The surprisingly sympathetic portrait in the recent Bobby Fischer biopic “Pawn Sacrifice” has sparked renewed appreciation for the man swept aside by the American dynamo — star-crossed Russian great Boris Spassky.
As played by actor Liev Schreiber, Spassky in the movie is portrayed (accurately) as having a healthy ego, but also as a worthy sportsman capable of competitive grace and respect for his mercurial challenger, qualities that may have saved Fischer from himself during the match.
Spassky, it was later learned, was under great pressure from Soviet authorities to pack up and declare himself winner of the 1972 Reykjavik match by forfeit when Bobby was issuing new demands and missing multiple deadlines to appear to play.
He may be the only reigning world champion in chess history who would have agreed to Fischer’s demand in midmatch to move the play to an anteroom, allegedly because the television cameras were making too much noise. Spassky’s classy gesture to join in the audience applause after Fischer’s brilliant Game 6 win looks like Hollywood hokum but in fact actually happened.
Plus, how can you not like a grandmaster who, when asked which he preferred, chess or sex, replied that “it depends on the position”?
Fischer’s stormy career tends to overshadow all else from that period, but it was in the mid-1960s that Spassky first announced himself as one of the greatest players of all time, one with a harmonious and universal style of play that one tends to appreciate more and more as one rises through the ratings ranks.
It was 50 years ago this year that Spassky ran a gauntlet of fellow Soviet greats to qualify for his first world title match, defeating legendary GMs Paul Keres, Efim Geller and Mikhail Tal in a series of candidate matches for the right to challenge world titleholder Tigran Petrosian. Spassky would lose his first bid for the crown, but decisively defeated Petrosian three years later, setting up his historic 1972 date with Fischer.
Fischer rightly complained that the Soviet stars went easy on each other in qualifying tournaments for the candidates matches, but when paired against one another, it was a different story. Spassky’s win over Geller in Game 6 of their 1965 semifinal match, won by Spassky 51/2-21/2, featured an audacious piece sacrifice that eventually forces Geller — a particularly tough opponent for Fischer and one of the greatest Soviet players never to play for the world title — to surrender his queen. In the complex play that follows, Spassky never allows Black to build a fortress and eventually breaks through.
It’s a Closed Ruy Lopez, but Spassky as White quickly blows it open when he catches Black’s knights lingering on the wrong side of the board: 18. g5 Be7 19. e5! Bf8 (see diagram), and now an unexpected twist on a classic sacrifice yields White a decisive material edge.
Thus: 20. Bxh7+!! (catching a grandmaster of Geller’s skill with the classic bishop sac on h7 is a feat in itself) Kxh7 21. g6+! Kg8 22. Ng5 fxg6 23. Qf3!, and White’s threats include 24. Qf7+ Kh8 25. Qxg6 and 24. Qh3, threatening mate on h7. Black has to jettison his queen with 23Qxg5 (Qd7 24. e6 is no better) 24. Bxg5 dxe5 25. Rac1, and White has a queen for two knights and two pawns.
Geller doesn’t make it easy, massing his remaining pieces in the center of the board and forcing White to find a way to break through. But Spassky is up to the challenge, and after 43. Bc5+ Kf7 44. Qb7+, Black resigns as 44…Kg6 (Ke8 45. Qc8+ Kf7 46. Qd7+ Be7 47. Rf2+ and wins) 45. Qc8 Kf7 (Rc6 46. Qe8+ Nf7 47. Qe4+ Kh6 48. Rh2 mate) 46. Qf8+ Kg6 47. Qg8 Re7 (Rc6 48. Qe8+) 48. Bxe7 Bxe7 49. Qe6+ wins for White.
Spassky remained a strong player after his loss to Fischer, but was soon eclipsed by a rising generation of Soviet stars led by Anatoly Karpov and then Garry Kasparov. After living for decades in France, he returned to Russia after suffering a serious stroke. At 78, Spassky is the oldest surviving former world champion.
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The current crop of the world’s best, led by reigning world champ Magnus Carlsen of Norway and U.S. stars Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, will be knocking heads again in the final super-GM event of the year. The 7th London Chess Classic gets underway Friday, and we’ll have some action and color next week.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com