Spassky - Fischer: The Match Diary by Nikolai Krogius, part 3

Oct 22, 2015, 10:35 AM |

Part 3, in which Boris falters, and Bobby takes the lead

 Previous installments: Part 0, Part 1, Part 2

But now, Bobby asked (or, should I say, demanded) that the third game, scheduled for July 16th, be played in a closed room, without any audience. Schmid persistently pleaded Spassky to accept this offer. I think that the solution of this problem played an important role in the subsequent course of the match. The move to another room had little objective value by itself, but it had a major psychological subtext.

Fischer was quite uncomfortable to appear before the audience after losing the conflict related to the second game. Also, if the room change was indeed made, it would mean that the endeavour to affect the opponent ended successfully. Fischer saw all opponents' concessions as a source of self-assertion and self-confidence. His demands, as a rule, didn't have any other goals than making the opponent to act “as I wish”. If an opponent gave in a couple of times, he would gradually embrace the thought that Fischer could and should constantly dictate the turn of events. Fischer wrote about psychological aspects of chess struggle: “I see my main goal in suppressing the opponent's ego”. So Petrosian was quite right when he advised, “You shouldn't concede to Fischer, even in tiniest details.”

Indeed, a psychological struggle between two people abhors a vacuum, metaphorically speaking. Any retreat leads to the opponent's expansion.

We, world champion's coaches, clearly understood the meaning and specifics of this moment. We insistently advised him to refuse to play in another room. But Spassky's line of thought was different. Firstly, he considered the awarded point in the second game unfair, and that he had to pay for this in some way (for instance, agreeing to Fischer's demand). Secondly, having a 2-point lead, he became too sure that he would win the match regardless of any external circumstances. So, Spassky agreed to play in a closed room.

In the third game, Fischer chose a very risky, “either-or” system with Black. The resulting position, however, was little known to Spassky. Before going to Reykjavik, we studied this variant briefly and, agreeing with Vasyukov's recommendation, decided that the best plan for White was to play 13. b3. This counterbalanced Black's dark-squared Bishop, and White could get good advantage.

But Spassky suddenly made a Knight move in that position. Later he explained that he forgot (!?) our analysis. After this misstep, Spassky made a serious mistake at move 18. Fischer started to play quite energetically and got an advantage. The game was decided on the 41th move. Instead of adjourning the game, Spassky made a losing move on the board. Even though the right King move, 41. Ke1, gave him good chances to save the game.


Let Spassky himself tell about those events: “The second game, which Fischer no-showed, didn't give me any laurels. I got a point, but I think I was unlucky... Before the third game, I agreed to play in a closed room without spectators. I was under an illusion that Fischer was going to abandon the match, and if I saved this important contest, I could count on the struggle continuing in the pure spirit of chess traditions. Before the game, I saw a dialogue between Fischer and the arbiter, grandmaster Schmid. I don't want to accentuate this unfortunate episode, but I must say that the American grandmaster allowed himself to speak quite familiarly. It wasn't particularly pleasing to listen.

Agreeing to the baseless demand to play the game in a closed room was a big psychological mistake. As we know, the match was preceded by a long conflict that drained a lot of strength. By making a psychological mistake before the third game and quickly understanding it, I've canceled out all my correct line of conduct before the match. Also, I was adversely affected by the thought that after being awarded the second game due to the partner's absence, I now owed him in some way.”

Of course, the first success always gives you wings. And for Fischer, doubly so – he would often begin the tournament being not completely free of his pre-start uncertainty. Also, it was very important for him since it was his first ever win over Spassky.

After the Reykjavik match ended, I've heard many times, both from celebrated specialists and ordinary chess fans, that the second game no-show was a deliberate psychological action devised by Fischer and his coaches. They allegedly calculated that Spassky's torments after being awarded a point without playing would destabilize him for a long time. And so, this “sacrifice” would pay off.

Tal, for instance, said that the no-show was a “well-aimed psychological shot”. Karpov agreed: “This was a genius move. The move that would haver worked only on Spassky. The move that proved that Fischer knew Spassky very well. If, say, Petrosian was in Spassky's place, he would only lick his lips and eat the offered point. But Spassky the philosopher, the imperturbable Spassky, the super-experienced Spassky lost his balance. After that, all Spassky's advantages were nullified. He needed ten games or so – ten tortuous games, sometimes helpless, sometimes tragic, to finally regain that balance, but the match was impossible to salvage at that point; the ship had already sailed.”

