The tenth World Chess Champion introduced himself at the start of a recent in-depth interview: “I’m Spassky Boris Vasilievich, a pensioner. I’m in the endgame of my life.” It’s been quite a life, though, and the 77-year-old clearly retains much of his old sparkle. He was in great form as he talked about topics that included the Carlsen-Anand match, what chess means to him and his encounters with Bobby Fischer.
Boris Spassky was a guest of honour at the recent World Championship match in Sochi, and liked what he saw. That was the starting point for his interview with Anatoly Samokhvalov in R-Sport, from which we’ve translated extensive extracts below:
Boris Spassky: Sochi made a good impression on me. I’m glad that although I could no longer feel the Olympic spirit I got to go to Krasnaya Polyana. I saw how the area had developed. For me Krasnaya Polyana had meant a bus stop with a stream, a couple of stones and some small trees, but today it’s a small town. If I was starting my life anew I wouldn’t be against starting it in Krasnaya Polyana.
Anatoly Samokhvalov: And what about Leningrad?
Not Leningrad, but Petrograd. I just don’t accept the word ‘Leningrad’, since I’m familiar with the city’s history. It’s not the city of Lenin but Peter. For me it’s my native land.
But Petrograd? Not St. Petersburg?
St. Petersburg was the capital of the most powerful state in the world, but then the capital changed into a regional industrial centre. If you follow the path of history then our impression of the city also changes. My native city is Petrograd.
Would you still have turned to chess if you’d started your life in Krasnaya Polyana?
Would I have become a chess player?
Yes, or a famous Krasnaya Polyana beekeeper?
That remains a mystery, but sport wouldn’t have passed me by. I also did track and field, and played tennis and bridge, but now poker’s becoming more and more popular, right?
Yes. It doesn’t interest you?
You probably played preferans?
I didn’t like preferans. A shallow game.
But it’s considered intellectual.
The shallower the more intellectual (laughs). There are a lot of shallow calculations in preferans. It’s not for me.
All sports change over the years, becoming faster, higher, stronger. Is chess also subject to similar trends?
Chess is also changing, but in a somewhat incomprehensible manner. Computers have appeared in chess and turned everything upside down.
The reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen has the reputation of being a straight-A chess player who does everything correctly on the board and plays out games for a long, long time. Has chess lost something because of that?
Carlsen is a stubborn kid. In general, what a chess player needs has always been the same, with a love of chess the main requirement. Moreover, it has to be loved naturally, with passion, the way people love art, drawing and music. That passion possesses you and seeps into you. I still look at chess with the eyes of a child.
And what do you see?
A river, with its current and channel, and the gradual flow of the river.
And you’re standing on the shore?
No, I’m already in it, in that river.
For me chess is a single process and, ultimately, it doesn’t differ from life itself.
So the Carlsen-Anand match was a celebration for you?
Yes, I was happy to observe both of them. Of course there was a lot of psychology in that match. No doubt there was also a lot of something else, something hidden that we don’t know about, since lots of different interests were involved in the process, and different forces took part. But that’s not something I can know about.
Do you think the match has the political background there was in Reykjavik in 1972 during the Spassky-Fischer clash?
Each match has something mystic about it. The match in Reykjavik stood out, coming during the Cold War.
There are also echoes of that now, only our players aren’t in the arena.
In Sochi what I could smell above all was chess gunpowder, with both kids and venerable elders looking on. You don’t need to remind me about the match with Fischer, though, because it’s here inside (points at his head), in my memory bank.
Which matches had the most gunpowder?There were special matches, such as mine with Fischer. It corresponded to the time, as did the Botvinnik-Smyslov match, when the public was split. I also recall the Estrada Theatre and the podium on which Petrosian and I played. I recall the demonstrators. I was a demonstrator myself when I was 8-9 years old. I showed the moves, recorded the games and sometimes the players would turn to me with a request to show them the moves. And I rushed to do it, delighted that my help was required. I also earned money from that, getting 10 roubles a day. I remember how my coach Tolush would shout to me during a game: “Hey, lad, here’s three roubles – fetch me a pack of ‘Kazbeks’”. And I’d happily race to fulfil the master’s errand.
Then you beat Tolush.
When I became strong, of course.
You didn’t ask him to bring you a pack of ‘Kazbeks’?
No. I smoked, but I didn’t need to ask...
They say sport is above politics, but back then it was full of politics.
At the time chess served politics. Politics reduced it.
Did you resist that?
For me chess always remained a game.
I wasn’t a very servile chess player, from the Soviet point of view.
You always tried to emphasise that you were deliberately rebellious?
I didn’t like and don’t like to emphasise that – it’s just the way things turned out in life.
How did you manage to get away from the influence of ideology and avoid signing party letters against anyone?
That depended on the Almighty. I didn’t try to do anything special. They suggested I sign and I refused.
Did you also tell party officials about the Almighty?
I explained things to them with absolute objectivity: in order to sign something you need to be very familiar with the topic, but no-one was interested in familiarising me with it.
