Death, Madness and Chess

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Back in my dim and distant past as a very young proto-geek. One of my early heroes was the late chess champion Bobby Fischer. Of course this was well before the insanity and the invective and the hatred he spent the latter half of his life spewing to anyone who would listen. When I was a boy, he was just pure intellect in motion and I thought he was incredible and a sign from God.

I had no gift for chess, and I still don’t. Those few games in my life that I have won, I have won by sheer luck or by sharking a player even worse then I am, usually a child or family pet. However, despite all the horrible things he would go onto to express, Bobby Fischer in those early years was an expression to me of how intelligence and nerve could prevail against all odds, despite everything I was being taught to the contrary. I have tried to base at least part of my life on that example….hopefully I won’t go insane in the end like Bobby.


The following, a rare obituary that is fair to his better legacy despite the ugliness, is reprinted from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In Praise of Bobby Fischer

Of course Bobby Fischer was crazy. It’s charitable to say so, in fact, because if he wasn’t crazy, he was something worse: a poison-dripping hater of Jews and other human beings, and a conspiracy theorist both extravagant and ugly. Fischer’s anti-Semitic and anti-American diatribes figure prominently in his obituaries, so prominently that his pathologies threaten to obscure his greatest legacy. Let us not overlook that Bobby Fischer was a chess player. And oh, what a chess player he was. The man created masterpieces.

What made Fischer a chess avatar? Not just his sporting success. Certainly not his demeanor: He was the first chess prima donna, famous for his finicky petulance about playing conditions. No, it was his creativity. His games were — and are — beautiful.

Capping his rise from prodigy to chess titan, Fischer won the world chess championship from the great Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972. The Soviets had dominated chess for generations — an American-born champion was unheard of. Fischer’s triumph over the Russian chess establishment interested millions of Americans in chess in the process. I was one of those who followed the match on television (yes, chess was televised, albeit by PBS), and I excitedly played out the games at home when the moves were reprinted in the newspaper.

I first started playing serious chess as a young teenager, at the tail end of what is now known in American chess circles as “the Fischer boom.” Fischer’s success drew me, and tens of thousands of others, to the tournament halls. Even after he forfeited his title (rather than defend it under match terms he considered unacceptable) and withdrew from the game, his aura kept him visible, and his games remain to admire.

Every chess player has favorite Fischer games. One of mine is from the 1972 Spassky match, where Fischer made a surprise move with his knight to the edge of the board, inviting Spassky to capture it and compromising the pawn protection around Fischer’s king. Observing grandmasters were shocked, but Fischer showed that his own attack on Spassky’s king mattered more than the weaknesses he took on. I love that game because it’s so undogmatic.

I also love a game from the 60s in which Fischer voluntarily subjected his king to a withering attack from a world-class grandmaster because the meeker alternative, though easier to defend in practice, struck him as strategically incorrect. Fischer defended resourcefully, but only drew the game — a moral victory nevertheless for the chess principles he refused to abandon.

Such fealty to principle makes Fischer’s chess consistently instructive. His searching dedication to chess ideas, executed with supreme discipline, separated him from his peers and gave his best games a crystalline beauty and a majestic clarity.

That is, Bobby Fischer’s chess embodied qualities that he never showed anywhere else in his life. There lies the great irony of his life and work: This eccentric man showed a surpassing sanity when he sat down to play. His chess was not only uniquely creative, but also relentlessly clear and truth seeking. Bobby Fischer at the board was everything he wasn’t when he was away from it: honest, deep, respectful, and even philosophical.

Though essentially ignorant of everything but chess during his playing days, Fischer became a culture hero in the détente era. After he left the game and began his bigoted ranting, he became a culture villain. In doing so, he made the mistake of stepping out of his element. The only culture Fischer really knew was chess, which has a rich lore.

The first era of organized tournament chess, beginning in the mid-19th century, was the game’s romantic period. It featured lots of pyrotechnic sacrifices: giving the queen away, for example, in order to deliver an unexpected and aesthetically pleasing checkmate. Romantic chess, one might say, privileged the search for beauty in the game.

Priorities changed in the 20th century, overturned by a group of players who prized strategy and technique, and honed a set of principles to govern the play. They were the engineers of chess, disdaining flash in favor of direct, logical demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of a position. In bringing empirical, scientific reasoning to chess, these players sought truth over beauty. Generations of theorists (yes, chess has theorists) have built on their findings.

Bobby Fischer melded the phases of chess history into a universal style. He synthesized the romantic quest for beauty with the technical search for truth at the chessboard. Reviving discarded romantic concepts with added modern strategic nuances was one of many ways Fischer honored the game’s past. He is exalted by chess players around the world because his play rendered intricately beautiful conceptions with elegant lucidity, combining the art and the science of chess like no one before him. The result was innovative, rigorously logical art on a 64-square canvas.

Like many artists, though, Fischer wasn’t at home in the world. His obituaries faithfully recall many of his disturbing comments about the competitive struggle in tournament chess. “I like to see ’em squirm” is perhaps the best known of those. But his most off-putting statement on the subject, by my lights anyway, was his description of chess as “psychic murder.” If you feel that way, how is it possible to continue once you reach the pinnacle? No wonder Fischer left chess. In his view, to stay would have meant waiting around for someone to rise from the ranks and kill him.

I got into chess because I enjoyed the competition, but I stayed in it because the game offered me a chance, on my best days, to create something worth sharing. I’ve published various books and articles since I started my academic career, but my one published chess game, a sacrificial triumph over a strong master that I annotated for a magazine some years ago, has a special pride of place on my shelf.

Fischer resurrected himself briefly for a 1992 rematch against Spassky, but the spectacle offered thin gruel, as both players were diminished after 20 years. Fischer the chess player disappeared again after that match, this time for good.

I can’t say I’ll miss Bobby Fischer. Chessically speaking, he died years ago. But I’ll continue to miss the player and artist that he was, his courageous honesty and sublime creativity. He wasn’t just a great player. He went beyond that. “Chess,” Fischer said, “is life.” Maybe so, maybe not. But this I know: Bobby Fischer was chess.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m a terrible chess player. It’s been named, what I do, ‘kamikaze chess’. I’m mediocre until I do something that costs my Queen, and then all bets are off.

    I have actually won games against more seasoned players with a King and Rook alone, simply because I was doggedly persistent to make them pay for taking my Queen.

    I stayed in a chess club four years not because I was any good, but because they were so baffled by how I played, they had to watch me play over and over.

    “Come on,” they’d say to newcomers. “You gotta see this. You won’t believe it.”

    *grins*

  2. I’m utterly ruined for chess; my brother “taught” me to play when we were children, and kept changing the rules, confusing me utterly. Now I simply cannot hold the actual rules in my head, much less form a coherent strategy.

    We should play sometime. /laughs/

  3. *laughs*

    It’d be fun, at the least.

    Maybe we should sell tickets. :)


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