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A FLASHBACK WITHOUT REGRETS - by Lev Khariton
A FLASHBACK WITHOUT REGRETS
Meudon is a nice countryside, 15 minutes' train ride from Paris. Here I came
on January 27, 1997 to interview Boris Spassky just three days before his
60th birthday.His reminiscences concerning his past life, his chess career,
his rivals and friends will be undoubtedly interesting for all readers.
Dear Grandmaster, I should like, as many other chessplayers all over the
world, to congratulate you on your jubilee and to wish you good health, all
possible success and creativity.
Thank you for the congratulation, but what success and creativity are you
talking about? All my achievements are in the past, and the last time I
played well was the Montpellier Candidates' in 1985. If it were not for some
physical indisposition at the very end of the tournament I should have
qualified for the quarterfinals.
Why did you stop playing in tournaments?
I felt that I had no more energy to play, that I had lost any desire to win.
I remember that I won the first prize in Linares in 1983 leaving Karpov
behind. At that time I was already living in France, but I was still playing
under the Soviet flag. Karpov was evidently furious, and soon afterwards the
Soviets took away the red flag from my table; what is more, they deprived me
of my stipend paid by the Soviet Sports Committee. These 250 roubles I
needed very much to help my family in Russia - my mother, my brother and
sister, my children.
But the Sports Committee seems to have been 'cool' to you long before the
Well, I was the first to show how to fight against the Soviet bureaucrats
and at the same time to continue professional life. Now everybody knows how
to do it, but at that time I was the first, and, naturally, the Soviets
could not forgive me. With Korchnoi they had no problems: they knew that he
would make a lot of fuss, but then some Soviet guy would win and in the end
things would turn out OK for the Russians and everyone would be happy. As to
me, from the very start I took an independent stand and openly declared that
I did not want anything from the Soviets.
Karpov once said that in chess there are no ex-World Champions; there are
only World Champions. For example, we never say «ex-Olympic Champion».This
title is awarded for life. How can we, for instance, call Alekhine «ex-World
Champion» if he died undefeated? And all the other chess champions are chess
kings for ever...
I think in this case, as usual, Karpov was thinking of himself, but in
principle, what he said is absolutely right. The title «ex-Champion» does
not reveal anything, and some time ago I proposed to use the number before
the title of each champion. For example, I was the 10th World Champion, Tal
the 8th World Champion etc. This makes much more sense.
The beginning of your chess career is not too much known. Everyone in this
world has a destiny. You, for example, could have become an engineer, a
teacher, a doctor...
Well, I knew the rules of the game during the war when I was far away from
Leningrad. Soon after the outbreak of the war I and my elder brother ( he
is two years' my senior ) with other children were evacuated from Leningrad.
I was lucky to survive; the people in Leningrad, as you know, were starved
to death. On the way to the Urals our train was heavily bombed several
times. Finally, we arrived at Perm where I was placed at an orphanage, an
extremely beautiful building on the territory of an old convent. The
convent, years later, was pulled down on the order of Khrouschev. Nobody
taught me to play chess there. I was just watching other people playing
chess. At that time I was only five years old. Upon our return to Leningrad
me brother took me to the Kirov Isles ( in the vicinity of Leningrad - L.
K. ) and there I saw a chess pavilion. It was 1946, I was only 9! The
pavilion was a glass veranda surrounded by trees, and I was really
Did you begin to play with grown-ups at once?
No. At first I was only watching. I was infatuated with the world of chess.
I left home early in the day and returned late at night. My mother gave me
15 copecks to buy a glass of water and a small pie. We lived in stark
poverty, but I had such a passion for chess that I never felt afterwards.
Actually I became a chess professional at the age of ten. Looking in
retrospect, I had a sort of predestination in my life. I understood that
through chess I could express myself and chess became my natural language.
