Sunday, July 11, 2010

Remembering Bobby Fischer

One of the more interesting recent stories was about the exhumation of chess champion Bobby Fischer's body to extract a DNA sample for a paternity test. Obviously, the people fighting for a share of his estate have an interest in all of this. But how is it that a mere chess player can make headlines two years after his death? This must be especially puzzling for those who are too young or weren’t even born when the 1972 World Chess Championship took place in Reykjavik, Iceland between the American chess genius Bobby Fischer and the defending champion, Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union.

Yes, the Cold War was still going on and any rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was going to attract a lot of attention. But this was extra special. On one hand, there were the Russians who with help from their government, turned out chess champions like a machine. In fact since 1948, every World Championship (conducted every three years) was one Russian competing against another. But here was the brash American hope who in addition,
had openly accused the Russians of cheating by arranging the results of games between them in tournaments Fischer participated in. Clearly, Fischer was considered the best player in the world at that time, if not the greatest ever. But he had never defeated Spassky while losing to him three times. Something had to give.

Although chess never had any widespread following before the 1972 championship (at least in America), back in the 1950s, news did appear about a sensational chess prodigy who accomplished unheard of chess feats for someone his age. In fact, he made an appearance on I’ve Got a Secret as shown in this
video link. While his face was not yet recognizable to the panelists, he was presented as “Mr. X” because by then his name would be. If you look at this very young looking 15 year old, it’s hard to believe that he was the reigning US Champion as host Garry Moore pointed out. But there was another fact about him that was even more amazing. It turned out that he won a game that was so brilliant, it was dubbed at the time The Game of the Century, and retains that name even to this day! That game was played two years earlier when he was only 13! Chess fans can find the video annotation of that game here.

The 1960s were a period of maturing for Fischer. His dominance in the US Championships each year clearly established him as the best American player and among the world’s best, but he was unable to get to the World Championship match until 1972. The anticipation of him finally getting there was by then
receiving worldwide media coverage.

The match in Reykjavik was a media circus. There was not only the anticipated match between the superpowers, but there was further tension as to whether they would even play due to Fischer’s unending list of demands over the match conditions. After blundering away Game 1, Game 2 was forfeited by Fischer for not showing up. His opponent, Boris Spassky could well have not given in to the demands and retain his championship by forfeit. But Spassky in the spirit of sportsmanship didn’t want to win this way. So he decided to give in to Fischer’s demands so he could beat him legitimately over the board. And why not with a substantial 2-0 lead in the match? So Fischer showed up for Game 3 — and beat Spassky for the first time in his life! Here is a
video showing some of the goings on in Reykjavik.

Normally, a chess match like this would be covered by the chess publications along with a few wire service reporters. Not this time. Reporters from all over the world converged on the match. National newscasts and even local newspapers and sportscasts provided daily coverage of the match. And New York’s WNET and then PBS made chess and television history with
live coverage of the match that drew a record audience.
[The show] spiced the menu with visits from passing grandmasters, writers, and simply friends who happened by. They all happily jabbered about the developing positions, explained strategy and predicted moves. When one of the players in Reykjavik pushed a pawn or slid a bishop, a bell rang in the studio and everyone shut up for a few seconds before bursting into a new round of analysis. New Yorkers loved it, and soon the match spread around the country as other major cities began carrying it on their own PBS affiliates. This was something special.
When Spassky resigned Game 21, Fischer had finally attained his World Championship for which he had devoted his life. At that time he was arguably the most famous person on the planet. Public adoration and great riches were offered to him. But once he finally achieved his ultimate goal at age 29, the question now was “What next?” And perhaps for the first time in his life, Fischer had no answer.

In a previous blog post, Why We All Need Balance I wrote about the extreme difficulties some (including Fischer) can have finding fulfillment in their lives after they have reached the summit. Although he could have made millions by endorsements and playing, more than anything else, the loner in him wanted isolation and he soon dropped out of sight.

When it came time to defend his World Championship in 1975 against another up and coming Soviet superstar, Anatoly Karpov, Fischer who had not played a single serious game as champion was at it again with his unending demands over the match conditions. But unlike Spassky, Karpov apparently did not care so much if he won the championship by forfeit. So this time when Fischer did not show up because his demands were not met, he lost his title without either man playing a single move.

So it was back to isolation. What were seen as mental quirks during his playing days, the occasional anti-Semitic comments and paranoia became far more frequent and severe. Slowly but surely Fischer was becoming a raving madman once he no longer had chess to occupy his mind.

After turning down all of the previous lucrative offers to play, in 1992, 20 years after his championship win in Reykjavik, Fischer who by now was broke, accepted a multi-million dollar offer to play an exhibition match with Spassky. But this time, there was one big catch. The sponsor insisted that the match be played in the former Yugoslavia — which was being punished by UN sanctions. If Fischer were to play and accept the money, he would then be subject to a fine and jail time in the US. At a news conference at the tournament, Fischer waived a copy of the ‘cease and desist’ order from the US government — and then spat on it. From now on his evil rants would not only denounce Jews but also the US. His most infamous rant was during a radio interview in the Philippines where he applauded the recent September 11 attacks on America.

Fischer defeated Spassky again and pocketed the prize money. But now he was a criminal under US law and could never return without being arrested. This meant that he could not be there when his mother died in 1997 followed by his sister in 1998 which likely drove him even more over the edge. He was later arrested trying to leave Japan when it was discovered that his passport had been revoked by the US. He was then held in a Japanese prison for eight months while fighting extradition to America to face charges. It was then that the government of Iceland stepped in and granted Fischer citizenship and asylum for ‘humanitarian reasons’ along with gratitude for his part in putting Iceland on the map during his 1972 match with Spassky. He again lived a reclusive life in Iceland before dying from kidney failure in 2008 at age 64. Only five people attended the funeral in accordance with Fischer's wishes.

So when appraising Fischer’s life, we have to make a judgment on whether he is to be despised for his hate speech against Jews and other Americans or pitied for being mentally ill. What makes the anti-Semitism so difficult to understand was that his mother was Jewish. And now evidence exists to suggest that his real biological father was also Jewish. It’s one thing for somebody to hate Jews. But his poisonous rants were so over-the-top and so completely divorced from reality that it is hard to read or listen to them and not come to the conclusion that this was from a truly sick mind. Dick Cavett who had Fischer on his show three times in the early 1970s, offered this thoughtful retrospective on what was then
a very different Bobby Fischer.

As part of his chess legacy, he has given us
My 60 Memorable Games which came out in 1969 and is still considered one of the best chess game collections of all time. In addition, he is still considered one of the very best to have ever played the game. (Former World Champion Garry Kasparov who had a more enduring career at the top since Fischer’s exit is now the consensus ‘best of all time’.)

But for his many admiring chess playing fans (including me), it was his fighting spirit that made Fischer so special. Since the player of the white pieces moves first and thus has a small technical advantage (similar to having the serve in tennis), many of the top-flight chess masters have adopted a strategy of playing solid defenses with black to get a draw and then use their turn with the white pieces to squeeze out victories. It’s solid strategy but it leads to a lot of boring draws. Instead, Fischer with black usually adopted more risky fighting defenses going for the win. His great success with the black pieces was responsible for some of his incredibly dominating tournament and match results over his rivals.

I can't sum it up any better than with this passage from the New York Times
obituary for Fischer.
Mr. Fischer won with such brilliance and dramatic flair that he became an icon, an unassailable representative of greatness in the world of competitive games, much as Babe Ruth had been and Michael Jordan would become.

It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as esthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article about a legendary chess player. Thanks for sharing, Tony.