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When Bobby Fischer sits down opposite Boris Spassky next June to settle the question of whether an American has truly overtaken a Russian as the world's best chess player, it will mark a new high in awareness of the game in this country. But Fischer's smashing victories en route to the finals against the world champion may have lulled casual U.S. observers into thinking the rest of the way will be easy, too. Not so. What has gone before has no more bearing on the championship matches than a runaway pennant race has to do with the outcome of a World Series.
Fischer's opponent, in a sense, is the Soviet Union itself. In addition to the spurs of personal pride and competitiveness that will be driving Spassky, he will also be out to uphold his nation's honor in a field it has dominated for a quarter century. He is well trained to uphold it, and even now is undergoing intensive preparation with the top chess theoreticians in the world—all of whom share his dedication to continued Soviet preeminence in chess.
Consequently, Spassky is under heavy pressure, and he is showing it. Some of the pressure comes from the Soviet Ministry of Physical Culture and Sport, which for a generation convinced the rest of the world that chess supremacy was a Russian prerogative. Last December in Moscow, Spassky's flagging spirits were conspicuously in evidence. The 35-year-old champion was competing in the month-long Alekhine Memorial Tournament along with 18 high-ranking contenders, including Tigran Petrosian, who had just returned from being clobbered by Fischer at Buenos Aires (SI, Nov. 8, 1971). A world champion is not expected to take first place every time he enters a tournament of this class, but it was not a good moment for Spassky to finish in a tie for sixth. Another bad omen was his resounding defeat by Petrosian. My own game with Spassky was drawn (I finished half a point behind him in the final standings) and it seemed to me there was a lackluster, uncertain quality to his play that had not characterized it in the past. His performance legitimately stirs some interesting speculation.
What sort of man is the champion? Spassky is not a simple person; no superior chess player is. He is a green-eyed, broad-shouldered man with reddish-brown hair who dresses with an air of studied elegance. He is 5'10", weighs 176 pounds, has a trim figure and gives an impression, at a first meeting, of being a superior physical athlete, say a tennis or soccer player. Indeed, tennis and soccer are two of his favorite sports, but he also goes in for swimming, running and skiing.
Spassky and his second wife Larissa and their 4-year-old son live on the fifth floor of Moscow's newest and largest apartment building. He is one of the few Russians who drives a foreign car, a bright-red Volvo he bought after Russia won the 1970 International Team Tournament in West Germany. By Soviet standards he has a good income, something in excess of 500 rubles ($560) a month, which is five times more than the average worker gets. He could easily augment this with exhibitions and lectures, but he does not have the slightest inclination to do so, and he rarely writes on chess, although he has a degree in journalism from the University of Leningrad.
Underneath his easygoing, good-natured manner, Spassky is tough and determined. Talking with him in Moscow last December I remarked that he seemed a natural competitor. He demurred. "No," he said, "my profession makes me so." But he knows the need for the enormous competitive effort required in top-level chess. During his first try for the world championship in 1966, when he was defeated by Petrosian (four losses, three wins and 17 draws), Spassky lost 15 pounds. In their second match, In 1969, when Spassky came back to take the title (six wins, four losses and 13 draws), he lost five pounds. After that victory his wife offered reporters a glimpse of life with a champion. "I would not like our son to play chess, because the nervous strain is too great," she said. "It was very difficult to watch all this happening."
Spassky moved into the Leningradskaya Hotel by himself for the Alekhine tournament. In the past, after his tournament games he often played bridge with his chess opponents. "We used to play every night," he said, "and my chess game did not suffer." But he did not play bridge this time.
The good wishes Spassky gets from rivals and friends in Moscow for his match with Fischer are little comfort to him. At best these sound like the sort of encouragement Columbus received before he set out on his voyage in 1492. Or, more like it, the kind the Pittsburgh Pirates would get if they were suddenly meeting a favored foreign team—say the Tokyo Giants—in the World Series for the first time. Ever since 1948, when Mikhail Botvinnik first brought the world championship to the Soviet Union after the death of Alexander Alekhine, one Soviet star after another has kept the title there. During the intervening 24 years even the challengers have come from the Soviet Union. In the circumstances, the government could well afford to remain neutral about the fate of the champion. Indeed, a periodic turnover of the championship was welcomed, so long as it was turned over to another Soviet player. Such a turnover, in the eyes of the government, demonstrated the superiority of Soviet players as a class. In international terms, the underlying idea was to use chess as a showcase in which the superiority of the Communist system could be displayed.
Chess domination by the Soviet Union is not an accidental phenomenon. Russian youth is led into the game and schooled in its subtleties much as American youngsters learn about baseball. The Russian youth competes in local chess clubs instead of Little League. He may also join a team at school, where the game is offered as part of the regular curriculum. Gifted youngsters get further encouragement through larger clubs and by entering tough regional tournaments. Eventually, such a youth might enter a chess institute for advanced players—the graduate schools of Russian chess—where he gets special instruction from the world's best players.
Even after a player has achieved international recognition he may still occasionally return to the institute for refresher courses, as an American touring golfer might seek out his teaching pro when his game goes sour. Yuri Balashov, who finished fourth in the last Soviet championship, returned to his chess institute for further work after making a poor showing in last year's Alekhine tournament.