Former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer has died of kidney failure at the age of 64. The New York Times has an informative article here.
For chess fans Bobby Fischer was the classic example of the need to separate the art from the artist. Away from the board Fischer was an emotionally disturbed misfit, entirely unable to take care of himself or deal with the world in a reasonable way. His incoherent, hate-filled rants against Jews and America made him more an object of pity than of anger.
But at the board he’s the best there ever was. Only Gary Kasparov is a plausible rival for this title, and Kasparov himself, hardly a modest man, has ceded the claim to Fischer. In his prime Fischer was putting up numbers never seen before or since. The gap between him and his nearest competitors was huge. But let’s begin at the beginning…
Fischer was born in 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. He dropped out of high school at 16 to focus entirely on chess. The most notable fact about his academic career was that he went to high school with my mother.
He learned to play chess from his sister. By thirteen he was making moves like this:
Donald Byrne – Bobby Fischer
Rosenwald Memorial Tournament 1956
Position After 17. Ke1-f1
Donald Byrne was one of America’s top players at that time. Fischer was a mostly unknown thirteen year old. Here Fischer ignored the attack on his queen and uncorked 17. … Be6!! Byrne had little choice but to accept the offered queen, but after 18. Bxb6 Bxc4+ 19. Kg1 Ne2+ 20. Kf1 Nxd4+ 21. Kg1 Ne2+ 22. Kf1 Nc3+ 23. Kg1 axb6, he quickly found himself overrun by black’s nimble rooks and minor pieces. It takes some serious stones to play in such a fashion, and this is definitely the game that put Fischer on the map.
A year later Fischer won his first of eight U. S. Championships, notching up wins like the following crush against a veteran grandmaster:
Bobby Fischer – Samuel Reshevsky
U. S. Championship 1958
Position After 8. … Nc6-a5
We’re still in the opening and things look normal enough. Alas, Reshevsky’s last move overlooks a combination. Fischer played 9. e5!. Black must move his knight, and since 9. … Nh5 10. g4! sends the horse to the glue factory, Reshevsky was forced to play 9. … Ne8. But now we have 10. Bxf7+! Kxf7 11. Ne6!! and black loses his queen for two minor pieces. After 11. … dxe6 we have 12. Qxd8, and after 11. … Kxe6 12. Qd5+ Kf5 13. g4+ Kxg4 14. Qe4+ leads quickly to mate. Reshevsky fought on, but the writing was on the wall.
At this point Fischer was plainly a strong grandmaster and a major talent, but there was little sign of the ascent to godhood that was to come. Fischer made his first run for the world championship in the late fifties, but he was not yet strong enough to beat the best in the world.
Fischer dominated the U. S. Chess scene throughout the sixties, winning the U.S. Championship every time he played in the event. Most notable was his ludicrous run in the 1963-64 edition of the tournament, where he posted a score of eleven wins, no losses, no draws. That’s simply unheard of in top level chess. Stephen Jay Gould was fond of referring to Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak as the sole sports record so many standard deviations above the mean that it quite simply should never have happened. He must not have been aware of Fischer’s 11-0 victory. Second place finisher Larry Evans, who earned a mere 7.5 points, remarked that he had won the tournament, while Fischer won the exhibition.
Fischer’s conduct at the board was always impeccable. He invariably wore a suit, and never engaged in cheap theatrics during the game. But away from the board it was clear he was troubled. Contrary to common belief, Fischer typically got along well with the Russian grandmasters, who were the only ones he regarded as his equals at the chessboard. In one instance, former World Champion and close Fischer friend Mikhail Tal was dispatched by a Russian chess magazine to interview Fischer. In a previous tournament in which Tal had to withdraw due to illness, Fischer was the only one of the other players to visit him in the hospital.
Tal did the interview, but subsequently refused to publish it. He remarked that Fischer’s answers were frequently so daft and off the wall that no one would believe he had actually said such things.
Fischer was also a bit erratic, frequently throwing tantrums and basically making a pest of himself to tournament organizers. In the 1967 interzonal tournament, in which the top finishers would go on to become candidates for a Wrold Championship match against then champion Tigran Petrosian, Fisher jumped out to an early lead with 8.5 out of 10 points. A string of effortless draws from that point would likely have been sufficient to ensure his qualification to the next round of the cycle, but his increasingly bizarre religious beliefs led him to a disagreement with the organizers. Fischer simply withdrew from the tournament, thereby eliminating himself from contention for the championship. Boris Spassky went on to win that cycle, and to defeat Petrosian in the ensuing match.
Fischer would likewise have been ineligible for the next World Championship, but for an astonishing act of self-sacrifice on the part of one of the other players. The top finishers of the 1969 U. S. Championship were to serve as the U. S. representatives to the interzonal tournament, from which the candidates for the world title would be drawn. Fischer, unable to come to an agreement with the organizers, refused to play in that year’s championship. Hungarian/American grandmaster Pal Benko qualified for the interzonal, but believed that Fischer was the only one with any realistic chance to win the title. He consequently gave up his spot for Fischer, an extraordinary gesture.
From here, things really got absurd. Prior to the interzonal, Fischer played Board Two in the match between the USSR and the Rest of the World (!!) (He graciously allowed the Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen to play Board One). Fischer played four games with former World Champion Tigran Petrosian, scoring two wins and two draws. Alas, the USSR still won the match.
He went on to win the World Blitz Championship with a score of 19 out of 22, winning by 4.5 points. He notched up several other tournament wins that year as well.
