Wilhelm Steinitz knew what it took. Needless to say having a massive beard was an important factor.
#3 – What it Takes
“The stomach is an essential part of the chessmaster.” – Bent Larsen
Of course the great Dane is not implying that eating a lot will help you to be good at chess! He is suggesting that having the stomach for a fight is a critical factor to success.
Lets not mince words. Being good at chess demands scrupulous intellectual rigor, iron-willed discipline and indefatigable fighting spirit. There is no short cut. Talent and hard work won’t make up for a lack of these attributes. Fight for every game like your life depends upon it but in the knowledge that often, even this won’t be enough.
The first World Champion knew what it took better than anyone.
Chess is not for the faint-hearted; it absorbs a person entirely. To get to the bottom of this game, he has to give himself up into slavery. Chess is difficult, it demands work, serious reflection and zealous research.”
– Wilhelm Steinitz
Continuing with the recent anniversary theme, today we acknowledge a recent significant birthday for one of the game’s true titans.
The 10th Chess World Champion, Boris Spassky celebrated his 75th birthday on the 30th of January. I’m not going to regurgitate his wonderous achievements or indulge in any sentimental recollections about the ‘good old days’ here – well, not much anyway! There are plenty of folks out there better qualified to do that than I. Chessbase being just one example.
Boris was disappointed to see that, once again, his wife had ordered a chessboard-shaped birthday cake with pieces for candles
What I will say is that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Spassky and my feelings were reinforced when I saw the recent celluloid about Bobby Fischer. It seemed to me that Fischer was able to complete his match with Spassky in ’72 due in no small part to the Russian’s patience, generosity and sportsmanship. Spassky wanted to play that match and he put up with Fischer’s shenanigans despite the fact that they undoubtedly had an adverse effect on his psychological equilibrium and therefore his playing standard.
I could re-publish any number of Spassky’s great masterpieces. The one against Bronstein (Leningrad 1960) or the one against Larsen (Belgrade 1970) are the ones that most readily spring to mind and get trotted out whenever his masterpieces are considered. However, I’ll resist the temptation in order to bring you a less prominent encounter that may have escaped your attention.
About his #1 greatest move, Spassky wrote to me: I have played 16…Nc6 because I did not see any other practical resources because my position was so passive. I was very surprised that Yuri Averbakh was thinking about 1 hour (!!) (55 min.) I considered that after 17.dxc6 bxc6 18.h6! Bh8 White would have two pieces up and they could manage the win very easy. Mark Taimanov: “I would rather resign the game than to make such a move…
It would be greatly amiss of me not to add that Spassky’s opponent in this game, Yuri Averbakh, was 90 on the 6th of February! I believe he is currently the oldest living Grandmaster. Chessbase also has a nice tribute and interview with him on their website.
To end this appreciation I would like to set straight a record that was recently made public by Vladimir Kramnik. I was listening to the Full English Breakfast podcast last week in which Macauley Peterson interviewed Vlad right after his win in the London Chess Classic. At one point in the interview Kramnik was talking about living in Paris (were Spassky also resides) and the fact that he hadn’t yet learnt French. He recounted thisanecdote about his illustrious countryman.
He’s been living in France since ’73 or’74 and actually his French is still not great. Once I visited him at his place and he had a big sign on the door of his bureau cabinet in Russian which was saying ‘Learn French idiot!’
— Vladimir Kramnik interviewed by Macauley Peterson for the FEB
Readers may think nothing of this apparently amusing story but, in yet another exclusive for this website, I can now reveal the true and rather more poignant origin of that handwritten note. At the beginning of last week I was alerted to the Kramnik interview by our erstwhile guest columnist, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro, who sent me this e-mail.
Perhaps you will have come across the recent interview of Vladimir Kramnik by the chaps at the Full English Breakfast. In it he mentions a note stuck to Boris Spassky’s bureau cabinet that he naively assumes must have been written by Spassky himself and refers to his failure to learn the language of his nation of residence.
Setting the record straight, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro
I say “naïve” because Kramnik clearer failed to consider some plain facts which point to the true origin and nature of the note, which I should add, I witnessed being written with my own eyes.
First of all, the note is, as I mentioned above, handwritten and if Kramnik had given it any more than a perfunctory glance he could not have failed to notice that the handwriting was not Spassky’s. Secondly, if he had taken a further moment to inspect the note he wouldn’t have missed the familiar size and stock of the paper which is clearly a score sheet from a chess game. Finally, if he had been minded to consider a potential alternate meaning for the three words in the note he might have deduced that the word “French” could in fact refer to the chess opening of that name and not the language.
