Did Spassky really want to win the match of the century?

A provocative article in Chess Magazine attempts a starkly revisionist reading of the world champion’s match against Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik in 1972. But should we take the extraordinary claim that he never intended to win the match seriously?

Stephen Moss

The latest issue of Chess Magazine contains a fascinating/diverting/ridiculous (delete according to your view of whether the arguments really stand up) article about the 1972 world championship match between Boris Spassky, the suave Russian champion, and Bobby Fischer, the abrasive American challenger. The event is of course the foundation stone of modern chess: certainly in the UK where the match, which was a global news sensation, inspired a generation of players who propelled England to No 2 chess nation in the world behind the Soviet Union.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable match, which has already spawned countless books, films and even a musical – Chess, by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. There will no doubt be plenty more coverage next year when we relive the match all over again. The fact that this defining event will not go away is double-edged: it’s great for the game to be in the news, but less desirable that all the general public really know about chess derives from a 50-year-old contest and a deranged chess genius who barely played after he won the title and died more than a decade ago.

Spassky v Fischer Reykjavik 1972

But back to the article in Chess Magazine. The writer, Stewart Player, who as far as I can see does not appear to be a chess historian of any standing (apologies to Mr Player if his oeuvre has unaccountably passed me by), argues that Spassky was far from disappointed to lose. Indeed, Player goes further than that; he says “Spassky had no intention of winning the match”.

Player’s argument is that Spassky didn’t prepare properly, bent over backwards to accept Fischer’s ever more extreme demands regarding conditions – including, Player says, “agreeing to play game three in a janitor’s broom cupboard” – and was above all concerned that the match was played to a conclusion, so he got his cut of the fee. “The main thing as far as Spassky was concerned”, says Player, “was that the match went ahead and that he must not lose his erratic opponent.” He argues that Spassky was already planning to leave the Soviet Union and anticipated “lucrative return matches” once he was based abroad. Player cites in his support an incendiary quote from former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik alleging that Spassky “threw” the match, but I would like to know the provenance of this. There is no footnote giving the source or context in which Botvinnik made the alleged remark, nor is the original Russian given. It doesn’t feel quite right: do Russians even talk about “throwing” a match? Something may have been lost in translation, and we surely need to see the original text for this crucial – and perhaps rather un-Botvinnik-like – allegation.

Player suggests that Spassky had a carefully worked out game plan – just not for this match! “By proving pliable and not antagonising Fischer,” he argues, “the likelihood of future million-dollar ‘title’ matches would remain, as in subsequent interviews both Spassky and Fischer talked about rematches outside FIDE jurisdiction. And these would be in the US, with Las Vegas the most oft-quoted venue.”

So, fascinating, diverting or ridiculous? Not quite fascinating because Player’s evidence is thin and rather circumstantial. He says at one point that Spassky’s long-time coach, Igor Bondarevsky, may have split with him because Spassky told him it was his intention to grant concessions to Fischer. But not a shred of evidence is offered to back up this claim. Player is just guessing that “in an argument, in his [Spassky’s] cups”, such an admission might have been made. Sorry, that’s at least one might too many. Such bold revisionism needs something more substantial to back it up.

Since I have chosen to write about Player’s article, I suppose I am admitting that the re-reading of the match is not wholly ridiculous. Clearly, Spassky did not prepare hard enough; did offer Fischer too many concessions in terms of conditions – perhaps giving the challenger a psychological edge; did miss Bondarevsky; perhaps thought too much about money rather than focusing entirely on beating Fischer, who on the strength of their previous encounters he may have underestimated; may even already have been thinking of life outside the Soviet Union – he moved to France in 1976 and became a French citizen in 1978. But all this is far from proving Player’s central contention that Spassky “had no intention of winning the match”. Let’s then file the piece under the non-committal heading of “diverting”.

