Spassky - Fischer: The Return Match


The last chapter of the Krogius book, mostly consisting of quotes from other authors.

The Spassky - Fischer series:

Part 0: Excerpts from the chapter about Spassky's preparation.

Part 1: Pre-match, Spassky waiting for Fischer in Reykjavik.

Part 2: Fischer arrives to Reykavik late, loses the first game and forfeits the second by no-showing.

Part 3: Spassky falters; games 3-8.

Part 4: Spassky tries to turn things around, but it's too little, too late; games 9-14.

Part 5: "Operation Bobby's Chair" and a string of draws; games 15-19.

Part 6: Bobby wins; Krogius sort of interviews him afterwards; games 20-21.

Part 7: The match's fallout in the Soviet Union.

The Return Match of the 20th Century


It seemed that Fischer has left the chess scene forever. Spassky thought so too: in 1987, when asked whether Fischer would play in a tournament again, he said, “No, Fischer will never play. This is a true tragedy, he was born for chess.”

Up until 1st September 1992, most people shared Spassky's opinion.

I met Bobby several times in the last two years”, Boris Vasilyevich said in late 1991 at the finish of a big international tournament in Reggio Emilia, “but I don't like to discuss it, because Fischer doesn't like anyone quoting his words and doesn't like any publicity at all... I could have won our 1972 match without even playing, because Robert didn't come to Iceland in time, at the day appointed by FIDE. So, by the rules, I could demand to grant me a victory. But if I won without playing, I would forever lose any self-respect and think of myself as not a true world champion – exactly because I didn't play Fischer.”

One way or another, Fischer and Alexander Alekhine are the best chess players in history”, the world champion Garry Kasparov said confidently. “I think that there was some reason of him quitting the world chess scene, but still, it's a big misfortune for the chess world that he doesn't compete for almost twenty years.”

I wanted to play Fischer very much”, Karpov admitted. “I was optimistic about my chances in the match, but I also thought that my opponent just feared to lose the match. And so, he forfeited...”

And then Spassky added a very serious thing:

I think that this match destroyed us both. Fischer stopped all public appearances altogether, not only playing; and I lost my champion's title.”

A bit later, in January 1992, Spassky said in an interview for the Nova Macedonia newspaper: “I meet Fischer frequently. I recently visited him and asked whether he would play a match with me after such a long pause. Fischer answered, “Despite you've been playing constantly, and I haven't played for 20 years, I'm still stronger than all of you.” I can say that Fischer stayed the same, that he didn't change...”

What happened then? “Fischer called me once”, said Boris Vasilyevich to the Sport Express newspaper reporter, “and offered to play a match. Explained in details – where, when, on what conditions. He spoke of Yugoslavia from the outset. He asked me, “Is it good?” I answered, “Great, Bobby!”...

A Belgrade-based millionaire Jezdimir Vasiljevic provided a prize fund of more than $5,000,000 (5/8ths to the winner, 3/8ths to the loser), and gave both partners an advance payment of $100,000. The regulations were the same as Fischer proposed in 1975: play until 10 games won, if score is tied at 9-9, “the champion retains his title.”

There were also new conditions: if some game lasts less than an hour, then the next game is played immediately; also, there are no play-offs: all games should end in the day they started. And another novelty: “anti-time-trouble” chess clock invented by Fischer. They were electronic, without dials. Time control is 1 hour 51 minutes for the first 40 moves, but after each move, the player gets an extra minute on the clock. So, in any time trouble, the player had a minimum of 1 minute for a move; moreover, the clock even gave warning signals! In Lothar Schmid's opinion, who became the arbiter again, “this Fischer's invention, patented under his name, can revolutionize the chess world.”

Fischer represented the United States; Spassky, alas, didn't represent Russia.

This was partly explained by a 1992 publication in the Izvestia newspaper, concerning the unclassified archive materials about Spassky. Among the documents, there was a letter to the CPSU Central Committee from I.A. Bondarenko, the First Secretary of the Rostov regional committee (#4785s, 11th October 1971). The letter said that on 26th September 1971, in his public speech in the House of scientifical and technical propaganda of the Rostovugol factory in the Shakhty town, with more than 200 people in attendance, Spassky “conveyed a distorted view on the chess players' status in the Soviet Union and allowed some attacks on the Soviet life. Spassky said that the leading chess players weren't paid enough attention in our country, their work was poorly paid. Explaining the reasons for not participating in the Soviet chess championship, he cited low prize money (250 rubles [roughly $300 in 1971 money]). Spassky said that the biggest prize he got abroad was $5000, while the largest ever prize in the homeland was only 2000 rubles. He complained to the audience about his financial position and said that his monthly salary was 300 rubles; he received the money for nominally being a chess coach of the Lokomotiv society, without actually coaching anyone”. Spassky also allowed himself other kinds of “transgressions”, in the words of the First Secretary. “Answering one of the questions, Spassky said about his respect and sympathy towards religious people. [Soviet Union was an atheistic country that forbade open professing of any religion.]”

