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The Bobby Fischer Defense

Fischer’s brilliance was enough to make him a star. It was his relentless, even pathological dedication that transformed the sport. Fischer investigated constantly, studying every top-level game for new ideas and improvements. He was obsessed with tracking down books and periodicals, even learning enough Russian to expand his range of sources. He studied each opponent, at least those he considered worthy of preparation. Brady recounts dining with Fischer and hearing a monologue of the teen’s astonishingly deep analysis of David Bronstein’s openings before the two were to meet in the Mar del Plata tournament in 1960. No one had ever prepared this deeply outside of world championship matches. Today, every game of chess ever played, going back centuries, is available at the click of a mouse to any beginner. But in the pre-computer era, Fischer’s obsessive research was a major competitive advantage.

In his play, Fischer was amazingly objective, long before computers stripped away so many of the dogmas and assumptions humans have used to navigate the game for centuries. Positions that had been long considered inferior were revitalized by Fischer’s ability to look at everything afresh. His concrete methods challenged basic precepts, such as the one that the stronger side should keep attacking the forces on the board. Fischer showed that simplification—the reduction of forces through exchanges—was often the strongest path as long as activity was maintained. The great Cuban José Capablanca had played this way half a century earlier, but Fischer’s modern interpretation of “victory through clarity” was a revelation. His fresh dynamism started a revolution; the period from 1972 to 1975, when Fischer was already in self-exile as a player, was more fruitful in chess evolution than the entire preceding decade.

Fischer’s uncompromising approach had an even greater impact on the chess world than his results. I am not referring to any “special moves,” as often suspected by those unfamiliar with the game. It was simply that Fischer played every game to the death, as if it were his last. It was this fighting spirit that his contemporaries recall most about him as a chess player.

If genius is hard to define, madness is even more so. Once again I must applaud Brady’s ability to navigate treacherous shoals as he presents Fischer in his own words and deeds while only rarely attempting to explain or defend them. Nor does he attempt to diagnose Fischer, who was never properly examined by a professional but was instead declared guilty, innocent, or sick by millions of amateurs from afar. Brady also avoids the trap of arguing whether or not someone with a mental illness is responsible for his actions.

Starting in the late 1990s, Bobby Fischer began giving sporadic radio interviews that exposed a deepening pit of hatred for the world—profane anti-Semitic diatribes, exultation after September 11. Suddenly everything that had mostly been only rumors from the few people who had spent time with him since 1992 was out in the open on the Internet. It was a shattering experience for the chess community, and many tried to respond in one way or another. Fischer was ill, some said, perhaps schizophrenic, and needed help, not censure. Others blamed his years of isolation, the personal setbacks, the persecutions both real and imagined at the hands of the US government, the chess community, and, of course, the Soviets, for inspiring his vengefulness.

Clearly this full-flown paranoia was far beyond the more calculated, even principled, “madness” of his playing years, well described by Voltaire in his Philosophical Dictionary: “Have in your madness reason enough to guide your extravagancies; and, forget not to be excessively opinionated and obstinate.” That is, purposeful and successful madness can hardly be called mad. After Fischer left chess the dark forces inside him no longer had purpose.

Despite the ugliness of his decline, Fischer deserves to be remembered for his chess and for what he did for chess. A generation of American players learned the game thanks to Fischer and he should continue to inspire future generations as a model of excellence, dedication, and achievement. There is no moral at the end of the tragic fable, nothing contagious in need of quarantine. Bobby Fischer was one of a kind, his failings as banal as his chess was brilliant.

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