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Boris Spassky

Spassky at the Thessaloniki Olympiad, 1984
Full name Boris Vasilievich Spassky
Country Soviet Union
Born January 30, 1937
Leningrad, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Title Grandmaster (1955)
World Champion 1969-72
Peak rating 2690 (January 1971)

Boris Vasilievich Spassky (also Spasskij; Russian: Бори́с Васи́льевич Спа́сский; born January 30, 1937) is a Russian, formerly French, formerly Soviet chess grandmaster. He was the tenth World Chess Champion, holding the title from 1969 to 1972. He is known as one of the greatest players of all time, and is the oldest living world champion.

Spassky won the Soviet Chess Championship twice outright (1961, 1973), and twice lost in playoffs (1956, 1963), after tying for first place during the event proper. He was a World Chess Championship candidate on seven occasions (1956, 1965, 1968, 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1985).

Spassky defeated Tigran Petrosian in 1969 to become World Champion, then lost the title in the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972.

Early life

Spassky was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), and learned to play chess at the age of five on a train evacuating from Leningrad during World War II. He first drew wide attention in 1947 at age 10, when he defeated Soviet champion Mikhail Botvinnik in a simultaneous exhibition in Leningrad. Spassky's early coach was Vladimir Zak, a respected master and trainer. During his youth, from the age of 10, Spassky often worked on chess for several hours a day with master-level coaches. He set records as the youngest Soviet player to achieve first category rank (age 10), candidate master rank (age 11), and Soviet Master rank (age 15). In 1952, at fifteen, Spassky scored 50 percent in the Soviet Championship semifinal at Riga, and placed second in the Leningrad Championship that same year, being highly praised by Botvinnik.


Young grandmaster

Spassky made his international debut in 1953, aged sixteen, in Bucharest, Romania, finishing tied for fourth place with Laszlo Szabo on 12/19, an event won by his trainer, Alexander Tolush. At Bucharest he defeated Vasily Smyslov, who challenged for the World Championship the following year. He was awarded the title of International Master by FIDE. In his first attempt at the Soviet Championship final, the 22nd in the series, held in Moscow 1955, Spassky tied for third place with 11½/19, after Smyslov and Efim Geller, which was sufficient to qualify him for the Gothenburg Interzonal later that year.

The same year, he won the World Junior Chess Championship held at Antwerp, Belgium, scoring 6/7 to qualify for the final, then 8/9 in the final to win by a full point over Edmar Mednis. Spassky competed for the Lokomotiv Voluntary Sports Society.

By sharing seventh place with 11/20 at Gothenburg, Spassky qualified for the 1956 Candidates' Tournament, held in Amsterdam, automatically gaining the grandmaster title, and was then the youngest to hold the title. At Amsterdam, he tied for third place with four others in the ten-player field, scoring 9½/18. At the 23rd Soviet final, held in Leningrad in January-February 1956, Spassky shared first place on 11½/19, with Mark Taimanov and Yuri Averbakh, but Taimanov won the subsequent playoff to become champion, defeating Spassky in both their games. Spassky then tied for first in a semifinal for the 24th Soviet championship, thereby qualifying.

Uneven results

Spassky then went into a slump in world championship qualifying events, failing to advance to the next two Interzonals (1958 and 1962), a prerequisite to earn the right to play for the world championship. This crisis coincided with the hard three final years of his first marriage before his divorce in 1961, the same year that he broke with his trainer Tolush.

In the 24th Soviet final, played at Moscow in January-February 1957, Spassky shared fourth place with Tolush, as both scored 13/21, while Mikhail Tal won the first of his six Soviet titles, which began his ascent to the world title in 1960.

Spassky's failure to qualify for the Portoroz Interzonal came after a last-round defeat at the hands of Tal, in a nervy game in the 1958 Soviet championship, held at Riga. Spassky had the advantage for much of the game, but missed a difficult win after adjournment, then declined a draw. A win would have qualified Spassky for the Interzonal, and a draw would have ensured a share of fourth place with Yuri Averbakh, with qualification possible via a playoff.

