The tenth World Champion Boris Spassky has been described as one of the first truly universal players, combining a correct classical style with dynamic attacks and deep strategy. His laid-back attitude to life was reflected in a narrow opening repertoire, but he would outplay his opponents in the middlegame and only finally met his match in Bobby Fischer. Their 1972 match was perhaps the most significant in chess history.
Spassky was a prodigy who picked up the game while staying in a provincial orphanage after being evacuated from war-torn Leningrad. In 1947, at the age of only ten, he was strong enough to defeat Mikhail Botvinnik in a simultaneous display. As a teenager in 1955 he finished third in the USSR Championship, won the World Junior Championship and then a year later tied for third place at the Amsterdam Candidates Tournament, losing only two games and inflicting the only defeat on the winner, Vasily Smyslov. He also tied for first place in the 1956 USSR Championship, although he lost the play-off to Mark Taimanov.
Spassky was considered a future champion, but in the years that followed he struggled in qualifying events, often losing critical encounters. He partly put his failures down to an unhappy first marriage (“we were like opposite-coloured bishops…”) and saw his results improve when he divorced and changed coaches in 1961, the year he won his first USSR Championship. In the 1964-66 cycle Spassky won matches against Keres, Geller and Tal before narrowly losing his first World Championship match to Tigran Petrosian 12.5-11.5. In the next cycle he beat Geller, Larsen and Korchnoi before finally claiming the title in 1969 by winning another closely-fought match against Petrosian 12.5:10.5.
Spassky later complained of the burden of being champion, but his reign didn’t last long. In 1972 he met Bobby Fischer in a showdown in Reykjavik that took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. Fischer had whitewashed Taimanov and Larsen and crushed Petrosian, but his record against Spassky was poor. The American also started badly, losing the first game after a strange blunder and forfeiting the second after refusing to play in front of cameras. The turning point proved to be game three – Spassky agreed to Fischer’s request to play in a small room with no audience, and then regretted not refusing to play when his opponent still complained. Fischer went on to win that game and the next four decisive encounters, leaving the match outcome in little doubt. Although Spassky later acknowledged Fischer was the better player by that stage, the lopsided 12.5-8.5 scoreline didn’t reflect the balance of play.
Spassky never again qualified for a World Championship match. In 1976 he moved to France to live with his third wife, and despite a number of strong results the most dramatic moment in his subsequent career was perhaps the lucrative rematch he played against Fischer in 1992, which he lost 17.5-12.5. In 2010 Spassky suffered a stroke and needed to be hospitalised, while in 2012 he left his wife and France to move back to Russia. He is currently the oldest World Champion.
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