He no longer resembled the serious, nervous young Russian champ that had stealthily destroyed players with his expert, sometimes crushing middlegame. No longer, I suspect, did he secretly keep the White Queen in his pocket as he had as a child. In post-World War Two Soviet Union, Boris Spassky was trained to use his keen intelligence and stealthy courage to become one of the finest young chess players the country had ever produced, often playing five hours a day and trained by a procession of chess masters. He was a Grandmaster at the age of eighteen and fighting fit for a series of clashes over the next two decades that made him yet another standard-bearer of Soviet might.
Then he met Bobby Fischer.
Spassky and the late great highly controversial American chess superstar, still the only American to win the World Chess Championship, battled one another five times throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, then most notably during the 1972 World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they played twenty-one grueling games. The two month long tournament between the reigning champion Spassky and Fischer was billed as the “match of the century” and heightened with surrealism, aggravation, political intrusions by the U.S. and Soviet governments, rumors of mind control weapons being used on both players, and on and on and on. The mild-mannered Spassky and the outlandish, petulant though brilliant Fischer did manage to play chess amidst the carnival, with Spassky eventually resigning in heartbreaking fashion. I say heartbreaking, because although Fischer was without question one of the finest modern practitioners of the game, his persistent melodramatics and expertise at psychic warfare did as much to break Spassky down as did his skills on the board.
The events surrounding thst spectacular match-up are chronicled in Dave Edmonds and John Eidinow’s fabulous book, Bobby Fischer Goes to War, published in 2004. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. We’re talking desert island/favorite read here. It’s that good. Not surprisingly, the subject of Spassky v Fischer is headed for the silver screen as well. There’s not a lot written about the project yet, but it appears that Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) is set to helm it. I always thought P.T. Anderson would be a fantastic director for the job, with his strong visual sense, penchant for naturalism that could swerve into the realm of the absurd or surreal at any moment, and his attraction to brilliant misfits and tragic eccentrics. With Kubrick (who was an avid chess player in his own right) dead, Anderson would be perfect.
Spassky, mentally and physically drained, would continue to play competitive chess (he became the 1973 Soviet Chess Champion), though in later years the game would never possess him as it had pre-1972. Fischer, on the other hand, distanced himself from chess despite a boom in the game in the months after the Reykjavik tournament, especially in the U.S., and did not play a competitive match for the next twenty years until he played a rematch against his old rival Spassky in Yugoslavia. The unsanctioned “Revenge Match of the 20th Century” ended with Fischer beating Spassky again. Spassky returned to France, where he’s been living since the mid-1970s, and Fischer became an outlaw for the rest of his life after defying the U.N. embargo on playing the match and the subsequent U.S. arrest warrant.
Two weeks ago, as part of the Hay Festival Alhambra which lasted from April 3-6 and held at the magnificent Moorish fortress here in Granada, Spain, Spassky made a rare appearance. Playing a group of twenty players or so simultaneously, the great Russian expat jovially (though his White Queen was still shockingly violent at times) greeted the small crowd in attendance and then set to systematically beating all of his opponents. Except for one. That honored gentleman is featured in some of the pictures that I took, seen below. He’s the player in the green horizontal striped sweater having a nervous breakdown. Spassky beat his first opponent at the thirty minute mark. His second about a half-hour later and then the rest after he himself was beaten at the ninety minute mark. Watching a three hour chess exhibition may sound like slow death for some, but it was a superb and strange way to spend my third night in Granada. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
You can read more about Spassky’s appearance here, at my partner in mischief’s blog.