Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy

I was surprised and saddened to learn that former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer passed away on Thursday at the age of 64. Actually, I was also a little surprised by how saddened the news made me. I never met the man and it is difficult to forget the glee that he expressed about the 9/11 attacks. I greatly respect Fischer's artistry and brilliance as a chess player but it's been a long time since he publicly displayed those qualities and it seemed doubtful that he ever would again. So why did I feel so sad to hear of his death? Emotions cannot really be explained or justified but after reflecting about this I think I understand the causes for my gut reaction: Bobby Fischer's death closes the book on any possibility that he will either play brilliant chess again or that he will recant some of the despicable comments that he said about America and Jews. Of course, from a purely rational standpoint it is easy to see that the likelihood of either of those things ever happening was exceedingly remote but now that he is gone his legacy--for better or worse--is complete.

The "better" part of Fischer's legacy--his contributions to the game of chess--will never be forgotten. He set many records and achieved many incredible feats, including becoming the youngest Grandmaster ever (age 15; that mark has since been broken by youngsters who train with computers, an advantage that Fischer did not have), becoming the youngest U.S. Champion ever (age 14), winning eight U.S. championships while losing only three games total and achieving a remarkable 11/11 result in the 1964 championship, winning 20 straight games against elite level Grandmaster opponents and winning the World Championship in 1972 by defeating Boris Spassky with a 12.5-8.5 score that included a game that Fischer forfeited by not showing up because he was not satisfied with the playing conditions. Fischer's record for the highest rating of all-time has since been broken but when Fischer was the top rated player he was further ahead of his contemporaries than any chess player has been in at least the past 150 years (dating back to when Paul Morphy, the first great American chess player, dominated the chess world briefly before he, like Fischer, faded into obscurity); the rating is just a number that only has meaning in comparison with other ratings and Fischer's dominance over even the other elite players of his day is amazing.

Fischer once declared that he was battling alone against what he called "the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians," a statement that turned out to be largely true even if it sounded paranoid. For years, Fischer studied chess for hours and hours a day, learning several foreign languages so that he could read the top chess journals and books from around the world; he reintroduced old ideas that had been forgotten or considered unsound and he also came up with innovative new ideas. The top Soviet players were provided with state stipends and worked together in an organized fashion in order to maximize the chance that one of their number would always retain the world title; the Soviet Union could not compete with the West economically, scientifically or in many other ways but chess and Olympic sports were two areas that the Soviets sought to dominate in order to "prove" the superiority of communism over capitalism. It is no exaggeration to say that one lone American genius, by virtue of his talent, willpower and tenacity, overcame the collective efforts of the Soviets and wrested the World Championship from them after they controlled it for a quarter century. Fischer's will to win was legendary and induced a condition known as "Fischer fear" in his opponents; he quite openly stated that he was trying to crush his opponents and break their will and many of them spoke of the enormous psychological pressure that they felt when competing against such a talented, thoroughly prepared player who disdained draws and fought throughout every game with relentless fury until the bitter end: if you play competitive chess then you know exactly what I am talking about but if you don't, just think of Bill Belichick's New England Patriots and Tom Brady frankly saying, "We're trying to kill teams." Fischer combined Belichick's meticulous preparation with Brady's ability to stay focused and execute under pressure. Even if you don't know chess from checkers you have to appreciate any champion who hones his game to this extent.

Fischer's meteoric rise to the World Championship spawned a chess boom in the United States and put the game on the front pages of national magazines and newspapers and earned him guest appearances on mainstream talk shows. Like Tiger Woods--but to a smaller degree--Fischer's emergence resulted in bigger prize funds and elevated the status of his game among the general populace. Unfortunately, the "Fischer boom" went bust as its namesake never again played an officially sanctioned tournament or match game after his 1972 triumph (his famous 1992 "rematch" with Spassky was not sanctioned by FIDE, the world chess federation, and actually got Fischer into trouble with the U.S. government for violating trade sanctions against Yugoslavia). Fischer had vowed to not only break Emanuel Lasker's record and hold the world title for more than 27 years but he said that he would not duck any challengers and would put the title up for grabs regularly. He did neither of those things; Fischer, arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, reigned as World Champion for just three years before giving up the championship without playing a game because of disputes over playing conditions and the terms for a championship match. Fischer spent most of his remaining three decades as a recluse, periodically emerging to issue hateful statements, mainly directed against America and Jews; the man who had received a hero's welcome in America for defeating a Soviet champion turned completely against his own national and ethnic heritage. Other than his 1992 victory over Spassky--which included a few brilliant games and others that were ordinary by Grandmaster standards--Fischer had just two positive accomplishments during this period: he received a patent for the digital time delay clock that has become standard fare in chess tournaments and he invented a new form of chess that he called "Fischer Random" that he declared to be superior to the original game, which he considered to be outdated.

The "worse" part of Fischer's legacy reared its ugly head even when he was on top of the chess world, although his closest confidantes did the best that they could to both modify Fischer's conduct and make sure that press coverage of him focused on his remarkable abilities as a player. The forfeited game that almost scuttled the 1972 match was not an isolated incident for Fischer. He often feuded with organizers, sometimes justifiably so--playing conditions for even world class players were not great early in Fischer's career--but sometimes over things that seemed trivial or bizarre; Fischer might have captured the world title several years before he did if he had not stormed out of a qualifying tournament in a huff despite owning a commanding lead that all but assured a victory that would have placed him on the brink of challenging for the crown. Although it is often suggested that something went wrong with Fischer after he won the World Championship in 1972, he made strange statements during interviews and in private conversations years before that. His paranoia and growing anti-Semitism were evident for quite some time but it does seem like those features of his personality became more prominent as he got older.

