Friday, January 18, 2008

A world filled with darkness, turning gray

Today, Bobby Fischer's flag fell.

I had yet to be born when he defeated Boris Spassky for the World's Chess Championship in 1972, but I heard of him soon enough. My dad played a bit of chess and taught me the game when I was six. After learning the moves and how to bang out some rudimentary games, he got me my first chess book: Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.

Once proud and full of passion
He fought the cause of man
Many people loved his courage
Many followed his command
He changed the old into the new
And the course of things to come
And then one day they noticed
He was gone

--Kansas, "Closet Chronicles"

This was a dangerous gift, if only my father knew. I loved chess, and I loved to read - and to learn that there are books ABOUT chess? Boy howdy! Of course, I wasn't blessed with a similar ability to employ the ideas I learned, so I am little more than a "wood-pusher," as it's derisively known. Still, it's a lot of fun, and the reading never hurt. And Fischer's book is good, holding up even now. After an introduction to how each piece moves, it's on to the whole point of chess, as Fischer put it: checkmate. In a series of diagrams, the reader is asked to find the mating move, starting with elementary wins (trapping the king behind his own pawns on the last row) and on to more complex ideas and patterns.

In effect, Fischer's approach teaches the beginner how to construct the cage that will eventually pin the king in place for his eventual execution. Some of the positions are taken from some of Fischer's games. And for those who want more, there's My 60 Memorable Games, which would seem to be out of print, considering how much it costs here at Amazon.

At first it didn't matter
Nobody seemed to care
They all became to busy
To find him anywhere
And no one knew, not even him
The problems he would find
On the day he journeyed
Deep into his mind

At this point I had yet to learn that Fischer was a living example of the GK Chesterton quip, "Poets don't go mad; chess-players do." (And of course, a few poets as well!) Before I had ever seen a chessboard, Fischer had abandoned his. His famous triumph in 1972 almost didn't come off: he balked about many of the arrangements, arrived late, and then, already trailing 0-1, forfeited the second game outright. Yet he inexorably reeled Spassky back in over the course of the long match, thrilling the observers in Reykjavik and the world over.

As a result, the anticipation for his first defense in 1975, against Anatoly Karpov, ran high, and ultimately these were frustrated. Fischer set similar conditions on this match, and when they were not met to his satisfaction he abandoned chess entirely and withdrew from society.

I close my eyes, I go far away
Away from the battlefield
In my dreams, here at least I can enjoy them
Where innocence plays with all the laughing children
The ones who are crying right now

He re-emerged decades later, claiming to be champion still, and arranging a lucrative rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia. (As was observed by Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus in "Chess," it's always some exotic locale - Iceland, Yugoslavia... or this place!) This got him in trouble since it violated UN sanctions imposed against Slobodan Milosevic. It also raised some eyebrows, since Karpov had since surrendered the FIDE title to Garry Kasparov, and Fischer was not playing him. He won the rematch (for what it was worth) and then dipped back out of sight.

Allow me to forget the life I made my own
I held this nation in my hands
And yet it's not my home
Allow me just one answer, just one reason why
Why this refugee from the family of man must die
Tell me why

Through it all, of course, he was still Bobby Fischer, still regarded as possibly the strongest chessplayer who ever lived, even though Kasparov eventually exceeded his numerical rating record. (Chess uses something called the Elo score to rate comparative strengths of players, revising the formula over the years. The strongest players in the world rank 2800 or so; it's considered somewhat of an upset to lose to players 100 points lower. My own last published rating was 1450 - in other words, "patzer.") And even though Kasparov would ironically follow Fischer's example - cutting ties with FIDE due to strong disagreements - he's been active elsewhere; neither is he quite as out there as Fischer would prove to be.

One can see the process thanks to Tim Krabbé, the Dutch author and chess enthusiast (and a good player himself), via his invaluable chess diary. Starting here (scroll to the bottom and work your way upward) one can see that on the "" message boards, and in the ICC rooms, a very strong player appears at the turn of the century, playing bizarre openings and crushing grandmasters. This lead to speculation that it could be Fischer.

It was exciting news, even though he was a few pawns shy of a full board. Fischer had always been somewhat paranoid, and somewhat shy; this plus an insistence on things his way led almost inevitably to cutting himself off from chess and society - a break that many regretted, but likely saw as best for all concerned, at least until he got himself together. (A lot of people hoped for that more than worked for it, with a few exceptions. Larry Evans, a Grandmaster and longtime columnist for "Chess Life," helped Fischer prepare for Spassky in 1972; as recounted here he once said of Fischer, "It was ironic that the more you got to know about him, the less you wanted to find him." Mind that this is one of the men who did reach out to help his friend as time went on.) Then, in the wake of September 11, he tossed aside any lingering goodwill anyone had toward the Howard Hughes of chess.

Eventually he was arrested in Japan, which didn't keep him from marrying a Japanese woman; and Reykjavik, the home of his greatest triumph, gave him one last gift by welcoming him as a citizen of Iceland in 2004.

I heard the king was dying
I heard the king was dead
And with him died the chronicles
No one ever read

There will be much more said about the man in the coming days, from those who knew him or played against him. This blog seems to have a good round-up of Fischer-ia, including a link to Bobby In particular, I'd like to hear from Karpov, Spassky, Evans, and Krabbé.

The closet's fully empty now
It's occupied by none
Draw the drapes
Now destiny has won

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