World-renowned photographer Harry Benson was the only person to have private access to Bobby Fischer during the entire 1972 World Chess Championship match in Reykjavík, Iceland. Benson captured intimate images of this time with Fischer and was the first person to deliver the news to Fischer that he had won the match.
Benson began photographing Fischer when on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1971. Sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina to cover the 1971 Candidates Tournament, Benson began to cultivate a relationship with Bobby, who was known for being notoriously camera-averse, guarded, and socially awkward. Being skeptical of journalists, Fischer would request late night meetings with Benson which generally consisted of quiet walks broken up by Fischer pulling out a pocket chess set to play under lampposts from time to time. Throughout the assignment, Benson and Fischer began to form a friendship and Benson noticed that Fischer seemed most comfortable in the company of animals and children, who also seemed exceedingly drawn to him. Fischer exuded a sense of patience and understanding with these groups that he did not possess with his peers, who he generally dismissed. Fischer defeated Tigran Petrosian at the Candidates Tournament, qualifying him for the World Chess Championship match. With this victory, he not only continued his rise among chess players, but also became a pop-culture sensation. At the height of the Cold War, the media played up the impending battle between the American and the Russian Boris Spassky, the defending World Chess Champion. News outlets referred to the upcoming match as the “Match of the Century” and used headlines such as “Fischer vs. Spassky: A Major Struggle in the Cold War.”
In an uncharacteristic twist, Fischer exclusively invited Benson and LIFE reporter Brad Darrach to visit him as he trained for the championship at Grossinger’s Resort in upstate New York. Considering himself an athlete, Fischer noted that playing chess required an enormous amount of stamina. He chose this resort complex in the Catskill Mountains due to its reputation as a popular training facility for sports legends such as Rocky Marciano and Jackie Robinson. In addition to his scrupulous chess study, Fischer followed a strict regimen of physical training including running, tennis, swimming, biking, jump rope, and hand strengthening exercises—the latter in an effort to “crush” the Russians and their dominance of the chess world.
The tales of the World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, Iceland in the summer of 1972 are numerous and fantastic. Fischer arrived late to the first game, forfeited Game 2, inspected television cameras and lights, insisting that they were making too much noise or contained devices that were intended to distract him, and had special chessboards created for the match. He made outrageous demands—requesting more money than the agreed-upon prize fund of $125,000 (to be split ⅝ for the winner and ⅜ for the loser), and requiring that Game 3 be played in a “back room” away from the agreed-upon setting. Much speculation surrounded this behavior and it was debated if this was “normal” Fischer conduct or if he was intentionally attempting to cause a psychological breakdown of his opponent.
The match was organized as the best of 24 games—wins would count as one point and draws as a half point, with the winner being the first to reach 12 ½ points. The first game took place on July 11th and the last game began on August 31st and was adjourned after 40 moves. Spassky resigned the next day without resuming play and the 29-year-old Fischer won the match 12 ½-8 ½, becoming the 11th World Chess Champion and the first American-born player to do so—ending 24 years of Soviet domination of the World Chess Championship.
Benson continued to cultivate a journalistic friendship with Fischer. The two spent many hours together during the nearly two months in Iceland, walking and talking night after night through the hills of the Icelandic countryside. Benson noted that the pressure on Fischer was enormous—it is known that Fischer received several phone calls from Henry Kissinger encouraging him to play the match when he threatened not to. Noticing Fischer’s lack of social skills and recognizing his loneliness and isolation, Benson stated, “Bobby regarded the press as enemies, yet there had to be one friendly face in the enemy camp, and I figured it might as well be me.”
As the images in this exhibition show, Benson’s photography captures a side of the elusive and controversial chess genius that is rarely seen, and offers a window into the private world of the man Benson calls “the most eccentric and most fascinating person I have ever photographed.”
Harry Benson CBE
Scottish-born photojournalist Harry Benson arrived in America on assignment to photograph the Beatles during their 1964 tour and knew immediately that he wanted to stay. He has been a witness to many of the major political and social events in modern history. His work ranges from photographs of world leaders to pop stars, all portrayed with an immediacy and naturalness that speaks of a confidence and rapport between sitter and photographer.
Harry has photographed every United States president from Eisenhower to Obama; was feet away from Bobby Kennedy the night he was assassinated; in the room with Richard Nixon when he resigned; on the Meredith March with Martin Luther King, Jr.; next to Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral; on clandestine maneuvers with the IRA; present when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down; covered the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia as well as wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Cyprus, and the Falkland Islands; and photographed the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans.
On January 1, 2009, Harry was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, receiving his honor at Buckingham Palace in March, 2009. Harry was honored with a Doctor of Letters from the Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University in 2007. Benson has been twice named the National Press Photographers Association’s “Magazine Photographer of the Year,” received the 2005 LUCIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in Portrait Photography, the 2005 American Photo Magazine Award for Achievement in Photography, the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Scottish Press Photographers Association; has twice received the Leica Medal of Excellence; and was also twice named “Magazine Photographer of the Year” by the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Harry was under contract to LIFE magazine from 1970 until it closed in 2000. In addition, he has worked for The Sunday Times, Vanity Fair, Time, Newsweek, Architectural Digest, and People magazine—impressively shooting over 100 covers for the magazine. Harry continues photographing today for Forbes, Town & Country, Quest, Vice and many other major magazines.
His photographs are in the permanent collections of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; both museums hosted Harry Benson: Being There in 2006 and2007. A major retrospective of his photographs was shown at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow in 2008. He has had over 40 museum and gallery solo exhibitions and 16 books of his photographs have been published, including the recent BOBBY FISCHER (2011) and the upcoming THE BEATLES ON THE ROAD 1964-1966 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America. The latter will be published by Taschen in the spring of 2012.
Harry lives in New York with his wife Gigi, who works with him on his books and exhibitions. Their two daughters, Wendy and Tessa, live and work in Los Angeles.
Works Featured in this Exhibition
Grossinger’s Resort, New York
As part of BOBBY FISCHER: Icon Among Icons, Photographs by Harry Benson, CBE, the World Chess Hall of Fame presents a free Audio Tour! Enjoy!
3/14/12: STLToday.com — World Chess Hall of Fame has two shows of note by Sarah Bryan Miller (Review)
3/11/12: Columbia Daily Tribune — World Chess Hall of Fame debuts new exhibits by Caroline Dohack
2/29/12: Chess Vibes — Harry Benson’s Bobby Fischer photos exhibited in Saint Louis
2/29/12: Chess News Blog — Fantastic new exhibits at World Chess Hall of Fame by Harry Benson, Marcel Dzama
2/29/12: USCF — World Chess Hall of Fame Debuts Benson and Dzama Exhibits
2/28/12: Susan Polgar — Benson and Dzama Debut Exhibitions at World Chess Hall of Fame
2/27/12: Mini Pink Book — Checkmate: Harry Benson Photography Exhibit Coming to STL by Nicole Benoist