Boris Spassky 2016 interview
This interview was conducted by Yuri Golyshak and Sergei Kruzhkov for their column Friday Talk in the Sport-Express newspaper in early 2016.
Heading photo was taken during that interview.
The tenth world champion returned from Paris to Moscow several years ago.
He lives in a tiny first-floor flat. There's quite a walk for the nearest metro station, Ryazansky Prospekt.
A photo of young Fischer stands among the books of Tsarist Russia history. We're studying this photo, and Boris Vasilyevich studies us with a half-smile.
Beyond the window, life is quiet: a streetlight lights up the snowstorm, people walk about with their collars up. In three hours, he'd never turned to look at the window.
"I know you're not chess players", Spassky exposed us.
I am a chess player, my specialization is quite narrow.
Even though you have a journalist's diploma too.
Yes, I've graduated from the Petrograd University. But this was a vain effort - I got no real education!
Do you really think so?
Of course. It was easier to study something yourself - antique literature, philosophy. Soviet universities didn't give much education. They were mostly beating around the bush... Sadly, I can't offer you any liquor! I have some things to wash it down, but no real thing.
Don't worry, Boris Vasilyevich. You have survived illnesses. How are you feeling?
Two strokes in ten years. The first happened in San Francisco, during a chess lecture. The operation went well, I was even able to make Knight moves. The second one was in Moscow. As you see, I'm holding up well, I'm alive! But left arm and left leg misbehave. They sometimes go on strike! At least my head is working clearly.
Do you go out often?
Sometimes I travel. Last Autumn, I visited Berlin, the premiere of Pawn Sacrifice. Also, there was a celebration of Keres' 100th birthday in Moscow, he's a great chess player. I've also went quite far - there's a new scientific and technical library on Khoroshevskoe highway. So, I do maneuver... all over the board. I'm also waging a war!
I'm trying to divorce my French wife and come out unscathed. I'm losing all my possessions!
Yes. Maybe, I'd be able to save my chess archive. My wife balked. My French son did too. Nobody outright tells me no. They just say, "Come yourself and get everything you need." But it's too hard a maneuver for my health. I have already accepted some losses. In materiel. But at least I haven't lost manpower. In 2012, I had to flee France. Let everything remain there. At least I'm still alive!
We've heard that the situation was quite sharp.
Two women helped me - Valentina Kuznetsova and Maria Okhotnikova. They moved me from Paris to Moscow. They were very skilled. What a scandal there was in the press!
What would you take from that archive if you've had the chance?
Two manuscripts. I've almost completed a book called The Dramatic Match.
No, about the match I've lost to Korchnoi in Belgrade. Also, there are some books I like. Mask and Soul by Chaliapine, Yuri Morfessi's memoirs. Photos, awards.
World champion's medal. Some Olympic awards I won with the Soviet national team.
Weren't you given a crown as a world champion?
In our time, they gave us a medal and a laurel wreath. The bay leaves were immediately given away to wives.
Yes. The wreath lasted for long. We discussed that with Botvinnik. He also used his first wreath for soups, but he kept the second one. He grew older and wiser!
You said that you went to the Pawn Sacrifice premiere.
Yes, went to Berlin by train. That's better for my health. The film was bad though.
What didn't you like?
I have everything in my memory, I'm still alive. But there, it's just acting. A surrogate!
Everything was so artificial...
Did the actor who played you do at least something right?
I've noticed no similarities!
Nowhere near it. Yes, the actor does roll his eyes, but Fischer was different! Different height, facial expressions, behaviour... There's no intrigue in the movie, they failed to show the main thing: how I agreed to continue the match. I could have just stopped everything and walked away as the champion!
Was continuing the match the right decision?
Now, in hindsight, I understand that I was wrong. I had to let Fischer finish what he started. He started to resign the match! Let's imagine that we are boxers. If one says "I give up", the other one has to accept! But I refused.
Did he understand that he was resigning?
Of course! He no-showed the second game. The arbiter started the clock and then declared that Fischer lost. Before that match, he never won a game against me!
You came to the third game and suffered that first defeat.
Yes. Fischer immediately became much more confident. He understood that he had good chances.
Did the Soviet officials insist on you stopping the match?
They ordered me to! The Sports Committee chairman Sergey Pavlov talked to me on the phone for half an hour. He instructed me what to do: "File a protest against this, against that, then just fly away..." But I resisted - I wanted to play! What a fool I was. The match was much bigger than my individual interests.
You were so sure that you would defeat Fischer?
I pitied him. I saw that the guy was going insane! I rather liked Bobby. It's Korchnoi who needs to hate his opponent to play better. I'm different. There was a crazy kid sitting opposite me - how could I possibly hate him?
