Spassky - Fischer: The Match Diary by Nikolai Krogius, part 4

Oct 24, 2015, 1:16 AM |

Part 4. In which Boris recovers, but it's too late

 Previously on: Part 0, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The ninth game was played on 1st August; its opening didn't go well for the world champion. In the improved Tarrasch defence, Spassky went for a variant that brought him a memorable victory over Petrosian (5th game of the 1969 match). But the American prepared an interesting novelty that made White deviate from the well-trodden path. Fischer's idea had its vulnerabilities, but they were impossible to detect over the board, without serious home analysis. So, White didn't get any advantage out of the opening, and after a series of exchanges, draw was agreed at move 29.

Of course, it wasn't too great to “lose” White colour without much struggle, but in this game, we saw an important encouraging symptom: the world champion started to play with more restraint. At move 18, Spassky could move his central pawn forward, causing great complications. It was very hard to evaluate the consequences: the risk was probably very high. Earlier, he would play in Tolush's “good old style”. But now, he made a more reasonable move.

The interest towards the match grew more and more. Amazingly, but little Iceland, with the population of only 220,000, had a lot of chess fans. The spectator halls, with total capacity of 5,000, were sold out, and local TV showed the games in full. The newsletters quoted an interesting answer of one Icelander who was asked why did he visit all the games in person, rather than watching them on TV? “I'll answer with Toscanini's words. The maestro once said that the difference between music on a vinyl disc and on live concert is similar to talking to a beautiful woman on the phone and taking her for a date in person.”

With each day, there were more and more chess fan tourists. Especially numerous were people from the United States. Among those, a young woman attracted the journalists' attention – Joan Targ, Robert Fischer's sister. It was she who taught the rules of chess to her six years-old brother in 1949. She said that the match attracted a lot of interest in the U.S. Even in the New York airport she saw people analyzing the games. She also said that newspapers wrote a lot about Robert, but mostly “rubbish”. She complained that she couldn't keep her incognito in Reykjavik and steadfastly refused any interview offers: “Ask my brother, it's he who's playing.” She said that her husband was a physicist and worked in the Stanford University. He played chess, but poorly. They had three kids. All of them have been playing chess since five. “But I don't want them to become chess players”.

The American journalists wrote that the sister's coming would be good for Fischer. Joan visited several tournaments before (particularly Portoroz 1958 Interzonal), and her visits always brought luck to her brother.

We saw some excerpts from Fox's movie about the match. As we know, Fischer stated that Fox's cameras were the reason of him no-showing the second game. After a heated scandal, the cameras were moved to new places, and Fischer resigned himself to their existence. Fox joked that the cameras' placement essentially didn't change – they were still totally invisible to the players. We can believe that. For Fischer, Fox's cameras were just a technical reason for the conflict.

Fox showed interesting footage, both with crucial moments of over-the-board struggle and episodes from the players' rest. Also he showed both Fischer and Spassky playing tennis with their respective coaches. The journalists unanimously declared that Fischer had no chance against Spassky there.

In chess, Fischer continued his onslaught. He won the tenth game, but the fate was clearly unfair to Spassky. Both opponents played good, ingeniously, with force and inspiration, creating one of the most interesting games of the entire match. In Ruy Lopez, Spassky chose the Breyer variant that he used frequently before. I'm getting ahead of myself, but this system remained Spassky's favourite for many more years, and he used it against the same opponent twenty years later.

White didn't get advantage in the opening, and in middlegame there was a sharp struggle with chances for both sides. Boris correctly sacrificed a pawn, but got too carried away and passed the opportunity to make the game more quiet. Fischer found a brilliant idea of attacking the f7 square. To avoid the worst, the world champion sacrificed an exchange and got two passed pawns at queenside as a compensation. The game, in all likelihood, should have ended in a draw. But right before the time control, Spassky made two fatal mistakes.

The score now was 6½-3½. The three-point lead looked threatening. But still, this disappointing defeat didn't demoralize Spassky and his coaches. His playing showed good progress compared to the period from 3rd to 8th games. He was resourceful and tough – that's the right recipe against Fischer. Botvinnik later said, “Even though he lost the 10th game, he played very well. Fischer played brilliantly, and there is no shame in losing such a game. This could happen with any player, however great they are.”

