Despite only holding the title of World Chess Champion for three years, Boris Spassky is regarded as possibly the most gifted of all Soviet chess players.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Boris Spassky was unique in his playing style and is considered the first universal player. An excellent attacking player, Boris Spassky was equally capable of playing positional chess against the world’s best players.
The Second World War nearly deprived the world of his chess talent. He learned to play chess on a train evacuating the siege of Leningrad when he was five years old. By the time he was six years old, Boris Spassky suffered from debilitation and hunger in the children’s home where he was staying, until his parents also managed to escape besieged Leningrad and arrive to save him.
Fortunately, Boris Spassky recovered and found his way into the chess section of the Leningrad Pioneer Palace housed in the Anichkov Palace.
Although known as one of the greatest attacking players, Boris Spassky could sacrifice material for a positional advantage as well as any other player. In this video, GM Nadya Kosintseva shows three examples of pawn sacrifices for positional advantage, including one from Boris Spassky’s games.
Boris Spassky Challenges the World Chess Champion
In 1964 Boris Spassky tied for first place at the Interzonal Tournament in Amsterdam. This result allowed him to play in the Candidates matches.
The quarterfinal against Paul Keres in Riga in 1965 was the first Candidates match Spassky played. Despite losing game one, Boris Spassky told an interviewer he regarded it as the most satisfying game of the match.
In this position, Spassky believed he should have played 23.d5 instead of 23. Raa3 and modern chess engines agree with him. After 23.Raa3, the chess engine, gives black about a 1.5 advantage over 23.d5.
Boris Spassky – Paul Keres, 1965.04.07, 0-1, Spassky – Keres Candidates Quarterfinal Round 1, Riga URS
Spassky held a 2-point lead after five of the ten games. Keres fought back and was only one point behind going into the final game.
However, Boris Spassky won game ten and finished the match with a two-point advantage. The final score was 6:4 in Spassky’s favor.
Paul Keres – Boris Spassky, 1965.04.23, 0-1, Spassky – Keres Candidates Quarterfinal Round 10, Tbilisi URS
In the semifinal, also held in Riga, Boris Spassky defeated Efim Geller by a score of 5½ to 2½ and moved on to face Mikhail Tal in the Candidates Final.
The Candidates Final was held in Tbilisi, with the winner earning the right to challenge Tigran Petrosian for the crown. Spassky won the last three games to finish with a final score of 7 to 4.
Boris Spassky – Mikhail Tal, 1965.11.22, 1-0, Spassky – Tal Candidates Final Round 10, Tbilisi URS
Spassky Plays His First World Chess Championship Match
The match between Boris Spassky and Tigran Petrosian would take place from 9th April to 9th June 1966. The venue was the Estrada Theater in Moscow, and the contestants would play on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
This match comprised twenty-four games; if the match ended in a draw, the current champion would keep the title.
Boris Spassky was the favorite to win the World Chess Championship due to his victories against Keres, Geller, and Tal. He had not only defeated three very strong players, but his style of play impressed many.
Spassky shared a room with his official second and coach Bondarevsky in the Moskva Hotel for the match.
The match began with six draws before Petrosian took the lead with wins in games seven and ten. Spassky equalized the match after game nineteen, only to have Tigran Petrosian go ahead with a victory in game twenty.
Before game twenty, Bondarevsky advised Spassky to use a timeout to give him time to recover from sunburn. The sunburn happened while they were enjoying a boat trip with the Smyslovs.
Winning game twenty-two sealed the match in Petrosian’s favor, and he went on to win despite Boris Spassky’s victory in the twenty-third game.
Boris Spassky – Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1966.06.06, 1-0, Petrosian – Spassky World Championship Match Round 23, Moscow URS
The final score reflected how close the match was – 12½ – 11½.
During the match, Tigran Petrosian used the exchange sacrifice and many other defensive tactics to hold his position together. Petrosian’s supreme defensive skills helped him hold onto the title.