But I should have invoked the sportsman in me, for whom the most important thing is winning. I didn't come up with any tricks. Unlike Fischer - who threw all kinds of statements left and right. He blamed the Icelandic organizers, Max Euwe, the Soviet delegation. Birds stopped singing in the Reykjavik bay - it's obviously Spassky's fault! Only later did I realize that this pressure was carefully thought out.
Fischer was supported by an ideologue named Lombardy. His idea was to keep me under constant psychological pressure. Though even during the match, I felt that someone was pushing Bobby quite hard. Back then, I thought it was Kramer; that crazy guy was all over Fischer, agitated him...
Was Kramer the colonel who headed the United States Chess Federation?
No, the colonel was Edmondson. Kramer was a business man. Incredibly noisy!
I forgot one more moment: before the third game, there was a scandal between the arbiter Lothar Schmid and Fischer. Bobby screamed, "Hey, shut up!" How can you even talk like that?!
How does that concern you?
I just had to get up and say, "Bobby, that's enough for today. We'll play next time!" Before the game, Euwe came to meet me: "Boris, you can stop the match any second, I'll understand. Bobby's behaviour is horrible. No candidate ever behaved like that..." That's quite a rare thing - the FIDE president speaking so openly!
He didn't like Fischer much.
In 1975, Euwe had his revenge: he took away Fischer's title and gave it to Karpov without playing. But that's another story.
Did you meet Lombardy after the match?
Three or so years ago, on a tournament for the grandmasters older than 75. Lombardy visited it. Someone relayed his words to me: "We wanted to unsettle Spassky, no matter what the cost. He shouldn't have understood what was going on..." Nevertheless, they feared that I would just slam the door and go away.
They were balancing on the edge.
I think they knew what was happening in my brigade.
I took the Estonian Ivo Nei as a second. He turned out to be an American spy. He conspired with Robert Byrne, who wrote chess column for New York Times, to co-write a book about the match. Nei knew everything about our plans - and the Americans waited for information from him. If I did decide to stop the match, Fischer's team would know immediately.
How could the KGB let such a man get so close to you?
What KGB?.. I only know of one KGB intervention: their man went to check the chairs. Deep in the night.
There was an information that there was a strange component in one of the chairs. The Icelandic police found a piece of wood inside. Of course, it didn't influence anything. The cop who found it kept is as a memento.
Did Fischer ever discuss the Reykjavik events with you? Did he apologize for his tricks?
No, we never talked about that. But he promised to play a second match with me - and he kept his word. At first, Bobby wanted to play in Spain. I have a fax saying that the match was going to be organized by Luis Rentero, the Linares tournament founder. Then the banker Jezdimir Vasiljevic offered more interesting conditions. In 1992, we went to the Sveti Stefan island. There were Yugoslavian cannons up there, and American fleet down there. There were divers at night, or so we were told. But we've tried to ignore the military atmosphere.
Why did Fischer treat you so warmly?
I understood him. Commiserated. Even though he called all Soviet grandmasters KGB agents. He hated communists and Jews...
Even though he was Jewish himself.
By mother's side of the family. He considered himself a German. I once asked him, "Bobby, I'm Russian - why are you friendly with me?"
What did he say?
Nothing. Fischer was made of paradoxes. A loner who challenged the world order. Lots of innocent people died on 9/11, but he supported the terrorists, calling the fire on himself. Still, he remained a hero for the Icelanders. They didn't fear the United States. The entire country threatened to go into jails if Fischer, an Icelandic citizen, was arrested. He was a man of tragic fate. I understood that immediately after seeing him for the first time.
In Moscow. He was 15 years old. A tall boy, came with his sister Jane. In the chess club on Gogolevsky boulevard, he'd played blitz with Petrosian, Bronstein, Vasyukov, Lutikov. I first played him two years later, at the Mar del Plata tournament.
What did you last discuss with Fischer?
What first move was stronger: e2-e4 or d2-d4. We agreed that it's the latter, because the pawn is protected by the Queen. Bobby always called me. I've never bothered him by the phone. I knew that he would again start discussing his own "Fischer chess" with me. I didn't approve of the idea. Too many variants. But he insisted.
Do you still see Fischer in your dreams?
Yes, sometimes. He was killed by a kidney disease. Two easy operations could have saved his life, but Fischer refused. He didn't trust the doctors, feared that they'd kill him on the operating table. He told me not to trust doctors, too.
In 1977, in Reykjavik. I played the Candidates' quarterfinal against Vlastimil Hort. At the end of the match, I had a fit of such a severe pain that I've passed out on the street near the hotel. The doctors in hospital told me it was appendicitis. Fischer learned of this and called me. He whispered on the phone, "Do not agree to have surgery!" I answered, "Bobby, I fear nothing. I'm not suspicious of anybody. The hospital is reputable, the doctor speaks Russian..."
Did you attend Fischer's funeral?
I couldn't - my French wife didn't let me. Later, when I visited Reykjavik, I brought some flowers to his grave. Fischer planned his funeral beforehand - what music to play, whom to invite. He invited only three chess players: Andor Lilienthal, Lajos Portisch and me.