Did you have chess trainers, let us say, like Kasparov used to in his
At first I was alone, but the chess pavilion had been closed by autumn, so I
had no place to play chess. Therefore in November 1946 I went to the
Leningrad Palace of Pioneers where I met Vladimir Grigorievich Zak. He was a
remarkable trainer and a wonderful man. I remember that my mother gave me
her soldier's boots. She used them when she was harvesting potatoes to feed
the family. So in these boots which reached up to my stomach I went to the
Palace of Pioneers. Zak saw that I was a serious boy, and he loved chess
immensely. He died quite recently. I am very grateful to himand I am helping
his family now. As you know, the government does not help people now, the
poverty is frightening and who can help poor people? In general, I was lucky
because I met many good people in my life. I always remember Tolush,
Levenfish, Bondarevsky... I recall that when I was having my first chess
sessions with Zak, I wanted very much to steal a white queen so as to caress
it in my pocket! It was just a childish passion. In retrospect, I think that
if I had stolen it I should have never become World Champion!
In other words, you mean to say that stealing a chess piece would be a bad
Not so much a bad omen, but simply one must be honest; that is why when I
became Champion I said that chess is a game of Justice.
Supreme justice, may be...
I would say that chess for me has always been a model of life. But as to
justice, on top level chess is a devilish game- just look at the faces of
chessplayers! But the laws are the same as in real life, and once you
violate them, sooner or later you will be punished.
Boris Vassilievich, the chess world has always respected you for your
independent views, the freedom of your self-expression; for example, you
always sympathized with Keres and Estonia, you did not sign the notorious
letter against Korchnoi...
I have never signed «team letters»...
You were not afraid to speak about Solzhenitsyn when his name could not be
Since you have mentioned Solzhenitsyn, quite a funny story comes back to my
mind. Once when I was World Champion, I was invited to one small town to
give a lecture and a simul. I was speaking about my salary. For instance, I
said that I did not have enough money to pay my trainers, that my work as a
trainer was a sinecura, etc. Suddenly one of my listeners asked me what
writers I liked. I answered that one of my favourite writers was
Solzhenitsyn. After the lecture I was told that just the day before the
party bosses of this town had been ordered from Moscow to launch an
ideological campaign against Solzhenitsyn! And, naturally, a secret report
denouncing me was sent immediately to the KGB. But the most curious thing
about it was that the party secretary of this town in this report sent to
Moscow did not even mention my words about Solzhenitsyn! He wrote about my
complaints concerning my miserable salary, about my irresponsible attitude
to work, etc. He even mentioned that I was proud of my grandfather who was a
famous priest in Russia. During the lecture I said that if I had not become
a chessplayer, I should have preferred to be a priest. But there was not a
single word about Solzhenitsyn in this dirty letter. So great was the fear!
You said that you have lost a taste for the game. But about Korchnoi who is
six years' your senior? Or Smyslov who is playng very well at 76?
Smyslov is a chessplayer with a fantastic intuition. I call him «Hand»
because his hand knows exactly on which square and which piece to put at
this particular moment; actually, he does not have to calculate anything. As
to Korchnoi, I regard him as an exceptional grandmaster in chess history.
Usually the chessplayer reaches his peak by the age of 30. Viktor was, I
believe, at the height of his form when he was playing against Karpov in
Baguio in 1978. That is, he was 47 years old! The secret of his chess
longevity is simple: he has been working on chess all his life, more than
anybody else in the world! When he was living in the USSR I called him «hero
of socialist labour»; when he stayed in the West, I renamed him into «hero
of capitalist labour»!
Recently I wrote an article on the inflation of the grandmaster's title. But
yor generation, let us say, Korchnoi, Stein,Polugaevsky were grandmasters
I remember how in the USSR Championship in 1961 before I was to play with
Leonid Stein, who was at that time a master, Korchnoi came up to me and
proposed to prepare me for this game. I do not think that he was sympathetic
towards me; he just did not want the grandmaster's title to be within easy
reach. He wanted to check up if Stein really deserved this title.
As far as I remember, you lost that game to Stein - just as you had lost to
Tal in 1958. These were serious setbacks for you; for some period you were
obviously off form and you were put off the struggle for the chess crown.
How can you account for this sudden streak of failures which was quite
unexpected for the chess public at the time?
The explanation is absolutely simple. My life did not pan out properly.I
went through two divorces - there is a joke that two divorces are tantamount
to participation in one war! My health also left much to be desired - I was
suffering from kidney trouble that returned in the second match with
Fischer. Besides, at that time the Soviet Championships were usually held in
January and this was quite unfortunate for me since these important
tournaments coincided with the exams at the Institute.