Spassky Defeats Petrosian and Becomes World Champion
Mikhail Tal and Boris Spassky were automatic qualifiers for the next round of Candidates Matches because they played in the previous Candidates Final. Six other qualifiers would join them for the match.
Bobby Fischer withdrew from the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse, Tunisia, after a disagreement with the organizers about rescheduling his games for religious reasons.
Samuel Reshevsky also requested the time of his games be changed for religious reasons and honored the organizer’s concessions. He finished in sixth place and qualified for the next round of Candidates Matches.
Boris Spassky had little trouble defeating Efim Geller in the quarterfinal. They had met in the previous Candidates Semifinal in 1965.
Then Spassky met Bent Larsen in the semifinal. Spassky fearlessly marched his king up the board in the first game to escape the checks from Black’s queen.
Take a look at the fantastic final position of this exciting game.
Spassky won both these matches with an identical score of 5½ – 2½.
Boris Spassky – Bent Larsen, 1968.07.06, 1-0, Spassky – Larsen Candidates Semifinal Round 1, Malmo SWE
After defeating Bent Larsen in the semifinal, Boris Spassky met Viktor Korchnoi in the Candidates Final. Korchnoi had reached the final by defeating Reshevsky and Tal.
Once again, Boris Spassky had a convincing victory in this ten-game match and won by three points – 6½ – 3½. Korchnoi would get his revenge in the 1977 Candidates Final when he triumphed by three points.
Boris Spassky – Viktor Korchnoi, 1968.09.19, Spassky – Korchnoi Candidates Final Round 7, Kiev URS
Spassky’s Second World Championship Match Against Petrosian
The Estrada Theater in Moscow was the venue for the rematch, just as it was for the first match between these players. The twenty-four-game match would take place from 14th April until 16th June 1969.
Petrosian got off to a fast start by winning game one. However, Boris Spassky responded by winning games four, five, and eight.
Things took a turn for the worse for the champion when he quarreled with his seconds, Suetin and Boleslavsky. For game nine, Petrosian chose an entirely different opening to the one he’d discussed with his seconds but managed to draw the game from a worse position.
Things tend to swing back and forth in long matches, and soon it was Spassky’s turn to concede an advantage to Petrosian. After drawing game nine, the champion showed true fighting spirit and won back-to-back games (games ten and eleven).
After eleven games, the match was tied with 5½ points each.
Although it ended in a draw, game fourteen was pivotal in deciding the outcome of the match.
During the adjournment in game nine, Spassky let Petrosian off the hook with a surprisingly weak analysis. Now it was Petrosian’s turn to return the favor and allow Spassky to get the draw.
Five draws followed Tigran Petrosian’s win in game eleven, which meant the match remained tied going into game seventeen. Boris Spassky seized the initiative by winning game seventeen, drawing game eighteen, and winning game nineteen.
Boris Spassky – Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1969.06.04, 1-0, Petrosian – Spassky World Championship Match Round 19, Moscow URS
Again, Petrosian dug deep and responded by winning game twenty, but Boris Spassky responded by winning game twenty-one and drawing the next two games.
Boris Spassky won the World Championship Match with a game to spare and became the tenth World Chess Champion.
Interestingly enough, before the match started, former world champion Vassily Smyslov mentioned that he won the World Chess Championship in his second match against Botvinnik.
Smyslov quoted a Russian saying as a possible reason why Boris Spassky could win the rematch –
“Repetition is the mother of understanding.”
This could also be the reason why Mikhail Botvinnik was successful in reclaiming his title.
Boris Spassky was not afraid to play gambits. The objective value of the gambit was not as important as reaching positions Spassky loved.
This is one of the many lessons we all can learn from Spassky. Even if theory says you are slightly worse if you enjoy playing certain positions, choose openings that create them.
Of course, we won’t always reach such positions because our opponents have their ideas. Boris Spassky could win even in the games when his opponents stopped him from getting ideal positions.
Was Boris Spassky the most gifted of all the Soviet chess players, or was he the most complete? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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