Boris Spassky 2016 interview

Jun 11, 2016, 2:29 PM |

This interview was conducted by Yuri Golyshak and Sergei Kruzhkov for their column Friday Talk in the Sport-Expressnewspaper 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.

That's right.

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!

What war?

I'm trying to divorce my French wife and come out unscathed. I'm losing all my possessions!

Literally all?

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.

About Fischer?

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.

Such as?

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.

For soup?

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!

Fascinating wording.

Everything was so artificial...

Did the actor who played you do at least something right?

I've noticed no similarities!

And Fischer?

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.

What's that?

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.

How's that?

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!

Did you?

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.