Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer

At age 64, Bobby Fischer is dead.

I have no comment on Bobby’s later life shenanigans- clearly a toxic mix of insane and reprehensible. His death is undoubtedly a mercy.

He was always nuts- but he always had a “rational chess component”. Even a casual student of the game, like we are here at “Frank Helps You Think It All Out”, could read through his games and marvel: brilliant in the attack, always looking to attack. He played the white pieces- and the natural advantage of initiative that they grant- more brilliantly than any player ever. I am a player of very modest capacity- but I know my game is a child of Fischer’s. I was taught to play in the mid-70s by a neighbor as part of the chess semi-craze that filtered its way through the northeast United States. My book schooling in chess was at the hands of Fischer; P-K4 is my whole game.

Bobby managed to couple his chess brilliance with a seemingly infinite capacity to rail at the system of global chess- a system wholly devised and dominated by the Soviets, exhibiting their worst impulses of control and paranoia, to further their political and social agendas. It seems utterly crazy today, but the Soviets intent to dominate chess as a proof of an “intellectual” superiority over the west and their client states met with more than limited success. It was a circumscribed audience obviously- but the intelligentsia of large parts of the west was loaded with apologists looking for excuses to build up and excuse Soviet Russia.

When you read about the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972, the Cold War aspect of it was the powerful subplot. Americans rallied behind a high school drop-out who mined the depths of his own paranoia to do the Russians one better. He didn’t just beat Spassky at chess; he destroyed him and the system throughly- as the Soviet chess system around their champions became unglued, petty and rude. Fischer gave not one inch to the machine- instead he introduced them to a whole new cornucopia of bizarre ruminations and fantasies.

In retrospect, it is clear Fischer paid a terrible price for his obsessions and paranoia; he couldn’t turn it off and it ate him up. Never exactly on an emotional keel to begin with, he got worse and worse.

But like a lot of folk “heroes” in American history, he managed to rise to the occasion for a period when he was needed most. Fischer had no small role in ending the post-1960s malaise that gripped America- and he won big when it counted most. He was a hugely imperfect champion- but he fought his little battle with his little part of the Soviet system where and when he could. His later sins are awful- but for today maybe, let’s remember 1972.

Speaking of brillant performances versus master level Russian players....