Boris Spassky at Hay-on-Wye

  • SonofPearl
  • on 5/26/08, 1:14 PM.

Gentleman Spassky charms Hay-on-Wye 

Individuals who achieve greatness and fame in sports are normally remembered for their sublime skills and dramatic triumphs.  It is Boris Spassky's tragedy to be forever remembered as the man who lost the World Chess Championship to Bobby Fischer.  However, it is to Spassky's enormous credit that he not only doesn't mind this, but never seems to grow tired of speaking about his fateful and epic encounter with the eccentric American genius in 1972.

The "Match of the Century" against Fischer was once again high on the agenda during Spassky's appearance at the annual Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts in Wales, UK.  Boris was interviewed by Ronan Bennett, an Irish journalist  and novelist (his most recent novel "Zugzwang" is set in the world of chess), and accompanied by his French wife Marina.   

After a warm reception from the audience, Spassky started by recalling his first chess game against his older brother, Georgi.  The game ended quickly when, playing as Black, he was checkmated at f7 by the white Queen.  "I cried" he said - but the loss made him want to get better - and get better he certainly did.

The young Boris was born in 1937 in the troubled city of Leningrad.  Stalin's "Great Terror" was occurring and millions died as a result of the purges.  The Spassky family survived, only to face the onslaught of the Nazis a few years later in the Second World War.  Once again they survived - by escaping the siege of the city and fleeing to safety until Hitler had been defeated.

It was on his return to a devastated Leningrad that Boris Spassky fell in love with chess.  His talent for the game quickly emerged and he was soon singled out for intensive tuition by the Soviet chess machine.

Spassky said that despite this assistance, he was not a part of the chess establishment, and certainly not wealthy in financial terms.  "I was a beggar at that time, but at the chessboard I could make anything happen.  I had great pleasure from chess."

In 1969 Spassky overcame the great Armenian champion Petrosian to achieve his ambition of becoming the World Chess Champion.  However, Spassky noted that pictures of him winning the title show him looking very unhappy. "Being the champion is a heavy burden and responsibility.  It changes your life.  I was not prepared for it."

When Spassky played Fischer in 1972 he was, of course, aware of the wider significance of the match with it's cold war overtones and publicity on a scale never before seen for a chess match.  However, Spassky was never a communist and did not fight for the Soviet Sport Committee, but "for myself, my friends and helpers".

Spassky's approach to the game was very different from Fischer.  Fischer famously said that he liked to "crush the ego" of his opponents.  Spassky preferred to "fight on equal terms" with worthy adversaries.

Asked about the first game of the match, and Fischer's blunder 29...Bxh2, Spassky felt that this move was typical of Fischer's style. "He wanted to be active, to take risks", adding that he believed that computer analysis had now shown that the game might still be drawn after Fischer's "blunder".

After Fischer's no-show in game 2, the fate of the match hung in the balance.  Fischer, upset by the TV cameras and the audience, wanted to play in a private room.  Spassky generously agreed - against the wishes of the Soviet authorities - and the match was back on.  Spassky, explaining that his name means "saviour" in Russian said, "I saved Fischer, but I committed suicide myself!"

Fischer's win in the third game of the match was the first time he had beaten Spassky.  The spell was broken and Fischer was transformed into a confident and dangerous challenger.  He never looked back, eventually winning by a convincing margin of 12.5 - 8.5.

"I was happy to lose the championship", said Spassky, "My years as champion were the worst years of my life".

In 1976 Spassky emigrated to France where he still lives with his third wife Marina.  At last Spassky found happiness in a country where he was "free like a bird to fly".

Spassky's rematch with Fischer in 1992, in defiance of international sanctions, was the last time the American played chess in public.  Spassky was philosophical about the match, "It was great money and no responsibility".

These days Spassky has retired from chess, but still travels the world to chess events and teaches children to play.  Asked about the influence of computers on the game, he felt that they had changed the game hugely, with opening databases making it more of a memory challenge.  However, he was dismissive of chess960 (a.k.a FischerRandom Chess), "having the pieces lined up (differently) on the back row - it's not harmonious".

Asked about the nature of chess, Spassky struggled to answer, "it's enigmatic", he said with a shrug.  He still enjoys playing friendly games with a glass of wine, and especially appreciates the beauty of chess compositions.

Spassky's chess heroes are all, by his own admission, tragic figures, "Morphy, Alekhine, Pillsbury, Tchigorin and Steinitz". "I am not an optimist" he said, to laughter from the audience.

Despite his loss to Fischer in 1972, Spassky always felt that he understood his adversary and following Fischer's arrest in Japan in 2004, Spassky appealed directly in a letter to President Bush on Fischer's behalf:

"In 1972, Bobby Fischer became a national hero. He smashed me in the match in Reykjavik. The Soviet chess hegemony collapsed. One man won against a whole army.  I would not like to defend or justify Bobby Fischer, he is what he is. I am asking only for one thing. For mercy, charity. If for some reason it is impossible, I would like to ask you the following: Please correct the mistake of President Francois Mitterand in 1992. Bobby and myself committed the same crime. Put sanctions against me also. Arrest me. And put me in the same cell with Bobby Fischer. And give us a chess set."