David Edmonds, co-author with John Eidinow (whose name Player misspells) of Bobby Fischer Goes to War, is not willing to be quite so charitable. He dismisses the new reading of the match out of hand, and is not best pleased that Player damns his and Eidinow’s book with faint praise, calling it “very useful on Spassky’s background … while never straying too far from the routine narrative”. “There is absolutely nothing there,” Edmonds tells me, “not a single piece of evidence. My initial reaction is to be surprised that they [Chess Magazine] have given this claim column inches. This should be making international headlines if true. What a scoop! Presumably he has a response from Spassky?” Spassky, of course, is incapacitated by a stroke, and has made no response to Player’s claims.

“The idea that the best way to maximise his future income was to lose is risible,” Edmonds argues. “Why would there be more money on offer for a rematch if he was the challenger rather than the champion? His [Spassky’s] income, following defeat, took a predictable hit. He had also seen what had happened to Taimanov after losing to Fischer. Why would he risk that?” Fischer beat Taimanov 6-0 in the Candidates quarter-final in 1971 – a humiliating reverse that the Soviet authorities believed must have had a “political explanation”, leading them to reduce Taimanov’s salary and ban him from travelling overseas.

Edmonds insists his and Eidinow’s book was far from routine. “The standard narrative until our book was that Spassky, though indeed a gentleman, was a Soviet stooge,” he tells me. “That’s how he’s presented in most of the press coverage and the books that emerge in the immediate aftermath of the match. Our interviews and Soviet documents revealed the tensions in the Soviet camp and the authorities’ dissatisfaction with him.”

Edmonds says that if the claim that Spassky “had no intention of winning the match” was true, then even now Spassky should be looking for a publisher for a tell-all memoir. “If Spassky was really so motivated by money, ” says Edmonds, “then he could sell this story, even today, for a skyscraper high pile of dosh.  It seems to me to be pretty irresponsible to make the sort of claim this article makes without a shred of evidence.”

I asked Richard Palliser, editor of Chess Magazine, about Player’s piece. He doesn’t go quite as far as his author in suggesting Spassky never intended to win, but he does believe there were psychological factors at play that could have undermined Spassky before and during the match. “My take on the piece wasn’t that Spassky threw the match,” Palliser tells me, “[but] rather that he wasn’t too unhappy to lose. [I] suspect he still fought tooth and nail in every game, but at the back of his mind was the realisation that losing would have some benefits. Surely every chess player has been there at some point?”

Perhaps the crown was weighing rather too heavily on Spassky’s head. Might he have been seeking the freedom to go back to being an ordinary chess player, rather than a standard-bearer for the Soviet system? It may be that the book we need most of all to mark the 50th anniversary of the epic encounter in Reykjavik is a comprehensive biography of Spassky, one that examines his true motivations back in 1971-72. What did he really want out of the match? How did he see the future? Did he underestimate Fischer – his preparation was indeed woeful and discounted the possibility that Fischer might play 1. d4 – or was he subconsciously willing his own destruction and that of the Soviet chess machine, perhaps even of the Soviet Union itself? So many millions of words have been devoted to Fischer. Now we need to pay some attention to his adversary in that magnificent, myth-laden match.

Boris Spassky vs Robert James Fischer

The famous 13th game of the world championship match showed each player striving to win. Spassky gave up a pawn to obtain space and mobility. Fischer used a tactic to exchange queens and reach an ending where he had a preponderance of queenside pawns and then sacrificed a bishop to march these pawns forward. Spassky stoutly defended the complex and unbalanced endgame until he had to make a crucial decision which way to check Fischer’s king. It was a 50:50 decision with four minutes to play four moves, but the path he chose allowed Fischer to break through.

World championship match, Reykjavik, Iceland, 13th game, 10 August 1972
Alekhine Defence: Modern, Alburt Variation (B04)

A talk through video by Antonio Radić (Agadmator) gives more details on the game.


2 thoughts on “Did Spassky really want to win the match of the century?

    1. stephenmoss Post author

      I think the truth is that Tim Rice was influenced by both encounters. Freddie Trumper is certainly reckoned to have elements of Fischer. Rice was very taken with the ’72 match and may well have logged the potential of the idea as a musical then.

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