Spassky tied for first place at Moscow 1959 on 7/11, with Smyslov and David Bronstein. He shared second place in the 26th Soviet final with Tal, at Tbilisi 1959, finishing a point behind champion Tigran Petrosian, on 12½/19. Soon after Spassky notched a victory at Riga 1959, with 11½/13, one-half point in front of Vladas Mikenas. Spassky finished in a tie for ninth at the 27th Soviet final in Leningrad, with 10/19, as fellow Leningrader Viktor Korchnoi scored his first of four Soviet titles. Spassky travelled to Argentina, where he shared first place with Bobby Fischer, two points ahead of Bronstein, at Mar del Plata 1960 on 13½/15, defeating Fischer in their first career meeting. Spassky played on board one for the USSR at the 7th Student Olympiad in Leningrad, where he won the silver, but lost the gold to William Lombardy, also losing their individual encounter.

Another disappointment for Spassky came at the qualifier for the next Interzonal, the Soviet final, played in Moscow 1961, where he again lost a crucial last-round game, this to Leonid Stein, who thus qualified, as Spassky finished equal fifth with 11/19, while Petrosian won.

Title contender

Spassky decided upon a switch in trainers, from the volatile attacker Alexander Tolush to the calmer strategist Igor Bondarevsky. This proved the key to his resurgence. He won his first of two USSR titles in the 29th Soviet championship at Baku 1961, with a score of 14½/20, one-half point ahead of Lev Polugaevsky. Spassky shared second with Polugaevsky at Havana 1962 with 16/21, behind winner Miguel Najdorf. He placed joint fifth, with Leonid Stein at the 30th Soviet championship held in Yerevan 1962, with 11½/19. At Leningrad 1963, the site of the 31st Soviet final, Spassky tied for first with Stein and Ratmir Kholmov, with Stein winning the playoff, which was held in 1964. Spassky won at Belgrade 1964 with an undefeated 13/17, as Korchnoi and Borislav Ivkov shared second place with 11½. He finished fourth at Sochi 1964 with 9½/15, as Nikolai Krogius won.

In the 1964 Soviet Zonal at Moscow, a seven-player double round-robin event, Spassky won with 7/12, overcoming a start of one draw and two losses, to advance to the Amsterdam Interzonal the same year. At Amsterdam, he tied for first place, along with Mikhail Tal, Vasily Smyslov and Bent Larsen on 17/23, with all four, along with Borislav Ivkov and Lajos Portisch thus qualifying for the newly created Candidates' Matches the next year. With Bondarevsky, Spassky's style broadened and deepened, with poor results mostly banished, yet his fighting spirit was even enhanced. He added psychology and surprise to his quiver, and this proved enough to eventually propel him to the top.


Spassky was considered an all-rounder on the chess board, and his adaptable "universal style" was a distinct advantage in beating many top grandmasters. In the 1965 cycle, he beat Paul Keres in the quarterfinal round at Riga 1965 with careful strategy, triumphing in the last game to win 6-4 (+4 −2 =4). Also at Riga, he defeated Efim Geller with mating attacks, winning by 5½-2½ (+3 −0 =5). Then, in his Candidates' Final match against Mikhail Tal at Tbilisi 1965, Spassky often managed to steer play into quieter positions, either avoiding former champion Tal's tactical strength, or extracting too high a price for complications. Though losing the first game, he won by 7-4 (+4 −1 =6).

Spassky won two tournaments in the run-up to the final. He shared first at the third Chigorin Memorial in Sochi, in 1965 with Wolfgang Unzicker on 10½/15, then tied for first at Hastings 1965-66 with Wolfgang Uhlmann on 7½/9.

Spassky lost a keenly fought match to Petrosian in Moscow, with three wins against Petrosian's four, with seventeen draws, though the last of his three victories came only in the twenty-third game, after Petrosian had ensured his retention of the title, the first outright match victory for a reigning champion since the latter of Alekhine's successful defences against Bogoljubov in 1934. Spassky's first event after the title match was the fourth Chigorin Memorial, where he finished tied for fifth with Anatoly Lein as Korchnoi won. Spassky then finished ahead of Petrosian and a super-class field at Santa Monica 1966 (the Piatigorsky Cup), with 11½/18, half a point ahead of Bobby Fischer, as he overcame the American grandmaster's challenge after Fischer had scored 3½/9 in the first cycle of the event. Spassky also won at Beverwijk 1967 with 11/15, one-half point ahead of Anatoly Lutikov, and shared first place at Sochi 1967 on 10/15 with Krogius, Alexander Zaitsev, Leonid Shamkovich, and Vladimir Simagin.