Some people will say that Fischer should only be remembered as a brilliant chess player and that everything else should be forgotten; other people will say that Fischer's hate speech (and there is no other appropriate term for it) negates what he accomplished. Both of these viewpoints are wrong: it is true that Fischer's greatness as a chess player deserves to be honored but it is also true that his statements have irrevocably tainted and tarnished his name, if not his legacy. When terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on 9/11, Fischer said that this was "wonderful" and he hoped that the United States would be destroyed. Those are not statements of political dissent; he expressed glee at the thought of innocent civilians being slaughtered by people who believe that the rest of the world must submit to their belief system or be killed. This is not a right wing issue or a left wing issue; if you believe that there is justification to deliberately kill thousands of innocent civilians then you have stepped well beyond the bounds of civil and rational discourse. It is entirely reasonable to disagree with America's foreign policy but it is quite another thing to openly hope for America's downfall and to celebrate a horrific crime. America is far from perfect but it is worth remembering that America has to build fences to keep people out, while historically her enemies have had to build fences to keep people from leaving--that is a pretty handy measure of whether or not a country is repressive; you can also use the "public square" test: in America you have the freedom to stand in a public square and express disagreement with the current government, an option that does not exist in the countries that Fischer and others laud at America's expense, countries where people are routinely jailed or killed for attempting to speak freely, support opposing political parties or worship a minority religion.

While Fischer's chess games contained an inner harmony and logic befitting an Einstein equation or a Mozart symphony, there was no order or logic to his political beliefs. Indeed, he called anyone who he considered to be an enemy a Jew--even if the person was not Jewish--and yet he had cordial relations over the years with a number of people who were in fact Jewish, including the famous Polgar sisters. It seems very likely that Fischer's anti-America and anti-Semitic statements resulted from mental illness--as opposed to the carefully thought out, malevolent world view of someone like Osama bin Laden--but that does not diminish the harm that is caused when someone of Fischer's prominence publicly says such horrible things. I have never seen Leni Riefenstahl's infamous film Triumph of the Will but it is considered to be an aesthetic and cinematic masterpiece; however, it is impossible to separate the quality of the art from the fact that she was figuratively--and possibly literally--in bed with Adolf Hitler, one of the most evil tyrants who lived. Her art was created specifically to serve evil purposes, while Fischer's art does exist separately from his hate speech, but that hate speech is nevertheless a permanent part of Fischer's overall legacy; Fischer even said that he did not want to be viewed as merely a chess genius because he thought that he had significant things to say about other issues. Ironically, Fischer accused fellow former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov of merely being a chess genius who knows nothing about anything else, even though Kasparov is a political columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a political activist in his native Russia.

Fischer cannot simply be remembered as a great chess player, nor is it fair to characterize him as nothing more than a hate monger. His chess legacy is eternal, as is the taint that he placed on his own name and reputation. Now that Fischer is gone and can say or do nothing else, that is how the matter will always rest.


One story about Bobby Fischer that captivated me years ago described how he almost met Wilt Chamberlain. The great writer Dick Schaap, who knew both champions, tried to arrange for Fischer to meet him and Chamberlain at Chamberlain's home but Fischer declined. More than 20 years ago, Sports Illustrated's William Nack wrote about this incident. Schaap later mentioned it in his autobiography Flashing Before my Eyes. This anecdote combines basketball, chess and writing and involves three people who I would have been interested to meet (and who have all since passed away, unfortunately), so it understandably made an impression on me. Over a year ago, I wrote a short story based on the premise that Chamberlain and Fischer did in fact meet each other: Not A Random Encounter. Keep in mind that this is a work of fiction.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the last part of your argument. Fischer should be remembered and I can garantee you that here in Bangldesh he will be remembered in totality.

One interesting thing was the First World chess champion that independent Bangladesh saw was Bobby Fischer. The event was also closely followed by the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh! Imagine, how much it ment to the whole country. Though I am not sure which side Mr. Prime Minister was crossing his finger - remember we had a very close political and cultural relationship with USSR - but the point is it was a new country and we celebrated a new World Chess Champion.

Many of the young chess players still follows the Fischer's path here. Partly of less availibility of recent chess literature and partly because of their peers would often comment about an almost obscure game of Fischer and that creates interest among the younstars.

I myself, being an amture, was infact advised and given a copy of Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games to understand what chess is!

Not a good choice for the rooki but still it is the leagacy.

David Friedman said...

Thank you for sharing your memories of Bobby Fischer.

I marvel at the power of the internet and how it has changed the world in a very short period of time. Think about it--I can sit in the middle of the United States and write about something that happened in Iceland, a person in Bangladesh can read my article and respond and many other people in various locales can follow the whole discussion. It was not that long ago that this would have been impossible or at the very least much more time consuming, which of course removed the sense of immediacy from the dialogue.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion focus on Fischer's record of becoming the youngest GM misses the point. He became a GM automatically by becoming a candidate for the World Championship. The really amazing thing was that he was a contender for the world title at 15 - becoming a GM was almost an afterthought. None of those that have broke the age mark, perhaps with the exception of Carlsen, have come even remotely close to breaking the real mark - establishing themself among the very top rank of players. I think it unfortunate that somewhere along the way this has been lost and people equate becoming a GM at 15 or less with the much more difficult feat of becoming one of the very best in the world at 15. In my mind Fischer's really significant feat at the age of 15has yet to be equaled.

Brian Phillips

David Friedman said...


You make a valid point. In the article, I focused on the fact that Fischer reached the GM level without the help of computers, which is very significant; all of today's young prodigies are able to assemble and work with chess information much more easily than Fischer, who had to buy books and magazines from around the world. Today, all of the important information is literally at players' fingertips.