He won the interzonal with a score of 18.5 points out of 23, 3.5 points ahead of second place finisher Larsen. Along the way Fischer won his last seven games.
Then came the candidates matches, a series of elimination matches the winner of which would play Spassky for the title. Fischer first faced veteran Soviet grandmaster (and concert pianist) Mark Taimanov. Fischer won with six wins, no losses and no draws.
Pretty incredible, but at 48 Taimanov was plainly past his prime. Next up was Larsen, who many regarded as the favorite in the match. Fischer won, again, with six wins, no losses and no draws.
The final round saw him face former champion Petrosian. Fischer won the first game. If you’re counting, that makes twenty straight wins in top level play. Unheard of! Petrosian, however, managed to break the streak by winning game two, and a few sloppy draws followed in the next few games. But then Fischer regained his footing, rattled off four straight wins, and earned the right to play Spassky.
The match with Spassky took place in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972. With its Cold War overtones, the match was a media sensation even in America, where chess has never been especially popular. Henry Kissinger famously called Fischer the night before the match.
At times it seemed the match might never happen, since Fischer made a string of strange demands of the organizers. When the two finally sat down to play, the first game ended up being very strange indeed:
Boris Spassky – Bobby Fischer
World Championship 1972
Position After 29. b4-b5
In this dead drawn endgame, Fischer, for some incomprehensible reason, played, 29. … Bxh2?? This is an elementary trap known to every amateur woodpusher, since after 30. g3! the bishop is completely trapped in the Southeast corner. Spassky simply marched his king back and rounded it up. Even after this blunder the game remained complex, but Spassky showed good technique to notch up the point. It is almost inconceivable that Fischer overlooked the trap, but we can only speculate as to what he was thinking.
Fischer declined to show up for the second game and was forfeited. He was now down two points to none, which is a huge deficit in top-level chess. It meant that Spassky had the option of playing with extreme caution, since draws were perfectly acceptable to him.
Keep in mind two other things. First, the rules stated that Spassky would keep his title if the match ended in a tie. So if Fischer wanted to win the title, he was effectively down three points. Second, Fischer had never beaten Spassky. They had played four times prior to the big match, with Spassky winning three of those games.
There was serious concern that Fischer would withdraw from the match at this point. But things resumed when Spassky agreed, over the objection of the Soviet chess authorities, to accede to Fischer’s demands that the games be played in a private room away from the cameras. Spassky and Fischer had always been good friends, and Spassky had a long-standing reputation as one of the real class acts of chess.
And that was when the real Fischer showed up. Fischer went on to win five of the next eight games and cruised to victory in the match. Spassky was disgraced and later defected to France where he lives to this day.
Sadly, Fischer never played a single tournament game as world champion. In 1975, when he was due to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov, he was unable to reach an agreement with the world chess organization FIDE, and disappeared from chess altogether. He became active in a religious cult and squandered all of his considerable chess earnings.
He did surface briefly in 1992 to play a rematch against Boris Spassky. Thirty games were played, with Fischer winning ten to Spassky’s five. Fischer turned fifty during the match. The general consensus was that Fischer was still a strong grandmaster, but that he would have been no match for the elite players at that time. These would be the last serious games Fischer would play.
Recent years saw a string of humiliations for Fischer, but I prefer not to dwell on that. For me as a chess fan I have his marvellous games, the best of which continue to bring a smile to my face each time I look at them. The Fischer who produced those games died long ago, but that is the Fischer I will think of. His book My 60 Memorable Games, is one of the great classics of chess literature. My copy, purchased at a library discard sale many years ago, is falling apart from frequent readings. Playing through his games provides the feeling that you are seeing something more than just a game. You are seeing The Truth, the one best move sitting there in every chess position.
We chessplayers continue to devote ridiculous amounts of time to this silly game because every once in a while you get to play A Really Good Move, and when that happens you feel great. The dozens of other games in which you hung a knight, or blundered into mate, or let your dead-lost opponent struggle back to a draw are a small price to pay for such occasional satisfaction. For most of us, those really good moves are few and far between. But we have the likes of Fischer to show us what is possible, and to give us the inspiration to keep pushing the pieces. And for that, he will be missed.
I close with two further examples that made a big impression on me when I first saw them:
Bobby Fischer – Pal Benko
U. S. Championship 1963
Position After 18. … e5 x Bd4
Fischer clearly has some king-side pressure, but no obvious breakthrough. He would like to play 19. e5, which opens a line for the d3 bishop, threatens the knight on d6, and threatens mate on h7. But if this is played immediately black has 19. … f5! which holds everything together. It blocks the d3 bishop, thereby stopping the mate, and it threatens the white queen on h5, giving black time to save his knight. If only black were not able to move his f-pawn…
Fischer played 19. Rf6!! blocking the f-pawn in the most direct way possible. Sure, black can grab the unprotected rook with 19. … Bxf6, but this leaves the f-pawn just as blocked and white wins with 20. e5! Benko avoided this and played 19. … Kg8, but after 20. e5 h6 21. Ne2, the knight will quickly arrive at f5 and black will be overrun. Benko resigned.
Bobby Fischer – L. Myagmarsuren
Position After 30. … Qe8-f8
For an experienced player the finishing combination here is not so hard to see. But I encountered this game as a lowly Class C player, and at that time I frequently overlooked such tactics.
Fischer won with 31. Qxh7+ !! . Black resigned since after 31. … Kxh7 32. hxg6+ we have either 32. … Kxg6 33. Be4 mate or 32. … Kg8 33. Rh8 mate.
A powerful argument for studying your tactics!