As losing finalist in 1966, Spassky was automatically seeded into the next Candidates' cycle. In 1968, he faced Geller again, this time at Sukhumi, and won by the same margin as in 1965 (5½-2½, +3 −0 =5). He next met Bent Larsen at Malmö, and again won by the score of 5½-2½ after winning the first three games. The final was against his Leningrad rival Korchnoi at Kiev, and Spassky triumphed (+4 −1 =5), which earned him another match with Petrosian. Spassky's final tournament appearance before the match came at Palma, where he shared second place (+10 −1 =6) with Larsen, a point behind Korchnoi. Spassky's flexibility of style was the key to victory over Petrosian, by 12½-10½, with the site again being Moscow.

World Champion

In Spassky's first appearance after winning the crown, he placed first at San Juan in October 1969 with 11½/15, one and one-half points clear of second. He then played the annual event at Palma, where he finished fifth with 10/17. While Spassky was undefeated and handed tournament victor Larsen one of his three losses, his fourteen draws kept him from seriously contending for first prize, as he came two points behind Larsen. In March-April 1970, Spassky played first board for the Soviet side in the celebrated USSR vs. World event at Belgrade, where he scored +1 −1 =1 in the first three rounds against Larsen before Stein replaced him for the final match, as the Soviets won by the odd point, 20½-19½. He won a quadrangular event at Leiden 1970 with 7/12, a point ahead of Jan Hein Donner, who was followed by Larsen and Botvinnik, the latter of whom was making his final appearance in serious play. Spassky shared first at the annual IBM event held in Amsterdam 1970 with Polugaevsky on 11½/15. He was third at Gothenburg 1971 with 8/11, behind winners Vlastimil Hort and Ulf Andersson. He shared first with Hans Ree at the 1971 Canadian Open in Vancouver. In November and December, Spassky finished the year by tying for sixth with Tal, scoring +4 −2 =11, at the Alekhine Memorial in Moscow, which was won by Stein and Anatoly Karpov, the latter's first top-class success.

Championship match with Fischer

Spassky's reign as world champion lasted for three years, as he lost to Fischer of the United States in 1972 in the "Match of the Century". The contest took place in Reykjavík, Iceland, at the height of the Cold War, and consequently was seen as symbolic of the political confrontation between the two superpowers. Spassky accommodated many demands by Fischer, including moving the third game into a side room. The Fischer vs Spassky World championship was the most widely covered chess match in history, as mainstream media throughout the world covered the match. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spoke with Fischer urging him to play the match, and chess was at its apex.

Going into the match, Fischer had never won a game from Spassky in five attempts, losing three. In addition, Spassky had secured Geller as his coach, who also had a plus score against Fischer. However, Fischer won the title match (+7 −3 =11), with one of the three losses by default.

The match could be divided into halves, the first won convincingly by Fischer, and the second a close battle. Before Spassky, Mark Taimanov, Larsen, and Petrosian, had lost to Fischer, but Spassky maintained his composure and competitiveness. Some have suggested that Spassky's preparation was largely bypassed by Fischer, but the match saw several important novelties by Spassky.

Ex-champion (1973-85)

In February-March 1973, Spassky finished equal third at Tallinn with 9/15, three points behind Tal; he tied for first at Dortmund on 9½/15 (+5 −1 =9) with Hans-Joachim Hecht and Ulf Andersson. Spassky finished in fourth place at the annual IBM tournament held in Amsterdam, one point behind winners Petrosian and Albin Planinc. In September, Spassky went 10/15 to finish second to Tal in the Chigorin Memorial at Sochi by a point. In the 41st Soviet Championship at Moscow, Spassky scored 11½/17 to win by a full point in a field which included all the top Soviet grandmasters of the time.

Boris Spassky, 1980

In the 1974 Candidates' matches, Spassky first defeated American Robert Byrne in San Juan, Puerto Rico by 4½-1½ (+3 −0 =3); he then lost the semifinal match to Anatoly Karpov in Leningrad, despite winning the first game, (+1 −4 =6). In Spassky's only tournament action of 1974, he played at Solingen, finishing with 8½/14 (+4 −1 =9), thus sharing third with Bojan Kurajica, behind joint winners Lubomir Kavalek and Polugaevsky, who scored 10.

