Bobby Fischer and the Struggle Against Error

The following post was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Collected Magazine.


Regina Fischer had known that her son was unhealthily fixated on chess. 

She pleaded with Bobby to have a life outside of the game. Displeased, Bobby ignored her. So she expressed her concerns to others. At Regina’s request, Rueben Fine—a grandmaster and psychologist—began meeting with a young Bobby, and at one meeting while they were playing chess, Fine inquired about Bobby's schoolwork in an attempt to get to know the boy. Feeling betrayed by this intrusion into his life, and perhaps annoyed at the diversion from their chess game, Bobby became visibly unhappy. Fine claims that every time he saw Fischer after that day, Bobby threw him angry glances and would not speak to him. As for Regina and Bobby, they had a rocky, on-and-off relationship until her death in 1997. 

This is the tragedy of Bobby Fischer's life. Yes, he was a great chess player. But he was deeply troubled. Members of the Marshall Chess Club had once met to discuss the young chess prodigy early in his career. They recognized that Fischer had mental health issues and intended to get him help. However, the meeting ended with no intentions of seeking help from a psychologist or doctor. In an article by Peter Nicholas and Clea Benson:

“Then someone raised a question: What if therapy worked? What if treatment sapped Fischer's drive to win, depriving the United States of its first homegrown world champ? Meeting adjourned. No one [...] wanted to tamper with that finely tuned brain." [1]

*

In 1972, in the midst of the Cold War, the two strongest chessmen in the world competed for the title of World Chess Champion: Bobby Fischer for the USA and Boris Spassky for the USSR.

Tensions were high. Many believed the match wouldn’t happen. The past few months had been full of disputes from all sides: Where would the match take place? How much money for the players? What conditions would they play in?

Before this match, Fischer and Spassky had met at the chessboard a handful of times in settings other than the World Championship. The first time was in 1960: Fischer aged 17, Spassky 23. Fischer resigned after only 29 moves.

They met three times in 1966: Fischer lost again and managed to draw against Spassky twice. In 1970—the only other game they played against each other before the World Championship in 1972—Spassky won again.

Fischer, two years later, stood the lone challenger to take the title. He had been through many matches and opponents since his last meeting with Spassky. To qualify for a World Championship in chess, you have to compete in an extensive circuit of matches. First, Bobby was supposed to play in the US Chess Championship, where he likely would have won. It's considered a "zonal" tournament, and the top three players become eligible to play in the Interzonal tournament. But Fischer didn't play, so he technically had no spot in the tournament. Knowing that he was the United States's best player, another American who was eligible gave up his spot to Fischer.

Fischer went to Palma de Mallorca in 1970 to play the Interzonal tournament and dominated. It seems as though some weren't convinced of his abilities, though: Mikhail Botvinnik, a Soviet world champion of years prior, said:

Fischer has been declared a genius. I do not agree with this... In order to rightly be declared a genius in chess, you have to defeat equal opponents by a big margin. As yet he has not done this.

After the Interzonal, Fischer had to play in the Candidates matches of 1971. The Candidates is exactly what it sounds like: all the candidate players compete to play for the world championship in one tournament. The winner goes on to play the current champion.

And Bobby dominated that, too. Mark Taimanov lost to Fischer by a score of 6–0, a lopsided result. (Botvinnik implied that he still wasn't impressed after this victory.) Next, Bent Larsen, who Botvinnik thought would be a worthier challenger, also lost by a score of 6–0. Fischer proceeded to face his toughest challenge yet, Tigran Petrosian. He defeated him by a score of 6.5–2.5 (5 wins, 1 loss, and 3 draws).

In the World Championship, Fischer faced Spassky, an opponent he had never beaten before.

On July 11, 1972, Fischer showed up to Reykjavik for Game 1 (out of the scheduled 24). After 56 moves, he resigned.

Spassky showed up for Game 2, but Fischer didn't, so the game went to Spassky. Two games into the match, and Bobby Fischer was significantly behind on the scoreboard, down two points to zero. (A win counts as one point, a draw counts as a half-point for both players, and a loss is zero points.)

Fischer was upset by the television cameras in the playing hall, so Game 3 took place in a room backstage. After 61 moves, with Fischer's bishop attacking Spassky's helpless king, Spassky resigned. The game could have gone on, but it was no use. Fischer beat Spassky for the first time in his life.

