laugarvatn, Iceland

The event did happen in Iceland but not in Reykjavik. At Laugarvatn, a resort 50 miles away, GM Bent Larsen and GM Fridrik Olafsson played an exhibition game of living chess with actors representing chess pieces. Enjoy the following video because not much information about the event or any other recording survives.

Game 11 of Fischer-Spassky Match

While Larsen and Olafsson were entertaining their audience, Fischer and Spassky were dueling over the board in game 11 of their Match of the Century. For an analysis of the game and events leading up to it, see the article “Boris Spassky Smashes Fischer’s Najdorf.” In this game, Spassky prevailed, and Fischer who had lost his queen resigned after Spassky’s 31st move. It was Spassky’s last win in the match, and when he resigned in the 21st game, Fischer won the championship.

Larsen, Strongest Danish Chess Player

About the exhibition match, let’s also appreciate the eminence of the “human” players. Considered the strongest Danish player of all time, Larsen was a six-time Danish champion and had reached his peak chess rating (2660) a year earlier when he was the number-three player in the world (behind Fischer and Spassky). A candidate for the world championship four times, he reached the semifinal three times. To advance to the match against Spassky in 1972, Fischer defeated Larsen 6-0 in the 1971 Candidates semifinal.

GMs Larsen and Olafsson on stage during the game
Moves made by Olafsson (not visible) and Larsen (shown), on an elevated platform, are enacted by players on a huge chessboard. Image: YouTube.

Olafsson, Icelandic Chess Legend

An Icelandic chess legend, Olafsson is a six-time Icelandic Chess Champion and a two-time winner of the Nordic Chess Championship. He was president of FIDE from 1978 to 1982. At his peak rating (2600) in 1969, he was the number-14 player in the world. In My 60 Memorable Games (page 85), in analyzing his game against GM Svetozar Gligorich in the 1959 Candidates Tournament, Fischer credits Olafsson for insights that he himself had missed: “As Olafsson showed me, White can win with 53.Rc7+! It's hard to believe. I stayed up all night analyzing, finally convincing myself."

Black queen moves on the chessboard
As a white bishop glances sideways, the black queen responds to Larsen’s choice of moving her to the center of the board. Image: YouTube.

Larsen vs. Olafsson

Although the exhibition with live pieces was a friendly sparing of lifelong friends, Larsen and Olafsson were competitors over the board many times. In their first game (shown below), played in 1951 in the World Junior Championship in England, Olafsson was the winner. However, in the event Larsen performed better (+6 -4 =1) than Olafsson (+4 -4 =3). Their lifetime records against each other were 16 wins for Olafsson vs. 14 wins for Larsen with 10 draws.

The drama on the chessboard that day—in both Reykjavik and Laugarvatn—was captivating. As Larsen once remarked: “For me, chess is at the same time a game, a sport, a science, and an art. And perhaps even more than that.” Yes, even more than that, it can be drama.

For me, chess is at the same time a game, a sport, a science, and an art.
—Bent Larsen

GM Bent Larsen makes a move
Larsen (left), playing with the black pieces, makes a move that then activates a player on the "living" chessboard. Image: YouTube.

Watching a living chess game must be fascinating—even more so when the pieces are being moved by legendary players such as Larsen and Olafsson. If you have ever watched a living chess game, please share your experiences in a comment below.