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The Bobby Fischer Defense

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AP Images
Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer after Spassky won the first game of the 1972 World Chess Championship, held in Reykjavík, Iceland. Fischer went on to win the championship.

It would be impossible for me to write dispassionately about Bobby Fischer even if I were to try. I was born the year he achieved a perfect score at the US Championship in 1963, eleven wins with no losses or draws. He was only twenty at that point but it had been obvious for years that he was destined to become a legendary figure. His book My 60 Memorable Games was one of my earliest and most treasured chess possessions. When Fischer took the world championship crown from my countryman Boris Spassky in 1972 I was already a strong club player following every move as it came in from Reykjavík. The American had crushed two other Soviet grandmasters en route to the title match, but there were many in the USSR who quietly admired his brash individuality along with his amazing talent.

I dreamed of playing Fischer one day, and we eventually did become competitors after a fashion, though in the history books and not across the chessboard. He left competitive chess in 1975, walking away from the title he coveted so dearly his entire life. Ten more years passed before I took the title from Fischer’s successor, Anatoly Karpov, but rarely did an interviewer miss a chance to bring up Fischer’s name to me. “Would you beat Fischer?” “Would you play Fischer if he came back?” “Do you know where Bobby Fischer is?”

Occasionally I felt as though I were playing a one-sided match against a phantasm. Nobody knew where Fischer was, or if he, still the most famous chess player in the world at the time, was out there plotting a comeback. After all, at forty-two in 1985 he was still much younger than two of the players I had just faced in the world championship qualification matches. But thirteen years away from the board is a long time. As for playing him, I suppose I would have liked my chances and I said as much, but how can you play a myth? I had Karpov to worry about, and he was no ghost. Chess had moved on without the great Bobby, even if many in the chess world had not.

It was therefore quite a shock to see the real live Bobby Fischer reappear in 1992, followed by the first Fischer chess game in twenty years, followed by twenty-nine more. Lured out of self-imposed isolation by a chance to face his old rival Spassky on the twentieth anniversary of their world championship match—and by a $5 million prize fund—a heavy and bearded Fischer appeared before the world in a resort in Yugoslavia, a nation in the process of being bloodily torn apart.

The circumstances were bizarre. The sudden return, the backdrop of war, a shady banker and arms dealer as a sponsor. But it was Fischer! One could not believe it. The chess displayed by Fischer and Spassky in Svefi Stefan and Belgrade was predictably sloppy, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. But was this really a return, or would he disappear just as quickly as he had appeared? And what to make of the strange things Fischer was doing at the press conferences? America’s great champion spitting on a cable from the US government? Saying he hadn’t played in twenty years because he had been “blacklisted…by world Jewry”? Accusing Karpov and me of prearranging all our games? You had to look away, but you could not.

Even in his prime there were concerns about Fischer’s stability, during a lifetime of outbursts and provocations. Then there were the tales from his two decades away from the board, rumors that made their way around the chess world. That he was impoverished, that he had become a religious fanatic, that he was handing out anti-Semitic literature in the streets of Los Angeles. It all seemed too fantastic, too much in line with all the stories of chess driving people mad—or mad people playing chess—that have found such a good home in literature.

One thing was certain: the old Fischer questions were back with new life. I was receiving calls before Fischer pushed a single pawn, and we ended up having a bizarre dialogue in the press as journalists relayed our responses to one another. While calling me a cheat and a liar repeatedly at the press conferences, Fischer said the first obstacle to playing a match with me was that he was owed at least $100,000 for royalties on the Soviet edition of his book. How ironic that his masterpiece, My 60 Memorable Games, a great influence on my chess, was presented as a sticking point.

Looking back, maybe it was a form of karmic balancing, since now Fischer was the one who had to put up with countless questions about playing me. But at least everyone knew where I was, and what could I say other than that of course I would play him? I never really believed it would happen, especially since Fischer, who still called himself the world champion, would never go through the rigorous training and preparatory events that would be required to make such an encounter competitive.

As it turned out Fischer never did play again after beating Spassky in that 1992 event. Fischer’s play was rusty, and he sounded disturbed, but in chess he always saw clearly and was honest with himself. He understood that the chess Olympus was no longer his to conquer. But the ghost had renewed his license to haunt us all for a while longer.