After this point, Fischer was unstoppable. They drew in Game 4, Fischer won Game 5, and Fischer took the lead with a brilliant Game 6. So brilliant that Spassky stood up to applaud Fischer after the victory, which is now known as one of the greatest games Fischer ever played. Spassky managed to win only once more in Game 11, but after 21 games the match was decided. They did not play the remaining three games; Fischer's lead was insurmountable with three games left to play.

The lone kid from Brooklyn had beaten Boris Spassky along with the entire Soviet chess machine. He left no question after 1972 that he was the best chess player in the world, and for the first time since Paul Morphy in the mid-1800s, the United States could claim the best chess player in the world as truly their own.

*

These games were about more than just chess. They were part of a larger battle between two competing ideologies in the midst of the Cold War. This was apparent to everyone on both sides of the board, except for one person: Bobby Fischer. Bobby thought nothing of the fact that Henry Kissinger called him before the game to urge him to play the match instead of holding out. He only cared about beating the opponent in front of him.

The most dramatic battle had taken place long before any pawns were moved. It seemed like no stone went unturned in making sure conditions were exactly as Fischer wanted them. The arbiter, Lothar Schmid, had to pay attention to the style of the chess pieces, the chairs, the lights, the cameras in the arena, how close the crowd was to the board. Everything needed to be right; otherwise, Bobby threatened not to play.

Leading up to the 1972 match, Fischer appeared to be in complete isolation. According to a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, he had "no advisors, no coaches, no manager." [2] He had not spoken to the small amount of family he had for years. The film from that interview showed Bobby carrying around a red book containing all the games of Boris Spassky. The only thing that mattered, or even existed, was chess.

In an article by Joseph G. Ponterotto, author of A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer, he believed "Bobby had a genetic vulnerability to develop a mental illness, and that this predisposition [...] eventually led to serious mental health problems," partially due to the course of his career and various conflicts in his childhood.

So the greatest chess player of his time, some say of all time, just so happened to be a bit crazy. I don't think that's a coincidence.

Some would observe that because he was so special a chess player, some people turn a blind eye to the Bobby Fischer who applauded 9/11 and expressed strong anti-Semitism throughout his life (despite his own Jewish heritage). We separate the two facets of Bobby's life in an attempt to brush all that crazy under the rug and focus on his skill.

More problematic is the dilemma for those of us who admire Fischer for his brilliance in his field. It inevitably leads to an ambition to live a similar life. The thinking goes: If I want to be as great as Bobby Fischer, then surely I must go insane. I must be so focused on my work that I forget that the world exists. I must work to the point where I lose touch with reality in some way, perhaps not in the exact same way Fischer did, but somehow.

Wishing for insanity can't be healthy.

Jose Raul Capablanca, Garry Kasparov, and Anatoly Karpov. All arguably as talented and innovative chess players as Bobby Fischer. Yet none of them were paranoid or mentally ill. They've won world championships, created new ways of looking at chess, and are just as much a part of chess canon as Bobby. Fischer's insanity is not necessary in any way to achieve greatness at chess, even if it was part of his story. 

There is something about intriguing about that insanity, though. The mystery behind Bobby's eyes as he sits at a chess board and thinks through possibilities that I don't even know exist—that's interesting. And though he was difficult to deal with, Mike Wallace would never pass up the experience of speaking to the young man. America wouldn't pass up the opportunity to make that same young man a legend. Insanity gives us something more to ponder, something we can't understand. It puts Fischer in the upper echelon, almost like a deity who we will never fully grasp. That's why I admire him and wished to emulate him.

Fischer, however, didn't decide one day to be an enigmatic, difficult character for the sake of solidifying his own persona. His probable predisposition to mental illness [3] was not his choice. It felt authentic because it was.

Fischer's mental state wasn't under his control, as far as I or anyone else can tell. It led him to an existence of loneliness and machine-like focus that most of us cannot comprehend. If you and I tried to match that, it wouldn't just be to our detriment—we wouldn’t even be able to.

 

Notes


[1] Peter Nicholas & Clea Benson, 2003 article about Bobby Fischer, mentioned both in the PSMag article and in a book, Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer, page 68–9

[2] 60 Minutes with Bobby Fischer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPuazOwq0aw

[3] "A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer" by Joseph G. Ponterotto for Pacific Standard, December 14, 2010 

CollectedDiego Segura