The Friedel Chronicles Part II - The bohemian Tal, the courteous Spassky, and the heretic Fischer!
In part II of the Frederic Chronicles, the co-founder of ChessBase, Frederic Friedel, recounts his experiences with Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky, and Bobby Fischer. Did you know that Tal won the World Blitz Championship in 1988 while being inebriated for the better part of the tournament? Or that Fischer made plans to challenge Vishy Anand for a match in Fischer Random Chess? These and much more untold stories come to the fore with Frederic's singular accounts. Read this article and enrich yourself with nuggets of priceless chess history.
Knowing the chess greats with Frederic Friedel part II
Professor Havanur: How did you meet Tal and what was your impression of him?
Frederic: I am not quite sure where I met Tal. I think it was in St. John's, Canada. Was it a Candidates tournament? Probably not, my memory is failing me! But anyway, it was in St. John's where I met him for the first time. He was a funny guy, we had a little bit of fun. Not very much at the time because he was busy playing there. But then came the World Blitz Championship (in 1988), and this was the strongest blitz event to be ever played. I mean everyone was playing there and Tal was also playing. Round after round were being played and then in one round, I think it was right at the end, the games were about to start and Tal was not at the board. So they panicked and said, 'Where is Tal? Where is Tal?' I went looking for him like everyone else and found him sitting in the corner of the restaurant. I went to him and said: 'Mikhail, your game is about to start, you have to hurry.' 'Oh my goodness,' exclaimed he and then struggled to his feet to get up. I took his hand and guided him. When you walk with someone who is inebriated, you can feel it because they kind of keep pulling you back and forth. He was inebriated. I took him to the board and he sort of plumped into his seat. I thought, 'Oh god, this is a catastrophe'. I mean the man was drunk but he won his game very easily and won the entire blitz event. At least in the closing phase of the tournament he was under the influence of alcohol but amazingly the part of his brain that plays superb chess was wide awake. And this was a totally unusual phenomenon, what do you think about it?
Professor Havanur: Well, I am simply incredulous because I always thought I knew well about this championship but now that I have heard you, I don't think I know enough about it. That last round was special and it is fascinating that you were there in the venue as a witness. Because if you remember Kasparov, Karpov, Short everyone had been eliminated. It was only Tal and [Rafael] Vaganian, and they were great friends but at the board they were like hungry lions looking at each other's throat. I never imagined that Tal was drunk when he came to play that last round! This game should be looked at by everyone. Vaganian was actually winning. He could have won with a rook sacrifice, if I am not mistaken, but he missed it and then Tal made a series of sacrifices and just won! When asked after the game how he managed to win, the ever evasive Tal just said that he had two packets of Kent cigarettes before the game but he didn't mention about the Vodka he took, but now we know!
Tal - Vaganian, World Blitz Championship 1988
Frederic: Please do have a look at these games again. I don't know if it was the very last round but I think it was. But take a look at these games and tell me how this is possible. Anyway, Tal was a wonderful person and I met him a couple of times afterwards in Brussels I think. I remember this one time in Brussels, I was showing some Grandmasters this problem position. I think it was given to me by [James] Plaskett and it was very very hard. Tal walked by, he looked at it, he sort of glanced at it and then went away. He wasn't interested. And he went away for a long walk in the park. When he came back he called out for me: 'Where is Frederic?' So everyone had to go and search for me! 'Come here I will show you the solution,' he said to me. He then showed me the solution and he was correct of course. So what he had done is, he walked through the park solving it in his mind.
You can read more about the famous Plaskett's puzzle and how Tal solved it in this article on ChessBase.com!
I had a number of little experiences like that with him. He remained a good friend... By the way, he knew he was dying. The last time we met, he said to me that he was on his way out. It was very sad but he was an incredible personality. His eyes, the way he looked at you, his intensity, his humour. I cherish my short acquaintance with him.
Professor Havanur: Fred, you know I just want to draw your attention to a very curious kind of coincidence. You can actually call this a strange act of fate. Think of Spassky, here was a man who beat Tal, who beat Korchnoi. And when Bobby Fischer was asked to name the greatest players of history he actually mentioned Boris Spassky and this was back in the 1960s. Bobby who used to beat everyone had lost to Spassky. Yes, it all changed in the World Championship match of 1972 but even then nobody can take away Spassky's greatness. Did you have interaction with Boris?