Fischer made the headlines a few times more after that. On September 11, his obscene rant celebrating the attacks was aired on Philippine radio and then around the world on the Internet. In July 2004 he was arrested in Japan for having a revoked passport and detained for eight months until he was granted Icelandic citizenship as a way out of captivity. (Fischer had been a fugitive from US law since playing in Yugoslavia in 1992 because the country was under UN sanctions at the time. At the first press conference before the match Fischer spat on a cable from the government of George H.W. Bush warning him against playing. But he had traveled widely and freely outside the US for a dozen years and his detention in Japan surprised him as much as anyone.)

Then on January 17, 2008, he died in Reykjavík after a long illness for which he had refused treatment. Even this was somehow typical of Fischer, who grew up playing chess against himself since he had no one else to play. He had fought to the end and proven himself to be his most dangerous opponent.

Fischer’s remarkable life and personality will surely produce countless more books, and probably movies and doctoral theses as well. But there is little doubt that none of the authors of those future works will be more qualified to write on Bobby Fischer than Frank Brady. A close acquaintance of the young Fischer, a “chess person,” as we call them, himself, as well as an experienced biographer, Brady also wrote the first and only substantive biographical book on him, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy (1965, revised edition 1973).

It is hard to imagine a more difficult subject than Bobby Fischer to present in an accurate and evenhanded fashion. He was a loner who trusted no one. His charisma attracted both starry-eyed sycophants and spiteful critics. Fischer had strong opinions of the kind that tend to create equally categorical sentiments in those who knew him—and in those who didn’t. He had a very small family and both his mother, Regina Fischer, and his only sibling—older sister Joan Targ—have passed away. Fischer’s general inaccessibility also led to countless rumors and outright lies about him, making the biographer’s task a challenge.

With all that in mind, Brady’s book is an impressive balancing act and a great accomplishment. Before even picking up the book there is no reason to doubt that Brady liked Bobby Fischer and that he has a friend’s as well as a fan’s rooting interest for the American chess hero. But there are few obvious traces of that in Endgame, which does not shy away from presenting the darker sides of Fischer’s character even while it does not attempt to judge or diagnose it. What results is a chance for the reader to weigh up the evidence and come to his own conclusions—or skip judgments completely and simply enjoy reading a rise-and-fall story that has more than a few affinities with Greek tragedy.

One inaccuracy that is more of a dramatic exaggeration occurs when Brady says Fischer was unaware that his Soviet opponent at the Varna Olympiad in 1962, the great world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, had received analytical help with their adjourned game. This Soviet custom was widely known and in this case was only natural because it was a team event. It is not possible that Fischer would not have known this was happening.

Beginning with the end seems most natural since that is where the most fact and fiction have been written in the past. Why, how, could Bobby Fischer, who loved chess and only chess more than anyone before or since, quit the game as soon as he had conquered the title? This was not a case of a star wanting to go out on top; Fischer had no plans to retire. He was twenty-nine and in his prime and he finally had the fame and fortune he always knew he deserved.

Fischer returned from beating Spassky in Reykjavík—the Match of the Century—a world champion, a media star, and a decorated cold warrior. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. With a few minor exceptions, he turned it all down.

Keep in mind that the chess world of the pre-Fischer era was laughably impoverished even by today’s modest standards. The Soviet stars were subsidized by the state, but elsewhere the idea of making a living solely from playing chess was a dream. When Fischer dominated the Stockholm tournament of 1962, a grueling five-week qualifier for the world championship cycle, his prize was $750.

Of course it was Fischer himself who changed this situation, and every chess player since must thank him for his tireless efforts to get chess the respect and compensation he felt it deserved. He earned the nickname Spassky gave him, “the honorary chairman of our trade union.” These efforts meant he was often an event organizer’s worst nightmare, but that was not Bobby’s concern. Ten years after Stockholm, the purse for the 1972 World Championship between Fischer and Spassky was an astronomical $250,000, plus side deals for a share of television rights.

It’s barely an exaggeration to say that Fischer’s impact on the chess world was as great financially as it was on the board. The world championship became a hot commodity and as we know, money talks. Chess tournaments and chess players acquired a new respectability, although it did not all outlast Fischer himself. My epic series of matches against Anatoly Karpov from 1985 to 1990 fanned the sponsorship flames into a blaze—we were not going to play only for the greater Soviet glory now that we knew there were millions of dollars to be had. We had learned more from Fischer than just chess. Last year’s world championship match, in which Viswanathan Anand of India defended his title against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria in Sofia, had a prize fund of nearly $3 million despite receiving no real publicity outside of the chess world. In spite of corrupt federations and no coherent organization among themselves, the top players today do quite well without having to also teach classes or write books while trying to work on their own chess at the same time.

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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.

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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