The match started very badly for Boris who went five games behind. The main instrument of his agonies was Korchnoi’s use of the French Defence which Spassky for some reason found very challenging to overcome. In seven games across the match where Korchnoi played the French Spassky managed a score of only +1, =2, -4. Desperate for a break, in game 10 Spassky suddenly decided to consider his moves in his designated “relaxation box”, using a large demonstration board to analyze his moves. He would only go to the board to play his moves, record them and press the clock and then return to his box. This tactic drew a protest from Korchnoi, but he was clearly unnerved and Spassky fought his way back almost to equality in the match winning games 11, 12, 13 and 14 by which time Korchnoi had begun mimicing Spassky’s behaviour to no avail.
Belgrade 1977. Spassky is the one in the sun visor!
The match descended into farce and relations between the two men had become very poor. By the time they played the 17th game Spassky had returned to consider his moves at the board but had taken to wearing a silver sun visor and sunglassed underneath a pair of goggles. He lost that game (probably because he couldn’t see properly!) and Korchnoi now needed only one more point to win the match. Fittingly, in game 18 (the second game in the viewer at the bottom of this post) Korchnoi deployed the French once more and Spassky tried the Advance Variation.
I was lucky enough to be sitting in the front row of the auditorium when this game was played and I can assure you the atmosphere was very tense indeed. Eventually Korchnoi overcame his opponent and when the formality of swapping and signing each other’s score sheets arrived I noticed Korchnoi turn his sheet over and scribble something on the back of it before passing it to Spassky. I saw that Boris took a look at the note and immediately turned pale with anger before leaving the stage humiliated.
Later on that evening, at a party held in honour of Korchnoi’s success, I got the opportunity to ask Viktor what he had written on that score sheet that had obviously distressed Spassky so deeply. Korchnoi chortled and said,
“Learn French idiot!”
I hope that this e-mail will go some way to redressing the inaccuracy of Kramnik’s statement which was in no way intentional on his part. How could he have known that this note of admonition was in fact a spur to drive Spassky’s opening studies and not his linguistic deficiency?
"Bobby felt very at ease with animals and children, but not adults" - Harry Benson
Like many chess enthusiasts I was fascinated by the prospect of seeing the recent biopic about the greatest of all chess enigmas, Bobby Fischer.
I am a member of the post-Fischer generation in that I started playing long after he had disappeared from public life. Of course I’ve heard so many of my elders talk in rapt terms about his genius and one can get a feeling for this by playing through his legacy of great games.
Unfortunately, what you can’t do is get any kind of impression of the man himself or the astounding impact he made on the world (not just the chess world) in 1972 when he played Boris Spassky for the World title in Iceland. It was this aspect of Fischer, as a man, and a global phenomena that I found so enthralling about the film.
The Director, Liz Garbus, had gone to great lengths to pull together as much archive interview footage of Fischer as she could and this really gave you a feel for the kind of man he was. Quite a lot was made of his lonely and damaged child-hood. This was put forward as the predominant reason why the stubborn, self-reliant streak that helped him become so successful also transformed him into a rampant paranoid delusional in later life.
Many of the photos taken by Benson in Iceland give a real feeling for the "lonliness and isolationof the position he was in".
Probably the aspect of the film that captivated me the most was the photography of Harry Benson. He was chosen to shoot Fischer for LIFE magazine at the Buenos Aires Candidates Tournament the year before Reykjavik and became, if not a friend, then at least a companion to Fischer during that period of his life. Evidently Garbus had approached Benson during her preparations for the film and had been amazed to find that he had a large collection of photographs that had never been published. They are amazing, a real window into Fischer’s soul. Much more than the interview footage, in which Fischer always seems so guarded and defensive. After I’d watched the film I was delighted to find out that Benson had subsequently published a book of his Fischer photographs and I immediately rushed to Amazon to buy it.
I’d certainly urge anyone who has an interest in chess to see the film when you get the chance. Just don’t expect lots of involved chess content. There is plenty about the 1972 match in Reykjavik but it is covered mostly from a personal and political angle. All-in-all it’s a really superbly made glimpse into the life of this brilliant, complicated and damaged man.
On a lighter note, one famous Fischer anecdote that didn’t make it into the film is a story that Hungarian Grandmaster Laszlo Szabo must have dined out on many times. At the Buenos Aires international tournament of 1960, he and Fischer had adjacent hotel rooms. One night, someone brought a young woman to Bobby’s room. The following morning it happened that both Fischer and Szabo left their rooms at the same time and Szabo shot an enquiring glance at Fischer who responded by simply saying: “Chess is better.”
All of this thinking about Bobby Fischer put me back in a frame of mind to look at some of his games and then I remembered the game and comments published by Walter Polhill in The Independent on Sunday back in the late 1990’s. Polhill selects a very unusual Fischer game that has a real splash of humour in it. Playing against Ulf Andersson, who had a reputation for labarinthine strategic and manoeuvring play, Fischer chooses to adopt the style himself and delivers a masterpiece. Enjoy!
By far the greatest player the world has ever seen, Bobby Fischer was also a superb parodist. The following victory of his is often dismissed as a mere display of attacking imagination. Yet making such an assessment would be to overlook one of the finest acheivements of the parodic art this century.”
