The Tragedy of Bobby Fischer

This piece of writing is a first draft. I am writing a treatise about some of my favorite successful people and the tragedy of their lives: this is one of them.

1972

Many thought that this match would never happen. There were many disputes between the players and with the international chess federation over how much many would go to the players, where they would play, and how the venue would be arranged. The two opponents are the strongest players in the world, playing for the the two most powerful countries in the world: Fischer for the United States and Spassky for the USSR, competing to become the 1972 world chess champion.

Before this match, Fischer and Spassky had met at the chess board a handful of times in settings other than a world championship. The first time was in 1960: Fischer aged 17, Spassky 23. The two tied for first place in the tournament, both with 13.5 points, but in their game against each other, Fischer resigned after only 29 moves.

They met again three times in 1966, when 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, nonetheless, is here as the challenger to try again, though optimism seems unwarranted.

Fischer showed up to Reykjavik, Iceland up for game 1 (out of 24) on July 11, 1972. He resigned after 56 moves.

Game 2 never happened. Spassky showed up, but Fischer didn't. Two games into the match, and Bobby Fischer found himself significantly behind on the scoreboard. In this match, they are to play 24 games, receiving points based on the result of each game. For each game they win, they receive one point, and the loser receives zero. If the game is a draw, both players receive half a point. In this match, the first player to 12.5 points win. The score is 2–0, Spassky.

Game 3 takes place in a room backstage, hidden away from the main venue because Fischer was angry about the television cameras in the playing hall—another complaint that seemed to show that Fischer did not want to play this match at all.

Fischer made his 61st move, moving his bishop to attack Spassky's king. The game could go on, but it's no use. Spassky resigned, and Fischer beat Spassky for the first time in his life.

After this point, Fischer was unstoppable. They drew in game 4, while Fischer took the lead by winning game 5 and playing a brilliant game 6. So much so, that Spassky stood up to applaud Fischer after the victory, which went down as one of the greatest games Fischer ever played. Spassky managed only to win once more in game 11, but after 21 games the match was decided. They did not need to play the remaining three games, as Fischer reached 12.5 points with a victory in game 21.

The kid from Brooklyn had beaten Boris Spassky, the best of the best from the Soviet chess machine. Along the way, he had also dominated the rest of the Soviet challengers, including former world champion Tigran Petrosian. 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.

Interpretation

More than chess, this match was a clear battle between two competing ideologies during the midst of the Cold War. This was apparent to everyone on both sides of the board, except for one: Bobby Fischer. He 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.

Fischer was more than particular leading up to and during the match. It seemed like no stone went unturned in trying to make the match exactly how he wanted it. 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 must be right, otherwise, Bobby said he wouldn't play.

Leading up to the 1972 match, Fischer seemed to be in complete isolation. According to a 60 Minutes interview he did with Mike Wallace, he had "no advisors, no coaches, no manager." [1] He had not spoken to the small amount of family he had for years. The film from that interview showed him carrying around a red book containing all the games of Boris Spassky —Fischer's one companion. It seems that the only thing that mattered, or even existed, was chess.

This wasn't a recent burst of focus in preparation for the biggest match of his life. Regina Fischer—his mother—had expressed concerns to multiple people early in his life about his unwarranted obsession with chess. Introduced to the game at the age of 6 by his sister, it soon turned into more than just a game. As he got older and saw more success playing the game, Regina pleaded to him that he needed to have a life outside of chess—he found this suggestion unsatisfactory, and their relationship was rocky. She soon moved out of the family's apartment to live with a friend. They had an on-and-off relationship for the rest of her life, until her death in 1997.

Several of his opponents in his youth took note of his crazy streak. Rueben Fine, a grandmaster and psychologist, met with a young Bobby at the request of Regina. They met several times and played chess each time, but at one meeting Fine attempted to ask Bobby about his schoolwork, in an attempt to get to know the young boy. Fischer was visibly hurt and felt betrayed by this intrusion into his life; or perhaps an aversion from anything but chess. Fine claims that every time he saw Fischer after that day, Bobby threw him angry glances and would not speak to him.

Mikhail Tal, a Soviet world champion, termed him "cuckoo" at a tournament where they met when Bobby was young. Some see the jab as trash-talking to get Bobby off his game, though it's hard not to speculate that there was an ounce of truth in Tal's words.

Members of the Marshall Chess Club met at one point to discuss the young chess prodigy early in his career. They all recognized some sort of mental problem with Fischer and intended to get him help, however the meeting soon ended with no intentions to seek help from a psychologist or doctor. In an article by Peter Nicholas & 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." [2]

This is the tragedy of Fischer's life. Yes, he was a great chess player, but he was deeply troubled. 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.

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.

Avoidance

Some would observe that since he was so special a chess player, we're able to look past the Bobby Fischer that applauded the acts of 9/11 and expressed strong anti-Semitism throughout his life (despite having Jewish heritage himself). We try to separate the two facets of Bobby's life in an attempt to brush all that crazy under the rug.

Bobby Fischer's story, along with many other stories of crazy, eccentric, successful people leads to a dilemma for those who have ambition to live similar lives. 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 that I lose touch with reality in some way, perhaps not the exact same way Fischer did, but somehow.

Other examples of tragedy might be worth emulating depending on what you want to achieve. You might not have to experience brutal loss early in your life, but you can force yourself to experience change that will have a similar effect. If you want to become the best in your sport, you might have to subject yourself to a level of perfectionism that can cause pain, at times, and you will be left to deal with your choice. (Remember, you could always choose to chase something more than being a great sportsman with your life.)

Bobby Fischer's brand of crazy, however, isn't something you can emulate on demand, nor can you prove that every great chess player has gone mad. What about the other world chess champions that were not insane? Jose Raul Capablanca, Garry Kasparov, and Anatoly Karpov were all nearly as talented and innovative as Bobby Fischer, yet none of them carry a legacy of paranoia or mental illness. This type of tragedy is not necessary in any way to achieve greatness at chess, even if it was part of Bobby's story. The illusion that it isnecessary is just that: an illusion.

Notes

[1] 60 Minutes with Bobby Fischer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPuazOwq0aw

[2] 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

[3] A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer, PSMag: https://psmag.com/social-justice/a-psychological-autopsy-of-bobby-fischer-25959

Diego Segura