So, you were not a chess professional, you were studying quite seriously...
As a student, I had a stipend - 35 roubles; and this sum was the only
source of existence for me. There was nothing and nodody behind my back to
Since we mentioned Tal, what were your feelings after you had lost to him
the decisive game in the USSR Championship in Riga in 1958 and therefore
failed to qualify for the interzonal tournament? I remember that I was
almost crying because I wanted you to make it for the World Championship.
Moreover that Tal, everybody's favourite, did not need this victory as he
had scored enough points by that moment to assure himself the qualification
for the Interzonal.
I shall tell you a wonderful story. After my loss to Tal I went out into the
street, I was absolutely depressed, tears were running down my cheeks...
Suddenly, while walking I met David Ginsburg, the journalist who had worked
in the chess newspaper «64» before the war and he was later on sent to the
GULAG. «Is it worth being so much upset?» -he asked me. «Well, Tal will play
his match with Botvinnik, and he will win the title. But later he will lose
to Botvinnik the return-match. Some time later Petrosyan will become World
Champion, and then your turn will come...»
Such an accurate forecast, better that any fortune-teller!
I should say that I always had very good relations with Misha Tal - not a
single shadow throughout many years. Although we were always fighting
fiercely over the chessboard and in 1965 we even played a candidates'
semifinal. Misha is the only one of the great chessplayers who did not know
the feeling of envy. He was at his best when the initiative was on his side.
In closed positions, without initiative he was suffocating. In this respect
Kasparov resembles him very much today. If Kasparov loses the initiative, he
immediately accepts the draw. Tal was a real magician, his appearance on the
chess horizon was an explosion, a challenge to Botvinnik's dogmas...
Does it mean that your attitude to Botvinnik is negative?
Bovinnik did a lot for chess. He won the World Championship as he had
promised, he gave a lot of good advice for chessplayers, especially for
mediocre players. But for me he has always remained a bolshevik. Once I was
reading his memoirs about the 30s and I came across the following sentence:
«Life was difficult, collective farms did not yet become strong...». For
many years after this I wanted to ask him: «Mikhail Moiseyevich, when did
collective farms become strong? And how did they become strong?» I think in
this respect Karpov and Kasparov continued Botvinnik's communist traditions.
Timman once said that, for example, in 1973 a match between Tal and Fischer
would have been most interesting. By that time Tal, having restored his
form, gained a series of impressive victories.
I don't think that Tal was much of a match fighter. I think that much
earlier in 1962 a match should have been organized between Fischer and me.
Bobby was already a very strong player at that time. And, certainly, it can
only be regretted that in 1975 there was no match between Fischer and
Karpov. This is one of the so-called «unplayed matches» for the chess crown.
As Lasker-Rubinstein, Alekhine-Botvinnik... And what would have been the
outcome of such a match?
Probably, Bobby would have won by a narrow margin.Karpov was already very
strong. The openings would have been of great importance in that match;
Fischer would undoubtedly have seeked for complicated game and avoided, say,
the Exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez.
Owing to what factors did you succeed in the 60s in surpassing the strongest
In the USSR at that time there were six chessplayers who were evidently
stronger than all the others: Petrosyan, Tal, Stein, Korchnoi, Polugaevsky
and me. I think that I was stronger than the others in the middlegame. I
felt very well the crucial moments in the game. This made up for certain
deficiencies in the opening preparation and, possibly, some flaws as regards
the endgame technique.
But doesn't that contradict the basic idea of the Soviet chess school that
the opening, the middlegame and the endgame are inseparably linked?
The Soviet chess school is a myth or, rather, a demagogic weapon, as many
phrases being used today, for example, «new democratic thinking», «new
economic space», etc. There was Botvinnik, he actually created himself and
the word «school» was used for ideological purposes. As to my games, I often
won in the middlegame, so you cannot find too many endgames among my
I wish you could say a few words about your matches with Petrosyan. Which
was more difficult - the one you lost in 1966 or your victory in 1969?
