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On Chess: Legendary photojournalist Harry Benson's connection to St. Louis

One of Harry Benson's iconic photographs of Bobby Fisher in Buenos Aires, 1971. From the collection of Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield.
Harry Benson

Harry Benson, world-renowned photographer and International Photography Hall of Fame inductee,was the only person to have private access to Bobby Fischer during the 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. He was sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to cover the 1971 Candidates Match, and began to cultivate a relationship with Fischer, who was known for being notoriously camera-averse, guarded and socially awkward. Fischer defeated Tigran Petrosian at the Candidates Match, qualifying him for the World Chess Championship match.

With this victory, Fischer 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.”

Building a friendship 

During the 1972 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 to back out. 

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.” He stated that Fischer is “the most eccentric and most fascinating person I have ever photographed.”

Benson and his wife, Gigi, have been great friends to the St. Louis Chess campus. In 2010, Benson was a huge part of the HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World directed by Liz Garbus. Benson’s photographs were used throughout the film and his interviews helped to shape a sympathetic image of Fischer. The World Chess Hall of Fame partnered with Garbus to host the premier at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010, and later that year both the New York and St. Louis debuts.

Benson had a solo exhibition: BOBBY FISCHER: Icon Among Icons in 2012 at the World Chess Hall of Fame. In 2014, Benson photographed the players of the Sinquefield Cup, including World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen and now-World Chess Championship challenger, Fabiano Caruana.

Once again, the World Chess Hall of Fame will show Benson's work with previously unseen photographs of Fischer alongside the photos he took in St. Louis in 2014 and 2018 at the Sinquefield Cup. In 2014, chess players and enthusiasts knew that Fabiano was an important and strong player, but no one knew what he was going to accomplish that year and beyond.

Nor did they know he might become the second American-born player to win the World Chess Championship. Benson took dozens of touching, silly and candid photos of Caruana and Carlsen arm wrestling, hugging and making each other laugh. It’s as though he saw that these photos were defining a historical moment before it happened.

Exhibit pairs chess kings with world leaders

Benson returned to the Chess campus again in 2018. The photos he took then, in contrast, reveal a severe change in maturity and possibly nerves as the two players seem much more serious and distant with each other. These photos are so important to our chess history in St. Louis and are now part of Bensen's incredible legacy.

Several of these photos will now be shown in the new exhibition, Harry Benson: King & Queens, opening Oct. 5, at the World Chess Hall of Fame, from 6-8 p.m. which pairs these “kings” of chess with a variety of world leaders and others who may be considered kings or queens because of their impact on the world.

Shannon Bailey is the chief curator at the World Chess Hall of Fame.