Frederic Friedel: Oh yes and it was a marvellous interaction. I think he came to Hamburg to promote a chess playing computer or something and I got to know him very briefly. I remember there were many famous chess players there. It was in a departmental store... Let me digress a bit and tell you a little story here. I had bought a wooden chessboard and a felt pen, and I got all the chess players to sign the board and I still have that board. The head of the department store saw this and said, 'This is a fantastic idea. Go get the best board we have.' There was boy there who brought a chessboard and a felt pen and he had the same thing done. 'Now take this into the room at the back and keep it very carefully because of these names here,' he then said to the boy. So the boy took it away. Later the players were gone and we were having dinner when the boy came again with the board and said, 'Sir, I tried my best but these stains cannot be removed!' So he hadn't actually understood, he had thought he was asked to take the board and get rid of the felt pen stains on it!
I met Spassky on that occasion and then I didn't see or meet him for a long time. And then I was flying to the tournament in St. John's I told you about - Canada, snow! Our plane landed in Toronto and they said the onward flight was delayed and gave me a very nice room, in a very nice hotel with meals and everything. I went down to dinner and suddenly Spassky walked over to me and said, 'Excuse me Mr. Frederic, I do not want to disturb you but could we have dinner together?' I said, 'Of course let's do it, you can't disturb me, you are the famous person.' This was one of the greatest chess players in the world coming to me in this way. So we sat down and had dinner together and there was an endless supply of good Canadian wine. We sat there till 4 am in the morning and he just told me eighty percent of everything I know about chess history - okay, maybe I am exaggerating - but he told me a lot about FIDE, the matches, and even told me about how much he was paid for his World Championship title in Moscow. It was incredibly valuable to me. Then every time we met, we always spoke and sometimes even had dinner together.
Then many years later there was a Candidates Tournament in Elista, Russia. FIDE talked me into coming there so I flew there and when I arrived I met Spassky, he was doing commentary. We usually had lunch and dinner together, and I saw something quite extraordinary there: a lot of young players crowding around us, talking to us. He was an old man, and I wasn't so young either. But they were interested in talking to Spassky. He was charismatic, you know, a head full of white hair, and so on!
Then one day I said to the organizer, 'Listen we are in "Chess City," a whole city Ilyumzhinov had built for chess. I am in Elista and I would like to see the Steppe.' Ilyumzhinov said, 'No problem! I will arrange for you to see the steppe.' Spassky heard us and said, 'Can I join you.' I said, 'Yes of course, that would be wonderful!' So a car arrived and they took us to – this monument of a tank. They said it was very famous. I said, 'It is very nice, but could we go to the steppe? We want to see animals and stuff.' So now they took us to – a race course and said, 'Look there are horses there!'
After a while we gave up and decided to head back home. We came to Chess City, very disappointed and then Spassky said, 'You know if you go right to the end, the steppe starts there.' I said 'Yes, but there's a fence around it,' and he said 'Yes, but I know where there's a hole in the fence!' So he took me there, and he crawled through that hole. And then we went for a walk in the steppe. You know, I still have that pair of sneakers with seeds attached to it from the plant life there. We walked for many hours, we got lost in the steppe. Spassky was singing, American songs, like "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." I asked where did he got to know them, and he said, 'Bobby teach me!' He really knew these songs from Bobby Fischer.
We had this wonderful walk, at last we found the hotel. We sat for lunch, we were late of course, and the young players came crowding around us. Boris said "Don't come close. We have been walking for many hours, and we are full of sweat. And then he went up his room and came back impeccably dressed for the commentary.
So this was a wonderful experience, for me – and for Spassky. How do I know this? Whenever I meet him, and we stand around in conversation, and I mention that we went to the steppe together, he will just cross the group of people, and come and hug me! He really enjoyed our outing in the steppe tremendously. During the walk I caught some giant grasshoppers, and photographed them. Boris said, 'You are bravest man in the world.'
I met him in many events. His hair became whiter and he became more beautiful as a man. One day I said to him, 'You are incredible. Such nice white hair you have.' He said, 'So it was right for me to dye my hair?' I said, 'What do you mean, dye your hair?' And he said: 'Do you think this is the natural colour? If I didn't dye it, it would be jet black!'
He is a very funny person. Now he has moved back to Moscow and is becoming very frail. When I see pictures or videos of him I feel very sad. Because the man with whom I ran on the step was vigorous and healthy. He held me across streams and so on. Now he has become frail. By the way, at the olympiad in Dresden somebody asked what he did for his chess preparation. He said, 'I do not prepare for chess. I am preparing for death... It's a long and difficult endgame.' I hope Boris will be around for a while and I will see him again.
