History of Kilkenny Chess Club - Boris Spassky

John Bradley


This article part of the series: History of Kilkenny Chess Club - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


Jack Lowry invented the Kilkenny Masters'. There were two influences, firstly his familiarity with golf where the concept of a masters' tournament was well established, secondly the boost that had been given to Kilkenny chess by the visit of the tenth world champion, Boris Spassky.

Bronstein, Fischer or Spassky

The idea of inviting Spassky occurred in 1990 over a post-match dinner in a Chinese restaurant on O'Connell St, Dublin. Usually we would gather in the Berni Inn on Nassau St. — it was the old Jammet's still retaining its magnificent timber panelling — but it must have been undergoing refurbishment or changing hands. Maurice Buckley suggested that the next year, marking 21 years of competition in the Leinster leagues, should be marked in some way. He had attended the simultaneous exhibition given by David Bronstein in Limerick on 25 October 1989 and, impressed, as everyone was, by Bronstein's gentleness, warmth and expressed desire to return to Ireland, Maurice suggested that we should ask Bronstein to come to Kilkenny. As the conversation moved around the table it was Jack Lowry who recommended that we should use the occasion to promote chess more widely and said that realistically, in terms of publicity, there were only two players familiar to the Irish public, Fischer and Spassky. Fischer was a recluse but perhaps we could try for Spassky.

Boris Spassky at the Salonika Olympiad
Boris Spassky at the Salonika Olympiad 1984

Boris Spassky GM

My memory is that Spassky's fee was £5000 plus the costs of travel and accommodation, roughly one quarter of my annual salary at the time. Some sponsorship was obtained (Eamon Keogh, as always, was generous) and the rest was made up by player's fees (£2.50) and a whip-around among the club members. Spassky spent four days in Ireland, playing two exhibition games in Dublin, winning the first +25 =2 and the second (at TCD) +25 =5. On Saturday 23 March 1991 he played 30 boards in the Club House Hotel, Kilkenny, scoring +22 =8. He said that he found the competition stronger in Kilkenny than in Dublin but this was simply graciousness. He offered draws to Fergal O'Dwyer, Liam Brady, Paud O'Reilly, Maurice Buckley, Michael Gaffney (Carlow), Trevor Hunter (Sligo), Ciaran Shirley (Waterford) and myself. One does not refuse a world champion. The boards were arranged in order of ratings and the draws were granted to the top eight with Spassky saying simply 'I want to get rid of you'. In truth he could have ground us all out. The match lasted five and a half hours. He later confided that it does not look good if a world champion loses games. He need not have worried.

He was received at the Tholsel by the mayor Margaret Tynan. He signed the visitors' book as "Boris Spassky GM". He was impressed to learn that the corporation, in its original form, was established in 1231 and that the document recording it, which he was able to read, was written in French, then one of the four languages of the town. He was guest of honour at a dinner held in Langton's for about 30 people including the mayor and he was the guest of the players at a lunch in Butler House.

About 16 were present at the lunch, which was held in the room used for analysis during the Kilkenny tournament. A long table was set up with Spassky at the head, I had the privilege of sitting on his left, Liam Brady on his right. It was probably the original dining room of the Georgian house, built about 1780 with the elegant proportions of that age. It was a mild, warm spring afternoon, without air-conditioning, so the only ventilation was obtained by opening the windows. I remember the light gauze curtains blowing softly inwards back and forth behind the great man. I hoped he would not get a cold.

The conversation was mostly about chess. He spoke about the positive and negative sides of Russian chess. He did not believe in a "Soviet School of Chess", it was an ideological construct, the variety of play was too great but, nevertheless, there were players who were part of the soviet. He himself had never been a member of the party and this may have fostered hostility after the loss to Fischer in 1972. His response was to win the Soviet Championship of 1973 against all of the strongest Russian grandmasters.

Bishops of Opposite Colour

In 1976 he moved to France where he lived at Meuden near Paris, with his third wife. He became a French citizen in 1978. He spoke of his marriages and children and repeated the famous quip about why his first marriage did not work: "My wife and I were like bishops of opposite colour". He talked frankly about the players he had known, about his teachers and trainers, observing that of all of the people he had met the person for whom he had the highest fondness and regard was Paul [pronounced Pow-ul] Keres. At his best, Keres was a stronger player than Botvinnik, a remark that meant a lot to Liam Brady, who had always maintained this view. Spassky added that one day he hoped to write a memoir. Its purpose? To celebrate those who had helped, to omit those who did not.

The following day I picked him up at the Club House Hotel and brought him on a 2-hour walking tour of the city. As we rounded the Bank of Ireland (now a pub known as The Bank) onto The Parade en route to Kilkenny Castle he asked me why I had not played ... Qxb2 in the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Sicilian Najdorf, a line in which he won a famous game against Fischer in 1972. Out of thirty games he could remember mine. I told him one of Liam Brady/s favourite stories about the Viennese banker who is said to have left his fortune to his son on condition that he never took the Queen Knight's Pawn. Spassky laughed.

Sicilian Defence or Campaign

As we walked along High Street he talked about Fischer and said that they kept in touch, that Bobby was nocturnal and rang him up in the small hours of the morning. I had no reason to doubt this other than natural scepticism but the next year they had the famous return match at Sveti Stefan, which Spassky lost (17½-12½) although he played some superb games.

Most of our conversation on that day was about history. Spassky told me he had read a book on Oliver Cromwell and was interested in the differing interpretations of British and Irish historians. I did not know it. Perhaps none of us knew it, other than Jack Lowry, but the Kilkenny Masters' was in embryo. Our tour concluded over a drink in Tynan's Bridge House Bar, where the talk was about Thucydides and the Peloponnesian war. To me this was novel. The strong players I had met were all narrowly focussed. They knew the ins and outs of the Sicilian but nothing of the Sicilian campaign of 415 BC. Spassky knew all about it. He was in another league. He encompassed the world.

Boris Spassky on his way to a 6-0 skittles match win over Eamon Keogh, Fitzwilliam Tennis Club, Dublin 1994. Keogh: \
Spassky (left) takes on Eamon Leogh (right) at blitz chess (with an unknown onlooker)

Created 2014-04-30 ◦ Last updated 2014-07-23 ◦ Editor UOB


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