Nikolai Krogius, Adviser in Chess ‘Match of the Century,’ Dies at 91


In September 1972, a small group of Russian chess grandmasters headed towards Moscow on a plane, grimly anticipating the reception they would receive there. The group included Boris Spassky, who had just lost the world championship title to Bobby Fischer, the mercurial American player, and Nikolai Krogius, who had been part of the team assisting Mr. Spassky in the match in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The contest, called the “match of the century” by many, had taken on geopolitical overtones against the backdrop of the Cold War. Mr. Spassky’s loss was seen as a catastrophe in the Soviet Union, and those in the group feared they would be punished for their collective and individual failures.

Writing about the episode nearly 30 years later, Mr. Krogius said it was not as bad as they had anticipated. When they met with members of the Soviet and Russian Sports Committees, the discussion was “calm and businesslike,” he wrote, and immediately turned to what could be done to return the title to the Soviet Union.

That happened three years later, when Mr. Fischer chose to resign the title rather than play Anatoly Karpov. But the 1972 match remained a watershed in the history of chess, one for which Mr. Krogius had a front-row seat.

He died at 91 on Thursday in New York City, where he had lived for many years. His death was confirmed by the International Chess Federation, which did not specify the cause.

While Mr. Krogius was an accomplished player — he was No. 26 in the world at the time of the 1972 match — he was part of Mr. Spassky’s entourage for another reason: He was a sports psychologist and was there to offer insights on Mr. Fischer. He had also worked with Mr. Spassky before the match to try to prepare him, but as Mr. Krogius wrote years later, Mr. Spassky had been a difficult and reluctant student.

The problems were compounded once the match began. Mr. Fischer began making demands, including that Game 3 be played in a back room and not on the main stage in front of an audience. Mr. Spassky acquiesced to them all, which, as Mr. Krogius noted, was his nature.

Mr. Krogius tried to persuade him to resist, but to no avail. “Spassky couldn’t bring himself to do it,” he wrote in a two-volume history of Boris Spassky and the match with Fischer, published in 1998 and 2000. “He gave in and so, gradually, but inevitably, lost the psychological struggle.”

Mr. Krogius was born on July 22, 1930, in Saratov, Russia, a port on the Volga River. His development as a chess player was steady but slow, because the Soviet Union in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s had an unparalleled collection of talent and it was difficult for any player to break through. As a further hurdle, Mr. Krogius was working towards his doctorate in psychology.

He qualified, however, for the Soviet Championship — then the most elite tournament in the world — for the first time in 1958, finishing tied for ninth. He went on to play in six more championships through 1971, although he never came close to winning.

Mr. Krogius earned the grandmaster title after winning the Chigorin Memorial in Sochi, Russia, in 1964. He was ranked No. 18 in the world in 1967, according to Chessmetrics, a site that ranks players as far back as 200 years, based on their performances. Around that time, he began working with Mr. Spassky and helping him prepare for his matches.

Mr. Krogius was an essential member of Mr. Spassky’s team when Mr. Spassky won the world championship in 1969 by beating Tigran Petrosian, the reigning titleholder at the time. It was because of that experience that he remained with Mr. Spassky for the 1972 match.

After that match, Mr. Krogius began to play less often, concentrating more on writing and becoming active in the Soviet chess hierarchy. He served as president of the Soviet Chess Federation and was the head of Mr. Karpov’s delegation during his last match for the world championship against Garry Kasparov in 1990, a match that Mr. Kasparov won.

Among Mr. Krogius’s books, “Psychology in Chess” (1976) is considered one of the finest treatises about how players think during games and what they can do to cut down on their mistakes. Mr. Spassky wrote the introduction, emphasizing the importance of understanding psychology to become a successful chess player.

In the 1990s, Mr. Krogius returned to competition and tied for first in the World Senior Championship in 1993.

He continued to work as a coach and a trainer, resettling on Staten Island with his wife, Irina, with whom he had two daughters, Olga and Maria. (Information on his survivors was not immediately available.)

Mr. Krogius’s best-known pupil in the United States during his time as a coach was Irina Krush, who went on to become an eight-time US women’s champion.

Just after the 1972 match, Mr. Krogius encountered Mr. Fischer at a reception in Reykjavik, Iceland. They spoke in Russian, which Mr. Fischer had learned from reading Soviet chess publications. Mr. Fischer admitted that he had read some of the things that Mr. Krogius had written about psychology, although he had found it difficult because Mr. Krogius was not writing exclusively about chess.

Suddenly, Mr. Fischer quoted a line that Mr. Krogius had written: “Mistakes are often made when a player persists in his delusions.”

Surprised, Mr. Krogius replied: “Perhaps this thought guided you when you were preparing for the match? We saw a completely new Fischer in Reykjavik, very different from the old one.”

Mr. Fischer smiled and walked away.

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