Boris Spassky Interview & Fischer-Spassky Retrospective

By Michael Hoffer

Boris Spassky
Boris Spassky is an impressive sight. I first met Boris when he was 52. He had a full head of gray hair, soft green eyes, strong jaw, and sharp features. He still looked fit enough for a try at his younger zeal for the high jump, likely due to his lifelong passion for tennis. His fluent English carries with it a rich Russian accent and a surprisingly deep voice. He exhibits a patient European manner, always charming throughout the endless autographs and handshaking that goes with being a very popular former World Chess Champion. Spassky is best remembered for losing his title to the mercurial and brilliant Bobby Fischer at Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972, ending a 24-year Soviet hegemony over the World Championship. Even to the most ridiculous of spectator questions, Boris will grant a gracious reply.

It was a balmy November weekend during the 1987 American Open at Los Angeles when I finally had the pleasure of spending significant time with Spassky at the luxurious LAX Marriott Hotel. The organizers had provided Boris as a free commentator for the tournament players. Thanks to an obscure line of the Marshall Attack, I had scored two quick 15 minute wins as Black. After both of these games, the only people outside the tournament hall were Spassky, me, and my dejected opponents, who both slunk away from the site to drown their sorrows, allowing me unfettered access to Boris for several hours. Boris turned out to be exceptionally friendly and kind to me, which was a privilege I will never forget.

At the time Bobby Fischer was living in seclusion at Pasadena, not that far away from our hotel. Bobby and Boris had become great friends and would undoubtedly have a clandestine meeting before Boris left LA. I was extremely tempted to follow Boris whenever he would leave the hotel, yet managed to resist this creepy fascination, which I still regret to this day! I settled for prodding Boris several times as to whether he had yet met with Bobby. This was the only subject which Boris resolutely and politely declined to discuss. It was quite obvious they had met. Boris loyally had the integrity to keep it private.

Spassky recalled how he learned chess at the age of five on a train while Leningrad was evacuated in World War II during the Nazi invasion of 1942. His family was to be sheltered in Kirov, 600 miles east of Moscow, where the Spasskys frequently struggled to find food. His parents were both very religious, as his grandfather was an Orthodox priest, and yet his father still left the family when Boris was only six. By age ten, Boris had beaten World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik in a simultaneous exhibition. At 18, he won the 1955 World Junior Championship, then by sharing 7th at the Göteborg Interzonal, became the youngest to qualify for a Candidates Tournament, prior to Fischer's prodigious achievement at age 15.

Young Boris married, but it was not to last long, as he said, "We were like Bishops of opposite colors!" While his younger sister became checkers champion of the USSR, Boris' road to the top was strenuous. After several agonizing near misses, Spassky finally qualified for his shot at the title.

"In my match with Tigran Petrosian in 1966, I was the stronger player but lost the match." Spassky, who was famous for his poker face over the board, proceeded to explain to me why it is important not to reveal your feelings to your opponent.

"It was during this match that while I was taking a walk in the streets of Moscow, I accidentally ran into Botvinnik. You could always recognize Botvinnik because he never moves his arms when he walks! I said, 'Good morning' to which he sternly replied, 'Good morning. Do you always predict your opponent's moves?' I thought about this and answered, 'No', to which Botvinnik said, 'Humph!' and walked away.

"It was then that I realized that Botvinnik had lost his 1963 match to Petrosian because he was also unable to predict Petrosian's moves. Upon studying Petrosian, I noticed that when he smugly strutted about the stage like Napoleon Bonaparte, this was when he was most worried about his position! And when he stepped lightly, this was when he was ready to strike like a tiger. Therefore, in the 1969 match, I was better able to predict his moves and won the World Championship." (It did not help that Boris' lady love broke-up with him during the 1966 match.)

