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.

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