Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Search continues

How many news sources blared the same headline last week: Fischer checkmated, or No longer 'Searching for Bobby Fischer'? I wonder how many people under age 40 even know who Bobby Fischer is? A fair percentage of those who do recognize his name do so, no doubt, because of the book or film Searching for Bobby Fischer, written by Fred Waitzkin about his son Josh - like Fischer a chess prodigy at a tender age.

Bobby Fischer is in the news again, at age 61, because he was detained at the Narita airport in Japan, allegedly for attempting to leave the country using a revoked U.S. passport. Although the passport wasn't revoked until 2003, he's actually been a wanted man by the U.S. government since 1992, when he blatantly went forward with a chess match in Yugoslavia (when there still was a Yugoslavia), in violation of an presidential executive order in support of U.N. sanctions against economic activities in the war-torn country. His economic activity was walking away with $3.65 million in prize money, for again defeating his old nemesis Boris Spassky, in a reprise of the 'Match of the Century' -- twenty years later.

So now he sits in Japanese detention, appealing his probable deportation to the U.S., where he faces a maximum $250,000 fine, and up to 10 years in prison. What a sad end for a seemingly sad and bitter man, who once stood preeminent upon the world stage, and in the midst of the Cold War was considered a great American hero. A lone champion who took on the chess world, long dominated by the Soviets and their 'system', and became the Champion of the World. Yet for anyone who followed with great interest his phenomenal rise (U.S. Champion at age 14, Grandmaster at age 15) to the World Championship at age 29, an outcome such as this was presaged.

I sat enraptured during the summer of 1972, watching PBS on TV as the American Master Shelby Lyman awaited the ring of the wire service machine, signaling the reception of the latest move from the titanic struggle occurring in Reykjavik, Iceland. He'd quickly 'post' the move on a large demonstration chessboard, often with a grin and a head shake, as he recognized that Fischer had made another brilliant, audacious move that neither he, nor the guest analysts had even considered.

It was a summer of high drama, not only due to the match play itself, but as to whether or not the match itself would even occur. From the very start, Fischer made one demand after another of the organizers. Lighting had to be changed; the chairs weren't right; there was too much glare on the first chessboard; the TV camera made noise; the first 7 spectator rows had to be left empty, etc. All of these demands -- and more -- were delivered with the implied or explicit threat, that if not met, Bobby would be leaving. When he was finally persuaded to actually sit down and play in Game 1, he blundered, turning a won position into a defeat. He then refused to play Game 2 until still more demands were satisfied, and was apparently surprised when those went unmet, and World Champion Spassky was handed the game by default.

It took a call from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, with an appeal to Fischer's patriotism, along with a contribution of $125,000 from a London financier, sweetening the pot, to convince Fischer to resume the match. He did -- winning Game 3 with the black pieces -- and became comfortable with the setting (while Spassky and the Soviet contingent began to become psychologically unhinged, first by Fischer's antics, then by his chess), and never looked back...winning the match -- and the World Championship crown -- with a score of 12.5 - 8.5. He also achieved the highest rating of any chess player in history while he was at it.

Like many young boys, I'd learned the moves of the game from my father, and had enough interest early on to join the school chess club and begin playing postal chess (where you'd play 6 or 7 other players worldwide simultaneously, by sending them a postcard with your latest move, and waiting usually several weeks for their move in response -- games tended to take awhile ), while trying to figure out the complexities of Star Trek's 3-dimensional version. Things changed with the first electronic chess sets (mine being a Tandy as I recall), as one no longer knew if the game was against a human or a computer, and I largely moved on to the similarly cutthroat sport of table tennis .

Throughout this time -- years prior to the 1972 match -- Fischer was the perennial U.S. Chess Champion, and we all eagerly awaited his eventual battle for world supremacy. Here was a warrior, an athlete of the mind, who many still see as the greatest chess player to have ever played. His brilliance and creativity on the chessboard was scintillating. His genius seemingly decades ahead of its time. Yet even then, allowances had to be made for Bobby.

Few prodigies, in any field, make the transition to adulthood without great difficulty it seems. Fewer still arrive with their talent and genius intact. In Fischer's case, that brilliance on the chessboard not only made the journey into manhood, it continued to grow and strengthen. Unfortunately, by all accounts of those who've known him well, the rest of his emotional and social development seemed to have arrested at a very young age. His passion for chess took hold at age 6, his parents having divorced when he was in just his 2nd year. By all accounts his mother was somewhat unbalanced, and his slightly older sister Jane seems to have provided the bulk of any stability he experienced in his personal life. His precocity at chess soon found a welcome home in the chess clubs of Manhattan, where he was soon defeating experienced players decades older than himself. Without proper guidance, one had the recipe for creating an enfant terrible from that situation alone.

