28 June 2017

Spassky: 'The Dr. Zhivago of Chess'

In a recent post on my main blog, Sports Illustrated 'On the Cover', I showed that a prominent American sports magazine ('SI') once demonstrated a keen interest in chess. Through the series of Kasparov - Karpov clashes in the 1980s, SI had regular, multi-page features on top World Championship events. Here, for example, are the first two pages of a five-page spread on the Korchnoi - Spassky final in the 1976-78 Candidates Matches.


Sports Illustrated, 12 December 1977

The article started,

With the notable exception of Bobby Fischer, who won the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 in a memorable Icelandic psychodrama, Soviets have dominated world chess for 30 years. And their reign is not about to end. This week, in the shabby elegance of the Dom Sindikata Theater in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, two Russians, Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, are meeting for the right to play still another Russian, 26-year-old world champion Anatoly Karpov, for the title.

Spassky is now 40, and his figure, which was trim in Reykjavik, is a bit fleshier, his dark hair longer and more styled. But the same calm green eyes study the board, and the same long artistic fingers are placed along his cheekbones. The world champion from 1969 to 1972, Spassky remains the gentlemanly, dignified, poetic grand master, the Dr. Zhivago of chess.

Across the board sits the volatile, daring Korchnoi, 46, the world's No. 2 grand master. In further contrast to Spassky, the formerly chubby Korchnoi has lost a great deal of weight recently. His brown eyes glitter, his shoulders hunch as he lunges forward to advance a bishop into dangerous territory. Korchnoi seeks the dangerous position -- in life as well as at the chessboard.

That's the sort of colorful sports reporting that is seldom seen outside of the mainstream press. Here is a list of all SI articles on the World Championship that I was able to locate.

  • 1960-04-18: A New Moscow Revolution • 'Mikhail Tal's brilliant and bewildering victories in world championship chess stunned the Russians'
  • 1960-05-30: A Nod for a Title • 'Sports Illustrated's correspondent in Moscow reports on the new world chess champion Mikhail Tal and on the new chess era that opened with a smile'
  • 1961-05-08: The Young Botvinnik • 'An aging champion created a new training technique to recover the fire of youth -- and his title'
  • 1967-11-20: The Further Adventures of Terrible-tempered Bobby • 'Bobby Fischer played like a champion at the international tournament in Tunisia, but he ended by forfeiting his way out of the competition'
  • 1971-08-02: Maybe You Can Win Them All • 'Bobby Fischer has pitched 19 no-hitters in a row'
  • 1971-11-08: Bobby Clears the Board for the Title • 'The young U.S. master, after Tigran Petrosian smashed his 20-game streak, closed strong to earn a shot at the world's chess champion'
  • 1972-07-10 A Sudden Stalemate in Reykjavik • 'The world championship was plunged into check when Bobby Fischer decided that a better game was hide-and-seek'
  • 1972-07-24: Boris in Wonderland • 'Russia's Spassky played Alice to Bobby Fischer's Mad Hatter in Reykjavik last week'
  • 1972-08-14: How to Cook a Russian Goose • 'First, catch a Russian -- and at long last Bobby Fischer apparently has, dominating Boris Spassky so completely...'
  • 1974-01-28: Memo from Moscow: don't get byrned • 'Hot on his world chess championship comeback, Boris Spassky faces a scholarly and unintimidated American'
  • 1974-09-30: A Case of Beauty Before Age • 'Two Russians are meeting to see who will take on Bobby Fischer...'
  • 1977-12-12: Taut Duel for Two Old Comrades • 'They grew up together in Russia and meet again for the right to face the champion, but one is a defector, the other an √©migr√©'
  • 1978-01-30: They Couldn't Zap the Viktor • 'Korchnoi came out of his match with Spassky smiling and ready for world champion Karpov, but in Belgrade he was grimly convinced that the Soviet KGB was bombarding him with rays'
  • 1978-07-31: Back to Drawing Old Board • 'The Soviet champ and a vocal defector drew the first three games of what could be a drawn-out world championship'
  • 1985-02-25: A Dubious Gambit In Moscow • 'Just when chess champion Anatoly Karpov seemed to be weakening, the challenger was abruptly checkmated'
  • 1986-11-13: Beating Back A Game Challenge • 'Anatoly Karpov played valiantly in their Leningrad showdown, but Gary Kasparov outlasted his rival to retain the world chess championship'
  • 1987-12-07: Duel Of Two Minds • 'Opposites Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov battle for the world chess title'
  • 2016-11-12: Chess Pieces of History • 'Board in 1972 battle up for auction'

The reports aren't always perfect. There is sometimes confusion between the concepts of 'game' and 'match' that is irksome to many chess fans, and the 1971 baseball analogy...

Maybe You Can Win Them All • 'Bobby Fischer has pitched 19 no-hitters in a row'

...is clearly an exaggeration. Even with those nitpicks, I'll gladly accept a slightly flawed report that promotes chess to a non-chess readership. For some reason, the World Championship reports stopped after the 1980s. Was it because of a changing perception of chess as a sport, because of the political turmoil in the chess world, or because of something else? I would really like to know.

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