The second match was no doubt more difficult since I was feeling more
responsibility. Already before the first match I understood that I was
stronger than Tigran. But I was exhausted by the qualifying competitions
and, besides, I was a penniless man. And when a poor man becomes the king
( by my convictions, I am a monarchist ) the kingdom may land in disaster. I
remember that each time during the first match when I went down to the
snack-bar, I saw the slogan hanging up on the wall: «The donor is the sick
man's best friend!». So the whole match was always associated in my mind
with this stupid slogan. When I was playing the second match I already had
some money, so that I could pay my trainers. Not long before I had won 5,000
dollars at the strong Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica. By the way, during my
first match with Petrosyan Smyslov saved me from starvation: he often
invited me to his house for dinners, so that by the end of the lost match I
had gained six kilos!
What could you say about Petrosyan?
Not long before his death Petrosyan said to me: «Look what these guys,
Karpov and Kasparov are doing! Do you remember how we signed our match
contract in Moscow's restaurant «Sophia» on the window-sill?» Well, good old
times! Petrosyan was an extremely intelligent man with a special sense of
humour. He was a self-made man. Once he told me the story of his visit with
Korchnoi of Pavlov, the then president of the Soviet Sports Committee.
Petrosyan came to ask Pavlov's permission for Korchnoi to be his second in
the match against Fischer. And Korchnoi with his characteristic
straightforwardness blurted out: «Comrade Pavlov, when I see Petrosyan's
awful, disgusting moves, I don't want to help him!»
Yes, Korchnoi has always been too straightforward...
But Tigran was happy: he did not want to have such a second. I came to know
Petrosyan very well. He was just an open book for me. He was a hot-tempered
man. When he was walking quietly, I knew that he was about to jump like a
panther; on the contrary, when he was moving like Napoleon, it was always a
sign of cowardice.
Let us get back again to the times bygone. The tournament in Bucharest in
January 1953... For the first time the chess world heard your name. As if
using the Time Machine I am returning to the distant past: I am sitting at
home with my elder brother analysing your victory against Smyslov. To tell
the truth, I did not know chess notation well at the time...
This was my first trip abroad to a chess tournament, and it was in Bucharest
where I made the international master's norm. Paradoxically, it was Soviet
Power that helped me win the title! The tournament started with the
«massacre» between the Soviet chessplayers. Petrosyan won against Tolush, I
defeated Smyslov, and after the 7th round Laslo Sabo was leading the field.
Suddenly there came a telegram from Moscow ordering us to stop shedding our
own blood and insisting that we should draw all our games between ourselves.
Luckily, I had already scored a point against Smyslov, but I think, taking
into account my young age and lack of experience, it would be difficult for
me to make draws with such ghandmasters as Boleslavsky and Petrosyan.
However, this order from the Kremlin helped me, everybody obeyed it and so I
became an international master.
It was January 1953. «The doctors' case» instigated by Stalin. Were you
aware of what was happening in your country?
No, I was not yet 16, and I was living in another dimension. But two years
later during the junior World Championship in Antwerp I did not find
anything better than asking Mr. Solovyov, who was the head of our
delegation, whether it was true that Lenin had died of siphilis. Besides, I
inquired why in Belgium, where nobody studied marxism-leninism, people were
leading a prosperous life.
Boris Vassilievich, whom could you single out as a personality among
Undoubtedly, Paul Keres. He was the greatest treasure of the chess world.
Being a man of great modesty and tact, he possessed the highest chess and
general culture. His tragic destiny reminds of the end of Alekhine's life.
And if we remember that for some time there was chess rivalry between
Alekhine and Botvinnik, I'd rather resort to some literary comparison. Keres
was the Gulliver among the lilliputians, he was a real giant. Botvinnik, I
believe, was the leader of the lilliputians. And that is the crux of the
matter. As simple as that.
You always expressed sympathy towards Keres openly, even in the most
In 1965 I was giving a lecture in Novosibirsk and I was asked why Keres had
not become World Champion. This is what I answered: «Just imagine a young
man who is only 24, who is already a strong grandmaster and who loves his
Estonia, his small country which is changing hands within a short period of
time passing to Stalin, a bit later to Hitler and again to Stalin. What does
he feel when all this is happening?». After the lecture some comsomol
leaders asked me why I was so anti-Soviet. «Did I tell you a lie?» - I
reiterated. But it was too late; my KGB file had already been opened.