Where is he buried?
Not far from his grave, there's a pathway with a memorial plaque: "Alting, Iceland's first parliament, assembled there". The world's oldest parliament - it was created in the year 930. Before Russia became Christian. Music-wise, he chose Tom Jones' Green Grass Of Home. I sang it when we walked on the streets of Budapest. Fischer suddenly sang along. I didn't know that he knew the lyrics for many pop songs.
You earned $93,000 for your Reykjavik match. Spent it in four years. What did you buy?
In the 1970's, it was a fortune, but I've always spent money easily. One big purchase I can remember is the Volga M21 car. A very sturdy Soviet car, almost like a tank. I've used it for five years.
There was a version that you were irradiated in Reykjavik. Do you believe in that?
This version came about many years after the match - I received a letter from an engineer who was exposed to radiation. He said that X-rays were probably used against me.
Ultrashort waves. Both our and American spies liked that stuff. I saw a program on French TV. There was a horse race. Some man took out a small box and aimed it at the leading horse. And it stumbled immediately!
A serious thing.
When I played against Korchnoi in Belgrade, this was already known. Everyone's bags were checked at the entrance, and all suspicious devices were taken away.
You surely remembered your Reykjavik experience. Was anything strange happening?
Yes, it was!
Did you feel dull and apathetic?
I couldn't concentrate. It first happened to me in Tbilisi, when I played against Misha Tal. Wolf Messing came to our match.
He wasn't there on your behalf, obviously?
He supported Misha. They were both from Riga. Messing probably wasn't that interested in chess, he had his hands full already. But still, he came!
Did you notice him in the hall?
No. My coach Bondarevsky was Messing's pupil, they were friends. He took care of Messing. He told me nothing - and only after the match, he stunned me: "Messing was here. But I didn't want to disturb you..." That was the right thing to do.
So, what was happening to you?
I made a serious mistake. Usually a grandmaster immediately understands that something's wrong. But I was almost paralyzed. This lasted for several minutes. It's very long by chess measures. It's like a short circuit. You're only hit by the electric current for fractions of a second, but for you, it seems like an eternity. I felt similar things during the Korchnoi match. He sat six people in the first row to unsettle me. They've tried to hypnotize me. "Visual pressure".
How did they do that?
They just looked at me. I felt that I couldn't concentrate.
Did you use similar tactics?
You did work with Rudolf Zagainov, didn't you?
No, no! Zagainov worked with Korchnoi. I was against Zagainov, he never contacted me. This is all kindergarten stuff, not chess!
We read this in Zagainov's book: 1968, Kiev, match against Korchnoi. Your quote: "I understood that I'd win on the very first day. Because Korchnoi came with his wife, and I came with two blondes. I couldn't choose, I fussed about, and this influenced me in a good way. I need an outside impulse."
There were blondes, indeed. Perhaps even more than two. But choosing someone for inspiration during the match... No. But I did immediately understand that I'd defeat Korchnoi. Do you know why?
I gathered some friends, got a car, and we went to Eysk, on the Azov sea. There I studied Korchnoi latest games - and I saw that they were all very long-winded.
Don't you understand? Instead of winning a game in 40 moves, he used 140! The move quality was bad! Upon discovering this, I relaxed. Stopped preparing. I just caught some fish on the sea and went away. I won that match quite easily. There were no tricks back then. But in Belgrade, Korchnoi had the gall to accuse me that I was hypnotizing him!
There was a moment when I grew to really hate him. It was the first time Korchnoi faced hatred from his opponent. Usually he was the one hating.
How did you manage to induce hatred in yourself?
Very simply - Korchnoi just started to mess with my playing! He would grimace at me when my clock was ticking. He snorted. But the most disgusting thing he'd done was scratching his fingernails on the table. Some people can't stand this sound. When Korchnoi wanted to offer a draw, he would summon the arbiter and relay the offer through him. Even though I was sitting right there, and he could tell me anything directly.
His tricks used to enrage Tigran Petrosian.
They say that Korchnoi and Petrosian kicked each other under the table. Vasyukov also said that Korchnoi kicked him. After the match, I asked Tigran what happened with Korchnoi. He answered, "Korchnoi is a kindergarten kid. And KARPOV, that's the man!" Anatoly wasn't a world champion yet.
Botvinnik disliked Karpov at first. When did you understand how talented Karpov was?
This was obvious! You can't really compare him with Korchnoi. Karpov was much more talented.
So, Korchnoi deservedly failed to become a world champion?
Yes. He had no personality to speak of.
In his memoir, Korchnoi wrote about you, "We began our match as buddies and ended it as enemies."
Yes, he said the truth. Since then, we're not on speaking terms.
You cried after losing to Tal in Riga. But why did you also shed tears after defeating Petrosian?