I think that to learn the truth, we'll have to divide the discussed question into two parts: 1) How did Fischer's no-show affect Spassky? 2) Was Fischer's forfeit of the second game a deliberate psychological trick?

The “free point” indeed affected Spassky very much. Most probably, he lost the third game partly because of that. But after that, I can't say that the second game influenced him that much. I think that games 4 and 6 had a more profound psychological effect.

Concerning the second part of the question, I think it's too preposterous to portray Fischer as a genius psychologist and “more Catholic than the Pope”. Remembering Fischer's letter to Spassky, in which he used all the available diplomatic moves to avoid having to forfeit the first game, it's hard to think that the American would deliberately throw a full point away.

The situation occurred accidentally. Of course, Fischer certainly did study Spassky's psychological vulnerabilities, but, I repeat, it's not in the American champion's style to plan any risky “point gambits” without clear guaranteed success. I think that something else entirely took place: after Fischer no-showed the game and started talking about leaving Reykjavik, his coaches persuaded him that the “free point” would demoralize Spassky. And from tiny bits of information about that, a legend of a well-prepared “psychological bomb” for the second game was born.

So, after the third game, Spassky still led 2-1. But Fischer was much more self-assured now...

The next few days should have shown us who had the psychological initiative in the match now. The fourth game played a very important role in that. It began with yet another case of Fischer coming late; this time, he was late by six minutes. I told Spassky that such lack of punctuality is not accidental, but a deliberate way, if not particularly efficient, to put even more pressure on him. Spassky, however, didn't pay attention either to my words or Fischer coming late yet.

Let's study the beginning of game 4. That's where the preparations and psychological aims of both opponents really collided.



After the game's end, Boris said that he didn't forget about 21... Rd8, but he thought that 21... h5 was also good. And so, after thinking for 45 minutes, he decided to make that move.

Let's not start analytical discussions and assume that 21... h5 and 21... Rd8 were roughly equal. But even in that case, Spassky's choice seemed quite impractical: those 45 minutes, in all probability, could be more efficiently spent on calculating the prepared variant.

After the game, we went home in a dismal mood. Geller was especially upset. He said to Boris, “OK, you could forget the plan with 13. b3 in the third game. It's possible to forget something, even if it's unforgivable. But today, you didn't play 21... Rd8, and that meant that you didn't trust in us and our entire preparation!” His concerns were understandable: he put a lot of effort into analyzing this variant, and besides, thorough opening analysis was the thing he valued the most. Of course, Nei and I fully supported Geller.

The fourth game was a strong blow for Boris. I think that the worst for him was having to admit that his skepticism towards others' recommendations led him to failure. Fischer, on the other hand, was encouraged by the game: despite meeting a nasty surprise in the opening (Fischer never used the Sozin system again in the match), he managed to confuse the opponent with complications. I think that Fischer finally managed to overcome his uncertainty before Spassky after the fourth game.

The fifth game took place on July 20th. Fischer again came late, though only by 4 minutes. As in the first game, they played Nimzo-Indian, but now Fischer chose a closed variant, where White's two Bishops are limited in their movement. Fischer's choice indicated two things: first, he indeed did a lot of work preparing for the match (he never played that variant before); second, his evaluation of Spassky's state was correct.

The world champion expected sharp piece play, rich with combinational opportunities. Spassky was overexcited and needed a heated fight. Instead, he had to maneuver behind the pawn chains spanning the entire board.

As a result, White got a worse position. They still could and should have defended patiently, but the world champion's restless state took its toll, he made an impulsive move and lost immediately.


Spassky played 27. Qc2?? and resigned after 27... Bxa4: 28. Qxa4 loses to 28... Qxe4. Of course, after the necessary 27. Qb1 Fischer's position was still better: Black could get their King to c7 and then either move their kingside pawns or put pressure on the c4 and e4 pawns by putting their Knight on d6. But still, White had some counterplay because of their Bishop pair.

Boris explained that he lost because of exhaustion: “I've been thinking on 11. f4 for 25 minutes and got too tired”, and also because of impulsiveness: “I've given up too soon. I didn't defend in the situation when some passive waiting was required.”