In your opinion, which period was the peak of your chess career?
I think that I was the best in the world from 1964 to 1970, but in 1971
Fischer was already stronger.
So, now we have come to Bobby Fischer, possibly the most enigmatic player in
chess history. More than anybody on Earth you have played with him and it
would be nice to hear you speak about him.
Bobby has always impressed me by the integrity of his personality. In chess
and in life. No compromises! If, for example, he was facing the possibility
of a triple repetition in an inferior position, he always deviatied even at
the risk of losing the game. Once he was offered to advertize a folkswagen
car. But he refused to do so saying that after having carefully examined
this model he decided not to advertize the car for potential suiciders.
Before the second match with Bobby you said that he had saved you from
complete oblivion, but it seems to me that it was owing to you that he came
back on chess track.
Certainly, I did something to wake him up, but he woke me up as well.
When you were playing the second match with Fischer, did you want to win?
No, I did not have that ambition, but I had a good fighting spirit.
Many specialists preferred the games of your match to those played in the
match Anand - Ivanchuk which was being held at about the same time.
Yes, we played quite a number of nice games.
However, there was an impression that Fischer was a bit rusty after such a
long chess hibernation...
He has simply lost energy.
Was he studying chess all these years?
I think that his chess studies were mostly of amateurish caracter; he did
not have any sparring-opponent; may be, from time to time he was toying with
What was Fischer's trump card in chess, and did he have any weaknesses as a
Fischer's strength, among other things, consisted in his ability of evolving
the most efficient plan for the middlegame right after the opening.I was
amazed during our second match that he was spending more time than me. He
needed a plan, a clear-cut plan for the game. At the same time he has a
computerlike approach to the game. He thinks that in chess it is necessary
to advance a bit all the time. But chess is like life: one must know how to
retreat. Just to retreat a bit, to accumulate something and to advance
Even today your first match with Fischer is still fresh in the memory. I
remember how the world was waiting for this match, how chessplayers were
following every game...
Fischer made short work of me. Tal was right when he said: « There was no
Spassky in this match». I had actually lost before the match. My nervous
system was completely broken. The Soviets were bothering me, and I also made
my life difficult. Both Fischer and I were fighting against windmills!
After the first two games you were leading by two points.Bobby did not turn
up for the 2nd game having querelle with the organizers.
After the 2nd game I could have returned to Moscow. There was only one way
for me of winning this match: before the 3rd game, when Bobby raised a
scandal with the organizers, I should have resigned in this game.
But that sounds quite absurd!
Why? I was about to do so, but I was the Chess King and I could not go back
upon my word. I had promised to play this game. As a result, I destroyed my
fighting spirit and the match which promised to be a great chess feast
turned into a litigation. Some days before the start of the 3rd game i was
speaking for half an hour on the telephone with Pavlov, president of the
Soviet Sports Committee. He demanded that I should declare an ultimatum
which , I was sure, Fischer, Euwe, the organizers would have never accepted;
so, the match would be broken off. The whole telephone conversation was just
a never-ending exchange of two phrases: «Boris Vassilievich, you must
declare an ultimatum!»; to which I responded with:«Sergei Pavlovich, I shall
play the match!». After this conversation I spent three hours in bed
shivering with nervousness. Actually I saved Fischer when I agreed to play
the 3rd game. So, the match was practically finished after this game. In the
second half of the match I simply did not have the energy. A chessplayer in
such a match is like a car which has too little fuel left. And if you have
to go 500 kilometres with practically no fuel left, where will the car bring
you to? Unfortunately, most of the chess public is not aware of it.
What about Fischer? What is he doing now?
We are friends, and I think that I have no right to say what he does not say
himself. You surely know that now Bobby lives in Budapest. If you take into
account that there is the «new world order», the world KGB is not, for the
time being, bothering him.
Grandmaster, let us speak now about the situation in today's chess kingdom.
