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The Bobby Fischer Defense

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Harry Benson
Bobby Fischer at a hot spring in Reykjavík, 1972; photograph by Harry Benson. Benson’s images of Fischer, many of which have never been seen before, will be collected in his book Bobby Fischer, to be published by powerHouse Books in July.

Young, famous, rich, and on top of the world, Fischer first took some time off. Then a little more, then more. Big tournaments were relatively rare back then, and it didn’t shock anyone that Fischer didn’t play in the first year after winning the title. But a second year? The three-year world championship cycle, run by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), was already grinding along to produce the man who would be Fischer’s challenger in 1975. Obviously he could not wait until then to play his first chess game since defeating Spassky.

Yet that is exactly what he did. Long before the three years were up, however, the arguments about the format of the 1975 world championship match were underway. Fischer, surprising no one, had many strong ideas about how the event should be run, including returning to the old system with no limit to the number of games. As he does with many of the chess world’s eternal debates around Fischer, Brady makes this long story mercifully short, letting the reader decide whether or not Fischer’s demands were extreme but fair or blatantly self-serving. FIDE would not give in to everything and for Fischer it was all or nothing. In the end, the American resigned the title.

This stunning news launched one of the greatest known bouts of psychoanalysis in absentia the world has ever seen. Why didn’t Bobby play? Did he believe so strongly that his system for the championship was the only right one that he was willing to give up the title? Had it all been a bluff, a ploy to gain an advantage or more money? Did even he know for sure?

One theory that was not often heard was that Fischer might have been more than a little nervous about his challenger, the twenty-three-year-old leader of the new generation, Anatoly Karpov. In fact, when I proposed this possibility in my 2004 book on Fischer, My Great Predecessors Part IV, the hostile response was overwhelming. These were not merely the protestations of Fischer fans saying I was maligning their hero. There is a great deal of evidence to build Fischer’s case as the overwhelming favorite had the match taken place. This includes testimony by Karpov himself, who said Fischer was the favorite and later put his own chances of victory at 40 percent.

Nor am I arguing that Karpov would have been the favorite, or that he was a better player than Fischer in 1975. But I do think there is a strong circumstantial case for Fischer having good reasons not to like what he saw in his challenger. Remember that Fischer had not played a serious game of chess in three years. This explains why he insisted on a match of unlimited length, played until one player reached ten wins. With draws being so prevalent at the top level, such a match would likely have lasted many months, giving Fischer time to shake off the rust and get a feel for Karpov, whom he had never faced.

Karpov was the leading product of the new generation Fischer had created. They had a different approach than all the leading players Fischer had defeated on his march to the title and he had very little experience facing this new breed. In the candidates matches Karpov had crushed Spassky and then defeated another bastion of the older generation, Viktor Korchnoi. I can imagine Fischer going over the games from those matches, especially Karpov’s meticulous play and steady hand against Spassky, and beginning to feel some doubt.

Frank Brady discards this possibility hastily, perhaps justly so since there is no way we will ever know what was in Fischer’s head or, most unfortunately, what would have happened had the Fischer–Karpov match taken place. But I was surprised to read that there were contemporaries who put the blame for the match not taking place squarely on Fischer’s fears. Brady quotes New York Times chess columnist Robert Byrne, who wrote a piece titled “Bobby Fischer’s Fear of Failing” just a few days after Karpov was awarded the title. Byrne did not mention Karpov as a threat—he says he wouldn’t have stood a chance—but he pointed out that Fischer had always taken great precautions against defeat, to the point of declining to play in other events as well when he felt too much was being left to chance.

Brady’s dismissal of this theory misses the point: “What everyone seemed to overlook was that at the board Bobby feared no one.” Yes, once at the board he was fine! Where Fischer had his greatest crisis of confidence was always before getting to the board, before getting on the plane. Fischer’s perfectionism, his absolute belief that he could not fail, did not allow him to put that perfection at risk. And in Karpov, I have no doubt, especially after a three-year layoff, Fischer saw a significant risk.

One of the countless, and endless, debates around Fischer was whether his behavioral excesses were the product of an unbalanced, yet sincere, soul, or an extension of his all-consuming drive to conquer. Fischer had his strong principles, but the predator in him was well aware of the effect his antics had on his opponents. In 1972, the gentlemanly Boris Spassky was unprepared to deal with Fischer’s endless postponements and protests and played well below his normal level in Reykjavík.