The names Fischer and Spassky will forever be connected by their shared experience during that remarkable 1972 match that put chess on the map as never before and made headlines around the world.  Spassky, now a venerable 71 years old, was clearly saddened when he spoke of Fischer's death, "He was an attentive and polite friend" he explained.  They exchanged emails during Fischer's last years and as Spassky recalled the contents of one email he broke off into silence, lost in his own thoughts, visibly upset for a moment.

Spassky, the gentleman bon-viveur from Leningrad and Fischer, the eccentric loner from Brooklyn, NY, share a bond that will never be broken.

Spassky at Hay-on-Wye with his wife Marina:
Spassky at Hay-on-Wye with his wife Marina

11813 reads 32 comments
2 votes


  • 8 years ago



    Here I am, in Tasmania, on the opposite side of the world from these events and people...

    But I was in Wales once, in 2005, I lived there 6 months. I even spent 3 days in Hay-on-wye (don't miss it..).  I went to the festival, but spent my time putting up the tents cos it was my job! Oh well, I did buy a great chess book there, so I got to take that home with with my 5 pounds an hour

  • 8 years ago


    Lillysboy, you are colossal idiot.  Spassky is not an anti-Semite, Spassky is a Jew!  I met him at the Jewish community center in west orange new jersey several years ago where he spoke about chess and soviet Jewry. 

    He and I spoke briefly about alekhine and capablanc.  He is a gentleman, a good Jew, and not an anti-Semite. Please keep your stupidity to yourself.

  • 9 years ago


    I'm not exactly sure what Bobby would have thought about Boris's remarks. But I do know that Boris has long since apologized for them. And the chess community, by and large, seems to have forgotten about and/or forgiven him for those comments, so I guess the media has decided to let that sleeping dog lie as well. Which is probably a very smart move, on their part (so to speak)...! 
  • 9 years ago


    I am surprised that no-one has mentioned Spassky's reported anti-semitic statements. At a gathering in Russia a few years ago he is supposed to have alluded to "people with big noses" of whom there were too many in Russia. Not surprisingly, many of those present walked out. There have been other alleged statements along similar lines, but of course his admiration for Fischer contradicts this behaviour - or would Fischer have agreed?
  • 9 years ago


    Spassky, epitome of a chessplayer, gentleman on and off the board
  • 9 years ago


    Great reading! It touches the heart!
  • 9 years ago


    Another report on the event, by British Chess Magazine editor John Saunders is here.  He mentions a few things that I didn't include in my report - great stuff!


  • 9 years ago


    Last March, Reuters reported that Boris was wiping tears from his eyes when he visited Bobby's grave for the first time and laid flowers for his ex-rival. Boris even went so far as to joke with the reporters who were interviewing him, asking them if they thought the spot next to Bobby was available. (Can you say, "Awwwwww"?)

    It never ceases to amaze me how Boris and Bobby remained such good friends, even throughout the course of their rivalry and Bobby's mental illness!


  • 9 years ago


    a great man and a great chess player!

  • 9 years ago


    Thank you so much for this article.  It made me closer to Spassky after years of admiring Fischer.  I now think both of them are equally great, in chess and in the real or actual life.  In both, they were superlatives, one excelling the other in chess and the other excelling in life's ending.  It is a DRAW!!! 

  • 9 years ago


    Thanks to everyone for your kind comments.  It was a great experience to hear Spassky speak, and a memorable day.  I arrived early to get a good seat and was in the second row of the audience, which meant I had a clear view and was able to take the photo I used at the end of the article.
  • 9 years ago


    beautiful text
  • 9 years ago


    Spassky was my choiced over Fischer during the 1972 World Championship. I feel  sorry for him when he lost his crown. But as the years go i realized that my choiced for Spassky was really a good choice after all.  The history of Spassky is very encouraging. He lost to Bobby Fischer. ..yes but he never lost to  himself. He went on and become an example of success not only over the chessboard for many more years but also over his life winning the respect and admiration of his peers for his mastery, integrity and sportmanship.
  • 9 years ago


    Good article, it kept me reading it to the end.
  • 9 years ago


    This really opened my eyes up to Spassky...He plays interesting chess, and this article helped me respect him 10 times more. 

  • 9 years ago


    interesting reading
  • 9 years ago


    To Shruikon (especially): I was also at the Worcester Megafinal and got 5.5/6, so I got to go to Hay-on-Wye and play Spassky: I got a draw! (I think there were 5 overall)
  • 9 years ago


    Very nice... Thank you SonofPearl.

    I really like Spassky's attitude towards Fischer: he was what he was, and he still saw Fischer with respect and as a friend. It just goes to show that the man that was in the limelight of the Soviet chess machine was not a pawn of that machine, but a man with his own thoughts, intellect and heart. Indeed, Mr. Spassky is to be respected not only for his chess abilities, but for his human abilities as well.

  • 9 years ago


    Superb article. You should send it to Chess and BCM.
  • 9 years ago


    very touching story, spassky and fischer is now my idol next  to kasparov, thanks!
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