Emotional strain. I'd cried a bit behind the curtain, then returned and destroyed Petrosian! And in Riga, I cried on my way to the hotel. I met David Ginzburg, a chess journalist. He spend 8 years in gulag, he and my second Tolush were friends. "Don't be upset", David told me. "I know what happens next. Tal wins the Interzonal, then the Candidates', then he defeats Botvinnik, then he loses the return match... And there's still a lot of time ahead for you!"
Was he right?
Absolutely! My ascension was just beginning. But I'm not a maximalist, I've never set the goal to become a world champion. Everything just worked out by itself. I was going up by leaps and bounds. If you look at the 1969 photos, when I defeated Petrosian on my second try, you'll see how sour my face was back then.
I understood that hard times were ahead. Colossal responsibility, and absolutely no help. These years were the unhappiest for me!
The world champion years?!
Yes! You can't imagine how relieved I was when Fischer took the title off me. Honestly, I don't recall that day as unhappy. On the contrary, I've thrown off a very strong burden and breathed freely.
Are there any defeats that did greatly upset you?
1961, the game against Polugaevsky. Two moves away from victory. Lyova was "dying" and didn't even try to hide that. He paced back and forth at the board, the time was almost up. The flag was hanging. And then - I was totally paralyzed. I call this state "Begone, demons!" I strained myself too much, and my thinking slowed down. I couldn't even hold on to draw! As a result, the whole chess landscape changed.
What do you mean?
If I defeated Lyova, I would automatically qualify to the Interzonal, and then to the Candidates'. Even back then, I could have competed for the world title.
You once said in an interview that you didn't consider yourself a chess genius.
Hm... I can't remember such an interview.
OK. Whom do you consider a chess genius?
I'd better list my favourite chess players. Paul Morphy, Harry Pillsbury. Mikhail Chigorin. Alexander Alekhine. Alexander Dmitrievich Petrov, the forefather of Russian chess. Misha Tal. Tragic figures, all of them.
What's so special about Tal?
We once analyzed a position where he sacrificed pieces left and right. I told him, "Misha, this cannot be." He shrugged. "I know. But I want to." This phrase sums up Tal's style - a bright, combinational, attacking player.
At Keres' centenary celebration, I told an anecdote. A tournament in Germany, we played at the first board. I played for Solingen, Tal for Berlin. Before the game, he turned around in his chair: "Where are my Jews?" He had a lot of emigree friends there. But at the moment, strangely, nobody of them was present. I had to help Misha, so I looked around too and asked, "Where are my Russians?" Tal appreciated the joke. Later, he took me by elbow, and we each drank a shot of vodka at the bar. I once saved his life!
In Bulgaria, the Soviet team won the world championship. Near the midnight, I decided to go to Misha's room. His door was half-open, and I saw a lot of smoke. He slept on a smoldering pillow! Threw a cigarette butt, missed the ashtray, didn't notice that and went to sleep. He could have suffocated. I quickly picked up a flagon, got some water from bathroom and put out the fire. I also have a bad smoking-related story.
Would you care to share?
Linares, the decisive game against Yasser Seirawan. I've been smoking and drinking coffee non-stop. The game was adjourned. On my way to the room, I collapsed and gashed my head on the marble floor.
Why did you collapse?
My body couldn't stand so much nicotine and caffeine. When I came around, I lay on the bed and started studying the adjourned position. In the morning, I won. This win allowed me to overtake Karpov and finish first.
Did you quite smoking after that?
No, later, in 1975. In Vienna, I've lost to the Austrian grandmaster Andreas Duekstein despite having a good position. I thought how to turn this defeat into victory. And remembered Mom's advice: "Quit smoking!"
And then what?
Since that day, I've never smoked a single cigarette! It was difficult at first, I'd often dreamed about smoking. Then I would wake up and be so glad that it was just a dream.
Botvinnik was a very prominent personality. But your attitude to Mikhail Moiseevich and his communistic ideas was ironic.
Still, we were on good terms. I used to call him Michael. I told some funny stories, and he would laugh out loud. There was an episode: we went to a meeting with Pavlov. I warned him, "Michael, sometimes Sergey Pavlovich makes sunlight spots with his eyes. Be ready!" Pavlov really did have such a quirk.
And did he make some for you?
We sat and talked. Then I saw it! I lifted a finger: "He's making it!" Michael: "Ha-ha-ha!" My fault, of course. I apologized. But the deed was done.
Averbakh told us how he gathered signatures for the letter condemning Korchnoi. Only four refused. Nobody even approached you because they knew there was no sense. And Botvinnik said, "I've never signed letters, even in 1937." Really?
Who knows? But with me, the story was a bit different.
I was in Paris. To sign the letter against Korchnoi, I had to come to the Soviet embassy. There, I said, "You can do without me." Then I turned around and left. Just like that.
There's another funny story with those letters. I met Botvinnik on the Krymski bridge, he told me, "I need your signature in defence of Angela Davis." You remember that black woman, probably.