The score was 2½-2½. Spassky still looked impeccable. The Icelandic newspapers wrote: “After Spassky's loss in the game 5, we've been watching him playing tennis with Nei. Many probably thought that he was bedridden after such a loss. But nothing of the sort happened. He was still as courageous and friendly as before. It was interesting to watch him talk with the Icelandic ballboys. He would thank them each time they brought the ball to him.” But the subsequent games showed that, despite the calm facade, he was still very nervous.

In the sixth game, Fischer showed another opening surprise: he played 1. c4. Let's remember our advisers from Moscow who told us that the American couldn't expand his limited opening repertoire. Only Korchnoi warned us to expect closed openings from Fischer.

Spassky chose the Tartakower-Bondarevsky-Makogonov system. The reader probably didn't forget the world's champion answer to our question about Fischer's 1. d4: “I'll just play the Makogonov-Bondarevsky system. What can he get from it?”

Fischer was counting on a relatively obscure maneuver 14. Bb5 (instead of 14. Be2) to stunt the Black's queenside development. Curiously, the 14. Bb5 variant occurred in the game Furman – Geller (Moscow 1970). Geller defended with 16... Ra7 (Spassky made the same move), but later learned that Black could effortlessly equalize with 16... Qb7, preparing Qb6. Geller said that he told Spassky about that back in the 1970.

Perhaps the world champion couldn't remember that two years later. He made a weaker move and then missed several reliable continuations (which is all the more surprising, considering that Spassky had a history of playing this opening in two World Championship matches and many tournaments). So, Black's position became quite dangerous. The 20th move was critical.


Botvinnik wrote that Black “had a standard move 20... c4, with White Queen at a3 and Black Queen at f8. But in a critical moment, when this move was necessary to equalize, Spassky suddenly played 20... d4? This severe positional mistake led to Spassky's defeat”.

After 20... c4, it's possible to play 21. Qh3 Qf7 22. Bg4 Re8 23. exd5 exd5 24. Rfe1. Now, after both 24... Rxe1+ 25. Rxe1 Kf8 and 24... Ne5 25. Bh5 g6 26. Qg3 Rae7 27. f4 Kh7 Black's position is defensible.

And so, Fischer took the lead: 3½-2½.

Later, Spassky said, “In the fifth and sixth games, I was very feverish and impulsive. Perhaps the pressure before the match and in the first games took its toll. But I want to give Fischer credit as well – his win in the sixth game was very good. I think it was his best game in the entire match.”

Already after the 5th game, we offered Spassky to take a time out. Now, understanding that the severe crisis continued, we three insisted on asking for a time out after the sixth game. The reader knows that such pauses are common in matches, and the main reasons for them is mainly the need for psychological restoration or opening preparation “repair” rather than physical maladies.

But Spassky flatly refused. He wanted revenge. Now, many years later, I remember those days and ask myself the question: do we have the right to blame Spassky for that decision? Now I think that we don't. I do think that we could and should have criticized Spassky when he was hesitating and fussing about; we should have helped him come to a good decision. But when he already made his decision and had no time to reverse it, there was no sense to go against him.

We should have remembered that we couldn't approach Spassky with standard measures. For better or worse, but with his strenghts and weaknesses he became who he was. Let's remember, for instance, how after heavy defeats he fought in the tournament of seven, in the matches against Keres, Tal and Petrosian; he fought and won.

Alas, in Reykjavik, we saw it in a different light. We stopped the discussion, angry at each other. Spassky didn't take a time out, and so the seventh game was played on July 26th; Boris would later say, “It was the first game where I showed my fighting spirit.” Indeed, the world champion wanted to sow a storm on the board, but he couldn't get a good attack. In the Sicilian Najdorf – the American's favourite opening variant – White chose a plan first implemented by Nezhmetdinov. Spassky sacrificed three pawns in quick succession. But Fischer showed a well thought-out defence system, most probably found during the home preparation.

Black got a winning position by the move 20. Soon, they had two options: try to quietly exploit their extra pawn or start some complications, hoping for a quick win. Fischer chose the latter, but probably underestimated the opponent's counterplay. Facing stubborn resistance, he made several inferior moves before the time control. The game was adjourned in the following position. White sealed the best move: 41. h3-h4.



The analysis showed that Black couldn't win anymore, since White had good opportunities to threaten the Black King. We studied this position for six hours. Let's show our work to the reader.

