Losing Bobby Fischer

Yesterday the world lost the greatest chess player of his generation, and perhaps the greatest of all time in terms of sheer genius. Robert J. Fischer died in Iceland (the only country that would have him) at age 64.

As an avid chess player, his passing isn’t so saddening as he had retreated from public life in 1974, and played only a handful of serious games in 1992 in an odd re-match against old foe (and current friend) Boris Spassky. Those games showed that, while still a strong player, Fischer’s skills had been overtaken by new, younger, better-prepared players. Indeed, commentators observed that Fischer’s games appeared frozen in time, not incorporating the years of advancement in theory since 1974. Fischer even demanded that the series be named the World Championship, even though almost nobody recognized the match in that context. Fischer won that match, most likely because Spassky’s age was more advanced and he was well past the physical prime required to play serious chess at a high level.

It is hard to understate the importance of Bobby Fischer in our culture in the early 1970’s and his star briefly lit up the sky with unprecedented luminescence from the chess world. Fischer’s apex was as the bulwark against the Soviet chess apparatus (and it was an apparatus with an entire system designed to dominate the world at the game), and then just stopped. His games had Cold War implications and the world watched his every move as he steadily ground down the USSR’s best players, such as Tal, Taimonov, and Keres, on the long march to the World Championship in Reykjavik in 1972. His style was reminiscent of today’s professional athletes. He set out not to win, but to humiliate his opponents. He was going to force victory down your throat because he was simply a lot better than his opponents, who happened to be the best in the world. It’s one thing to be arrogant; it’s entirely another to be arrogant and then back it up every day. Americans like arrogance. We (rhetorically; I was 2 in 1972) embraced his New York personality. To boot, he loved beating the Commies. He hated them. For a time, he was the perfect icon, smashing the Soviets at their game. ESPN would have loved him and he would have loved ESPN – at least for awhile.

And then one day, he just stopped. He got us hooked on him and the game and then took it away. Fischer was convinced the chess world was out to get him. The only thing worse than a paranoid is a paranoid who is right. The Soviets did manipulate matches. Sometimes the did so by changing room temperatures, sometimes by planting listening devices in Fischer’s hotel room to gain insight into his strategies (now called the Bill Belichek Attack). They made some of their people throw games so that their best players would accumulate less fatigue.

As a result of Fischer’s complaining (and, it should be acknowledged, of Spassky’s own opposition to the rigging, which put him in physical danger and nearly had him withdrawn from the Championship match by his own government), conditions were changed in the finals to make the playing field more level. Many of those changes persist in today’s tournament conditions, including much richer prize purses. Fischer once quipped about refusing to “play for peanuts”. Fischer handily won the match and the title of World Champion, the first U.S. born player to hold the title.

But, like catering to a 2-year old, giving in to Fischer only encouraged him, and he quickly and inexorably slid into mental decay, with perceived conspiracies by Communists and he became quite outspoken against Jews and Zionism. When asked once if he were an anti-Semite he replied “Arabs are Semites and I’m not anti-Arab”. When time came to defend his championship in 1975, Anatoly Karpov was the scheduled opponent (Spassky would later emigrate to France), but when FIDE and the Soviets refused to give in to Fischer’s tournament conditions demands, Fischer refused to play and Karpov won by default. Most commentators agree with Fischer that he “would have creamed him” had a match taken place, and Fischer could have been the one to face Garri Kasparov in 1985 in that seminal chess turning point.

Fischer was so arrogant, so convinced of conspiracies against him, that when he was ordered by the State Department not to play his 1992 match in Serbia (it was a violation of the U.S. embargo to try to outster Slobodan Milosevich), he literally publicly spit on the letter and renounced his U.S. citizenship.

After that match (it is rumored the sponsors never made good on their $1 MM prize), Fischer remained in foreign exile (it turns out he also hadn’t paid taxes since 1974), finally ending up in Iceland, the site of his greatest triumph. And he never played chess – or did anything from what anyone can tell.

But after 1974, Fischer never made any contributions to chess save for one book, “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” which remains a seminal work. Chess could have been elevated to a very high stature in the United States if he had stuck with the game. Fischer died in 2008, but we really lost him back then. Ultimately it is a sad tale of talent wasted and opportunity passed. And Fischer likely died rather unwealthy. He could have and should have been a multimillionaire.

The lesson here is that talent isn’t enough to be successful long term. Brashness and bullying works for awhile but after a time, the world decides you’re just not worth the effort. I’ve met many entrepreneurs with loads of talent but insufficient people skills and with such excessive paranoia and grudge-carrying tendencies, that their ideas simply never got far off the ground because nobody wanted to deal with them. I’m certain there’s a cure for cancer or a high temperature superconductor that hasn’t been developed because the inventors simply lacked the people skills required to make it a reality. People don’t have to love you, but they have to respect and understand you and your idea.

The best momento I have of Fischer’s brilliance is a two volume collection of the 744 tournament games of Bobby Fischer (before the 1992 series), in the “original” Russian. The greatest compliment you can get is the respect of a grave foe.

– Mike Blake


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