I'm actually from a priest's family, and if I weren't a chess player, I'd gladly join the clergy”, Spassky said.

In a memorandum #919s (29th April 1972) S.P. Pavlov, the head of Sports Committee, wrote to the Central Committee: “Some complications are caused by B. Spassky's position, who still didn't express any desire to publicly denounce the actions of R. Fischer and M. Euwe and feared any steps that could lead to the abortion of his match against Fischer. B. Spassky doesn't even consider the fact that the candidate's efforts to dictate his conditions are degrading for him as a world champion. Most probably, R. Fischer and M. Euwe are taking into consideration B. Spassky's desire to play the match no matter what when they plan their actions.”

And the 1972 match did indeed take place...

In the subsequent years, Spassky's relationship with the officials was tense, but, as we said earlier, they mostly turned a blind eye to Spassky's antics. However, in 1978, Spassky lost his state stipend. The reason was Spassky marrying a French woman, moving to Paris and receiving French citizenship. Spassky said to the Soviet ambassador in France that he still wanted to represent USSR in international competitions and asked to issue him a new Soviet passport. The passport was issued, and Boris retained his double citizenship – Soviet and French. He only stopped playing under his homeland's flag in 1984, after not being included into the Soviet team for the “Match of the Century” in London.

But the second match didn't require any approval from any Central Committees. On the 2nd September 1992, at 3:30 p.m. Central European time, the first game of two chess geniuses began... “twenty years later.”

Garry Kasparov (Izvestia, 4th September): “Undoubtedly, this match is a world phenomenon. Such a genius returned to chess. Though it's hard to say what this match gives to chess. We need to see them playing more games. The first game, I think, doesn't give much hope for the match from the purely chess point of view. But there was no reason to expect something incredible, to be honest. With all due respect to the opponents, I have to say that one of them didn't play any serious chess for 20 years, and the other's Elo rating isn't particularly high at that point (Spassky's Elo rating at 1st July 1992 was 2560, and he shared 96th-102nd places in the world tables – Krogius); those factors are too important to leave them unnoticed, as some more ardent commentators did, saying that Fischer's playing was “Godlike” even today (Kasparov probably meant Yu. Vasilyev, Izvestia, 3rd September 1992 – Krogius). You know perfectly that it's impossible to create a chess masterpiece alone. You need a high-level opponent for that... In the first game, Fischer showed his old 1972 chess. It was easier for him back then: what he alone knew then, many know now.”

After losing the first game, drawing the second and drawing the third with a good advantage, Boris Spassky won the fourth game of the “1992 World Chess Championship” - Fischer demanded the match to be called either that or the “Return Match of the 20th Century” at his press conference held at 7th September 1992.

Fischer didn't look too upset after the game: “Today Spassky gave me a lesson similar to that I gave him in the first game”. (Komsomolskaya Pravda, 8th September 1992.)

In the fifth game, Fischer didn't rise up to the challenge mounted by the Russian-French brigade of grandmasters and masters. Spassky played very precisely. Although we could feel that he was worried. On the monitors, we could clearly see that when he made his 40th move with the Rook, his hand visibly trembled.” (Izvestia, 10th September 1992.)

Before the “return match”, there were little doubts in the American's victory”, Yuri Averbakh wrote. “The only thing that made anyone doubt is his 20-year lack of practice. But, on the other hand, Spassky in 1992 was just a shadow of a great champion of the 1960's. Due to his age, loss of ambition and natural laziness, he doesn't get any good results for almost a decade. Even France doesn't consider him their number one player; in the last French championship, Spassky finished only fifth... Spassky managed to take the lead for a short time: after six games, he led 2-1, with three draws. But then his strength declined sharply: Spassky probably wasn't prepared for a tough struggle. He got tired quickly and between 7th and 11th games, he lost four of them, three in a row... Speaking of the sporting results of the match, we can surely say that the strongest player won. But the Fischer of today is obviously weaker than the Fischer of 1972 and especially of 1971. He's weaker in the exploitation of initiative, concentration, counter-attacks, technique. Of course, the American did have his share of creative achievements in this match. For instance, games 1, 11, 25. In a number of games, Fischer used important theoretical novelties: in game 16, he improved playing for Black in a rare line of King's Indian, and in game 9, he vastly improved playing for White in the exchange variation of Ruy Lopez. So, we can say that Fischer did prepare for the upcoming match, and he did it thoroughly. Spassky also had some good games, but his opening preparation left much to be desired. He seemed to have stopped working on his openings long ago. Though a month before the match, he called upon Yu. Balashov and A. Nikitin's help, but they only helped to patch some obvious holes. Spassky generally used his old opening repertoire, and he did prove the viability of the Breyer defence in the Ruy Lopez... Evaluating the Fischer – Spassky match as a whole, we have to admit that it crushed the legend. Sadly, miracles don't happen: today, Fischer plays very differently from twenty years ago.”

