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Elegy For Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer

On January 17th, 2008, Bobby Fischer, widely regarded as the best chess player in history (during his prime), at least prior to the Kasparov era, died in Iceland after a long illness. Where most world champions are first among equals, Fischer was clearly in a class of his own. Unfortunately, he will be remembered outside the chess community for his bizarre behaviour more than his chess accomplishments, most infamously for his anti-Semitic rants (despite his Jewish background) and his outrageous response to the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, suggesting that he never resolved the psychological problems that plagued him in his youth. Sadly, he missed an opportunity, with his access to the airwaves, to play a much stronger variation by pointing out the accumulation of evidence challenging the official version of what happened on that fateful day.

With respect to his behaviour in the chess world, he frequently made outrageous demands for which he would usually tolerate nothing short of complete compliance, going so far as threatening to withdraw from his world championship match with Spassky in 1972, which he won handily in spite of committing a beginner's blunder in the first game and forfeiting the second game! However, while some assert that the tendency of such behaviour to unnerve his opponents may have been a motivating factor, everyone agrees that his behaviour at the board was impeccable, never doing anything to distract his opponents, and that his consistently uncompromising - some would say rude - behaviour, with respect to chess politics, led eventually to dramatically improved conditions for all chess professionals. He was, in fact, ahead of the curve as far as demanding respect, not just for the game, but for playing (and paying) conditions as well. Strangely, his penchant for making demands extended beyond the grave, apparently having demanded, prior to his death, not more than a small turnout for his funeral.

Fischer was clearly a genius, having, among other accomplishments, won the U.S. Championship at the tender age of 14, winning the next seven in a row, with an amazing cumulative score of 74 out of 90 points with only three losses, including a perfect 11-0 in the 1963/64 championship tournament; becoming the youngest grandmaster in history (at the time); and teaching himself Russian so he could read Russian chess literature. As if that weren't enough, he also accomplished one of the most astounding feats in the history of competition in any field. In the qualifying candidates matches to select Boris Spassky's opponent for the 1972 world championship match, Fischer scored a perfect 12-0 against his first two opponents, and demolished former world champion Tigran Petrosian, who was able to win only one game, in the final candidates match.

The 6-0 result of Fischer's first candidates' match with Mark Taimanov was rather deceptive, as all but one of Taimanov's losses was the result of a two-move oversight (Averbakh), suggesting a lack of adequate psychological preparation. Fischer, in fact, had anticipated a 3.5-2.5 result. An interesting side note is that Taimanov wanted former world champion Mikhail Tal on his team, and Tal was eager to assist. However, Botvinnik blocked Tal's selection because he regarded Tal as a bad influence, alleging that he - as well as Taimanov - was "given to Bohemianism."

Sadly, Fischer was unable to form any meaningful identity outside of Bobby Fischer the chess player, and this imbalance in the development of his personality would dog him to the end of his days. His mini-tome, I Was Tortured in a Pasadena Jailhouse, illustrates his megalomania, as all his problems related to that incident seemed to stem from his inability to appreciate that, under the circumstances, it was reasonable for the police to regard him with suspicion due to his inability to state the address of his residence. Fischer neglected to explain to readers how someone who could memorize numerous chess variations and entire games couldn't remember his address, or why the race of a police officer who ignored 'no smoking' signs should be considered relevant.

Perhaps nothing reveals Fischer's inability to escape his egocentrism more than his assertion, in an early 70s interview with a Zagreb newspaper, that "Children who grow up without a parent become wolves." One can only speculate as to how he could possibly have been unaware that many children, in fact, do grow up in single-parent families without becoming "wolves". While this just illustrates his ignorance - of wolves as well as people - another incident exposes his irrationality in an extremely dramatic fashion. He blamed the (temporary) loss of millions of dollars worth of personal memorabilia on a Jewish plot involving, among others, Bill Clinton and the CIA, when the reality was that it was auctioned off after he failed to continue paying storage fees and had not left any contact information with the storage facility.

