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Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer

by on 11 December 2019

All Gambits Declined

Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer

by Tom Morton-Smith

Sonia Friedman Productions at the Hampstead Theatre until 18th January

Hampstead Theatre World Premiere

Review by Eugene Broad

Directed by Annabelle Comyn, Ravens: Spassky vs. Fischer is a new play on the eminently historical and dramatic World Championship in chess, which took place between the mentally unhinged American, Bobby Fischer, and the Soviet gentleman-professional Boris Spassky. Having a solid background in chess and chess history, this review is unfortunately biased through that perspective and lens, as well as discussions with my close friendship circle, which appropriately includes a Russian titled player, who was unfortunately unable to attend the play due to a last minute tournament commitments in Poland.

RAVENS Board (2)

In any event, those passionate about chess know the 1972 World Championship intimately. It is by far the most well-known World Championship, and also one of the best known chess events in the general public’s consciousness, other than perhaps Kasparov’s matches against IBM’s computer Deep Blue. It is so well known because of what it represents – not just battles on the board between a chess player frequently cited as the best to have ever lived (this is contentious, and will spark a debate between any chess enthusiasts about whether it was Fischer, Kasparov, or the current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen), and the strongest Soviet player at a time when Soviet dominance in chess had been unrivalled since the end of the Second World War – but also another proxy battle between the Communist Soviet Union and the Capitalist USA at the peak of the Cold War.

In chess terms, Fischer’s eventual victory was immense, given the Soviet habit of strong grandmasters coaching, preparing, and arranging draws between each other. Anyone playing a Soviet grandmaster wasn’t just playing their opponent, but also every other strong Soviet player available to help them. In the World Championship, there were no players of equivalent strength for Fischer to receive coaching or preparation from. The next strongest players in the US were significantly weaker than any of the top ten Soviet players, so in chess terms Fischer’s victory wasn’t just his team against Spassky’s team; it genuinely was Fischer’s individual victory versus the collective coaching, preparation and advice of the well-funded top Soviet players. Although, in fairness, it’s uncertain how much help these other Soviet grandmasters would have been to Spassky, as Fischer was over 125 rating points stronger than Spassky, the world number two. This is an almost unheard of gap. Until Magnus Carlsen, the gap was often less than 10 rating points.

But the 1972 World Championship is also known for the extreme drama that occurred, which makes it perfect for cinema or stage. Fischer’s exact mental health issues are unknown, but he was very prone to delusions and paranoia, with many suspecting he was schizophrenic. In the World Championship, the presence of the audience (somewhat understandably) unsettled him, but (less understandably) so did the proximity of the pot plants in the room, the contrast between the squares on the chessboard, and he claimed to hear the ultrasonic frequencies from the television cameras. Infamously, Fischer was an eccentric character who was vehemently anti-Communist in the style of McCarthy, and anti-Semitic to the extent of idolising Hitler, albeit having Jewish ancestry himself. But Fischer was complex, equally anti-American, although this seemed to be because he subscribed in outlandish conspiracy theories, such as the USA being ran by a shadowy cabal of Jews who Svengali’d the US government, and that this cabal sought to persecute him for realising the truth.

Ravens (BOBBY FISCHER) (4)

This outlandish behaviour has filtered into the general public knowledge and mythos relating to chess, although with some artistic licence. The cinematic nature of the Spassky – Fischer match is clearly presented in Ravens, and from this it seems to have also drawn from the recent Hollywood film Pawn Sacrifice. This isn’t just because of the identical subject material of both Pawn Sacrifice and Ravens, but the presentation of Ravens lends itself to a cinematic feel, as did the runtime at nearly three hours. Intelligent set design by Jamie Vartan incorporates shifting panels revealing new parts of the stage, giving the feeling of scene cuts. Howard Harrison’s clever lighting design also allows some of the stage lights to be part of this, at times tightening the frame, other times widening it. Television screen props and projections keep the score for the audience, giving the impression of being in the media room. Even the composition and music adds to that cinematic impression.

Fischer, portrayed as an immature and arrogant savant descending into a madness where winning is the only thing of value, is performed convincingly and, at times, disturbingly, by Robert Emms. This is the main angle, the mainstream take on Fischer, as a flawed genius, whose unique talent for the game is marred by his erratic behaviour and commentary. It makes for dramatic and compelling spectacle, but Fischer was a genuinely unwell individual who had pressures thrust upon him. He himself was an unwitting pawn in a greater game he didn’t really understand, leading to his withdrawal from competitive chess and social reclusion. Unfortunately, in Morton-Smith’s interpretation, I never really saw that side of Fischer, his vulnerability and how society itself exploited him at the time … and, to some extent, how society continues to exploit him and his legacy.