After Boris' defeat in game 10, Moscow grew anxious. Even though we saw the first rays of hope to turn the match around, the Sports Committee and Chess Federation officials offered me to come to Moscow for 2 or 3 days and explain Spassky's bad form. Luckily for me, Boris categorically refused. Feeling the change in Spassky's mood, the Soviet ambassador supported him too. What could I say to our sport officials? Only what we knew already: we've made too many mistakes earlier, and there's no sense in crying over spilt milk. Now, we had hopes of Spassky's resurrection, and those hopes could be realized only in Reykjavik, not in Moscow.

Spassky was very inspired in the 11th game. He improved upon his opening line from the game 7 and, after a pawn sacrifice, got a threatening initiative. Fischer, seemingly confused by Spassky's unusual 14. Nb1 maneuver, reacted badly and moved the d-pawn ahead. Soon he lost this pawn. The American grandmaster Mednis joked bitterly: “For their pawn “sacrifice”, Black get a lost position.” The White's attack was overwhelming, and Fischer resigned at move 31.



After Spassky's brilliant victory in game 11, many journalists thought that Fischer would be depressed, and in the next few games, Spassky would have advantage. Grandmaster Larsen, who visited Reykjavik in those days, also said something to that effect. But I didn't think that Fischer would slump into depression. This opinion was based on comparing Fischer's past behaviour in the critical situations with the current one. In Reykjavik, the American showed much better control over his emotions. So I thought that Spassky's opponent wouldn't be demoralized, but rather would play at full strength, but without much risk. After all, he led 6½-4½.

The 12th game confirmed my opinion. Spassky, in his turn, had no right to risk too much with Black pieces. The turnaround in the world champion's mood facilitated his return to the strongest side of his playing – relying on clear, objective strategical game plans.

Fischer, as in games 6 and 8, avoided the King's pawn move. They played the Queen gambit, and Spassky chose the classical Orthodox defence that was popular in Capablanca's and Alekhine's times.

The game was roughly equal out of the opening. White got two Bishops, but Black's Knights were active enough. After a long maneuvering struggle, the game was adjourned in an equal position. The analysis showed that the draw was unavoidable. The opponents made 15 more moves in the play-off. Spassky even managed to win a pawn, but opposite-coloured Bishops predetermined the draw.

During the 12th game, there was a long discussion behind the scenes about omens in chess. Many examples were cited, with chess players having a “lucky” shirt or tie or, to the contrary, declaring some things “unlucky”. Let's remember, for instance, Alekhine's Siamese cat or Tartakower's refusal to be photographed during the tournament. The discussion arose because Fischer came to the 11th game in a new dark wine-coloured costume. Many thought that the candidate would change the clothes that brought him defeat. But this didn't happen. Fischer had many quirks, but he didn't believe in omens. Neither did Spassky.

The 13th game, taking place on 10th August, played a very important role for the whole match. And the result was largely predetermined by Spassky's bad handling of the opening.

After 1. e4, Fischer avoided the Sicilian for the first time, choosing Alekhine defence. Let me be candid – we haven't seriously analyzed that opening for White. It was because many authorities, including Spassky himself, were totally sure that Fischer was incredible consistent in his opening tastes and would never play anything but the Sicilian against 1. e4. This opinion was clearly wrong, as Fischer's opening tactics in general and the 13th game in particular showed.

Let's look at the opening briefly.



So, we can sum up the opening stage: Black have an excellent position. After 12... Bf5, they have clear positional advantage. But Fischer showed his famous merchantilism: he played 12... Qe8?!, winning the a4 pawn. White got the initiative and could mount a dangerous attack on the King.

Spassky, apparently upset by his poor opening play, missed the opportunity. And so the American got an extra pawn in the sharp endgame. That's what Spassky said about the game: “The important 13th game was difficult. I made a mistake in the opening and had to sacrifice a pawn. Fischer gave me the play, so to say. And I failed to convert my chances in the best way. My partner got the advantage, but he played with uncertainty, and the game was adjourned in a very sharp position. The subsequent analysis showed that draw would be the most probable result.”

I'll add that Spassky sealed the best (and, as Gligoric and Larsen thought, the only) move, 42. Kg3. Larsen said, “A very complicated position. You could analyze it for five hours and still fail to find a clear plan. Still, I think there should be a draw.”