During 1975, Spassky played two events, the first being the annual tournament at Tallinn, where he finished equal second with Fridrik Olafsson, scoring 9½/15 (+5 −1 =9), one point behind Keres, the last international event won by the latter before his sudden death in June 1975. In October-November, Spassky finished second to Geller at the Alekhine Memorial in Moscow with a score of 10 points from fifteen games (+6 −1 =8).

In 1976, Spassky was obliged to return to the Interzonal stage, and finished in a tie for tenth place in Manila, well short of qualifying for the Candidates matches, but was nominated to play after Fischer declined his place. Spassky won an exhibition match with Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman at Amsterdam 1977 by 4-2. He triumphed in extra games in his quarterfinal Candidates' match over Vlastimil Hort at Reykjavík 1977 by 8½-7½. This match saw Spassky fall ill, exhaust all his available rest days while recovering; then the healthy Hort used one of his own rest days, to allow Spassky more time to recover; Spassky eventually won the match.

Spassky won an exhibition match over Robert Hübner at Solingen, 1977 by 3½-2½, then defeated Lubomir Kavalek, also at Solingen, by 4-2 in another exhibition. His next Candidates' match was against Portisch at Geneva 1977, and Spassky won by 8½-6½, to qualify for the final. At Belgrade 1977-78, Spassky lost to Korchnoi, by (+4 −7 =7). In this match, Spassky fell behind 2½-7½ after losing the tenth game; however, he then won four consecutive games. After draws in games fifteen and sixteen, Korchnoi won the next two games to clinch the match by the score of 10½-7½.

Spassky, as losing finalist, was seeded into the 1980 Candidates' matches, and faced Portisch again, with this match held in Mexico. After fourteen games, the match was 7-7, but Portisch advanced since he had won more games with the black pieces. Spassky missed qualification from the 1982 Toluca Interzonal with 8/13, finishing half a point short, in third place behind Portisch and Eugenio Torre, both of whom thus qualified. The 1985 Candidates' event was held as a round-robin tournament at Montpellier, France, and Spassky was nominated as an organizer's choice. He scored 8/15 to tie for sixth place with Alexander Beliavsky, behind joint winners Andrei Sokolov, Rafael Vaganian, and Artur Yusupov, and one-half point short of potentially qualifying via a playoff. This was Spassky's last appearance at the Candidates' level.

International team results

Spassky played five times for the USSR in Student Olympiads, winning eight medals. He scored 38½/47 (+31 −1 =15), for 81.91 percent. His complete results are:

Spassky played twice for the USSR in the European Team Championships, winning four gold medals. He scored 8½/12 (+5 −0 =7), for 70.83 percent. His complete results are:

Spassky played seven times for the Soviet Olympiad team. He won thirteen medals, and scored 69/94 (+45 −1 =48), for 73.40 percent. His complete results are:

Spassky played board one in the USSR vs. Rest of the World match at Belgrade 1970, scoring (+1 −1 =1) against Larsen.

Spassky then represented France in three Olympiads, on board one in each case. For Thessaloniki 1984, he scored 8/14 (+2 −0 =12). At Dubai 1986, he scored 9/14 (+4 −0 =10). Finally at Thessaloniki 1988, he scored 7½/13 (+3 −1 =9). He also played board one for France at the inaugural World Team Championships, Lucerne 1985, where he scored 5½/9 (+3 −1 =5).

Later tournament career (after 1976)

Spassky, 1989

In his later years, Spassky showed a reluctance to totally devote himself to chess. Since 1976, Spassky has lived in France with his third wife; he became a French citizen in 1978, and has competed for France in the Chess Olympiads.

