Posts Tagged ‘Boris Sassky’

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer, Hampstead Theatre 1500 7 December

December 8, 2019



Part of Soviet delegation looking worried

So this was a play about the Spassky vs Fischer World Chess Championship Match of 1972.  It began with the actors playing the Soviet delegation (or Spassky’s team) speaking in what they thought was Russian.  Then they changed to English.

The curse of realism was certainly avoided, often by use of what one audience member near me described as antics.  Nikolai Krogius,  a psychologist and perhaps the leader of Spassky’s team, was played by Rebecca Scroggs, and the resemblance was not striking.


Rebecca Scroggs as Nikolai Krogius


Nikolai Krogius as Nikolai Krogius

Russia and the Soviet Union

More of a concern was the fact that Ms Scroggs  as Krogius seemed the one of Spassky’s team who was most willing to compromise with reality, while the Russian Wikipedia article lays great stress on his pedantic nature and prominent position in the Soviet sports bureaucracy.  Oh yes; Spassky’s team referred to Russia  rather than the Soviet Union, and were equipped with regional accents which might have been meant to indicate that Geller was from  Ukraine and Nei from Estonia.  They also referred to ‘the Kremlin’ (impossible) rather than ‘Moscow’,  ‘the Committee’, ‘them’…


The main problem with the play–allowing that the average punter does not want to know about either chess or Russian history–was that it did not seem to know what it wanted to be about.  The Cold War as a kind of myth (like the Trojan War say) was not really developed (in spite of phone calls from Henry Kissinger), while we had indications of Tennessee Williams (Fischer as a self-deluding fantasist confronting his mother , but you need to be a proper failure for that to work), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (Spassky describing his life in the orphanage), Philip Glass (repetitive music, repetitive movements, stylised video displays), and probably many others.  If we were left with anything, it was the portrayal of Fischer as a deranged narcissistic individual, of an extremity that is probably unfair for the Fischer of 1972 (but not later, see the film).


As for chess, I think you should at least get the words right.  Instead of a match consisting of individual games we had a tournament made up of matches.  The initial drawing of lots (to determine colours) was described by some phrase I didn’t understand, and instead of the score of a game we had a move list.  Spassky’s seconds are shown preparing for Game 3 in the certainty that Fischer would defend 1. d4 with the King’s Indian, when he had already played something different–the Nimzo-Indian–in Game 1.

Nobody even now really understands why the Soviet side didn’t just have Fischer defaulted when he didn’t appear at the beginning of the match, though the play follows the explanation given by Spassky that he just wanted to play.

Fischer and Spassky

You don’t really understand that Fischer had won the Candidates’ Matches in annihilatory fashion or that he had a long history of impossible demands about playing conditions, which seemed to be partly a reflection of a tortured psyche and partly attempting to get an advantage.  He is made to say that he plays not to win but to avoid losing, when one great difference between him and the Soviet professionals of his era was that he played to win (nearly) all the time.  His statement that you only know somebody when you’ve crushed their ego by playing them at chess could have been combined with the similarities between him and Spassky (disturbed childhood in many different places, absent fathers, raised by their mothers, sisters played an important part…)

Fischer’s Icelandic security-cum-minder tells a story about how Flóki Vilgerðarson found Iceland by releasing ravens from his boat until the third one headed of determinedly towards the North-West, whereupon Floki followed it and arrived in Reykjavik.  The suggestion is that Fischer is another such pathfinder; but he refers to becoming The Muhammad Ali of chess so in the world of the play the cult of celebrity already exists.


It all seemed very long, as many people said in the audience.  But I only checked once to see that my watch was still going and it gave me something to think about/disagree with