Requiem for Bobby Fischer | Bleader

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Requiem for Bobby Fischer

Posted By on 01.30.08 at 11:51 AM

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I went down to the basement looking for my Chicago Blackhawks history and planning to write about coach Denis Savard's "commit to the Indian" comment, and came back up with my copy of Bobby Fischer Goes to War instead, having decided to write about Bobby Fischer and chess as sport again.

Such is the unpredictable, easily distracted nature of blogging. But who am I kidding? Of course I'll be writing about Fischer again. Anyone who writes about chess will be writing about Bobby Fischer.

Look, I'm in the prime U.S. Fischer demographic. I was 12 when he beat Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship in 1972, and the match transfixed me and many other young players. Chess has never been more popular in the States. I took on my dad in a match at the same time -- and whipped him, something that gave me pause when I read all the Oedipal theories in Ruben Fine's Psychology of the Chess Player not long after that.

That's the thing about chess. I absolutely believe it touches on something primal in the human animal, and it's exhilarating to see that something run wild as it did in Fischer -- "I like to see 'em squirm," he said in one of his most famous quotes -- and incredibly depressing and tragic to see it overwhelm the player in turn, as it did with Fischer and his disturbing American patriarch, Paul Morphy. Read David Edmonds and John Eidinow's Bobby Fischer Goes to War for the best depiction of it in a book -- or Vladimir Nabokov's early Russian-language novel The Defense for the best depiction of chess insanity in fiction.

There's just something about the game, and the demands it places on the mind when played at the absolute highest level, that leads to self-destruction. It's like Icarus: flying too high to divinity, the wings melt, and there is nothing to do but plummet to the ground.

So it was one thing to read about Fischer's death at 64, in exile in Reykjavik, Iceland, the site of his greatest triumph, having cheered on the 9/11 terrorists and become a ranting anti-Semite (even while of Jewish descent himself) in the years in between, and another to consider the great achievement and the perhaps even greater loss.

For the best YouTube obituary, check out a terrific British Sky TV interview with Garry Kasparov shortly after Fischer's death. But even better is an overview of the 1972 title match that rapidly plays out Fischer's incredible Game 6 win over Spassky, a game so technically brilliant even Spassky had to stand and applaud when it was over -- and sit back down and replay it with Fischer when it was done.

It brought tears to my eyes to see Fischer seize the early initiative, grant Spassky a passed pawn in the center, then neutralize that pawn and slowly squeeze Spassky to death -- as beautiful as the score of a Beethoven string quartet.  In many ways it was the full fruition of the early genius he displayed in his renowned teenage queen sacrifice against Donald Byrne, widely considered the "game of the century."

Yet Fischer's rampant ego -- which made him such a typical 70s sports hero alongside Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson and many lesser Me Decade stars -- also gave free rein to the personal demons that kept him from defending his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 and, really, from ever playing competitive chess again, but for a nostalgic rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia that led to directly to his troubles with the U.S. government.

For the last 35 years of his life, the greatest chess player on the planet couldn't control his own impulses enough to play. What a tragic loss.

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