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…


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