And you refused?
Of course. I said that I wasn't a communist and didn't want to get involved in politics. Funny enough, Michael didn't sign it too. He made a tricky move: "Gather all information you can about this Angela Davis and forward it to me for studying. I'll think on whether to sign that."
There was also a story involving me and Michael in Netherlands. The chess union of Leiden organized an event in his honour. They have a university there, big funds. We came to Amsterdam, and then news broke: two Soviet spies were caught red-handed! It was in the headlines of all newspapers!
Botvinnik headed the delegation, I was his deputy. He came to me, "We have to go to the Hague immediately." "Why?" "Bunker down in the Soviet embassy and wait until they start to break windows."
So romantic. Did you agree?
I answered, "If the spies work so bad, they should get better at their job. I came to play chess here, not to sit in the embassy!"
And what did Botvinnik do?
He was glad. He didn't want to come, too. Now he could go to the trade office and tell the KGB officials, "My deputy refuses to comply. As the head of the delegation, I have to watch over him, to prevent him from doing anything stupid..." Michael's thinking was very good in this regard.
The windows in the embassy were broken without us. Everything was counted beforehand: when would they come, how many windows they would break, how much it would cost to replace them. There was a restoration budget. In Paris, people would usually break windows of the Aeroflot office. This was a tradition that began after the revolution. The most infamous attack on the Russian embassy happened in Tehran in 1829. Everyone was killed. Griboedov's body was identified by a wound he sustained at a duel.
Botvinnik dreamed to create the first chess computer.
We've discussed this topic. "Michael, do you have a degree in mathematics?" "Oh, you hit the soft spot..." His rival was professor Alexander Kronrod. Kronrod was just a candidate master, but he was more knowledgeable in computer sciences than Botvinnik. I remember how we organized an expedition to comrade Demichev, that red-faced minister...
A well-known individual.
We came to him as a group: Keres, Smyslov, Botvinnik and I. We gave him some suggestion on improving the chess life in the Soviet Union. Demichev approved. Like, "you just work on, and we'll help." And suddenly Botvinnik said quietly, "Petr Nilovich, I would like to speak with you one on one." Perhaps he just wanted help for his computer development - but it wasn't too respectful towards us.
Botvinnik was a difficult man.
He once asked me to accompany him when he visited the secretary of Kuibyshev regional committee. To help Ragozin's widow get a new flat. On the way, he told me, "Let me remind the old truth of Savelyich. When he was about to be hanged, he told Grinyov, 'Master, it's nothing for you! Spit, then kiss the villain's hand...'" [quote from Pushkin's novel Captain's Daughter] It was very humiliating to hear. I live in my country! Why do I need to resort to such trickery? But Botvinnik had a whole arsenal of those techniques. He developed a special method of psychological preparation.
How did it work?
Well, he played in a match-tournament with Keres. He asked his people to gather incriminating evidence on Paul. During WWII, he played in tournaments organized by the Nazi Germany. Keres was a professional, and it was hard to earn money during the war. Michael hit him where it hurt most. This is a forbidden technique!
The first half of the tournament took place in Moscow, the second one in the Hague. Paul and his wife Maria Avgustovna discussed for a long time whether to greet Botvinnik when they met.
And what have they decided?
They greeted him, as usual. Decided not to judge him. There's one highest judge, he will take care of everything. Such actions need to be punished.
Keres wanted to emigrate in 1944, but didn't make it to the steamship.
Maria Avgustovna remembered: "I had to save Paul, he suffered from endarteritis. But the Soviet forces blocked all roads, and we couldn't come in time..."
The Kereses forgave Botvinnik. And did you forgive Smyslov who ignored your wedding with a French woman?
Smyslov got cold feet. But he motivated it very cunningly: "The position of celestial bodies stops me from accepting your invitation." It's hard to hold any grudges after such an excuse.
Did anyone surprise you by not getting cold feet?
You wouldn't believe, but Korchnoi came! Not to the wedding itself - to our home, late in the evening. We lived in an embassy house. Then the doorbell suddenly rings, Marina opens. And in the dark, there's Korchnoi, with flowers! You know, he looks like a devil...
An awesome comparison.
Yes, yes, he does. And so, there's a very embarrassing devil on the doorstep, and he gives us a bouquet of flowers. I'm still grateful to Korchnoi for that. But my wife was afraid. She didn't know who he was.
Karpov said that you once parked your foreign car at the Sports Committee parking lot, on Pavlov's place. After that, allegedly, he ordered to crack down on the chess players getting the prize money abroad.
Did he? Strange. I can't remember anything like that.
And the tennis player Metreveli said that you and he were the only two people in Moscow who had Ford Mustang sport cars.
Now this is true! I had a Mustang, but after divorcing my first wife Larisa, she took it from me. She quickly sold it to some Georgians. She was a pragmatic woman.
