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

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