Thursday, July 21, 2011

Harry Benson's Book Includes Striking Photos of World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

No one can ever again write a word about chess without talking about Bobby Fischer--Harry Benson

Harry Benson's new coffee table book Bobby Fischer is a beautiful, sensitive and intimate portrait of a great genius at the height of his powers. Fischer is chess' Mozart and Fischer's greatest games flow with the elegance and grace of a symphony--but while Mozart composed his music in quiet, solitary contemplation Fischer forged his symphonies in the crucible of grinding mano-a-mano combat; when Fischer wrote or spoke about his games he described how he crushed, destroyed and humiliated his opponents but underneath this mental violence was an uncompromising search for the truth: Fischer was the first--and remains the only--U.S. Champion to claim that title with a perfect 11-0 score, a record that likely will never be approached not only because such an unblemished mark is incredibly difficult to achieve but also because most Grandmasters are content to win a tournament and would not feel compelled to press for victory in the final game if they have already clinched first place. Fischer's search for truth is also demonstrated by his relentlessly frank game annotations and by the fact that his classic book My 60 Memorable Games included losses and draws (most chess players at any level understandably prefer to focus on their wins and when Alexander Alekhine--one of Fischer's World Champion predecessors--annotated his games he was not above altering the move list to turn a prosaic win into a flashier triumph).

Benson's photographs show Fischer not only in chess combat but also in training (chess is a mind sport but it demands physical fitness as well), and in quiet, secluded contemplation. Benson joined Fischer in Argentina (site of Fischer's victory over former World Champion Tigran Petrosian for the right to challenge reigning World Champion Boris Spassky), at Grossinger's Resort (where Fischer prepared mentally and physically to battle Spassky) and in Iceland (where Fischer defeated Spassky to break the Soviet Union's quarter century stranglehold on the World Chess Championship title). Benson provides a historically priceless glimpse into Fischer's world when Fischer's every move on and off the board fascinated not only chess players but also the general public, as detailed in Liz Garbus' excellent documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (Benson appears several times in Garbus' film and Benson's book is considered a companion piece to the movie).

The book only has sparse text and Benson's prose is unfortunately marred by several amateurish mistakes; three examples are "regiment" instead of "regimen" when referring to Fischer's physical training, "reining" instead of "reigning" when describing World Champion Spassky and "roll" instead of "role" when referring to the part that chance played in getting the assignment to cover Fischer. The introductions to various sections of the book describe some of the photographs but most readers would surely have appreciated it if Benson had provided specific captions for each picture; it seems odd that the book does not include a single such caption, nor is there even an index of the photos to provide basic time/place information for each shot.

However, these errors are somewhat mitigated not only by the greatness of Benson's photography (Benson is, after all, a photographer, not a literary stylist) but also by Benson's heartfelt tribute to Fischer on the book's final page:

"I probably knew Bobby at the best time in his life...He was a tremendous athlete; loved animals and they loved him; knew more about chess than anyone, anywhere; studied hard and loved to teach children; enjoyed the company of pretty girls; was fascinated by world events; and was the world champion. In other words, when I knew him, Bobby had an almost perfect life.

...No one can ever again write a word about chess without talking about Bobby Fischer. If this is controversial, so be it--I know and am sure that many who disdained him were those Bobby would not do business with. He wasn't someone you could manipulate. He did what he did and that is what I photographed."

Just like Fischer relentlessly sought the truth over the board, Benson found the truth in those brief words; the haters and the critics can say whatever they want to about Fischer--a tormented soul who likely spent much of his adult life in the grip of ever-deepening mental illness--but by the age of 29 Fischer had indeed carved out such a prominent place in chess history that it would be impossible and inconceivable to discuss that history without mentioning his great achievements, his tremendous artistry and his will to win (the trait that links him to other sports champions like Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Part Three of Boris Gelfand Interview is Published

Shay Bushinksy interviewed Boris Gelfand shortly after Gelfand's unexpected triumph in the 2011 Candidates' Matches. I posted links to part one and part two of the interview. The third installment has just been published. Gelfand's comments about clock management are valuable for tournament players and interesting for those who study sports psychology: "I strictly refrained from making a move thinking he (Alexander Grischuck) wouldn’t find the answer due to his time trouble. It’s a matter of self-control--to avoid being addicted to his clock." Such "self control" may sound simple and obvious to someone who has never experienced chess combat firsthand but it is actually one of the most challenging aspects of chess mastery.