"When Petrosian was preparing for his Candidates Match with Bobby in 1971, he asked the ministry to try to get Korchnoi as his second. When the official approached Korchnoi with the idea, he first tried to flatter him by expressing how much Petrosian would appreciate such a talented second. Korchnoi listened to all this with his arms folded, shaking his head. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. 'No! I cannot. Not with that man. He makes such ugly moves, it makes my stomach turn!' It was Petrosian himself who enjoyed repeating this story to me!"

Considering his many years of frustration in which the title had eluded him, I asked Boris what it felt like to finally become the World Champion in 1969.

"When I became King, I was a different person, not Boris. I had money, women, fame, everything a King could want. But I was an unhappy King. It is no good to have money and these things in a poor country. And it is a great responsibility being World Champion. This was the most unhappy time of my life. Look at what becoming World Champion has done to Bobby!" Boris always refers to Fischer as Bobby, with obvious endearment.

Spassky-Fischer Match in Reykjavik 1972

"When I played the match with Bobby, things were not like today, where the players have about forty people all together on both teams. They do everything for the players.

"Bobby had, I think, Lubosh Kavalek, Bill Lombardy, and Fred Cramer, who he was unhappy with, and that was it! They gave me Geller, who was helpful, Krogius the psychologist, who contributed zero, and Ivo Nei, who I played tennis with.

"Around game thirteen, they sent me my wife. Thank you! And later they sent me Isaac Boleslavsky, but it was already too late. Boleslavsky was a good man." Indeed, had the late Boleslavsky not narrowly lost a playoff with Bronstein, he would have challenged Botvinnik for the title in 1951.

Fischer was usually late when he arrived to their games. Spassky took great delight in pantomiming how Fischer would stride by him and plop into his chair, something akin to a speedy baboon, "But this was very natural for him."

"In 1967, when Bobby won a tournament in Monte Carlo, Princess Grace presented him with a trophy and an envelope containing $5000 francs. Bobby tore open the envelope and counted the money in front of her! They never asked him back again.

"Bobby's ideas are generally correct but it is his approach to them that is not always correct."

Being an unhappy King, did Boris subconsciously want to lose the match with Fischer?

"No. I was determined to play the match at all costs because I thought I could win. I was confident in myself as World Champion. Up until then, Bobby had never beaten me. I felt comfortable with Bobby. I could easily predict his moves," despite Fischer's varied opening repertoire for the match. "However, after game fourteen, I knew something was very wrong and that I would lose the match. I had winning chances in games 13-15 and 17-20. I could have won them all. But something was very wrong.

"For some strange reason, after a few hours of play, I would get very tired. My mind would experience a sudden energy loss and I would make a mistake that would cost me the game." Even today, Spassky still seems to strongly suspect something shady subjected him to sudden sinister slips.

While he had slim drawing chances after the adjournment in game 21, Boris resigned the game and the match because a draw was as good as a loss. "It would be very easy for Bobby to get a draw with no problem," in one of the three remaining games, thus giving Fischer the 12 ½ points needed for victory.

"I must say that of any other player, Bobby is the most to think like a computer; that he is the closest to a chess machine. After all, he devoted his life to nothing but chess. I could see this at the banquet following the match when we analyzed the final game. The way he so quickly went through all the variations was incredible, like a computer!"

When asked (in 1987) if he would like a rematch with Bobby some day, Boris replied, "Yes, very much! But this is a fantasy," with the tone of a man convinced that Bobby will never play another serious game.

Fischer became a recluse after winning the title. He did not play any more competitive games over the next 20 years, even refusing lucrative commercial endorsements because he did not use their product!

In 1975, Fischer was to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov who had defeated Spassky in Candidates eliminations. Bobby listed three demands: "The match should continue until one player wins 10 games, without counting the draws; There is no limit to the total number of games played; In case of a 9-9 score, the champion retains his title and the prize fund is split equally." FIDE agreed to allow the match to continue until 10 wins, yet ruled it should not last longer than 36 games and rejected the 9-9 clause.