In the play-off, both opponents played impeccably at first. In his search for winning chances, Fischer sacrificed a Bishop, getting three passed pawns for it. The culmination of the struggle came when Black deliberately got their Rook into a trap, and their five (!) pawns were pitted against the White Rook. Fischer thought for 58 (!) minutes before going for this position.

But, despite all the complications and fantastic ingenuity of both players, after 67 moves the draw seemed inevitable. Spassky was walking around the stage with a satisfied look. Fischer was thinking on his next move. He digressed for a second, complaining to Schmid about the noise in the hall. The arbiter quickly restored order. Then Fischer made his 68th move. White had two possible checks: at c3 and d1. The first one led to a quick draw, the second one led to defeat.

In the press center, there were no doubts about Spassky's reply. Many reporters have already started packing up. And then... 69. Rd1+?? After several moments, Spassky's expression changed: he saw his fatal mistake. Five moves later, everything ended. The world champion lost. Fischer was now leading 8-5, the margin again reaching the critical 3-point mark.


What were the reasons for Spassky's loss? There are two main ones: firstly, he was unprepared for the opening variant that was used in the game, and, secondly, he couldn't withstand the pressure for the entire game. I think that the latter was a consequence of all the nervousness caused by the match talks and its scandalous beginning. Yes, Spassky did play better in the second half of the match than in the beginning. But the opponent was also “at fault” concerning the world champion's inability to catch up: he played very strong chess.

During the match, the American grandmaster showed qualities that weren't previously expressed and/or noticed. Before the match, a number of authorities, Botvinnik included, thought that Fischer's Achilles heel was his lack of attention to the psychological aspects of the struggle. The Reykjavik match showed evidence to the contrary. For instance, it wasn't Spassky who made Fischer play a wide variety of openings (as Petrosian suggested), but vice versa.

I'll call your attention to one element of the psychological struggle that was clearly shown in the 13th game. We all know that the data received by perception of other people can be very informative. For instance, a chess player's posture and expression can say something about his thoughts on the position and about his current emotional state. So, watching the opponent is regarded as a useful method of knowing and understanding him, and sometimes it can add much to the information supplied by the moves he makes on the board.

I've been watching Fischer systematically during the match and I can assure you that he didn't just pay notice to the opponent's behaviour: he also constantly and deliberately watched him. There were several photos of Fischer in his classical pose: his face in his hand, but still looking between his fingers at the thinking partner, rather than the position. Spassky himself admitted Fischer's observation skills. At our meeting after the 8th game, the world champion said, “He felt my uncertainty during the game very well.”

In our talk after the match, Fischer shared his impressions about the 13th game. He said that he noticed Spassky's indecision before the 25th move, where he could mount a dangerous attack on the Black King. “I also felt that Spassky underestimated the dangers of his positions when my five pawns were up against his Rook.”

Another interesting thing to consider: during the preparation for the Reykjavik match, many grandmasters who met Fischer in person said that his own behaviour at the board was quite expressive and indicative of his internal state. But even the very first observations in Reykjavik showed otherwise. Fischer's expression and stature almost never changed, no matter how complicated was the position or who was in time trouble at the time. He didn't show almost any nervousness even in the most difficult moments. It seems that Fischer did some work in that direction and learned to control the expression of his emotions. Though in several cases, when many things depended on the partner's move, and waiting was too agonizing, he would get up from the table and quickly walk backstage. I think this was the only thing that showed his evaluation of the position as difficult.

In those days, the wives of our small group arrived to Reykjavik. Larisa's arrival helped Boris greatly: despite all the strokes of misfortune, he still looked hopefully into the future. He went to the 14th game in a good, combative mood.

In this game, held on 15th August, Fischer chose a bad opening plan with White. He played 5. Bf4 in Queen's gambit. This variant, often used by Petrosian and Portisch, relies either on getting an isolated pawn for Black or unclear sharp struggle after castling in different directions. Fischer seemed to disregard Spassky's rich practical experience in this system.

So, at the 10th move, there was a position characteristic for the Tarrasch defence. Let me remind you that Spassky successfully used the Tarrasch against Petrosian in 1969 several times. And Fischer played this position for the first time in his life.


The 14th game probably played no less a role in the match's result than the previous one. To really free his mind and get inspired, I think Spassky needed just one lucky game, and then... But alas, despite the world champion working himself into shape and fighting in earnest, he still was plagued by the thoughts of his bad luck.

Continued in Part 5.