Spassky did, however, score some notable triumphs in his later years. In his return to tournament play after the loss to Korchnoi, he tied for first at Bugojno 1978 on 10/15 with Karpov, with both players scoring +6 -1 =8 to finish a point ahead of Timman. He was clear first at Montilla-Moriles 1978 with 6½/9. At Munich 1979, he tied for first place with 8½/13, with Yuri Balashov, Andersson and Robert Hübner. He shared first at Baden in 1980, on 10½/15 with Alexander Beliavsky. He won his preliminary group at Hamburg 1982 with 5½/6, but lost the final playoff match to Anatoly Karpov in extra games. His best result during this period was clear first at Linares 1983 with 6½/10, ahead of Karpov and Ulf Andersson, who shared second. At London Lloyds' Bank Open 1984, he tied for first with John Nunn and Murray Chandler, on 7/9. He won at Reykjavík 1985. At Brussels 1985, he placed second with 10½/13 behind Korchnoi. At Reggio Emilia 1986, he tied for 2nd-5th places with 6/11 behind Zoltán Ribli. He swept Fernand Gobet 4-0 in a match at Fribourg 1987. He finished equal first at Wellington 1988 with Chandler and Eduard Gufeld. Spassky maintained a top ten world ranking into the mid-1980s.

However, Spassky's performances in the World Cup events of 1988 and 1989 showed that he could by this stage finish no higher than the middle of the pack against elite fields. At Belfort WC 1988, he scored 8/15 for a joint 4th-7th place, as Garry Kasparov won. At Reykjavík WC 1988, he scored 7/17 for a joint 15th-16th place, with Kasparov again winning. Finally, at Barcelona WC 1989, Spassky scored 7½/16 for a tied 8th-12th place, as Kasparov shared first with Ljubomir Ljubojević.

Spassky played in the 1990 French Championship at Angers, placing fourth with 10½/15, as Marc Santo Roman won. At Salamanca 1991, he placed 2nd with 7½/11 behind winner Evgeny Vladimirov. Then in the 1991 French Championship, he scored 9½/15 for a tied 4th-5th place, as Santo Roman won again.

In 1992, Bobby Fischer, after a twenty-year hiatus from chess, re-emerged to arrange a "Revenge Match of the 20th century" against Spassky in Montenegro and Belgrade; this was a rematch of the 1972 World Championship. At the time, Spassky was rated 106th in the FIDE rankings, and Fischer did not appear on the list at all, owing to his inactivity. This match was essentially Spassky's last major challenge. Spassky lost the match with a score of +5 −10 =15. Spassky then played young female prodigy Judit Polgár in a 1993 match at Budapest, losing narrowly by 4½-5½.

Spassky continued to play occasional events through much of the 1990s, such as the Veterans versus Women series.

On October 1, 2006, Spassky suffered a minor stroke during a chess lecture in San Francisco. In his first major post-stroke play, he drew a six-game rapid match with Hungarian Grandmaster Lajos Portisch in April 2007.

On September 23, 2010, ChessBase reported that Spassky had suffered a more serious stroke that had left him paralyzed on his left side. After that he returned to France for a long rehabilitation programme. On August 16, 2012, Spassky left France to return to Russia under disputed circumstances. Spassky is the oldest living former world champion.


On September 16, 2015 the American biographical film Pawn Sacrifice was released, starring Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky, Lily Rabe as Joan Fischer, and Peter Sarsgaard as William Lombardy.

Spassky, 2009

Spassky's best years were as a youthful prodigy in the mid-1950s, and in the mid to late 1960s. It is generally believed that he began to lose ambition once he became world champion. Some suggest the first match with Fischer took a severe nervous toll, but others disagree, and claim that as he was a sportsman who appreciated his opponent's skill. He applauded one well-played game of Fischer, and defended Fischer when he faced jailing.

Spassky has been described by many as a universal player. Never a true openings expert, at least when compared to contemporaries such as Geller and Fischer, he excelled in the middlegame and in tactics.

Spassky succeeded with a wide variety of openings, including the King's Gambit, 1.e4 e5 2.f4, an aggressive and risky line rarely seen at the top level. The chess game between "Kronsteen" and "McAdams" in the early part of the James Bond movie From Russia With Love is based on a game in that opening played between Spassky and David Bronstein in 1960 in which Spassky ("Kronsteen") was victorious.

His contributions to opening theory extend to reviving the Marshall Attack for Black in the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5), developing the Leningrad Variation for White in the Nimzo-Indian Defence (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bg5), the Spassky Variation on the Black side of the Nimzo-Indian, and the Closed Variation of the Sicilian Defence for White (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3). Another rare line in the King's Indian Attack bears his name: 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 b5!?

Notable games