Since his triumph in 1972, and his even more outrageous playing demands (although some where quite legitimate and for the good of the game) 3 years later prior to his scheduled title defense against Anatoly Karpov -- which Karpov won by default -- Fischer virtually disappeared from sight for 20 years (hence, Searching for Bobby Fischer). His reemergence in Yugoslavia against Spassky, whom he again easily defeated, was punctuated by vitriolic attacks again both the U.S. and 'World Jewry'. In fact, his anti-Semitism had become one of the cornerstones of his growing paranoia, as he ascribed most of the world's ills (primarily expressed through rants on radio call-in shows) -- and his personal tragedies, to a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. This particular focus is made the more revealing by the fact that his mother was Jewish.

Fischer's rise and decline eerily echo that of the other great American chess player, Paul Morphy, who in the 19th century was considered the strongest player of his time, the first chess prodigy and the first unofficial World Champion (having traveled to take on and beat Europe's best players). He too gave up the game as a young man, and died at age 47 (having not played for 25 years). There are reports of him wandering the streets of New Orleans, talking to people no one else could see, evidencing deep feelings of persecution.

Lest I leave the false impression that this type of mental aberration is common among chess players (it appears to be no more prevalent than in any other group of highly creative people), there are actually too many counter-examples of normal stability to mention. Fischer's nemesis Boris Spassky (if any chess player other than himself qualifies for that title), is by all accounts one of the most gracious people one could hope to meet.

Yet in all the coverage of Fischer's downfall these past days, it's Garry Kasparov, the world's strongest player (several times World Champion), and the one who has the best claim to contest the title of 'Greatest Player of All Time' with Fischer, who wrote most movingly of Fischer's condition, in a piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, (I had the great pleasure of attending a game in the match Kasparov played against IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer in Manhattan in 1997).

In part, he said:

The conventional wisdom says that Bobby Fischer was a guileless and petulant child who just wanted his own way. I believe he was conscious of all his actions and the psychological effect his behavior had on his opponents. The gentlemanly Mr. Spassky was ill-prepared to deal with the belligerent American in Reykjavik. In 1975, Mr. Fischer's challenger was the young Mr. Karpov, whom I would later meet in five consecutive world championship matches.

Unable to even contemplate defeat, Mr. Fischer left chess. Bereft of the only thing he had ever wanted to do in his life, he turned his destructive energies inward, espousing a virulent anti-Semitism--despite his own Jewish heritage.

The Fischer drama had a final act in 1992, when, almost 50 years old, he was brought out of seclusion by the lure of millions to play a rematch against Mr. Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. The chess was predictably rusty, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. His mental stability, however, had atrophied even more during the 20 years of solitude. Later, Mr. Fischer's profane remarks would span from accusations of Jewish conspiracies to a welcoming of the events of 9/11.

Despite the ugliness of his decline, Bobby Fischer deserves to be remembered for the great things he did for chess and for his immortal games. I would prefer to focus on not letting his personal tragedy become a tragedy for chess.

An entire generation of top American players learned the game as kids thanks to Mr. Fischer. Today's flourishing scholastic chess movement could be harmed as his woes and beliefs make headlines around the world. People may believe that this is what happens when a genius plays chess--instead of what happens when a fragile mind leaves his life's work behind.

Mr. Kasparov is Jewish.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Heroes still

Ours is not a time that rests easy with the idea of having heroes, except perhaps in the aggregate, as in 'the American soldier' or in the absurd, as with today's luminescent celebrity. Perhaps this is due in large measure because we know too much about individuals today -- or think we do. Clay feet seem to support the most magnificent bronze statues, wobbling under the strain and fissuring in advance of the inevitable collapse.

But that's as it should be, for none of those bronzes ever captured a true, flawed human being to begin with. At best, they represented a moment in time or an expression of the supposed pinnacle of a person's achievement (raising the flag on Iwo Jima or, for another generation and at a further remove from non-cinematic reality, Rocky Balboa) rather than the inescapable shortcomings and limitations which add the true piquancy to the heroic expressions of our species.

As I write this it's the 35th anniversary of the founding of Tranquility Base...the landing of the Eagle....Man's first known steps upon another world (with the great age of the Earth, the ever lengthening estimates of our species' age and the miniscule possibilities of artifact preservation, I remain open to the possibility that we've been this way before). Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins -- along with the other pioneers of space exploration -- certainly stand in my personal pantheon of heroic players. In the heat of the space race with the Soviet Union, there were many unknowns facing NASA, and these three explorers in particular. The courage that it took to ride to the Moon's surface in a tissue-thin spacecraft, land on a 'surface' that might engulf one's conveyance beneath 12 feet of 'moon dust' (still an unknown factor, seriously discussed at the time) and leave those footprint impressions while jogging through an airless void, all the time knowing that a small, relatively untested rocket engine had to fire perfectly the first time, was only matched by a similar courage faced by Collins, alone and locked in orbit around a satellite a quarter-million miles from home.