Ravens (SAEMI-ROKK)There were some moments where he opens up to his Icelandic chaperone, Sæmundur Pálsson (known as Sæmi-Rokk, a pun in Icelandic, but we won’t go there), who is played by Gary Shelford, where perhaps some more vulnerability is on display: innocently chasing Icelandic sheep and taking a pure delight in it, or explaining his background and motives. Likewise, there are some moments between Fischer’s second, William Lombardy (Solomon Israel), where we get a greater sense of Fischer’s motives, and how people who had known Fischer since he was a child were now viewing him, the various patterns or tactics Fischer had come to rely on, and his black and white way of viewing the world. This interaction with Lombardy feels essential – without his sensitive understanding of Fischer, and without his exposition, it’s difficult for a non-chess enthusiast audience to appreciate Fischer’s achievements in light of his background. This, perhaps, could’ve been explored more and would lend itself well to more of a psychological exploration of Fischer. There are hints given throughout the script, but only my knowledge of chess and of Fischer tied into the plot and story.

RAVENS SPASSKY

Boris Spassky was (and to the best of my knowledge, remains) a more straightforward individual, known to be a consummate professional and a gentleman. Ronan Raftery portrayed him following this vein, magnanimous and humble in defeat, and reluctant to directly criticise Fischer. In the drama, as in real life, Fischer plays the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Tartakower variation, an opening Fischer had never competitively used before, and had actually criticised as unambitious and losing, consequently surprising everyone in game 6 when he employed it to great effect, securing a victory over Spassky. So impressed (perhaps at Fischer’s long-term swindle as well as the game itself) Spassky joined the audience in applauding Fischer’s victory.

Much of the drama on the Soviet side comes from the unique political pressures Spaasky and his team faced. His grandmaster tactics and opening coaches and preparers, Efim Geller and Nikolai Krogius, (played by Gyuri Sarossy and Rebecca Scroggs respectively) show us their slide into paranoia as the pressure mounts. Initially cool, composed, and calculating, they eventually also succumb to the anxiety that the Kremlin and KGB may be concerned with their performance, looking for espionage bugs, or radiation-emitting devices in the lighting system, or believing that the orange juice may be doped. Their paranoia is ultimately based more in reality than Fischer’s is, although questions are raised as to whether there may be more to Krogius than meets the eye.

Ravens ENSEMBLE (2)

Spassky was never a member of the Communist party, and as suggested in the play there were fears he threw the games in order to more easily to defect to the West. Iivo Nei, just an international master (the title below grandmaster, but still only making up around the top 5,000 players in the world) and Spassky’s sparring partner, enacted with innocent naivety by Beruce Khan, unfortunately bears the brunt of the concerns of defection after his friendships raise doubts.

As a chess enthusiast, and someone who has come to appreciate and enjoy “the game of kings” as more than just a board game but also as a medium where art, design, mathematics, and creativity combine, I’m never going to be unhappy with something which gives me such pleasure in life receiving more mainstream appeal. I want chess to have more visibility within society. But I don’t think Ravens will appeal just to the chess enthusiast wanting to see this historic segment of chess and politics represented on the stage. I think the complex interplay of human motivations, ambitions, politics and sport can be appreciated by anyone to enjoy this play.

Consequently I’m looking forward to Tom Morton-Smith one day visiting more of the stories within chess. There are countless hundreds of remarkable individuals or events to choose from. One of my favourites includes the Mechanical Turk – an early chess-playing robot from the 1800s who was said to be powered by demonology – infamously playing the great and good of the day, and even telling off Napoleon with a wagging finger when he played an illegal move. In terms of humans, there are so many stories, dramas, rivalries, and personalities within chess that whilst Fischer vs Spassky will always be a favourite, it cannot be the only defining moment in the known 1500 year history of chess.

Eugene Broad
December 2019

Photography by Manuel Harlan

Editor’s Note: Eugene Broad is one of our opera and drama critics, but also writes extensively about chess, so writes this review predominantly from a chess perspective.
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