Culture and Civilisations

Boris, save us: from the opera house to the chessboard 

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Boris, save us: from the opera house to the chessboard 

Feodor Chaliapin, a Russian opera singer, as Boris Gudonov. (1873-1938).

At the start of Modeste Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov, discontented crowds gather in Moscow, both at the Novodevichy Monastery and outside the battlements of the Kremlin, to implore the new Czar, Boris, to save the people from the evils of the day; pandemic, famine, unemployment and general civil unrest. The crowd also articulates a desperate plea to rescue Russia from a metaphorical dragon, sent from Hell.

The evils associated with the infernal Dragon itself are not specified, but one can speculate on the usual litany of horrors during a time of troubles in early 17th-century Muscovy. Such horrors might, perhaps, have included: unstemmed illegal immigration; rising costs of bavin for fuel; higher taxation; attempts to obliterate the culture, heroes and traditions of the nation; men without a cervix, claiming to be women; widespread cancellation and boycotting of logical and independent thinkers, not to mention conspicuous failure by the authorities (in this case it would have been the Streltsy, the armed Muscovite constabulary) to deal with fanatic and hypocritical protesters, blocking the main arterial highways of the Russian imperium, thus frustrating trade and cruelly preventing the sick and dying from reaching the haven of Moscow Central hospital.

Also on the list of likely troubles would have been supine bleating from the Russian equivalent of Remainers, complaining about the decision in 1547, implemented by Czar Ivan the Terrible, to break with ossified international norms and declare Russia an autonomous empire. Last, but not least, widespread bogus claims of disastrous climate change, combined with predictions of hugely increased snow and ice, forecast by the pessimists to be a potentially great hindrance to Russian forces in future military campaigns.

Plus ça change.

In the opera, Czar Boris failed spectacularly, which led to the briefly successful advance on Moscow of the heretical false Dimitri, posing as Dimitri Ivanovich, the Tsarevich assassinated in the town of Uglich.

In chess terms our Boris, Boris Spassky, of course, also failed in his efforts to defeat the Dragon of Bobby Fischer, whose all too predictable refusal to defend the World Title he had won from the all too chivalrous Spassky, was a calamity for chess fans worldwide.

This week’s column is my Panegyric in favour of Boris and recognition for his brave, if futile, attempt to stave off the Dragon.

Boris Vasilievich Spassky was World Champion from 1969–1972. He was born in Leningrad in 1937, and spent the early part of his life and his chess career in Leningrad. He learnt chess at the age of five and by 11 (when he had attained the top class in the chess club of the pioneer house in Leningrad) he was already regarded as a boy prodigy with a wonderful future. At this club he was first trained by master Vladimir Zak and then by Grandmaster Alexander Tolush, both of whom lay great stress on tactical, attacking and combinational play.

As a boy prodigy, Boris accomplished feats that would have been worthy of a first-class adult master, with a second place at the age of 14 in the Leningrad championship followed by his first venture abroad, to the Bucharest international tournament in 1953. This was won convincingly by Spassky’s trainer, Tolush, but the 15-year-old Spassky had the remarkable result of tying for fourth place with established Grandmasters Isaac Boleslavsky and Laszlo Szabo.

In 1955 Boris won the World Junior Championship at Antwerp and in the same year he qualified for the World Championship candidates tournament from the Gothenburg Interzonal. The following year showed a great advance. He tied for first place in the Soviet championship and came equal third in the Candidates Tournament in Amsterdam.

In 1961 Spassky won the Soviet championship for the first time and thereafter he climbed his way to the World Championship with a steady and sure grip. In 1964 he qualified from the Amsterdam Interzonal for the candidates which (at the behest of Bobby Fischer) had now become a series of matches, and then the following year he beat Paul Keres, Mikhail Tal and Efim Geller in successive matches. 

In the contest for the World Title against Tigran Petrosian, he lost narrowly, by 11½ to 12½ points, but later in 1966 Spassky demonstrated that he had now become the leading tournament player in the world, by winning first prize in the very strong Piatigorsky Cup event at Santa Monica, ahead of a host of notables, including Fischer, Larsen, Petrosian and Donner who finished in last place, thus demonstrating the powerful nature of the competition.

Then, in 1968, Spassky fought his way back through the candidates, beating first Geller, then Bent Larsen and finally Viktor Korchnoi, winning against this last formidable opponent by 6½ to 3½ points. In 1969 he became World Champion, beating Petrosian by 12½ to 10½ points.

As World Champion he seemed in good form, but by 1972 it was apparent that his play had become insecure, after the chaos of conflicting negotiations with the Challenger Bobby Fischer, in which Spassky‘s chivalrous generosity, in not standing up for his own rights, won him the admiration of the world, but ultimately cost him his title. This remarkable match, played at Reykjavík, ended in an easy victory for Fischer by 12½ points to 8½.

Boris Spassky defeats Bobby Fischer at Siegen, Germany, in 1970 (Alamy)

Fate had decreed that, from the late 1950s onwards, Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer should be rivals, and that one day they would meet in the Cold War chess match of the century. Their first encounter had been in a tournament in South America, where Bobby Fischer refuted Spassky‘s opening and built up a winning position, only to lose the thread of the game. The next time they were to meet in an individual tournament was in 1966 at the Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica, where Spassky finished in first place and beat Fischer in their one decisive game. Four years were to pass before they again had a decisive result. Once again, at the Siegen 1970 Olympiad, Spassky emerged victorious, but by now Fischer had become determined to take the World Championship away from the Russians and in 1972 he did so, in a match that made headlines all the world over. 

Paradoxically, Spassky moved swiftly into a 2-0 lead, so by the time of game 3 Boris led Bobby by the overwhelming score of five wins to zero. This perhaps engendered a surge of overconfidence in Boris, who now proceeded to collapse when Fischer started to play at his formidable best from game 3 onwards.

Fischer had defaulted game two and only agreed to continue with game three if it were played in a tiny private room without an audience. This was entirely against the rules and Spassky should never have agreed to these illegal conditions — conditions, indeed, which led to Fischer’s triumph, and his, in my opinion, inevitable decision to default the championship title, to avoid playing another serious game of chess for two decades, and to obliterate the hopes and expectations of millions of chess fans around the world.

Exit the Dragon!

“It doesn’t take much insight into human nature to predict that Fischer will not be world champion for long. His quirks, moods and whims will turn against him at the moment when he has reached the top. He’ll hit out hard, but at nothing but thin air.” J H Donner, Dutch Chess Grandmaster.

Here is the link to the fateful game three which was played in a small closed room and heralded the start of Spassky’s collapse.

To conclude this week, the book, BATTLE OF ENDGAMES: 1066 Stratagems for you to Conquer, by expert trainer, Ray Cannon, covers many practical endgame situations which the average club player and improving player will need to know, if they wish to better themselves at chess.  However, the endgame, unlike the opening and the middle-game, is often misplayed by even the very best players. The author encourages readers to set up on the board each and every one of the 1066 positions, and to choose the right initial move. The solutions, mostly annotated, are given after each section.

If you complete all the exercises and play through the solutions from first to last, you cannot fail to become a better endgame player, as various patterns of play that you will have learnt will mentally prepare you positively for those chessboard battles ahead. 

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwell s .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 91%
  • Interesting points: 92%
  • Agree with arguments: 90%
46 ratings - view all

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