Andy Soltis’ new book, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky and Korchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games explores the lives of four of the top Soviet chess players during the Fischer era.
This book is a group biography with less focus on the entirety of an individual player’s life, but rather includes some of the chess highlights within the context of their interactions. There is a focus on the years 1958 to 1972, though Soltis provides a brief look at each player’s childhood. For the most part, these were difficult times, greatly affected by World War II and there are few resources available to add the “color commentary” that is common throughout the book.
Though the book follows their respective careers chronologically, there are frequent quotes where the players or family members are looking back. In a chapter describing where their careers were headed at the end of the 1950s, we hear Tal’s future first wife Sally comment “he (Tal) did not seem like a lady killer” (p. 137) and Spassky reflects “It turns out I’m untalented (referring to his “career” choice of journalism).” (p. 137) Since all four players participated in many tournaments throughout the 1960s, it would be unreasonable to attempt to include comprehensive coverage of their tournament play. Only the most important events have more than a single game covered. These tend to be World Championship games, with the 1966 and 1969 matches examined more closely since they involve both Spassky and Petrosian.
As with any work involving the top players of this era, it would have been impossible to ignore Bobby Fischer. He is mentioned in passing through the book but becomes a key figure in the last couple of chapters. During this time Fisher only played Petrosian in the Candidates Matches and Spassky in the World Championship match. However, Soltis continues to show the activities of all 4 of these top players, focusing on how they impacted each other and their contributions and reactions to Spassky’s eventual capitulation.
There are many fun and engaging anecdotes throughout the book. The reader gets a wonderful sense of the players as people. Some of the stories shared are well-known, such as Tal’s “bathtub” game. Others, such as Petrosian’s response as to why he didn’t play the King’s Gambit, are new and funny tidbits with the response being: “Then I would have to feed my children through another profession.” (p. 92) Unlike most authors, when there are multiple versions of an event, Soltis recounts the variations and then leaves the reader to decide what happened. An example of this is when Soltis explores why Tal, a former World Champion, did not play in the 38th U.S.S.R. championship, being held in his hometown of Riga. (p. 299 – 300) Was it because of health issues, revenge for Tal considering becoming Georgian, or for not moving to Moscow? Other times, Soltis directly disputes material that
appears in the memoirs of these titled players. One example is that in Korchnoi’s memoir he argues that Petrosian “gave up chess” and pursued his education after he became World Champion, but Soltis demonstrates that Petrosian not played, but did so well, winning the Piatigorsky Cup.
Having over 10,000 games to choose from, Soltis chooses just 207 for the book. By being selective, he provides interesting and instructive games with a great deal of analysis. He chooses not to use computer-generated lines of analysis but a mix of his own lines of analysis, text explanations that the reader can apply to his own games, color commentary of what occurred during the game, and even later improvements that were found by others. A fine example of this is the 12th game of the Petrosian – Spassky 1966 World Championship match on p. 242 – 3.
The back matter for this book has the traditional indexes on opponents and openings as well as the general index, and two less common appendices. The best, and the most substantial appendix is a timeline that covers the activities of all four players throughout their lives, though there are only 10 entries after 1980, mostly covering the death of three of the players (Spassky is still alive.) The only substantive negative in the backmatter is the lack of a list of used websites in the bibliography, forcing the reader to go through endnotes to find them, and there are more than a few.
Though it is hardly a conclusive biography of any of these players and only covers their interactions over approximately 20 years, the book is an excellent narrative history of the trials and tribulations of these four players, providing a window for their thoughts and evolution of who they were as players and men. Even better, his collection of games is interesting and well-annotated. For these two reasons, this book is heartily recommended.
This book can be purchased online at www.mcfarlandbooks.com or by calling 800 – 253 – 2187.