Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World Details the Triumphs and Tragedies of a Great Champion

Liz Garbus' aptly titled HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World provides a fascinating and compelling glimpse into the life and chess career of eight-time U.S. Chess Champion/1972-75 World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer. Fischer rose to prominence in an era during which the Soviet Union literally mass produced state-funded, state-trained chess champions who dominated the sport from after the death of Alexander Alekhine in 1946 until Fischer broke their monopoly by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972. Fischer received some coaching and guidance along the way but he was largely a self-taught, self-made artist/athlete/warrior who was in a very real sense at war with the world--or, at the very least, in conflict against an entire nation that used success in chess (and the Olympics) to "prove" the superiority of the Communist system. Fischer once accused the Soviets of manipulating the World Championship qualifying tournament (known as an Interzonal) to ensure that a Soviet player would advance and although Fischer's complaint was initially dismissed by some people as sour grapes a later release of classified documents proved that Fischer had in fact been correct in principle; the format of the qualifying system was later changed to make it more difficult for players from one nation to collude against other participants.

The bulk of Garbus' documentary centers around the pinnacle of Fischer's chess career--his triumph in the 1972 World Championship match--and how Fischer captivated the world in a way unlike any other chess player before or since; Fischer appeared on the leading TV shows of the day and people congregated in Times Square to watch his battle against Spassky the way that the masses usually only focus on the Super Bowl or (in previous eras) the heavyweight boxing championship. In the process of telling the story of the Fischer-Spassky match, Garbus deftly includes just enough chess analysis to intrigue the viewer without delving too deeply into minutiae that might discourage or confuse people who are not avid chess players. She also provides background information about Fischer's childhood and indicates how his upbringing shaped him into the person he became. Grandmaster Larry Evans--a five-time U.S. Champion who was the youngest person to hold that title before Fischer broke his record--and International Master Anthony Saidy both knew Fischer quite well and Garbus heavily relies on their recollections. Various chess authors plus Grandmaster Garry Kasparov (the 1985-2000 World Chess Champion) and Grandmaster Susan Polgar also provide their perspectives about Fischer.

Fischer largely disappeared from public view from 1972 until 1992, when he and Spassky played a multimillion dollar rematch of sorts--Fischer insisted that it be termed a World Championship match even though FIDE (the International Chess Federation) did not recognize it as such--that was funded by a shady figure named Jezdimir Vasiljevic. By playing in Sveti Stefan, Fischer violated the terms of a U.N. embargo against Yugoslavia and thus became a fugitive from the U.S. government. Fischer spent more than a decade carefully avoiding being extradited to the United States but in 2004 he was detained in Japan because his passport had supposedly expired. Fischer spent eight months in jail in Japan while U.S. and Japanese authorities debated how to handle his case and during that time Fischer reached out to some of the people he had met in Iceland the first time that he played Spassky. Fischer almost never made it to Iceland for the 1972 match--he feuded with the organizers about the playing conditions and prize fund prior to and even during the competition--so it is ironic that after decades in seclusion following his championship victory Iceland emerged as Fischer's savior and as the location for the endgame of his life; while expressing no sympathy or agreement with Fischer's wild eyed anti-Semitic and anti-American conspiracy theories, the Icelandic government felt that Fischer should not be imprisoned simply for playing a chess match and thus the Icelandic parliament granted Fischer citizenship, breaking the legal impasse and providing a way for him to leave Japan as a free man. Fischer spent the rest of his life in Iceland, passing away in 2008 after refusing medical care for a treatable condition.

Garbus does a marvelous job of covering a lot of material without being superficial or sensationalistic and her documentary will be of equal interest to people who have closely followed Fischer's saga as well as people who know little or nothing about Fischer. One aspect of the film that I wish had been handled slightly differently is her coverage of the tangled history of chess champions who descended into mental illness; that long and depressing list includes Paul Morthy--whose life and career eerily foreshadowed Fischer's--Wilhelm Steinitz, Akiba Rubinstein and others. Some of Garbus' interview subjects awkwardly try to connect the complexity of chess calculation and the "paranoia" of one on one competition to the creation and/or exacerbation of certain psychological pathologies but I don't think that there is anything inherent in chess that causes mental illness. There may be a correlation between chess and certain psychological ailments but that could mean that people who have such problems are drawn to chess because in some ways it calms their minds. I would strongly caution that correlation does not prove causation. As International Master William Hartston once said, "Chess is not something that drives people mad. Chess is something that keeps mad people sane." It should be noted that both Morphy and Fischer functioned at their best during the height of their respective chess careers and they each suffered their worst problems only after withdrawing from formal chess competition.

Further Reading:

Brady Biography Paints Nuanced Portrait of Enigmatic Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

Interview With Dr. Frank Brady, Author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy

Monday, June 27, 2011

Boris Gelfand Provides Insight about his Victory in the Candidates Matches

I recently quoted from part one of a fascinating interview with 2012 World Chess Championship Challenger Boris Gelfand. The second part of that interview has just been published and can be found in its entirety here.

Two observations came to my mind after I read Gelfand's comments:

1) Gelfand's thoughts about his game three victory versus Shakhriyar Mamedyarov are very interesting; the final position featured a remarkable configuration in which Gelfand's seven pawns overwhelmed Mamedyarov's extra rook. Gelfand noted that in chess it is sometimes better not to force your opponent to play "only" moves because your opponent may be more likely to find the correct path than if the opponent had a menu of seemingly equally good moves from which to choose.

