Spassky plays the King's Gambit!

by Johannes Fischer
1/30/2024 – Boris Spassky, world champion from 1969 to 1972, celebrates his 87th birthday on 30 January. Spassky is regarded as a universal player and played numerous fantastic attacking games during his career. One of his favourite openings with White was the King's Gambit, which he used to beat players such as David Bronstein, Bobby Fischer, Yasser Seirawan and Anatoly Karpov. | Photo: Boris Spassky, Chess Olympiad Saloniki 1984 | Photo: Gerhard Hund

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The ChessBase Mega Database contains 29 games in classical time format in which Spassky tried the King's Gambit with White. He won 15 of these games, drew 14, but never lost with this double-edged, risky opening.

Spassky's lifelong passion for the King's Gambit can probably be traced back to his first coach, the Leningrad master Vladimir Zak, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the opening and immortalised his passion for the King's Gambit in a book.

Spassky's first win on the white side of the King's Gambit, which is listed in the Mega, was his encounter with Yuri Averbakh in the final of the 1955 Soviet Championships.

This game showed a pattern that would become apparent in many of the later games Spassky played with the King's Gambit: In the opening, Spassky was slightly or even clearly worse with White, but in the middlegame it became clear that he understood the positions better and handled them better than his opponents.

Spassky's victory over Semyon Furman, later Anatoly Karpov's coach, in the semi-finals of the 1959 Soviet Championship is a typical example. Against Furman, who was considered to be a solid player, Spassky allowed himself a little provocation: he played the Steinitz Gambit and on move four charged forward with his king. In the irrational position that resulted from this strategy Spassky was objectively worse, but outplayed his opponent.

A year later, in January 1960, Spassky played a game with the King's Gambit that went down in film history: In the final of the 27th Soviet Championship in Leningrad, he sacrificed a knight against Bronstein while allowing his opponent to take a rook with a check - and the end of this spectacular game inspired the makers of the James Bond film "From Russia with Love" to include a chess scene in their film.

Here's the scene from the movie:

Two months after this game, at the Mar del Plata tournament in Argentina, Spassky won another remarkable game with the King's Gambit: the first game he ever played against his great rival Bobby Fischer. Spassky had White and opened with 1.e4, whereupon Fischer deviated from his beloved Sicilian and played 1...e5, inviting Spassky to try the King's Gambit. Spassky didn't blink, took up the gauntlet and played 2.f4. The opening didn't go well for Spassky, but in the middlegame Fischer played too doggedly for a mating attack and blundered a piece.

Bobby Fischer at the Chess Olympiad 1960 in Leipzig | Photo: Tournament book

Fischer later included this game in his book "My 60 Memorable Games", making it even more famous. He also analysed the King's Gambit in depth and a year later published his famous article "A Bust to the King's Gambit" in the first issue of the American Chess Quarterly, in which he claimed, "In my opinion, the King's Gambit is busted. It loses by force."

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However, this did not stop Fischer from playing the King's Gambit with White in three games later in his career (against Larry Evans at the US Championship in New York in 1963, against Robert Wade at the tournament in Vinkovci in 1968 and against Dragoljub Minic, also in Vinkovci 1968). Fischer won all three games, but after 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 he always played 3.Bc4 and not 3.Nf3 as Spassky had done against him in Mar del Plata.

In games with classical time control Spassky played 3.Bc4 only once, in 1960 against Mammed Nurmamedov in the semi-finals of the Soviet Championship in Rostov-on-Don, and in this game he scored a clear victory.

However, in a rapid match against his old rival Viktor Kortschnoi in St Petersburg in 1999, Spassky once again resorted to 3.Bc4 in the King's Gambit. This led to an interesting position in which Spassky, at the crucial moment, lacked the courage to free his bad bishop with a pawn sacrifice.

Today the King's Gambit is not considered to be refuted, as Fischer had claimed, but theory is sceptical about White's attempt to revive the age of romantic chess with 2.f4. As can be seen from the games above, Spassky was often worse off after the opening with the King's Gambit, but was then able to turn the tide. His most astonishing rescue came against Karpov in the 1982 TV World Cup in Hamburg.

The TV World Cup was a knockout tournament with eight participants competing in two groups of two rounds, playing rapid games with one hour for the whole game. The winners of each group - Karpov and Spassky - then met in the final and played for the tournament title.

Karpov was always a difficult opponent for Spassky, and in his King's Gambit game against Karpov in the TV tournament, Karpov seemed to be on his way to victory, but then grossly blundered, which allowed Spassky to win the game. Despite this bitter defeat, Karpov went on to win the final and the TV World Cup.

YouTube has some old footage from this tournament.

Spassky's last victory for White in the King's Gambit in a game with classical time-control was against Zsuzsa Polgar in 1988. In this game he once again demonstrated how well he handled all types of positions.

Boris Spassky | Photo: Dagobert Kohlmeyer

Spassky plays against the King's Gambit

Spassky liked to play the Spanish with Black, but after 1.e4 e5 only four of his opponents were brave - or presumptuous - enough to challenge Spassky with the King's Gambit. All of them suffered a or more or less swift and brutal defeat. Like the Englishman William Hartston in the 1965/1965 Hastings tournament.

The German player Wolfram Hartmann, who regularly plays the King's Gambit himself, was true to his principles when he had to play Spassky with White in the Bundesliga: he tried the King's Gambit twice, but in both games he was quickly on the defensive.

In the first Spassky game with a King's Gambit, which is included in the Mega, Spassky had Black and won against the Russian master Chepukaitis. And in his last victory in a game with classical time control, in which the King's Gambit was on the board, Spassky also had Black - and won a nice game.

Obviously Spassky enjoyed playing the double-edged, often unconventional positions that can arise in the King's Gambit. They gave him room for creativity and unusual moves. The King's Gambit was never Spassky's main weapon after 1.e4 e5 - he usually played 2.Nf3, very rarely 2.Nc3 - but he remained faithful to the opening throughout his life and used it again and again with astonishing success - and played a number of impressive, remarkable and beautiful games with it.

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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