Well, since you are talking about the chess kingdom, I recall the following
episode. After Petrosyan had won against me in 1966, he invited me to the
restaurant «Armenia» in Moscow. Many people, mostly writers, journalists,
actors came to celebrate Petrosyan's victory in the match. Looking at all
those present I raised a toast in Tigran's honour saying: «Before the
match I thought that the chess world is a republic, but now I am sure that
this is a monarchy». To tell the truth, I had no doubts at that moment that
I should play against Petrosyan in 1969 and become World Champion.
But considering what is happening in the chess world today, it is difficult
to say whether it is a monarchy, a republic... Is there any democracy in the
chess world? There are two champions, FIDE, PCA... Who is ordering the
First of all, I repeat that the chess world is a monarchy. But the two
chess geniuses Karpov and Kasparov, strange as it may seem, are not chess
kings. There is nothing royal about them. They are simply representatives of
enormous chess teams; more than that, they are just mouthpieces of political
parties. As to their personalities, their views as regards life, politics,
all that is happening in the world, I cannot properly judge. As far as my
political views are concerned, I am a Russian nationalist, and their views
are naturally different from mine.
But many people believe that Karpov, one who typified so much Brezhnev's
era, has undergone a certain evolution of late.
After the publication of Karpov's book «My Sister Caissa» I said to him: «If
you believe in God, Caissa cannot be your sister. At best, she can be your
And how did Karpov react to your words? Did he laugh?
Certainly, not. We are absolutely incompatible.
Not long ago there was an interview with Karpov in «Liberation» in Paris.
When he was asked about his contribution to chess, he answered: « I am part
of chess history».
Modesty is not his strong point. But we must pay him his due: as a
chessplayer, he is great.
Incidentally, two years ago in an interview published in «Liberation» as
well Kasparov said that his favourite historical hero is Julius Ceasar.
Probably, he believes that he, like Ceasar, can do a host of things at the
Karpov does not recognize Kasparov as World Champion and recently his
statement was published in the Russian Magazine «64» on account that a
grandmaster playing outside the auspices of FIDE cannot be considered World
Champion. What is your point of view?
At that moment when Kasparov began the destruction of FIDE he created the
«new» World Champion! So, it's up to both champions to decide which of them
is the real champion. One thing is, however, clear for me: if they had
really played honestly 150 games in the five title-matches, both of them
would have been in a mental asylum. Undoubtedly there was some kind of
conspiracy between the two champions, probably starting with their third
match. At least that was my impression when I was working as commentator of
their match in Lyon in 1990. I shall never forget the 19th game when
Kasparov proposed a draw in an absolutely winning position while Karpov was
in an awful time-scramble. I was in a shock feeling absolutely unable to
explain to the chess fans what had happened in this game. Now in retrospect
I understand that mysterious, powerful and super-wealthy forces were
standing behind their backs, and the two guys could have risked their lives
if they had disobeyed... I remember, for example, that after I had won
against Petrosyan in 1969, it took me one year to come back to normal. I was
completely exhausted after 23 games, but Karpov and Kasparov played five
long matches! If they had really invested all their forces into all the
games of all the matches, both would have been mentalle sick for years.There
was certainly some conspiracy between the players, they won a nice sum of
money and kept their health well in shape.
Just one last request: say something, may be kiddingly, on your relations
with the chess world.
Well, I remember an episode from Ernest Hemingway's novel "To Have and to
Have Not". An old toreador is about to retire on pension. His friends have
prepared a present for him. They take off a big sheet covering the present
and the toreador sees the enraged head of a bull. He turns deathly pale and
it is clear that all his life he was afraid of the bulls but never stopped
fighting and winning!
But you, I am sure, were never afraid of anyone...
That's right. I was afraid only of myself.
A FLASHBACK WITHOUT REGRETS - by Lev Khariton
Tim Hanke wrote:
Sadly, it seems that many people from the former Eastern bloc countries are
prone to believing fantastic theories of how the world works, perhaps
because life in their own countries was riddled with spies and government
snooping for so long. Such people can be honest and sympathetic figures, but
they cannot be trusted to write good history.
That's for sure.
Although to be fair, it just may be that those of us who have always
lived in more open societies may have a tendency to dismiss such
claims as "fantastic theories." I too, tend towards skepticism when
reading such articles, though I have little evidence other than a
feeling that 'things can't really be that ridiculous!'
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