Saturday, January 19, 2008

More on Fischer and Spassky

There is a very full obituary of Bobby Fischer by Leonard Barden in today's Guardian.

It is worth saying a world about Boris Spassky's career after the 1972 world title match in too. The following year he won the Soviet championship. This was a remarkable feat, not only because of the strength of the field but also because he was under a certain amount of official disapproval as the man who had lost the Soviet Union the world chess championship. Perhaps he was helped by having a lot of opening preparation left over from the Fischer match that he had not used because the American has switched to using openings he had never employed before.

Mark Taimanov, who was a concert pianist as well as a chess grandmaster, had lost 6-0 to Fischer earlier in the qualifying process for the 1972 title match. On returning to Moscow he had his luggage searched and a Solzhenitsyn novel was found. When he got into an argument about it he was forced to publish a public apology to his "comrade customs official" and later lost his government stipend.

After his courageous victory in the 1973 Soviet championship Spassky rather coasted, trading on his status as the only active chess player most people had heard of. He played in all the big tournaments but sometimes did not seem to be exerting himself.

He did lose a great match to Viktor Korchnoi as the latter qualified to meet Karpov in the 1978 world title match. Korchnoi was a dissident, living abroad by then, and his matches against the representatives of the Soviet regime tended to be grinding, hate-filled affairs. Against the universally liked Spassky, however, Korchnoi relaxed and the two of them produced wonderful chess.

Spassky, without ever becoming a public dissident like Korchnoi, gradually made it known that he had no sympathy for the Soviet regime. He now lives in a Russian emigre community in France.

In Bobby Fischer Goes to War, David Edmonds and John Eidinow record that his mother took the young Fischer to see a child psychiatrist because she was worried he was spending so much time playing and studying chess. The doctor remarked that there are worse obsessions and sent them on their way.

Spassky's boyhood was very different and I include an extract from Edmonds and Eidinow as a little bit of Soviet social history (the photograph above shows Spassky aged 12):
In the summer of 1946, Spassky passed his days watching the players in a chess pavilion "with a black knight on top" on an island in Leningrad's river Neva. "Long queen moves fascinated me," he recalls. "I fell in love with the white queen. I dreamed about caressing her in my pocket, but I did not dare to steal her. Chess is pure for me." He had thirteen kopeks for his fare and a glass of water with syrup to see him through until the last streetcar carried him home. His feet were bare. "Soldiers' boots were my worst enemy."
Now read more on Bobby Fischer.

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