In response to FIDE, Fischer sent a telegram on June 27, 1974 stating: "The match conditions I proposed were non-negotiable…I therefore resign my FIDE world chess champion title. Sincerely, Bobby Fischer"

Bobby nearly vanished over the next 18 years. Meanwhile, Boris and his third wife, Marina settled in a tranquil village outside of Paris in 1976. Spassky became a French citizen in 1978 and played for France in the Chess Olympiad.

This peaceful lifestyle had reflected in his play. Boris became content to quietly draw most of his games.

As the late British GM Tony Miles remarked to me during the 1987 New York Open, "It comes with being a former World Champion. He comes here on holiday and gets his twelve move draws while I have to work my backside off. And he is still going to get more money than I am!" Indeed, Boris 'woke up' and won his final two rounds to pocket $2,200 for finishing third while previously never attempting to challenge the leaders, American Yasser Seirawan and Hungarian András Adorjan, who split $30,000.

Nevertheless, Boris was still dangerous when aroused. At the 1988 Reykjavik World Cup, Spassky casually played his favorite Closed Sicilian as White against then World Champion Garry Kasparov and offered a draw after eleven moves. Kasparov flatly refused but proceeded to make an inaccuracy on move twelve, which Spassky immediately pounced upon. By move nineteen, Kasparov was virtually lost. Spassky then repeated his draw offer saying something like, "I'm giving you your last chance. If you refuse the draw now, I will wipe you off the board!" Kasparov wisely accepted the offer.

Regarding Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, in 1987 Spassky felt, "There is no one else playing at their level right now. There are many things not to like about Karpov, especially his voice, but there is much to like about Karpov's game!" Karpov's voice is rather high and with a nasal tone to it.

As Fischer technically resigned his FIDE world chess champion title, he considered himself as the true World Champion, while Garry Kasparov was merely the FIDE World Champion. Bobby claimed all the results of the previous matches between involving Karpov, Korchnoi, and Kasparov were pre-arranged.

Hollywood capitalized on Fischer's absence by making the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Little did they expect that during production of the film, Fischer would reemerge after twenty years of isolation! Despite Boris' pessimism to me in 1987 over a potential rematch with Bobby, Spassky was about to become a millionaire.

Fischer challenged his old rival to the "Revenge Match of the 20th Century" for a prize fund of $5,000,000 with two-thirds to go to the winner, the largest payday in chess history! Boris was grateful Bobby had selected him to finally cash-in on their fame from the 1972 match, stating "Bobby has rescued me from oblivion." Fischer insisted for the organizers to bill their match as the true World Championship. The new match took place in 1992, split between Sveti Stefan, Montenegro and Belgrade, Serbia, despite a United Nations embargo. The United States Treasury Department wrote to Fischer that his participation was illegal as it violated President George H. W. Bush's Executive Order against engaging in economic activities in Yugoslavia.With all the world press in attendance, Bobby literally spat on the U.S. Treasury order forbidding him to play. Fischer won the match, 10 wins to 5 losses, with 15 draws. The level of play was a bit uneven, yet Bobby showed flashes of his old brilliance.

After the match, the Department obtained an arrest warrant for Fischer for violating the order and tax evasion. Bobby remained a wanted fugitive for the rest of his life and could never return to the USA, as he was facing a $250,000 fine, 10-20 years in prison, money laundering, and tax evasion.

Fischer became a globetrotter, living in Hungary, the Philippines, and Japan. In July 2004, he was arrested at an airport close to Tokyo for allegedly using a revoked US passport while trying to board a flight to Manila, apparently to see his 3-year old daughter, Jinky Young. He suffered a broken tooth and cuts during the arrest. Fischer's US passport had been issued in 1997, despite the arrest warrant, yet US officials claimed they sent Fischer a letter of revocation in 2003. It was the ultimate setup, as Fischer thought his passport was still valid. Why else did the US renew it? He was held in custody for 16 days before transfer to prison, reportedly in an area known to be radioactive. Fischer's cell had no windows, and the guards ignored his complaints over hunger, psychological torture, and tobacco smoke in his cell.