Was it a good car?
Not remarkably good. Just a car with automatic gearbox, nothing exceptional. Americans were to send it to me - I asked them to deliver it to Hamburg, where customs were. The Solingen team owner, my friend, sent his clerk for the car. In Solingen, I boarded the car and went to Moscow, through the whole Europe.
I once slept behind the wheel. Is it an adventure?
In the East Germany. I was saved by the German chequered roadsides that made sounds when a car goes onto them. I immediately woke up. A friend followed me - he drove a Mercedes for some Arab man to Moscow. I told him, "Kolya, I can't go on, I have to sleep."
We have gathered many anecdotes about you. Here's one more: you were intived to a committee meeting with old Bolsheviks in attendance. You came on a pink Volvo and in a yellow neckerchief and said "I've never read your Pravda newsletter and will never read it". After that, you weren't allowed to go abroad for seven months.
I remember how I came to a meeting with authorities in yellow velvet pants. They eyed me suspiciously... But there was no yellow neckerchief.
And no pink Volvo?
I had a dark blue Volvo. A great car, way better than Mustang! I sold it to a dancer friend...
No. Though I did know Esambaev. I bought that Volvo in the Amsterdam airport, with 30% off. Euwe drove that car for me to Siegen.
The FIDE president himself? Seriously?
What's wrong with that? We were friends, he offered to help. Then I sat Keres and Maria Avgustovna into the car, and we went the northern way, from Siegen to Vilnius.
Did you like such trips?
I loved driving around Europe. I liked looking at small towns, talking to people - even to the road police. I drove fast, and in Poland, the fine for speeding was almost 100 marks. I've tried to bargain, "Pan [Polish honorific] inspector, it's too expensive, you can't do that!" He answered, "Pan driver, I can, I can..."
I had a bad experience as well. I played in a Palma de Mallorca tournament, with Petrosian and Korchnoi. We were going back through Paris. We lived at the outskirts, near the Bois de Vincennes (Shakespeare wrote about it, if you remember). Petrosian and Korchnoi had long lists of what to buy. They ran around the shops, searching for jackets and pants.
And you didn't?
I had another idea. I saw a luxury white Citroen in a shop at the Champs Elysees. So I went in and bought it. Fantomas used to fly away on a similar Citroen.
Fantastic. For a man with a Soviet passport...
But it was a totally stupid thing to do! I couldn't drive it immediately. The manager even told me, "Why do you pay everything in full? Just leave us a deposit of $500..." But I insisted, "No, no, take everything!" Then time passed, and I understood that I wasn't going to pick up the car. I just didn't need it.
So you asked for your money back.
This process lasted for 5 years. One Dutch man helped me - negotiated everything with the Citroen representatives. I was even given $500 extra.
So, it was a good deal?
I sent those $500 back. I thought that the French were simply mistaken, and I didn't need anything more.
There were rumours that your cars had 64-64 license plates.
Lies. I've never had any special license plates.
Which Soviet grandmasters also drove foreign cars?
Petrosian had a Mercedes, Keres had a Chevrolet. In the Soviet Moscow, you could buy anything you wanted through the DCA [УпДК in Russian].
Diplomatic Corps Administration?
Yes. Embassies would write off used cars, they were in good enough condition. I've been persuading Tolya Romashin, "Let me buy you an American rumbler? Ford Impala - a la-a-arge box..." Tolya would always reply, "God forbid! They're gonna hate me in the theater!"
Did Romashin play chess?
No. Though this didn't stop us from meeting and drinking together. We met in Paris and in Moscow. Romashin was a true friend of mine, I liked him very much. He played Nicholas II in Elem Klimov's Agony brilliantly. His death was a freak accident: he was cutting a tree at his dacha, the tree fell on him and crushed him. Gruesome!
You've almost became an actor yourself. Auditioned for Leonid Gaidai's film.
For the role of Ostap Bender, no less!
Why didn't it work out?
It couldn't work out. I don't like Ilf and Petrov. Just don't.
Remember how they portrayed Kisa Vorobyaninov, the leader of the gentry? Such a grotesque figure. I can't forgive them for that. Do you know who a leader of the gentry even is? A prominent figure! Alekhine's father was the leader of the Voronezh gentry! Ilf and Petrov just aren't for me. However, Tal could quote 12 Chairs and The Golden Calf by heart.
Why did Gaidai offer you a role in the first place?
Kolya Rybnikov suggested: "I found an Ostap for you!" At the Mosfilm Studios, I was made up and given some lines. We read a scene. I said, "This wouldn't work!" But still, my sister in Petrograd has a big picture of me in a white peak-cap. I look very good on it!
Did you go to the audition purely out of curiosity?
I promised to Rybnikov that I would go. I didn't care. The role was ultimately given to Archil Gomiashvili.
Such illustrous friends you have: Romashin, Rybnikov...