But what about the famous phase from those years, “I haven’t read it but I condemn it”?
It’s not up to me to judge those who lived according to that principle. In general, I was never a member of any party.
Viktor Tikhonov, who died recently, told his colleagues about his constant battle with the political department. One loss and they would have swept him aside, but he didn’t lose. You had a similar arrangement. But did the loss to Fischer change all that?
After Reykjavik the Sports Committee couldn’t forgive me for declining the chance to retain the World Championship title. I could easily have done that simply by leaving the match. I had every justification, with FIDE President Max Euwe even telling me: “Dear Boris, you can quit the match at any moment. Take as much time as you need, go to Moscow or wherever else, but recover and think things over”. I replied: “Thanks for the good advice, Max, but I’ll do things my way”.
Euwe was also a World Champion.
He was a national hero in Holland after making it chess country no. 1 by beating Alekhine in a World Championship match.
Why didn’t you take a break in Reykjavik?
I think I acted the way I did out of stupidity. It was unwise on my part to maintain that tension. Fischer had his strategy in that psychological war, while I had mine. I was going to make concessions up to a certain moment. I could see he had problems…
But we were two Don Quixotes, each with his own, absolutely different windmills.
He was wound up with one thing in life, while I was tangled up in something else. I was engaged in a struggle with the USSR Sports Committee, which I couldn’t see eye to eye with, while he had negotiations with the TV company Fox, who were filming him. Fischer complained the camera was very noisy and in such conditions he, Fischer, didn’t want to play chess.
What were your issues with the Sports Committee?
The usual. In the Soviet system a person was state property – a cog, which they could turn as they wished.
Were you on friendly terms with Fischer?
I had friendly relations with Bobby. We always enjoyed our encounters with each other.
Can chess players of different eras be compared at all?
It’s pretty hard. Each to his own. Everyone should know his place. Chess players are a very difficult crowd who are largely egocentrics, egoists and individualists. Each of them has his own vision of the world and each is a lone wolf who goes his own way. Each World Champion came from more or less that background.
You didn’t like the clash between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov?
There was a lot of crudeness and dirt between them. Not long before his death Petrosian, observing the behaviour of Kasparov and Karpov, recalled our ‘problems’. “Do you remember,” he told me, “how we signed our match contract on the windowsill of the restaurant ‘Sofia’? We took a minute to sign, discussing nothing and arguing over nothing.” “I remember, Tigran Vartanovich,” I said. As you can see, not long before leaving this world the man revisited the past.
Weren’t you worried when you travelled to the 1992 match with Fischer in Yugoslavia? You’re a citizen of France, which supported sanctions against the Balkan state.
No, I wasn’t worried. I looked on that match as a celebration. Fischer had surfaced, there was no burden of responsibility and the prize fund was good. I could secure myself a pension and I had the enormous pleasure of inviting my Soviet friends Nikitin and Balashov to be my seconds.
Did France try to persuade you not to go?
France, like the USA, got involved itself from the legal point of view during the Yugoslav crisis. The point was that a great number of French businessmen sold weapons during the war in Yugoslavia, which wasn’t permitted. When the question of paying taxes arose I ended up having to find the best lawyer in the country, someone who dealt specifically with such issues.
Did you talk to Fischer afterwards?
I always kept in touch with him – we wrote to each other. When they robbed him… or how can we put it? A guy with whom Fischer had some dealings put the flat where Bobby lived and kept his stuff up for sale. I even tried to buy our correspondence, but I didn’t manage to do it. It was very interesting.
I once wrote to him before the Korchnoi-Karpov match: “Bobby, Campomanes has offered me a good financial deal to be a commentator on the match”. Fischer replied: “In no circumstances get involved with such grubby people! Stay as far away from them as you can, since your name is worth significantly more than the fee you’ll receive”.
By nature Fischer was a tough trade union leader.
It seems it was in 1987 that an American actor, a guy with roots in Odessa, organised a chess tournament in the USA and invited me. At Los Angeles station I was supposed to be met by Bobby. He lived in Pasadena, which is basically a fishing village not far from Hollywood. I got out wearing a T-shirt and tennis shorts. I played tennis every day and decided not to get changed for the trip. I sensed that someone was watching me and turned around – Fischer. He shouted at once: “Heey! You’re in good shape!” Of course, I replied, and why not, I’m in good shape. We greeted each other.
Bobby would gorge himself each day in some cheap Chinese eateries and, in order to get rid of a paunch, would have to do a lot of walking. He walked for kilometres and once, on such an occasion, the police arrested him. Not long before that a bank had been robbed and the police mistook Bobby for the robber. After that he published a slim brochure entitled I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse!
Did they really torture him?
No, of course not. They scared him a little, clearly, while I expect he replied with his usual repertoire – telling them to go to hell. Then they realised he was simply a crazy chess player. He’d always imagined that any attention focussed on him was a special action aimed at trapping him.
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