I was 13 years old on that night, locked in a bodycast from recent surgery, and perhaps never as excited before or since. Those first grainy images were some of the most spectacular sights ever witnessed by the world-at-large. I had my Saturn V model -- which I had constructed in the days immediately prior to the landing -- at my bedside, ready to serve should any of the adults present require my instruction in the mission particulars of staging or Lunar Module extraction (although my Saturn V had suffered the near-fatal accident of crashing to the floor at the paws of my cat Guru, only days before). I felt such pride in being part of the human family that night...and nothing seemed beyond reach at that point. When Armstrong started reading the message on the plaque affixed to the leg of the lander, I think we all felt a kinship that's rarely experienced except in extremis, such as immediately following September 11th:


JULY 1969 A.D.

Another commemoration took place this month that bears on a personal exemplar. The U.S. Postal Service released a stamp on July 12th (his birthday) honoring the life and contribution of R. Buckminster Fuller, or Bucky, as he was affectionately known to the 'Me' generation of the 60's and 70's. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fuller's patent for the geodesic dome. Although my philatelic interest has been quite limited thus far in life, this was a first-day-of-issue stamp that was a must.

Fuller was a true renaissance man. Designer, inventer, mathematician, poet, architect, engineer, cosmologist and 'comprehensivist'. Through his 'World Game', which inventoried all of the renewable, sustainable resources of 'Spaceship Earth' (a term he coined), he determined that if there was the political will:
“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”
After reading many of his published works, and being inspired by his personal story (the following paragraph is taken from Who Is Buckminster Fuller? on the Buckminster Fuller Institute website), I came to think of him as the 'mind of the planet':
In 1927, at the age of 32, Buckminster Fuller stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, prepared to throw himself into the freezing waters. His first child had died. He was bankrupt, discredited and jobless, and he had a wife and new-born daughter. On the verge of suicide, it suddenly struck him that his life belonged, not to himself, but to the universe. He chose at that moment to embark on what he called “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.” Over the next fifty-four years, he proved, time and again, that his most controversial ideas were practical and workable.
In the late '70s I had the great pleasure of spending the better part of 2 days with him at a symposium he held at the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge. My assessment of him changed a bit after that experience, as I came to additionally regard him as the 'heart of the planet'. Already in his 80s, he exuded a personal power and energy that was startling. His pixyish demeanor was magnified by coke-bottle lenses, which made readily apparent the twinkle in his eyes as he took pity on us every few hours and allowed us a break from his rapid-fire speech.

I remember his emphasis on the importance of making 'mistakes', as that's where real learning occurs (echoing perhaps Edison's quote about his supposed failures prior to creating a sustainable, long-lasting lightbulb, "We now know a thousand ways not to build a lightbulb"). Rarely is the achievement of success a straight line, Fuller averred, but more like a sailboat which tacks around an approximate course...first this way, then with a slight correction that way. It's often during those slight detours that the most important insights and discoveries manifest.

Earlier in his life Fuller ceased speaking for almost 2 years, the self-imposed moritorium enacted until he could reach a state of mind where he would be able to communicate exactly what he meant. When he did begin to verbalize again, it was with a very idiosyncratic -- but very precise -- vocabulary of self-created terms. He more than made up for his silence over the remaining course of his life...delivering thousands of lectures as he, by his own calculation, encircled the globe at least 57 times. His greatest speaking engagement took place in 1975 however, when he was asked to submit to a videotaping. Basically, the ground-rules where that he should extemporaneously 'think out loud', not repeat himself, and share everything he thought important that he had learned in his life. Forty-two hours later he completed the task! We now have access to that extraordinary gift, thanks to the Fuller Institute, free-of-charge through the Internet. Entitled Everything I Know, it's his final gift to all of his fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth, and well worth multiple viewings (I strongly suggest accessing it in video, rather than just audio or text, as he makes use of a number of visual aids, especially when delving into his treatise on Synergetics and geometry).

It's a challenge at times to set aside cynicism and acknowledge that we can still have heroes, although neither the Apollo astronauts nor Bucky Fuller ever comfortably assumed that mantle (Armstrong withdrew almost entirely from public attention; Aldrin suffered a classic 'nervous breakdown' and retreated for a time to alchoholism largely because of the adulation; Collins went on to head the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but the light of public fame never shown as brightly on him, as he did not walk on the Moon; and Fuller would never accept the moniker of 'genius', always stating that he was just an average man who placed himself in service to 'Universe').

These are a few of the individuals who did inspire me however, and a little hero-worship never hurt anyone .