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As Long as We Remember...

March 11, 2009

Bobby Fischer: Genius or Madman?

Michael Kurtianyk

It has often been said that there’s a fine line between genius and madness. Think of some people whom you consider to be geniuses? Does Albert Einstein come to mind? Thomas Jefferson? Benjamin Franklin?


One that I would add to any list would be Bobby Fischer. This week would have marked his 66th birthday, and his loss to the chess world is still being felt today. His creativity on the chess board, his passion for the game, and his brilliance in competitions has rarely been matched by others since he left the chess limelight.


Bobby Fischer began to play chess at the age of six. His sister bought him a set at a candy store and taught him the moves. At first it was just one of many board games that interested him. At nine, however, he became obsessed with the game and began to exhibit talent. He was invited to play at some of the city's best chess clubs, and when he was 13 he entered tournament play.


Easily a child prodigy in the 1950s, his first real success occurred in July 1956, when 13, he became the youngest-ever winner of the United States Junior Chess Championship. In that year, Bobby Fischer was awarded the U.S. title of National Master, at that time the youngest ever.


Mr. Fischer made many theoretical contributions to the game, but perhaps his greatest contribution was his notion of playing with unrelenting and uncompromising passion. He had a distaste for draws and played on until the position was lifeless. It is said that he once played another move after the game only had two kings!


He was an imposing figure: tall, well-dressed, and clean-cut and was famous for his incredible memory. Stories have been told of him being able to recall blitz games move-by-move that had been played many years beforehand.


Bobby Fischer took on the Soviet chess empire, and, in 1972, faced the great Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. This match would become the most famous chess match ever played and was filled with controversy from the start. Only an intervention by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the urging by close chess friends averted a forfeit loss. After forfeiting the first game, Mr. Fischer demolition of Spassky was so thorough and complete that the world was shocked beyond imagination. Mr. Spassky fell into disfavor with the Soviet establishment and later immigrated to France.


Fischer’s victory led to the so-called “Fischer Boom” in America; and he was responsible for a spike in chess interest, and created a national popularity in chess around the country. He also captured the imagination of players around the world. I was one of those who heard of the great Fischer-Spassky match in 1972, though I was too young to understand the cultural relevance back then. I just knew that my father wanted Bobby Fischer to win, the irony being that my father didn’t know a lick of chess!


After abdicating the throne in 1975, Mr. Fischer became known more for his increased reclusiveness and his rants. Hours after the 9/11 attacks, he stated that the United States had “gotten what they deserved” and recounted atrocities such as slavery of Africans and the extermination of the Native Americans as examples. His comments met the ire of the American media, and thereafter, the news reports usually focused on his anti-Semitic rants and his non-chess problems.


Mr. Fischer won a rematch with Mr. Spassky in 1992, in a match played in what was then Yugoslavia, which was under a strict U.N. sanction. After the match, Bobby Fischer never returned to the United States.


In 2005, Fischer returned to Reykjavík, the site of his famous match in 1972 chess match against Mr. Spassky. He lived a reclusive life there, avoiding entrepreneurs and other people who approached him with various proposals. He died January 17, 2008, at home in his apartment in Reykjavík. He was 64.


A movie on his life is in the works (“Bobby Fischer Live”), and numerous books have been written about him. I prize my copy of his book: My 60 Memorable Games. Though I have dabbled in chess, I make no claims as to my abilities in this game.


I do know that chess is a great way to unwind after a long day, because of its purity. There are openings you can use, and its secret lies in one’s ability to focus on the moves themselves. To me, there is a pure “cause-and-effect” system that I like: if you move this piece, then this will happen next. The moves domino thereafter. Therein lies the beauty of chess.


The chess-playing psychologist William Hartson once wrote: “Chess is not something that drives people mad. Chess is something that keeps mad people sane.”


Truer words were never spoken of Bobby Fischer.


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