Henry Kissinger Jokes About Making a Pawn of Bobby Fischer
Chess was always an apt metaphor for the Cold War, and the significance of Bobby Fischer beating Soviet Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship –ending 24 years of Soviet domination of the event, has been well documented. It has also been noted that Henry Kissinger got involved, urging the increasingly recalcitrant Fischer to play in the event. Though declassified documents take it a step further, showing Kissinger joking about playing Fischer’s involvement in the tournament for a potential Cold War advantage.
In the early 1970s Bobby Fischer was still the Golden Boy with the ability to beat the best minds the Soviets had to offer, though he was beginning to demonstrate more of what would become known as his trademark paranoia. By the summer of 1972 Fischer remained ambiguous about his participation in the final match of the World Chess Championship in Iceland against Spassky, refusing to sign a contract agreeing to play while demanding a percentage of the television rights and a larger prize purse.
The tournament was dramatic enough thanks to Fischer’s antics, but a July 3, 1972, telephone conversation capturing British journalist David Frost asking Kissinger to persuade the grandmaster to attend the championship adds more to the story. Kissinger had an intellectual interest in chess, and the Spassky-Fischer head-to-head alone would have likely piqued his interest in the match, but Frost wanted Kissinger to get involved to ensure Fischer’s participation. Kissinger reached out to Fischer while entertaining Soviet leader Anatoly Dobrynin and his wife in California—telling Fischer that “America wants you to go over there and beat the Russians.” The phone call dramatically altered Fischer’s attitude and convinced him to play, and eventually win, the championship.
Another taped conversation of July 21 records TIME Magazine’s Diplomatic Editor, Jerrold L. Schecter, trying to get the scoop on Kissinger’s call to Fischer. During the conversation with Schecter, Kissinger jokes about the event—saying Kissinger really just wanted Fischer to play so he could have an opportune cover to meet with Vietnamese Communist Party leader Le Duc Tho, who was a real “barrel of fun.”
Not the funniest joke, considering Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for convening a ceasefire to the Vietnam War a year later in 1973, an award Le Duc Tho declined claiming the truce was being broken, prolonging the war another two years.
Jokes in bad taste aside, Kissinger’s intervention convinced Fischer that it was his American duty to play, and he became a national hero after beating Spassky –the personification of Western superiority over the Soviets. Spassky was less fortunate. A telephone conversation between Kissinger and President Nixon from November of that year records Kissinger advising the president not to invite the Soviet chess grandmaster to the U.S. on account of rumors that he was thinking of defecting.
Not one to be check-mated, Spassky ultimately left the USSR for France, while Fischer went on to be an outspoken opponent of US foreign policy, eventually seeking asylum back in Iceland, home of the ’72 World Championship.