First of all, we confirmed that due to threat Rd5 with subsequent f5+ or Rg5+, Black had only one sensible reply: 41... f6. Then we started to analyze 42. Rd5. We saw that 42... Rf8 after 43. f5+ Kh6 44. Re6 Rc3 45. Nxf6 led to a draw. More troubling was 42... Rc3. We tried 43. f5+ Kh6 44. Nd6! (44. Nxf6 Ne3+ 45. Rxe3 Rxe3 46. Rd6 Kg7 47. Nd5 Re5, and Black has good winning chances) 44... Rf8! (not 44... Re3 45. Rc2 or 44... Ne3+ 45. Rxe3 Rxe3 46. Nf7+ Kg7 47. Nxh8 Kxh8 48. Rd6 Kg7 49. Rxb6 Re5 50. Rb5, equalizing) 45. Nxc4 Rxc4 46. Re7, and thought that our mission was complete: Black couldn't improve their position. For instance: 46... Rc2+ 47. Kg1 Rfc8 (47... Rc5 48. Rxc5 bxc5 49. Rc7. The endgame with pawns on one flank is drawn, since after capturing the h4 pawn, Black have to give up their f6 pawn. After that, White place their King at f4 or e4 and transfer the Rook to g5, with a clear draw) 48. Rf7! (not 48. Rdd7 because of 48... Rc1+ 49. Kf2 R8c2+ 50. Ke3 Re1+, and after the Rook exchange, Rc5 wins) 48... Rc1+ 49. Kf2 R8c2+ 50. Ke3 Re1+ 51. Kd3, with a draw.

It all seemed clear, but then we found a paradoxical killer move for Black: 46... g3!! There was no salvation. The main variant: 47. Rdd7 Rxh4 48. Rg7 Rg4 49. Rxg4 hxg4 50. Kxg3 Rg8!, and Black win. For instance: 51. Rd6 Kg5 52. Rxb6 Rh8 or 51. Rd4 Kh5 52. Rb4 Rc8.

So, we had to return to the initial position. Eventually, we managed to find the way to safety:

42. Re6! Rc2+ 43. Kg1. (Only that. Worse is 43. Kg3 due to 43... Rf8 44. Rd5 Nd2!) 43... Rxe8!? (43... Kf5 leads to a quick draw, as happened in the play-off) 44. Rxe8 Nd2! 45. Red8! Again the best. Not enough was 45. Re2 due to 45... Nf3+ 46. Kf2 Rc4 or 45. Kf2 Ne4+ and 46... Ng3. In all cases, Black have good winning chances.

45... Nf3+ 46. Rxf3 gxf3 47. Rd5! The King shouldn't be allowed to pass. 47... Rc4 48. f5+ Kf7 49. Rd7+ Kf8 50. Rd6 Kf7 51. Rxb6 Rxa4 52. Rb7+ Kf8 53. Kf2! Rf4 54. Ra7! Rxf5 55. Ra4! with a draw. I'll also point out that 53. Rh7 (instead of Kf2) lost: 53... Rf4 54. Rxh5 f2+ 55. Kf1 Kg7!, and the White Rook is trapped.

We showed the main variants of the analysis to give the readers an insight into a coach's night. I'll point out that in this analysis, I left out a lot of side variations that had to be studied as well.

The play-off ended like that: 41... f6 42. Re6 Rc2+ 43. Kg1 Kf5. Fischer didn't sacrifice the exchange. In one of our conversations after the end of the match, I asked the American grandmaster about that position. He said, “I saw the exchange sacrifice, but it gave nothing.” 44. Ng7+ Kxf4 45. Rd4+ Kg3 46. Nf5+ Kf3 47. Ree4 Rc1+ 48. Kh2 Rc2+ Kg1. Draw agreed.

There's a lot going on behind the scenes of every match; all those things are very important, but the public remains mostly oblivious to them. One of those things is the competition in analyzing the adjourned games. The Reykjavik match showed that both sides were excellent in that regard. The adjourned positions that needed a thorough analysis (1st, 7th, 10th, 12th, 18th games) were analyzed very good. The 13th game was special in that regard: the analysis was limited by the abundance of possible variants, and so both opponents after several moves in the play-off were on their own.

Fischer's working style was very interesting: he would first analyze the position himself, and only then he would check and refine the analysis with Lombardy.