Professor Havanur: There is another fate closely linked with Spassky and that is Bobby. What could you say about your interaction with Bobby Fischer?
Frederic: (Chuckles) Well, Bobby Fischer was the hero of my youth. I actually had three sporting heroes. Muhammad Ali in boxing, Franz Beckenbauer in Football, and Bobby Fischer in chess. When Bobby played against Spassky I played over every move. I would get the newspaper next day and then play through the game on a board, it was fantastic. I tried to contact him. He was living in Pasadena and I wrote letters to him. Once a year I would write a handwritten letter to him but he never replied. I also tried to call him but a lady, named Claudia MacKaron I think, shielded him, she was from the Church of God. I remember at one stage she called be back and said, 'I don't believe you are a German. Your English is too good.' I had to explain to her that I had gone to English schools and I had studied in Oxford. Anyway, so nothing happened. He disappeared again and then played against Spassky much later in Yugoslavia.
And then one day I was standing in my hallway, ready to go out with my wife and son, when the phone rang. I picked it up after moments of hesitation and the voice at the other end said, 'Is this Mr. Friedel.' I said, 'Yes, who is this?' He said, 'I am Bobby Fischer.'
I said, 'Oh come on! You are really Bobby? I have been trying to contact you since the last twenty years now and you suddenly call me on my number?' He then said it was actually twenty-four years or something like that and described the letters I had written to him. So I knew it was Fischer. It wasn't a practical joke or prank call. I spoke to him for an hour or more. Then he kept calling me again and again and so I spoke to him very often over the phone.
You know Bobby invented the Fischer clock which is used universally now and which gives you a few seconds after each move you make. I even teased him and said when you lose your ability to rigorously play fast chess, you invent a new clock to circumvent it... And now preparing openings was too hard for him so he invented the Fischer Random Chess. He called me and said, 'Chess as it is played now is the old chess and this is the new chess. The new chess is much better. I can beat anyone in it and I want to challenge the World Champion Vishy Anand to a match.' So he actually wanted ChessBase to stage this match. 'It would cost you only a couple of million dollars,' he said! I explained to him that we couldn't do that, we couldn't pay a couple of million dollars. He sent his only friend Gardar Sverrisson to Hamburg to talk to me and discuss it.
Actually, Gardar asked me first to come down to Iceland. I asked him if I could meet Fischer then, he said no and so I told him to come to Hamburg. What happened is Fischer decided to challenge Anand in a match and he and Gardar concluded that ChessBase would sponsor it. But of course, ChessBase wouldn't do it. I told them that ChessBase could cough up maybe a five or ten thousand Euros for this match but even then everyone would carry the broadcast rights if he plays Anand in Fischer Random. I told them that he should announce this publicly. He should say: 'Old chess is dead. It has become only about preparation and theory. I have invented a new chess and I want to challenge the current world champion in it.' And then wait for the company who would come and sponsor it. I said that I would also help out with press conference and everything. I found out then that the match couldn't be organized in Germany because Fischer would be arrested there for his anti-semitic remarks.
It was interesting. I was at first in awe with speaking to Fischer all the time but after a while I lost this sense of awe and would often tease him. I was saying things which nobody would believe one could say to Fischer and he was sort of accepting them. I teased him saying that he was unable to prepare openings so he came up with this form of chess where one didn't have to prepare openings. He couldn't make moves fast enough on the board so he came up with a new clock to make up for it. I told him, 'The next step is you should invent a new form of chess where blunders can be taken back!' I was joking a lot with him and sometimes I would also contradict him and that too very radically, and I used to think this is it, he is not going to talk to me again. But he would ring me up after two days and say, 'You know, I was thinking about what you said and I will tell you what the mistake in your thinking is.' So it went about like this but one day he called me at 2 am in the morning and I told him, 'Bobby you can't call me at 2 am in the morning to rant about my Jewish friends. I can't take that.' And that was it. He didn't call me again. I tried to contact him because I had some news but he refused to talk. It was basically over between us. And unfortunately he had this kidney problem and he refused proper treatment and soon, a year later, he died. It was very sad. Anyway, I had these interesting conversations with him which of course I will never forget.
Frederic Friedel on chess greats part III on Vladimir Kramnik, Judit Polgar, Magnus Carlsen, and others will be published soon. Stay tuned!