SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
Boris Spassky, born January 30, 1937 in Leningrad, is perhaps the best known living chess player in the world. The Fischer vs Spassky match of 1972, at the height of the Cold War, catapulted both grandmasters to super-celebrity status. Even non-chess players know the name Boris Spassky!
Spassky is also the most respected chess player in the world. In a chess career spanning more than 6 decades, Boris has managed to avoid both scandals and intrigues. He has somehow avoided the nastiness of politics. Though Boris was not liked very much by the Soviet sporting authorities (he was banned from travelling abroad for a short while , allegedly for poor results), there was not very much that could be pinned on him: Boris was, simply, a gentleman and a sportsman.
Boris Spassky was one of my first heroes in the chess world. He had a universal style of play, and played some of the most brilliant chess of his generation. World Junior Champion in 1955, World Champion from 1969 to 1972, Boris dominated the chess world from the early 1960’s until losing to Fischer in Iceland. He was really feared. Boris beat everyone in the world in match play, and won some of the most important tournaments ever organized.
By the time that Karpov arrived on the scene, however, Spassky had already lost his ambitions, even though Spassky was the pre-match favourite against Karpov! Since then he has gracefully become ambassador at-large for chess.
Shelby Lyman, in his most recent chess column in the Columbus Dispatch, wrote about how Boris discovered the game of chess:
”Consider the experience of Boris Spassky, as presented in The Genius and the Misery of Chess by Zhivko Kaikamjozov.
Spassky’s epiphany occurred at a chess pavilion furnished with tables and built-in chessboards in a park on Russia’s Kirov Islands. Until that moment, the game had aroused only casual interest.
“What I saw was a fairy-tale world,” he is quoted as saying. “I was captivated by an uncontrollable passion. Passion for what? The chessmen? The festive feeling of the place? I can’t really tell, but I was enthralled, and this seemed the only thing that mattered.”
The next morning, Spassky returned to the park just to watch — choosing not to play for a week or two.
“I just took pleasure from watching the movement of the pieces on the board,” he said. “They were freshly lacquered and had a very distinctive, unique scent.”
Thus, a 9-year-old was transformed into a future world chess champion.”
A very young Boris Spassky playing in a simul against Botvinnik
Just this past weekend my friend Andy Soltis,chess grandmaster, author and a journalist for the NY Post, wrote about Spassky:
Kings don’t rule
By ANDY SOLTIS
Last Updated: 3:40 AM
January 11, 2010
Posted: 11:55 PM, January 9, 2010
There are no kings of the chess world anymore, lamented Boris Spassky, “only prime ministers and presidents.
“Everything is decided by ratings, and the title of world champion doesn’t have the significance it used to,” said Spassky, the 10th world champion.
There was more evidence to support Spassky’s claim on Jan. 1, when the new international rating list showed that the top-rated player in the world was Magnus Carlsen of Norway — who has never come close to qualifying for the world championship.
Carlsen. First among equals? Ranked number 1,but for how long? Six months? One year?
The disconnect between the official — and unofficial — “best player in the world” first became noticeable in the 1960s when Bobby Fischer shot to the top of rating list but boycotted the championship until he beat Spassky in 1972.
Bobby Fischer. Best of all time? Bobby was ranked number 1 in the world long before becoming Champion, something that no other Champion did.
In recent years, it’s been regarded as normal for two “prime ministers” — ranked somewhere from No. 2 to No. 8 — to play a championship match. The last time that the world’s highest-rated player won a world championship match was back in 1995, when Garry Kasparov trounced Viswanathan Anand at the top of the World Trade Center”
The distinction between the title of World Champion and being the number one ranked player in the world is clear in chess, but is less relevant in other sports and competitive games. In Tennis and Golf, for example, a ranking system is what determines the hierarchy. There is no World Champion in these sports, nor is there a need for one.
Instead there are Grand Slams and annual traditional tournaments that are very popular in the public’s eyes, and it is from these events that the rankings are formulated according to strict rules. It is all very easy for the public to understand, extremely popular, and the sponsors line up for the chance to give millions of dollars in prize money. Television loves both sports.
Steinitz declared himself first World Champion in the late 19th century after defeating Anderssen, and since that time the game of chess has always been associated with the idea of a World Champion. The title was considered the private property of the holder, until Alekhine died in 1946 still with the title, and FIDE confiscated it and made not only the title itself but also the selection process part of FIDE’s raison d’etre.
The ELO rating system was introduced in the early 1960’s, mostly as something interesting but not to be taken very serious. However, that perception quickly changed and the ELO took on a life of its own so that today it is almost unthinkable to imagine a chess world without a ranking system!
So where does that put the title of World Champion in the scheme of things? Has the raison d’etre of FIDE
not changed? Does FIDE really care? After all, FIDE makes millions of dollars each year from ELO rating fees!
I suppose the answer to the first question has already been answered by reality: it is almost impossible to get sponsors for a world title match today. Who is really interested in forking over millions of dollars for a match between two relatively unknown names (to the public) when at the same time FIDE has let the prestige of the title suffer from neglect and become victim of chaotic and seemingly random selection rules?
There has been a big shift in the public’s perception of the game since the times of Fischer vs Spassky in Iceland in 1972. The cold war was very good for chess: the ideological polarization of the world into two armed camps meant that chess was could be seen as one of the few natural lines of communication open for cooperation and negotiations. It was for this reason that Kissinger and the White House intervened when the match of 1972 was floundering over a mere disputed 250,00 dollars!
The 1972 World Chess Championship match was very good for American and Soviet relations!
Fast forward to 1975, by which time already unprecedented cooperation between the two super-powers had taken place and a slight thawing of relations could even be noted, there was no need for the White House to intervene and try to save the Fischer vs Karpov match. It was a different world.
Nixon was kicked out of the White House in 1974!
Chess is , in essence, supposed to be a game of individuals. Of strong personalities. Of cults and legends. Take Morphy as an example: long before the title of World Champion was invented, he went to Europe to play the top players and established himself as the best in the world. Then he came home (the first big celebrity in American history) and quit the game forever! He slowly lost his mind…he became the stereotypical chess genius of modern day literature.
Others such as Alekhine and Capablanca created their own cults. As did Fischer. Garry Kasparov has been desperately trying to do the same by venturing into the dangerous world of Russian politics, and is an immensely popular celebrity, even after retiring from the game.
But today not just the world has changed: the game has changed. Today the game of chess has lost much of its glory. The World Champions, regardless of ranking, are colourless, without controversy or scandal. Unwilling to fight FIDE or stand up for the game. Fischer–in stark contrast– boycotted chess from time to time over well publicized principles. Anand is a great player, and I respect him, but he is an intellectual eunuch. Have you ever heard of him taking a stand on an important issue that does not involve his own self-interests? Kramnik? Others…where were they when Shirov was deprived of his lawful right to play for the world championship?
Our champions have become copy-cats, stealing each others’ ideas when they are not working with Fritz. Techno-nerds.
Muhammad Ali defined his sport. Our chess champions, by comparison, are more interested in money than in their art..
Deprived of external influences, such as the cold war, the game of chess has to stand on its own merits. Its popularity can not expect to see another boom as in 1972 when the entire world talked about chess. The record popularity of the game among school age children is something of an artificial blessing, as 99.9% give up the game within several years.
Instead, we must accept the reality that if our champions are colourless, then the game will also suffer. FIDE’s role can only at best be technical. Sponsors will be harder to find as the game gets harder to sell to a public more interested in entertainment than in intellectual challenges.
Such is the fate of a kingdom without a king…