Friday, January 18, 2008

Watching Bobby Fischer 

Like Ed, I was a childhood chess player who adored Bobby Fischer. (I had no idea Ed was a tournament player until reading that post.) I played very few tournaments but played on a high school team all four years. I had a friend who played too, and we would hang out at his house with our boards and watch the commentary on PBS by Shelby Lyman, two junior high kids learning about chess in between playing our own games of chess, Blitzkrieg and Gettysburg. (We got Diplomacy right around that time too, but I don't recall us playing it until eighth grade. After that, my friend went away to a military academy and I stayed in Manchester, and we haven't seen each other since.) This is what geeks did in the pre-Apple days.

But watch we did, as if it were a soap opera. There was no chess club in the city, so we got together ourselves. For those of you who followed Olympic hockey, Bobby Fischer was our Herb Brooks. Every book I read on chess involved a Soviet grandmaster or a dead guy, so for there to be an American champion meant breaking a very small piece of Soviet power. And Fischer was brash. He hated the computers, the use of teams of masters to memorize and script out positions.
I follow the old chess, I follow all the pre-arranged matches, like the last Kramnik-Kasparov match. At the highest level it is all pre-arranged, move by move. You have very interesting, beautiful pre-arranged games being created by very intelligent players, working with computers, working in teams. I have no objections to people creating such games, but they must say these are pre-arranged games, but they must not claim that they are finding the moves over the board.
He developed a different game, Fischer Random, where the starting position was randomized and thus defeated all the thick books with openings and the teams of seconds. He wanted the beautiful game, the one in which genius, HIS genius, would shine through. Chess is always in the end the argument between two people about how to play chess. The winner announces "my way is better!" Tipping one's king in defeat is bowing to that genius. (It is why I hate computers for chess -- one does not bow to them.)

Of course we know how the story turns out tragically for Fischer, whose paranoia was known even when he won the championship and for whom it got worse and worse and destroyed his ability to display the genius he was.

I've noted several places in the archives that I coached a school team for Littlest's school. It's hard to compete with the GameStations and XBoxes and we no longer have enough to field a team, but some students enjoy the game still. I wonder how much more they would enjoy it if they had someone who played it in the manner of a Bobby Fischer. We are still searching for the next chess hero but we cannot search for Bobby Fischer now. There will never be another.

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