Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Spassky at Hay-on-Wye

Above photo shows Marina Spassky, Boris Spassky and interviewer Ronan Bennett. (c) 2008 John Saunders.

On Monday 26 May, former world champion Boris Spassky gave a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival in Wales. We don't get many world champions visiting our shores these days (more's the pity) so I decided to go along.

In fact, Spassky had been in action there the day before, giving a 20-board simul in a local bookshop. I didn't attend that but I understand he won most of the games but conceded a few draws, including one to Ian MacNab, a chess-playing scientist who was playing remotely from Antarctica. Also amongst his opponents was the comedian Dom Joly and a Welsh MP, Peter Black.

I am grateful to Stephen Moss for contributing the following observation on Spassky's technique for encouraging players to resign in the simul: "... his rival is two pawns down in an endgame (king and six pawns v king and four) ... Spassky would approach the board, look at it with a frown for 30 seconds as if it was the hardest position he'd ever seen, then look up at his opponent and say in that lovely, lilting Russian voice 'But where is your army?' Worked every time. I think he scored 15 wins and 5 draws in the simul."

On the Monday, the interview was conducted in a large marquee on the tented festival site, some half a mile west of the town proper. Unfortunately the weather was absolutely appalling, with wind and rain whipping around the site. The marquee managed to remain standing but at times it was difficult to make out what was being said on stage for the sound of wind upon canvas. So I hope you will forgive me for any misquotations in the following...

The great man appeared on stage, suitably attired against the elements, with his wife Marina who was there to aid his English comprehension when needed (which was not very often). Spassky's interviewer was novelist, screen writer and journalist Ronan Bennett. Ronan Bennett is also a keen chessplayer and weekly columnist (with GM Daniel King) for the Guardian's G2 'Bennett and King on Chess' feature. During the interview Bennett occasionally glanced at his copy of Bernard Cafferty's Boris Spassky: Master of the Attack (having also written a few prepared questions on the inside back cover). He was an excellent choice of interviewer for the occasion, and he struck a well-judged balance between topics which would be of particular interest to the initiated and more general ones which would be more comprehensible to a large (and largely non-chessplaying) audience.

Asked about his early chessplaying experiences, Spassky recounted how he was (like all of us) the victim of Scholar's Mate. As he climbed the chess ladder, he described himself as a "beggar" in his early days, but it was evident that his love for chess carried him through in what must have been the highly competitive world of Soviet chess. He was twice asked why he loved chess (both by the interviewer and a member of the audience at the end) but he could only describe this as "an enigma". Asked why he thought he thought he was so good at the game, he simply pointed heavenwards and smiled.

Many of the questions centred round the man to whom his name will be linked for ever - Bobby Fischer. Spassky simply doesn't have a bad word to say about his 1972 adversary. The two men billed as 'Fischer versus Spassky' in their professional life had long since become 'Bobby and Boris' - good friends. Spassky revealed that in recent years they were in regular email contact. On one occasion Spassky consulted Fischer on some question about rook endgames and Fischer sent a message back saying that Russian grandmasters' endgame play had improved since the publication of the Levenfish/Smyslov book on rook endgames. Spassky was visibly moved when he mentioned his last email from Bobby: "he was full of... conviviality", I think Boris said, as he broke off and, for a moment, nearly broke down.

The nearest he came to being critical of his former rival was in the discussion of what happened before the 3rd game of the Reykjavik match, when play took place in the room behind the stage. Boris admitted he was upset by Fischer's brusque treatment of match referee Lothar Schmid. That was a turning point in the match as Spassky could quite justifiably have insisted on the match being played in accordance with the previously agreed regulations (which might well have resulted in a Fischer walk-out). But he acquiesced and allowed the match to take its historic course. Mentioning that his name means 'saviour' in Russian, he commented that he saved the match, although sacrificing himself in the process.

Spassky was not always as diplomatic as he might have been with his Soviet colleagues. He told one story of a conversation with Botvinnik, the so-called Patriarch of Soviet chess and (unlike Spassky) a loyal party man. Spassky told him that the best example of the Soviet School of Chess was... Bobby Fischer. "Michael did not like that!", admitted Spassky ruefully.

The outcome of the 1972 match was not a tragedy for him (although he had to endure the later inquest by his fellow Soviet grandmasters). He emphasised to the audience that he "did not like to be the king" and that the years during which he held the title (1969-72) were the unhappiest of his life. He felt he was past his best in 1972. "I was perhaps number one from 1963 to 1971."

When asked about an early Fischer comment, to the effect that all Soviet GMs were members of the KGB, Spassky told us that he had raised the subject with Fischer: "When I become a colonel in the KGB, I will invite you to eat in the best restaurants!". To which Fischer had replied: "Yeah!". Spassky tried very hard to reproduce the authentic Fischer pronunciation of the word "yeah!", much to the amusement of the audience.

The mere mention of the 1992 rematch with Fischer brought Boris to life. "Ah! That was different! It was a festival, like this!," he said, gesturing to the surroundings of the book festival. By 1992, of course, Boris was a free agent and the Yugoslav match an unexpected bonus - a protracted pay-day in the Adriatic sun. He agreed that the standard of play was much lower than in 1972. He started to tell a story about game 6 (he wasn't sure himself) where he had set out to play for a draw but Bobby had surprised him by playing some very poor moves. He mentioned the time controls of the 1992 match as being problematic, with games dragging on endlessly to eight or more hours. "After one long game, Bobby was like this..." and Boris got up from his chair and lumbered unsteadily about the front of the stage, in imitation of Fischer's exhaustion after this particular encounter.

A member of the audience asked Spassky who his chess heroes were: "My heroes were all tragic!". He mentioned them by name: "Morphy, Alekhine..." - here I missed a couple of names but SonofPearl (see link below) recalls Chigorin and Steinitz. And then, as an afterthought he added "Pillsbury". "All tragic people!", he reiterated.

After the session of audience questions had ended - some were excessively long and complicated, and politely deflected by a tiring champion - Spassky was treated to a warm round of applause from an appreciative audience before leaving the stage. But I confess that I wanted to meet Boris in person and 'invited myself' backstage. Luckily Ronan Bennett was on hand to save me from being ejected by some security people and he was also kind enough to introduce me to Boris. I was able to shake Spassky's very large (and slightly intimidating) hand. On hearing that I was editor of 'British Chess Magazine' (which, by the way, he still receives regularly), he was kind enough to comment that "it is a very nice magazine". Now I can die happy...

Some links to other coverage of the Spassky talk:
Stephen Moss at Guardian Unlimited
SonofPearl's Blog


  1. Nice report, John - and thanks for mentioning mine too! Spassky said so many interesting things, that I found it quite hard to summarise it all. It's nice to see that you have included several anecdotes that I neglected to mention in my own report - I especially enjoyed the KGB one about getting into the best restaurants. :)

  2. Also - I missed my chance to speak to him before the talk. I arrived early and as I was getting my bearings and finding the stage where the talk would be, he passed me walking in the other direction! I noticed him walk by, but was so surprised that I didn't say anything. :(

  3. geoff marchant2 June 2008 at 21:54

    Hi John,
    I'm not 100% certain but I think Boris also mentioned Leonid Stein as a hero. And he seemed to imply that Stein had a tragic life, I think?