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January 19, 2008
An Appraisal

Fischer vs. the World: A Chess Giant’s Endgame

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

There may be only three human activities in which miraculous accomplishment is possible before adulthood: mathematics, music and chess. These are abstract, almost invented realms, closed systems bounded by rules of custom or principle. Here, the child learns, is how elements combine and transform; here are the laws that govern their interactions; and here are the possibilities that emerge as you play with signs, symbols, sounds or pieces. Nothing else need be known or understood — at least at first. A child’s gifts in such realms can seem otherworldly, the achievements effortlessly magical. But as Bobby Fischer’s death on Thursday might remind us, even abstract gifts can exact a terrible price.

In 1956 Mr. Fischer, at 13, displayed powers that were not only prodigious but also uncanny. A game he played against Donald Byrne, one of the top 10 players in the United States, became known as “the Game of the Century,” so packed was it with brilliance and daring (and Mr. Fischer’s sacrifice of a queen). “I just got good,” he explained — as indeed he did, winning 8 of the 10 United States Championship tournaments held after 1958 and then, of course, in 1972, breaking the long hold that Soviet chess had on the international championship.

“All I want to do, ever,” he said, “is play chess.” And many thought him the best player — ever. Garry Kasparov once said that he imagined Mr. Fischer as a kind of centaur, a human player mythologically combined with the very essence of chess itself.

But of course accompanying Mr. Fischer’s triumphs were signs of something else. His aggressive declarations and grandiose pronouncements were once restricted to his chosen playing field. (“Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”) Eventually, they grew in scope, evolving into ever more sweeping convictions about the wider world.

After his triumph against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, he all but abandoned chess, and seemed to replace the idea of a seated challenger pushing pieces on a 64-square board, with that of a demonic Jewish world conspiracy that was (as he said in radio broadcasts from the Philippines) perpetrated by a “filthy, lying bastard people” who kill Christian children (“their blood is used for black-magic ceremonies”) while exploiting that “money-making invention,” the Holocaust.

In this vision the circumscribed rules of chess were overturned, and in their place were imagined esoteric plottings of evil grandmasters. In a 2002 essay in The Atlantic Monthly Rene Chun chronicled Mr. Fischer’s “pathetic endgame.” He was reported to keep a locked suitcase with him, containing pills and home remedies:

“If the Commies come to poison me, I don’t want to make it easy for them,” he said. He had his dental fillings removed, worrying about the secret signals and controlling forces that might be channeled through his jaw. The 9/11 attacks, he said, were “wonderful news.”

What was all this? “I don’t believe in psychology,” Mr. Fischer once said about chess competition. “I believe in good moves.” And yes, without the good moves, he would never have struck the fear in his opponents that he once did. But how did faith in good moves mutate into such perverse psychology? Was there any connection between his gifts in chess and his later delusions?

You might of course speculate that his perceptions were affected by never having seen his father, a physicist named Mr. Fischer, after he was 2. A revealing profile in Harper’s magazine in 1962 indicated that Mr. Fischer’s mother, Regina Wender, also had other preoccupations. Bobby’s sister described her as a “professional crusader.” Bobby had dropped out of high school and was a chess wunderkind with a world reputation, while, at the time of the profile, his mother was spending eight months walking to Moscow in a “pacifist” protest.

A few years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer, obtaining F.B.I. records under the Freedom of Information Act, also found compelling evidence that Bobby Fischer’s father was not the man named on his birth certificate, but a brilliant Hungarian scientist, Paul F. Nemenyi, with whom his mother had an affair. Mr. Nemenyi apparently paid to help support Bobby, and there is even the record of a complaint he made to a social worker about Bobby’s upbringing. If that identification is accurate, the paradoxes of Mr. Fischer’s virulent anti-Semitism become still more profound, since Mr. Nemenyi, like Ms. Wender, was Jewish.

Chess too can seem to encourage a streak of craziness. ( “I like to see ’em squirm,” Mr. Fischer proclaimed.) But for paranoia and posturing, nothing could come close to the 1972 championship match in Reykjavik. In recent years the argument has been made that the attention given to the confrontation between Mr. Fischer and Mr. Spassky had little to do with the cold war. Mr. Spassky himself was no party-line comrade, and Mr. Fischer, with all his idiosyncrasies, was far from a comfort to the United States State Department; moreover, by 1972, such confrontations no longer had the symbolic power they had during the era of Sputnik. But there is still no question that the contest drew its worldwide audience partly because it presented two conflicting national idols.

Mr. Fischer, with his demands about money, his finickiness about cameras and chairs and schedule, could seem an extreme example of the American individualist, while Mr. Spassky, with his back to the audience, his stone-faced demeanor and the state support for this national game behind him, seemed an incarnation of Soviet ideology. The Soviets also answered Mr. Fischer’s egomaniacal posturing with their own versions of conspiracy mongering, suggesting that Mr. Spassky’s performance was being deliberately sabotaged by American tampering with the players’ environments; the air had to be tested and the chairs X-rayed.

But there is still something about Mr. Fischer’s craziness that is closely connected with the essential nature of chess. The gift of early insight into chess or math or music is often also accompanied by a growing obsession with those activities, simply because of the wonders of connection and invention that unfold in the young mind. The world itself, with its more messy human interactions, its complicated histories, its emotional conflicts, can be put aside, and attention focused on an intricate bounded cosmos.

Perhaps we should be grateful that such gifts are so rare, for if they were not, how many of us would prefer to remain cocooned in these glass-bead games? At least in mathematics and music, we may be grateful too that ultimately, with the coming of maturity, the world starts to put constraints on abstract play. Great music attains its power not simply through manipulation and abstraction, but by creating analogies with experience; music is affected by life, not cut off from it. Mathematics also comes up against the demands of the world, as the field opens up to understanding; early insights are tested against the full scale of what has been already been done and what yet remains undone.

But chess, alone among this abstract triumvirate, is never tested or transformed. The only way expertise is ever tried is in victory or defeat. And if a player is as profoundly powerful as Mr. Fischer, defeat never creates a sense of limits. Seeing into a game and defeating an opponent — that defines the entire world.

So when it comes time to look at the wider world, it might seem a vast extension of the game, only ever so much more frightening because its conspiratorial strategies cannot be discovered in rule books, and its confrontations cannot be controlled by formal tournaments. That was the world that Bobby Fischer saw around him as he morphed from world champion chess player into world-class crank, never realizing that he had unwittingly blundered into checkmate.