There were mistakes, but there were brilliant moves too”, the elderly grandmaster Andor Lilienthal remembered. “Let's not forget that Fischer didn't play chess for twenty years, and Spassky didn't have the kind of sporting “anger” that is necessary for matches of such level. But I've never seen such friendly relationship between the opponents at any World Championship matches. But many people condemn the match... What for? For Fischer returning to chess? Fischer has his shortcomings, he often says stupid things. But chess need him. Look how ingenious he became, how good he is in folk dancing (At the closing of the match's first half, Bobby followed Spassky into the chain of dancers of kolo – a kind of slow round dance, as Alexander Nikitin remembers), he even swam in the sea together with Spassky...”

Alexander Nikitin in his article “Fischer's appearance before the masses” (64, 1993), analyzing the match and partners, wrote: “A big, thickset man with a beard and sideburns, which seemingly took away the hair from his bald head, walked up to the chess table with his familiar gate and slowly sank into a big chair. He sat back and, stretching his legs, looked upon two chess armies standing ready for another battle. The piercing gaze of his deep-set eyes turned to a gray-haired, also paunchy, but sturdy man in the opposing chair. His expression momentarily became less stern – the opponent was an old friend – but his long, strong fingers, as though drawn by the little pieces, have already started their habitual, quick ritual, adjusting the White pieces, and, with each movement, narrowing the player's world to the confines of 64 chess squares before him...”

After the second loss in a row, the American grandmaster didn't come out to the dinner hall of the Sveti Stefan hotel, but ordered food into his suite 118. “The rare contacts between our groups ceased completely after that”, Nikitin remembers. “The American and his entourage started to dine in another hall, and Boris Vasilyevich couldn't turn and pat his friend and opponent on the shoulder and share a gastronomic joke any more. Bobby would go out for a walk when we were in our rooms. The motorcade that brought players and their seconds to the match dissolved. Now Fischer would start on his way from the island when his partner was already in the tournament hall. He also asked for the seconds (of course, especially the “opposing” ones) not to enter the playing hall (before the 6th game, the match director Janos Kubat came to Spassky's seconds, Nikitin and Balashov, and, in apologetic tone, said, “Fischer asked you not to enter the hall. As a compensation, his seconds won't enter too... - Krogius), and the audience members didn't dare to utter a word. Me and Balashov have retreated to the press center, where the opponents' faces were at least sometimes shown on the monitors, and the spectators relocated to the lobby and discussed the match there.

All demands of the American were satisfied very calmly and casually, because everyone wanted him to regain his best mood and form. I can't say that those measures improved Bobby's playing in any way. Boris Vasilyevich was also very understanding of those demands, but his playing suddenly and dramatically worsened. In all seriousness, it was because he got too tired after six intense and long games, the shortest of which lasted for more than four hours. He hadn't played in such a rhythm for years. Speaking half-seriously, the decline in his playing was predicted by his... horoscope, which was sent to us before the match began and immediately put into the “Random” folder of our match archive. In the period after the 7th game, Spassky would suffer from sudden and unexplainable blunders, he started being more irritable and withdrawn.

As a result, the “Return Match of the 20th Century”, after such a great beginning, turned into a mediocre competition. The opponents managed to play 5 or 6 more grandmaster-level games. In all other games, the winner would demonstrate good grandmaster-level playing, while the loser played much more weaker chess, making serious mistakes. The formerly miraculous players who got 20 years older were trying their best, but one cannot deceive time. They weren't as vigorous and persistent than before, they weren't so totally sore in their strength and luck that helped them to make bold, risky decisions at the board.

I don't want to offend Boris Vasilyevich, but the chess epic that began at a wonderful Yugoslavian resort and ended in a capital that was full of non-chess anxiety (after the game 11, the partners moved to Belgrade and continued the match after 10 days – Krogius), was a long-awaited show with one main character, whose each move and word was intently watched by all other characters and chess fans in the entire world. People aren't exactly interested in grandmaster Spassky's chess perspectives now. I'm not going to write anything of the sort that's usually written about somebody who was thoroughly trounced (judging by the match's score) about my old friend. He needs no consolations or advices. At 56, a man usually evaluates his abilities correctly.

In our country, there was a lot of caustic criticism towards Boris Vasilyevich, especially because his enormous prize didn't quite correspond to his playing quality. But he wasn't forcing Fischer to play him and didn't demand prizes – he just wanted Bobby to return to chess. And did a lot to make this real, believe me. A million dollars (remember the French taxes!) was a belated award to one of the chess immortals who still have great authority in the chess world.


The award should guarantee him a comfortable life, and you should be glad for him, not jealous.”