Twelve years had gone by since their return match, yet Boris Spassky was determined to show his appreciation and loyalty to Bobby by writing a letter to President Bush which he ended by stating, "Bobby and myself committed the same crime. Put sanctions against me also. Arrest me. And put me in the same cell with Bobby Fischer. And give us a chess set."

When asked about the letter via telephone over Philippine radio, Bobby had a very amusing response:

Fischer: I saw it, I didn't like it. I didn't like the tone – he was trying to make me sound like a weirdie. And he is begging, asking Bush for mercy? What is this?

Anchor: He said that if you had done something wrong he had done the same and should be put into your cell with you.

Fischer: I don't want him in my cell! I want a chick in my cell! How about that young chick, what's her name, what's that Russian chick, Kosteniuk? This Spassky, he is a very good "frenemy" of mine – a friend and enemy. (Alexandra Kosteniuk, born in 1984, became Woman's World Champion in 2008.)

On March 23, 2005, Fischer was finally released, welcomed by a huge crowd upon his arrival in Reykjavik, gave a news conference, and then retreated back to a life of relative seclusion.

Fischer did not tell his friends he had been suffering from kidney disease for years. By October 2007, Bobby's condition rapidly deteriorated. He was hospitalized, yet chose to return home to subsequently die on January 17, 2008. Dr. Skulason had aided Bobby in his desire to avoid kidney treatment and was at his bedside for the final 12 hours of his life. As Bobby refused drugs, he gently stroked Bobby's aching feet, upon which Fischer's final words were, "Nothing is as healing as the human touch." Ironically, Bobby was 64-years old; one year for each square on the chessboard. He simply had run out of squares.

Spassky visited Fischer's grave on March 10, 2008, laid flowers while dusting the snow off Bobby's grave and then stood up with tears in his eyes, remarking "Do you think the spot next to him is available. We will see what happens."

Boris Spassky's life has been relatively serene over the last several years. While giving a chess lecture in San Francisco in October 2006, Boris had a stroke, yet recovered by April 2007, and drew a six game match with Hungarian GM Lajos Portisch. Spassky had developed a propensity for matches against the top female players, with interesting theoretical results. At the age of 73, Boris no longer plays in tournaments, as it is too difficult for him to bear the stress anymore. He will play a couple of games if invited to a contest, yet feels he cannot do any more than that. Winning no longer brings him any joy, he hates to lose, and draws are simply too boring. Boris does still enjoy playing computers or Internet chess from his pleasant home in Paris. He also continues to be a commentator at tournaments. Boris claims his experiences at being a personal coach have not worked out well for his player. He finds it much easier to be the head of a school and giving group lectures, at which he does excel! Boris is the head of a chess school in the broad-leaved forest of the Satka Chelyabinsk region on the western slope of the southern Ural Mountains. He travels there twice a year to lecture as he does greatly enjoy working with the children.

Our Los Angeles encounter had left a lasting impression on me about Spassky. Boris magnificently autographed many books and pictures for me in Cyrillic. One of my favorites is of Boris making the first move of the 1969 match in which he finally won the World Champion title from Petrosian. Spassky took special care inscribing my tournament book of the 1966 Second Piatigorsky Cup with a flowing signature. Boris looked thoughtfully at the picture of himself with the winner's trophy, standing next to the Piatigorskys and the runner-up, Robert James Fischer. Boris' eyes appeared dreamy as he reflected back on a day when he proved himself to be the best of a field that included then World Champion Petrosian. Spassky finished clear first, ½ point ahead of Fischer; the difference that day being Spassky's win against Fischer's Grunfeld Defense, outplaying Bobby in every phase of the game. The memory of that day obviously pleased him! As Boris and I bid farewell, he looked genuinely sad to see my leave. It is hard to believe that someone who has reached the summit of the ultimate battle of egos can be such a sincere ambassador of chess. Such is Boris Vasilyevich Spassky, a true gentleman and sportsman!

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