With the exception of a meaningless, though lucrative, nostalgia match with Spassky in 1992, Fischer quit playing immediately after winning the world championship, presumably because his ego could not tolerate ever losing another game after having officially established himself as the best player in the world. This intransigence extended to refusing to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975. Adding salt to the wound, Karpov proved himself a worthy world champion, playing in numerous tournaments during his ten-year reign and winning many of them. While, according to Averbakh, Fischer did produce a few important theoretical novelties in his return match with Spassky and had a few good games, it proved conclusively that even the best players cannot maintain their skills without refreshing them in serious competitions on, at the least, a semi-regular basis.

As an example of Fischer's brilliance, many commentators will probably point to Fischer's famous "Game of the Century" against Donald Byrne in the 1956 New York Rosenwald tournament where, only 13 years old, he found one of the deepest queen sacrifices in the history of the game. In the following position:

instead of moving his attacked queen, Fischer played 17 Be6!! and won a masterpiece, checkmating his opponent on the 41st move. Note that 18 Qxc3 does not win a piece due to the response 18Qxc5. However, I would like to offer another game to illustrate his chess genius, one which, though not nearly as spectacular, impressed me profoundly with the extent to which a determined and unwavering will to win, or to avoid losing, can offer a source of inspired creativity. The following position was reached, after thirteen moves, in Fischer-Matulovic, Palma de Mallorca 1970:

In spite of being a pawn up (for the moment), Fischer has reached an atrocious position after misplaying the opening. Many players, probably including a few grandmasters, would consider the position hopeless, playing on for a few obligatory moves until they could properly resign without embarrassment. (One should understand that, among chess professionals, premature resignation in a chess game can be as awkward as the premature termination of some popular non-chess related activities.) White is severely behind in development; his king is stuck on a semi-open central file in a position that is a queenless middlegame - not an endgame; his blocked d-pawn is unable to advance to support his shaky centre; and his material advantage is about to evaporate, as 14 g3, with the idea of following up with 15 f4 to protect the e-pawn, fails for tactical reasons. For analysis of this move and the preparatory 14 h3 - to deny Black's knight the h3-square - as well as a thorough discussion of this unspectacular but fascinating position, see Elie Agur's excellent book, Fischer: His Approach to Chess, which brought this position to my attention. Alternatively, you could work out the variations on your own if you want to have some fun. Where most players would be devoting their time to bemoaning their careless opening play, Fischer actually comes up with an astounding idea that radically alters the assessment of the position in just a few moves. The position after 14 Nxd3 Nxd3 15 f4!! deserves another diagram:

While Black can restore the material balance with 15Nxf4, all of his advantages would disappear after 16 d4, when Black is unable to capture the g-pawn as his knight would be trapped after 17 h4! What makes it especially difficult to even consider 15 f4, is Black's threat to win the exchange with 15Nf2check. However, in exchange for a slight material deficit (White does have a pawn for the exchange), White has a rock-solid center (after 16 Ke1 Nxh1 17 d4), leaving Black's bishop biting on granite, when White's position may even be preferable. This is why Black eschews the immediate capture, and after 15Bh6 16 Kc2 Nxc1 17 Re1!! (another brilliant move) O-O-O 18 Kxc1 Bxf4 19 g3 Bh6 20 Kc2, White is out of danger and the game ended in a draw.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Fischer's most endearing trait, his complete and utter devotion to chess truth. He never attempted to hide his mistakes, even where his opponents failed to take advantage of them, or other commentators failed to notice them, and never hesitated to criticize his own play as well as that of others. Fischer's life was a tragedy, but his chess legacy will live forever, a legacy that would have been so much richer if he had only continued playing after attaining his life-long dream of becoming world champion. As grandmaster Yuri Averbakh pointed out, "It has long been established statistically that a chess player is at his best at the age of 30 to 40. As a rule, it is at that age that grandmasters achieve their best results. And, of course, it is very sad that the world's foremost chess player of the early 1970s, a player of scintillating and original talent, voluntarily crossed these years out of his chess life and did not make use of the gift that nature had bestowed upon him."

As former world champion Vassily Smyslov put it when commenting on Fischer having painted himself into a corner at the Sousse Interzonal in 1967 - which forced him to abandon the tournament to save face - "Alas, Fischer the man challenged Fischer the chess player, and the former won a victory that no one needed." - A fitting epitaph, indeed!


Fischer: His Approach to Chess
Russians versus Fischer
Chess Life - May 2005

George Kosinski
Gibsons, BC
March 2008