Chess champion Bobby Fischer died today in Iceland, where he recently went to live, presumably because it was the scene of his greatest triumph.
Fischer was hard to like, even in his younger years when he was at his best. Even before he went more or less crazy, he was a jerk. But Fischer was probably the best chess player in history, up to that time, and he played a small part in the Cold War. A boy genius when it came to chess, he won the U.S. championship at 14.
In international play, Fischer became the most serious challenger to the Soviets’ domination of the game. He also blew the whistle on the way in which Soviet players collaborated by playing easy ties against each other, while reserving their best efforts for their games against non-Soviets. Fischer campaigned for changes in the rules of international chess; among other things, he argued that a half-point should not be awarded for a tie. Rather, a player should score only by winning a game.
Fischer was always something of a lout. It was reported that his reading material consisted of chess publications and Screw magazine. He was uncultured, to put it mildly, and ignorant of nearly everything other than chess. But he was no idiot savant. In the early 1970s, he wrote a long letter to Chess Life and Review, the publication of the U.S. Chess Federation, that expounded brilliantly on his theory that ties should not be rewarded with half-points, based in part on sophisticated (by my standards) mathematical formulas.
Fischer peaked in 1972 when he won the world championship from Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. It’s hard to explain now what a sensation that match, which extended over a couple of months, caused. People actually watched some of the games on television. What they made of it is hard to say. There were commentators to explain the action, but, unlike a sports event where the broadcasters may well understand the action as well as or better than the players, there was literally no one in the world fully qualified to understand the thinking behind Fischer’s and Spassky’s moves.
The Fischer-Spassky match triggered a chess boom here in the U.S. I’d played some as a kid. When I was 15, our local chess club organized a town-wide chess tournament. I finished third; the tournament was won by a professional gambler, sort of a local Capablanca. (One of the oddest memories of my youth is of my father driving me to a bar that the gambler owned, where we played in a back room.) I took up the game again in 1971, when I was rooming with Paul, and actually had a Chess Federation rating for a while. A poor one.
After Reykjavik, Fischer went downhill rapidly. He never defended his world title, and soon quit competitive chess. Fischer’s period of decline extended over decades. He became a recluse who occasionally surfaced, nearly always under discreditable circumstances. After the internet came along he was rumored, now and then, to be playing anonymously on the web. For the last twenty years of his life, he was more or less insane. Among other things, he became a fanatical anti-Semite–notwithstanding the fact that he himself was half-Jewish–and a vicious anti-American.
Fischer was never a pleasant personality, but for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he played chess about as well as anyone has ever done anything. For that, he deserves a great deal of credit.
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