Rybnikov loved chess! You can't imagine how popular he was in Moscow. Once, me and him drank a bottle of vodka in some alley. With two policemen, no less.
Straight from the bottle?
No, we had a glass.
Did you ever drink from the bottle?
Why not? There were times when I was so drunk that I had to get to home on all fours.
The last time it happened in Bulgaria. The Soviet student team won the world championship. I drank some aniseed vodka and felt very sick. I managed to walk out of the bar, although I was staggering. I've got to the hotel, and there, I fell on all fours. Since then, I've never drank aniseed vodka!
What was your favourite restaurant in your youth?
I never ate in restaurants.
There are many fairytales about Spassky. I've always avoided restaurants. I didn't like them. Our generation preferred to gather in the kitchen.
After Gaidai, did anyone else invite you to star in movies?
Milos Forman had some plans for me. He wanted to make a movie about my match with Fischer. I don't know why it didn't work out. I visited Milos at his countryhouse in Connecticut. Great house, a tennis court, pool. He would call me when he came to France. A good man. With a friend, costume designer, they would ride bicycles from Paris to Lyon along the old road. 460 kilometers. They visited castles, spent nights there, drank...
Did they invite you along?
I did join them once. Accidentally. Grandmaster Lubos Kavalek went with them, I gave him my bike. When they got to some castle, Lubos called me, "Boris, help me! My ass hurts so much..." He had bloody blisters on his butt cheeks. He told me how painful it was to climb a mountain in the evening. Some French man rode along in his car. He saw Lubos' suffering and cried to him, "Courage! Courage!"
You like tennis too?
I used to play fairly well. There was a moment when I became so addicted to tennis that I've seriously considered taking it up professionally. I won a chess/tennis tournament in Switzerland, paired with a Czech player Tomas Smidt. First, you play a game of tennis, and then, a game of chess. Even Karpov took part. His partner was Martin Mulligan from Australia, the Wimbledon finalist.
What prize did you win?
Some musical thing. A tape recorder, or a radio set.
Did you talk to Fidel Castro at the Havana tournaments?
No. I knew some things about his shenanigans. I avoided him. When the Soviet team won a world championship in Havana, the delegation leaders ordered me to go to a meeting with him. But still, I did it my way.
I just ran away. I've been also running away from his public speeches. I couldn't stand endles slogans like Patria o muerte! Venceremos! for five hours.
I liked Che Guevara. He liked chess. He would come to the tournament hall, surrounded by guards, and watch the games intently. It was obvious that he was really interested. But he never talked to us.
Korchnoi used to hurl pieces through the tournament hall after losing. What was the strongest reaction to losing to you?
In Bucharest, I, then a 16 years old schoolboy, defeated Smyslov. Vasily Vasilyevich would ignore me until the end of the tournament afterwards.
Did you resent him for that?
No, I was more bewildered than anything. But Korchnoi, he always overreacted after losing. Ever since the Leningrad Pioneer Palace. He would throw the pieces from the board, scream, insult the opponent. If someone was better than him at anything, Korchnoi was ready to tear them apart.
Hypertrophied maximalist - unlike you?
No, no maximalist. Senior pioneer leader, by our Pioneer Palace measures... When Korchnoi lost to women, this was like a knife through his heart. He would attack them immediately. He drove Pia Cramling to tears. I doubt she'd ever cried so much after winning a game.
Do you miss your home city?
Of course. I'm a Petrograd man!
Peter's city. I like the name Petrograd better than St. Petersburg or Leningrad. I last visited it in March last year. Visited some friends, came to Jores Alferov's birthday.
Your childhood home?
Nevsky avenue 104, flat 2. Communal apartment. Then we moved to the 8th Sovetskaya street. In the perestroyka times, I visited the place once. I was horrified: the same entrance, the same smell, the same rats. Never came there after that. I wonder if anything changed.
What place from the Leningrad youth do you remember most often?
I'm asking for your forgiveness in advance, but you can't take a leaf from the whole book. I would come to the Anichkov Palace, where our chess circle operated, even before the opening. I would stand at the checkpoint and watch the Fontanka river. By a strange coincidence, a couple of condoms would always float by. Like two barges, they would reach Neva and then turn left, towards the Finsky bay.
You once said, "I don't like Moscow, it's a difficult city." Do you still think so?
No. It's just, well, Mom used to say, "Went to Moscow for sorrows" [originally a Russian rhymed proverb]. She raised three children alone. My father left us in 1944 and remarried. During the war, we were evacuated to the Moscow oblast, Sverdlovsky village. We lived in some hut. When living became unbearable, Mom would quote Nekrasov - she knew his poems by heart. I still remember those lines about hardships of Russian life.
Your mother died aged 90. How did she take your departure to Paris?
She said, "Son, open this wardrobe. What do you see?" "Your dress, blouse, nightgown, shoes..." "That's my whole wealth, son. I need nothing more." She bowed to me, and I went to France by car.