Some words about Fischer's inner circle. Organizational questions were handled by Kramer and Marshall; the former was fussy and ambitious, the latter – quiet and businesslike. Fischer's official second was grandmaster Lombardy, a strong player who had a victory against Spassky in the past. Lombardy, invariably correct and friendly, was very sympathetic. Also, at various stages of the match, Fischer was visited by grandmasters Kavalek, R. Byrne and Evans; such a team is very competent. Near the end, Edmondson came to Reykjavik too; as we said previously, Fischer owed much to Edmondson, but he treated him quite unfairly during the talks about the match's place. In Iceland, they seemed to have mended fences.

The relationships inside Fischer's “camp” weren't as free and easy as in ours. This probably can be explained in the opponents' personality differences. Here's an example. After the match began, I couldn't approach Fischer directly: the players were isolated from everyone in the sports palace, except the arbiters. So, when I needed some Fischer's autographs, I asked Lombardy to get them for me on the match-related postcards. Lombardy didn't take the postcards, saying, “Please wait for a couple of days. I'll choose a moment and ask Fischer if he's willing to give you autographs.” Some time later, Lombardy told me that Fischer agreed, and I got the autographed postcards. Several more days later, Lombardy asked for Spassky's autographs for the American delegation and was probably surprised when Spassky gave them without any kind of “trial period”.

The eighth game was played on 27th July. Fischer came several minutes before the game. This would probably surprise the readers who read about Fischer systematically coming late for the first six games (except for the third). If we add his coming late to the drawing procedure and the first game play-off, the sum would amount for 80 minutes. Why? Was Fischer sloppy, or he had any ulterior motives?

I thought that it was a deliberate and well thought-out strategy. Fischer wanted to show that he was superior and special, to bend the opponent to his will and make him wait: it was all done to psychologically affect the partner. In Reykjavik, Fischer used a trick that Emmanuel Lasker often used in tournaments at the beginning of the century. Fischer's trickery annoyed Boris, but he didn't want to react on them. However, his patience gradually grew very thin.

Before the seventh game, we managed to persuade Spassky to give an adequate answer. So, the world champion came in time, but didn't come to the table: he remained in his resting room backstage. Three minutes after the clock was started, Fischer arrived and was rather confused by the opponent's absence. I remember him looking around in annoyance at being alone at the table. Spassky came out a couple of minutes later, and the game began. Fischer never deliberately came late to the games after that. He did come late by 7 minutes to the 12th game, but this was caused by other circumstances.

Let's get back to the game. Encouraged by withstanding a complicated, double-edged struggle in the previous game, Spassky wanted another sharp struggle. Fischer played very cunningly: he understood that Spassky wanted to equalize the score as quickly as possible, so he chose a very sturdy, reliable setup and provoked his partner into risky decisions. Spassky thought for 63 (!) minutes on his 11th move, searching for initiative, but he couldn't liven up the situation.

The critical moment occurred at the 15th move.



Spassky explained his loss: “In the 8th game, I thought for almost an hour, and, trying to “discover America”, got very tired and blundered. I shouldn't have tried to create a wholesome “work of art”; I should have played in a more quiet and technical manner, like Fischer.”

Fischer led 5-3. Spassky's situation didn't look irreparable, but... After the 8th game, we decided to discuss, frankly and calmly, what was happening, to point out the mistakes and make plans for the future. We had this frank talk on 28th July. First of all, we analyzed all the games one by one, and then each of us came up with his own resume. Spassky pointed out the following shortcomings of his own playing: inefficient time usage (which led to tiredness and blunders); bad calculation of concrete variants; difficulties during the transition from opening to middlegame (they had something to do with choice of a strategic plan); lack of practicality in the playing and “too much striving for wholesomeness”. 

The coaches pointed out more general and more pressing concerns. We talked frankly about the reasons of the world champion's bad form. We told about his lack of trust in prepared recommendations, baseless urge to play for a win regardless of the situation on the board, excessive doubts and regrets about the blunders already made, softness towards Fischer, etc. We also discussed the possibilities of improving the regimen, for instance, moving to a countryhouse, changing the diet and length of sleep. In short, we've agreed to “start a new life”, forget about all the bad things that happened and hopefully look into the future. We wanted to believe that Spassky could turn the situation around. But, despite his earnest efforts, this turnaround period lasted for several days, up until the 11th game.

Continued in Part 4.