Karpov, meanwhile, had beaten Spassky convincingly in 1974 without any gamesmanship. There is a fair case to be made that the match with Spassky was one of Karpov’s greatest-ever efforts and Fischer would not have failed to sense his challenger’s quality. The shades of color in real life often baffled Fischer, but he always saw very clearly in black and white. Along with Karpov’s modern play, Fischer would have seen a hard young man who had none of the older generation’s romantic notions and who would not be unsettled by off-the-board sideshows. (All reports say that Fischer was scrupulously correct at the board.) No matter how sincere Fischer may have been about his protests—playing conditions, opponent’s manners, and always money—they were as much a part of his repertoire as the Sicilian Defense.

The debacle of Fischer’s resignation led to yet another unanswerable question. Would Fischer have played had FIDE given in to all his demands? FIDE had accepted all of his conditions but one, that should the match reach a 9–9 tie Fischer would retain the title. This meant the challenger had to win by at least a 10–8 score, a substantial advantage for the incumbent. Had FIDE agreed and had Fischer come up with yet more demands, the book could have been closed in good conscience. Instead we missed out on what would have been one of the greatest matches in history and must wonder for eternity what Fischer would have done. In that light, 10–8 hardly seems like such a disadvantage.

Ironically, after Fischer was off the scene FIDE implemented some of his suggestions, including the unlimited match. Karpov also received the protection of a rematch clause, which gave him at least as big an advantage as Fischer had demanded. The absurdity of an unlimited match was only conclusively proven when Karpov and I dueled for a record forty-eight games over 152 days before the match was abandoned without a winner. And we were playing only for six wins, not Fischer’s desired ten.

Brady gives a straightforward account of Fischer’s rise to stardom as the youngest US champion ever, at fourteen in 1957, who then moved onto the world stage. It defied belief that a lone American could beat the best that the Soviet chess machine could produce. But even Walt Disney would hesitate to conceive of the story of a poor single mother trying to finish her education while moving her family from place to place and her unfocused young son from school to school—all while being investigated by the FBI as a potential Communist agent.

Regina Fischer was a remarkable woman, and not only for producing a chess champion son. Despite her worries about Bobby spending too much time on a board game, she realized it was the only thing that made him happy and soon promoted his passion as her own. Struggling constantly to fund her son’s chess endeavors, she once wrote a letter directly to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asking him to invite Bobby to a chess festival.

As the only son of a determined mother-manager-promoter myself, I cannot help but wonder what Fischer would have been like had his family situation been different. I lost my father at an early age but, unlike Fischer, was surrounded by family. Fischer’s father was not in the picture and, a little disappointingly, Endgame fails to clear up one of the more lurid stories circulated about Fischer in recent years, namely, the strong likelihood that German-born scientist Hans Gerhardt Fischer was not Bobby’s father at all. His name was on the birth certificate issued in Chicago in 1943, but he never entered the United States after Regina moved there from Russia, via Paris, with their daughter Joan. Another scientist, a Hungarian Jew teaching in the US named Paul Nemenyi, was close to Regina and later sent money to the family for years. His photos also look tantalizingly similar to the adult Bobby Fischer. Beyond a brief mention, however, Brady is clearly uninterested in the controversy.

The focus is on Bobby and the chess, as it should be, though I was hoping for a little more meat on the topic of the nature of prodigy and Fischer’s early development, beyond his own famous comment “I just got good”—but perhaps there is nothing more. The nature of genius may not be definable. Fischer’s passion for puzzles was combined with endless hours of studying and playing chess. The ability to put in those hours of work is in itself an innate gift. Hard work is a talent.

Generations of artists, authors, mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists have pondered what exactly it is that makes for a great chess player. More recently, scientists with advanced brain-scanning machines have joined the hunt, looking for hot spots of activity as a master contemplates a move. An obsessive-competitive streak is enough to create a good squash player or a good (or bad) investment banker. It’s not enough to create someone like Fischer.

This is not meant to be a compliment, necessarily. Many strong chess players go on to successful careers as currency and stock traders, so I suppose there is considerable crossover in the pattern-matching and intuitive calculation skills required. But the aptitude for playing chess is nothing more than that. My argument has always been that what you learn from using the skills you have—analyzing your strengths and weaknesses—is far more important. If you can program yourself to learn from your experiences by assiduously reviewing what worked and what did not, and why, success in chess can be very valuable indeed. In this way, the game has taught me a great deal about my own decision-making processes that is applicable in other areas, but that effort has little to do with natural gifts.

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