Renault 16. I didn't want to leave it in the Soviet Union - what for? I stuffed my belongings into the car and went to Vyborg. When I crossed the border, the first thing I did was getting out of the car and hugging a Finnish birch. There was only one reason for emigrating: I wanted to freely choose tournaments to play. The Sports Committee wouldn't let me play. Even though the trips wouldn't cost them anything - I was always personally invited. Still, the authorities would answer, sorry, Spassky is ill, don't wait for him.
Revenge. Perhaps for Reykjavik. Perhaps for something more. They remembered everything. The burglary was the last straw.
In Moscow. I rented a flat at the Shosse Entuziastov highway. On my way, I was stopped twice to check my documents.
No, not the road police, that's the thing. People in civilian clothes. When I approached the house, I was stopped again. A man went up in the elevator with me. I deduced that he was from the KGB. We entered the flat together. When I saw what became of it, I was so flabbergasted that I offered him a drink. I went for my bottle of cognac, but didn't find it.
What more was stolen?
VCR, some clothes. They tore up the wallpapers - perhaps they thought that I was hiding something behind them. Though the saddest loss is the photo archive. The photos were thrown into a bathtub, and someone poured detergent over them. I had five packs of photos, they were all opened. I've managed to restore roughly a half of the photos, and had to throw away all that remained. I was sure that my flat was robbed with KGB's blessing. I told some friends about that, adding, "Now I know I have to go abroad". Soon, I was called up to Lubyanka.
A colonel Bobkov. He admonished me, "Why, comrade Spassky, are you suspecting us? We are a reputable organization, we don't rob houses. We were involved with you precisely one time - when we sent our man to Reykjavik to examine the chairs. And you were most probably robbed by your buddy."
Well, there was some henchman. Behaved like a felon. We met in some company...
How did you allow such a man to get so close?
Because I was a fool! I lived alone in Moscow, and this fellow was quite persuasive. Tolya Romashin was perplexed: "How can you keep company with such people?" Some time later, we have accidentally met in Moscow. He asked me, "So, Boris, did they find the burglar?" I laughed. "I was told the burglar was you." He didn't answer. OK, that was another lesson.
Who came up with your nickname "Sahovsky Pushkin"?
The Yugoslavians. For beautiful games. I value art in chess, it's something very sublime to me. Do you remember Evgeny Onegin? "And Lensky, in confusion, captures his own Rook with the pawn..."
Is it true that you know Evgeny Onegin by heart?
Onegin and many more Pushkin's poems. I don't, you know, sit and learn. It's enough to read something once to get a memory imprint. Like Paul Morphy, who knew Louisiana's entire code of laws by heart. People would ask him to recite a random page, and he would answer immediately. His family was amazed. "Why do you even need to play chess? Perform in a circus..."
Are you one of those grandmasters who remember all your games?
No. But if I give a simultaneous display, say, at 35 boards, I can quickly restore any game, from the first move to the last. People used to try and cheat. I would approach them, and they would suddenly say, "Check and mate." "Wait a second, I'll show the entire game." And the cheats were quickly exposed.
Did you ever play with amateurs in planes or trains?
I did. I was just a grandmaster back then, going back from Moscow to Leningrad. A girl sat in my compartment. Then some man entered. "Would you like to play chess?" he asked. "Why not? But I'm warning you, don't hope to win." "We shall see." We set up the board. And I proceeded to utterly demolish him, again and again.
Was the girl impressed with your successes?
Not in the slightest. But the man was completely out of his mind. When we came to Leningrad, he would follow me at the streets for a long time. He exclaimed, "You have enormous chess talent!" I nodded, "Well, you're not the first who tells me that..."
Do you still play chess?
No, it's more interesting over the board. I set up pieces, remember my old games. I have a compact magnetic chess set. It's handy, they don't fall off. I've also started a huge analytical work. I'm writing about my chess career. I hope to finish it before I die.
And what do you read?
Russian history books. Andrei Fursov and Nikolai Starikov have a very interesting take on many events from our country's life, and their writing is lively. Very fascinating! I'm a staunch monarchist, I've met some Romanovs in Paris.
Do you believe in God?
There are two kinds of chess players - believers and atheists. Alekhine, Larsen, Korchnoi are among the latter... But I'm not as sure about Fischer - he was too ambivalent.
What group do you belong to?
I call myself a "half-believer". Sometimes I'm a firm believer, sometimes I become an atheist. Do you know that joke about two chess players? Apostles Peter and Paul tell them, "Chess is a sin, so you don't get into heaven. But you can choose between socialist and capitalist hell." "Of course we choose socialist hell!" "Why?" "There's always a shortage of either firewood or cauldrons!"
We wished Spassky good health as we went away. Boris Vasilyevich smiled slyly: "Don't worry, boys! I'm keeping up with perimeter defence!"