Not to be confused with John Nettles who just played the part of Jim Bergerac, Gerard Depardieu played Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1990 film of the same name
You strip from me the laurel and the rose!
Take all! Despite you there is yet one thing
I hold against you all, and when, tonight,
I enter Christ’s fair courts, and, lowly bowed,
Sweep with doffed casque the heavens’ threshold blue,
One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch,
I bear away despite you…
Cyrano, Act 5, Sc. 6
That quote from Edmond Rostand’s classic play is a poetic introduction to today’s theme. Cyrano delivers this monologue in his heart-rending final speech. Everything seems to have gone wrong for him and yet, even at the end, he defiantly maintains his dignity and makes his case for immortality. In the 1990 film of the same name the script writer frames the sentiment even more succinctly: “A diamond in the ash which I take in spite of you; and that is my panache.”
Today it seems that in any given competetive setting the result matters more than than the manner in which it is acheived. “No-one remembers the runner-up” say coaches and trainers around the world. That may be true but I think we can find something even more precious in the spirit of the competitor who reaches for something more than a work-man-like victory, even if they fail to acheive it.
Today’s game is another delve into the treasure trove of articles written back in the mid-1990’s for The Independent on Sunday by Walter Polhill. The game also seems appropriate given that it was played in the great Hastings tournament of 1895. A classic tournament played on British soil. Let us hope that the current British Championships turns up a few more diamonds for us to marvel at. Today then, Colonel Polhill laments a miscarriage of creative justice.
The laws of chess carry no rewards for beauty. Some of the greatest, most aesthetically pleasing ideas have earned their creators only a zero on the score table. Take this game for example, from the great Hastings event a century ago.”
Q – How do we know that Neanderthal Man played blindfold chess?
A – Because in excavations of their sites no chessboards or pieces have been found.”
It’s an old and rather cheesy joke but don’t let that hide the essential truth that it exploits. The physical manifestation of the game of chess (the board and pieces) only exists to help us players visualise the moves. Once you have learned chess notation and grasped of the rules you can play the game in your head. That virtually none of us practice this is an indication of how difficult it is to do. If you’ve never tried it I recommend you give it a go. It is mind bogglingly difficult! However, one skill that, throughout history, sets aside the very best chess players from us mere mortals is their ability to do this very thing.
I recently came across a very interesting and very comprehensive post by HeinzK on his Chess Plaza blog called “The big comparison” in which he associates this game we play with lots and lots of other aspects of life. It is a post which is by turns funny, philosophical, insightful and poetic. It is also full of links to other related blog posts and stories and I followed one about super Grand Master Vassily Ivanchuk which looked interesting. I ended up reading a very nice little interview conducted with him shortly after he had won the Gibraltar Chess Festival in February of this year. One answer he gave tickled me in particular and it was also the answer that had grabbed HeinzK’s attention. Ivanchuk was asked how much time he spent on chess (aside from playing in tournaments) and he answered:
It’s hard to say, because chess and the way you train for it, is quite unusual. For example it’s not even obligatory to sit at a computer, or even a chess board. I can also walk in the park and analyse some important position in my head. Moreover, it’s by no means certain that working using such a method will have any less effect than if I sit at a computer. It depends much more on getting into a mental state that allows you to discover new ideas.”
“I can walk in the park and analyse some important position in my head.” Woah! Ivanchuk has a reputation for being a “genius” and also for being, shall we say, one of the game’s more colourful characters. This statement certainly seems to bare that out. So next time you take your dog for a walk and spot a dishevelled looking fellow doing laps of the park and muttering to himself as he gazes somewhere into the far distance, don’t worry, he might appear to be a lunatic but it is probably just Vassily analysing an opening novelty.
The real point I guess, is that this extraordinary ability to visualise games and positions is both a blessing and a curse for the chess professional. On the one hand it helps them develop their astounding powers of calculation and concentration, on the other it means that their minds can never truly be free of the game that dominates their lives. The truth that Ivanchuk reveals by being unable to provide an answer to the interviewer’s question is that lots of his chess is played in his head and so it is impossible to keep track of how much time he spends on it.
I’d like to end this post on a slightly lighter note. As I read the interview with Vassily Ivanchuk I also remembered that our old friend, Colonel Walter Polhill (RTD), had written an article for The Independent on Sunday in which he referred directly to Ivanchuk’s ability to find brilliant ideas without looking at the board. I am willing to risk prosecution to bring you that article (and the illustrative game which is also in the viewer below) for your amusement.
You can tell great players by their eye movements. An average club player’s eyes dart about hopelessly, never knowing quite where to look for the best move. A Grand Master focuses rapidly on the critical area of the board. It is a rare genius that looks, as Vassily Ivanchuk does for much of the game, at the ceiling. And when he is not perusing the ceiling, he often stares blankly at the audience. His 24th move in this game however, surely came from the ceiling.”