12/03/2008 20:43


The above photograph (courtesy of Bob Jones) is believed to have been taken in 1966 at the start of a simultaneous display given by Boris Spassky at the Plymouth Chess Club.  The Mayor of Plymouth is being instructed by Boris on the move to play and this is being supervised by Rowena Bruce who at the time was President of the Plymouth Chess Club.


Boris Spassky, the tenth world chess champion, will celebrate his 70th birthday on 30th January 2007.  

He was born in Leningrad in 1937 and first started playing chess at the Palace of Pioneers, where he revealed his great talent at a very early age.  At the age of eleven he became a first category player and at thirteen he became a Candidate Master.  His progress was so rapid that in 1945, aged eighteen, he played in the Bucharest tournament and shared 4th-6th place.  To do so he scored eight wins, including one over Smyslov, and this performance earned him the title of International Master.  In the following year he won the World Junior Championship and successfully took part in the interzonal tournament and the Candidates' Tournament.  When 19 he became the youngest grandmaster in the world.  For the following ten years he was very successful but some odd incidents kept him away from challenging for the world championship. 

In 1958 the Soviet Championship was to provide two places for the 1959 Portoroz Interzonal.  With three rounds to go Spassky was just half a point behind the leader, Petrosian.  However, the next two rounds yielded just one draw and he needed a full point from his last round game against Tal to be assured of one of the qualifying places.  He refused an early draw and then continued to a loss.  The loss of that game obliged him to wait for the next world championship cycle.  Three years later he committed the same error; again he needed only half a point in the last two rounds of the 28th USSR Championship to assure his participation in the interzonal tournament, but he refused a draw and again lost the two games.

To his credit and in the face of these bitter disappointments, Spassky buckled down to tightening his performances.  In 1964 was among the winners in the interzonal tournament and took part in the following candidates matches.  By beating Tal in the final candidates match he became the challenger for the chess crown that was held by Petrosian.  The world championship match that followed was played in Moscow and Spassky lost by winning 3 games, losing 4 and drawing 17.

1968 saw Spassky trying again to gain the right of a match for the championship.  In the candidates matches he defeated Geller, Larsen and Korchnoi, scoring in all the matches 8 wins and just 2 losses.  So in 1969 he sat down once more opposite Petrosian to struggle for the championship.  This time he was successful.  In the scheduled 25 game match he had reached a winning score of 12 points by drawing the 23rd game.  In an interview with "Soviet Sport" after the match Spassky was asked:

"Could you describe the character of your strategy in the match?"

His reply was:-

"Briefly, it came to three points.  The first you already know - maintaining my fighting mood until the end.  The second was to play in a strict classical manner.  Why?  Together with Bondarevsky and Krogius, I came to the conclusion that the World Champion, for all his great positional mastery, was not a player of a strict, classical profile.  His style, directed towards limiting the opponent's possibilities, is unique and, particularly in match play, extraordinarily effective.  It is not accidental that Petrosian is a phenomenal match player.  All the same, his unsurpassed skill at manoeuvring and tacking is sometimes dictated not only by the requirements of the position but rather by prophylactic tasks.

On the whole, our idea justified itself: in the Tarrasch Defence, for example, Petrosian was not able even once in five attempts to seize the isolated queen's pawn.

And finally, the third task was to try to play every game to a finish, if possible with an adjourned session.  and if I did not always accomplish this task, it is only because I myself, as was the case during the fifteenth game, was feeling tired."

(Our thanks to the BCM booklet on the match "The 1969 World Championship Match" by Peter Clarke for this account)

During the next two years, Spassky's chess appearances were infrequent and his performances were below par.

In 1972 he had to defend his title for the first time against the brilliant rising American star, Bobby Fischer.

It is well known that Fischer played on Spassky's nerves to such an extent that the match was over in 21 games with Spassky winning 3 games, losing 7 and drawing 11. 

Spassky made several attempts at regaining the title but in the next cycle of matches after beating Robert Byrne in the quarter final match, he lost out to Karpov in the semi final.  Subsequent candidate matches did not see him as a challenger to the incumbent world champion.

In 1992 he played another match with Bobby Fischer in Belgrade.  This was not recognised by anyone - other than Bobby Fischer - as a match for the world championship.  30 games were played and Fischer finished with 17 points against Spassky's 12.  These were the last recorded games played by Fischer and led to a bitter dispute with the American government who at the time were boycotting any relationship with Yugoslavia.

The Soviet Chess authorities could be rather hard on the players that they considered had brought disgrace on the USSR and Spassky was no exception following his loss of the world title in 1972.  He was severely criticised for continuing the match in the face of Fischer's misdeeds, but the rest of the world saw him as acting in a gentlemanly and sporting manner.  Despite the constraints that were imposed on him, Spassky left the USSR to live in France where he resides today.  His chess appearances are now very few, but his achievements continue to be admired by the vast majority of chess players.

Spassky's chess legacy is best expressed by Gary Kasparov in the third part of his monumental "My Great Predecessors".  He writes:-

"When working on this chapter I unexpectedly discovered that the play of ...... Spassky ....... in contrast to that of his immediate predecessors (Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal and Petrosian) does not lend itself to a distinct division into any clearly expressed components, making it unique and unrepeatable.  With Spassky everything is somehow diffuse and misty - and this, evidently confirms his image of a universal player.  It is generally considered that the universal chess style, involving an ability to play the most varied types of positions, stems from Spassky.

However, in my view, this general conviction about Spassky's universality ignores the fact that from childhood he clearly had a leaning towards sharp, attacking play, and possessed a splendid feel for the initiative.  These habits were, I think, cultivated in him by his first trainer Zak, and then developed by Tolush.  And a liking for pretty attacks can be traced throughout Spassky's chess career."