2) Elite chess players are capable of making amazing calculations and playing splendidly beautiful games but often games between such players are decided not by intellectual brilliance but rather by the ability to withstand tension both in one's mind and on the chess board; the tension in the mind can be created by hope, fear or other emotional factors, while the tension on the board can consist of positions that are so extremely complex and volatile that they cannot be solved by brute calculation: the player who is neither carried away by hope nor crippled by fear and who is able to maintain the tension on the board until the right moment comes to simplify matters is the player who will emerge victorious. Gelfand says, "One tries to disassociate oneself and play every game as a new game. It’s not easy, you can never be perfectly focused..."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Can Federer be the Greatest Player of All-Time if He is Not Even the Greatest Player of His Time?

I don't know who the greatest male tennis player of all-time is but I may be the only person honest enough to admit that I don't know; prior to Rafael Nadal's convincing four set victory over Roger Federer in the French Open finals, commentator John McEnroe declared that Federer could cement his place as the greatest player of all-time by beating Nadal. McEnroe knows a lot about tennis but that is a ludicrous statement; discounting the not insignificant detail that the likelihood of Federer defeating Nadal anywhere--let alone on clay--is slim, why would one match totally define not just the Federer-Nadal rivalry but the totality of tennis history? With that French Open victory, Nadal now enjoys a 17-8 head to head advantage against Federer, including 7-2 in Grand Slam matches and 6-2 in Grand Slam finals. Any rational, objective observer would need to see Federer win nine straight matches against Nadal before seriously entertaining the notion that Federer is even as good as Nadal, let alone better than champions like Borg and Laver who did not suffer at the hands of their top rivals the way that Federer has been tortured by Nadal.

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert enjoyed the greatest rivalry in tennis history; they each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles--clay court master Evert captured a record seven French Open titles, while grass court master Martina Navratilova claimed a record nine Wimbledon crowns--but few knowledgeable people would rank Evert equal with, let alone above, Navratilova mainly because Navratilova won the head to head series 43-37. Nadal has not yet matched Federer's total for career Grand Slam titles but Nadal is accumulating those laurels at a faster pace than any male player other than Borg and Nadal's mastery of Federer far exceeds Navratilova's edge over Evert. We will never see Federer play on equal footing against Borg or Laver, so comparisons of their careers involve making judgments about different eras, styles of play, equipment and so forth--but we have seen Nadal pummel Federer on multiple surfaces at numerous venues around the world for the past half dozen years. That accomplishment alone does not prove that Nadal is better than Borg or Laver but it gives a very strong indication that Nadal is better than Federer.

World Chess Championship Challenger Boris Gelfand: "You Constantly Have to Pose Threats to Your Opponent"

Veteran Grandmaster Boris Gelfand has maintained a perch near the top of the chess world for two decades but he has never won the ultimate prize, the World Championship. Gelfand's recent victory in the Kazan Candidates Matches earned him the right to face World Champion Viswanathan Anand in a 2012 World Championship match. Gelfand, 43, will be the third oldest challenger in World Championship play since official records have been kept (dating back to the 19th Century); Anand, 41, is also "old" for a top level Grandmaster. While the general public may falsely conceive of chess as a game played by old men in the park, the reality--particularly in the last 15-20 years as computers and the internet have played an increasingly important role in training and preparation--is that elite level chess is predominantly a sport for the young, the healthy and the vigorous; Bobby Fischer set a record by becoming the world's youngest Grandmaster as a 15 year old in 1958, a mark that stood for 33 years but has subsequently been surpassed more than two dozen times as a wave of young players has stormed the citadels of the Game of Kings.

In a recent interview, Gelfand discussed some similarities between chess and soccer, described the necessary mindset for a champion (pay attention LeBron James) and explained why his relatively advanced age has not slowed him down. Here are some highlights from the interview:

1) Gelfand said that chess and soccer are similar because "in soccer, like in chess, you constantly have to pose threats to your opponent." This analogy can be extended across to other sports and even to life itself: it is impossible to win if you are always on the defensive (which should not be confused with suggesting that offense is more important than defense: the best defensive teams generally play an aggressive, attacking defense that makes the opponent uncomfortable and thus forces mistakes). When LeBron James stopped attacking the hoop in the NBA Finals and stopped threatening the Dallas Mavericks the balance of power decisively swung from the Miami Heat to the underdog Mavericsks.

2) Gelfand noted two valuable lessons from watching the Barcelona-Manchester United soccer match:
  1. Always remain humble
  2. There is always room for improvement--you cannot be satisfied by your performance, even if you win.
James and the Heat were hardly models of humility and after the Heat lost James defiantly said that he could hold his head high; ESPN's Magic Johnson--a five-time NBA champion--rightly noted that the correct message for James to communicate was for James to pledge to work on his game (i.e., not be satisfied) to make sure that he would be better prepared to take advantage of such opportunities in the future.

3) Gelfand rejected the idea that his age is a factor even though so many of his competitors are much younger: "The only thing I feel is that it takes me a little longer to recuperate between games, and perhaps it is a bit more difficult for me to achieve consistency, compared to past years. However, by no means do I feel any decline in my tactical ability. When I play I am in full concentration, a condition I attribute to the healthy life style I lead."