How Bobby Fischer briefly changed America

This summer marks the anniversary of an extraordinary moment in U.S. history: the 1972 match in which the American genius Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet wizard Boris Spassky for the chess championship of the world.

The battle probably should have been just one more headline in an eventful three months that saw the Watergate burglary, the expulsion of the Soviet military from Egypt and the humiliating dismissal of vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket. Somehow the story of Fischer and Spassky and their epic match, which ended 40 years ago this month, captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since.

The two best players in the world were playing 24 games in Iceland, and everyone paid attention. Strangers who had never picked up a chess piece discussed the match on subway trains. Newspapers put out special editions announcing the results of the games, and vendors hawked them from the corners, shouting out the name of the winner. Book publishers were signing up chess writers by the dozens.

Chess is a very hard game, and what is most remarkable about that summer is that people wanted to play anyway. They wanted their minds stretched, and were willing to work for that reward. The brief period of Fischer’s ascendancy — he quit chess three years later — was perhaps the last era in our nation’s history when this could be said.

Nowadays, we like things easier. We seem more interested in the doings of the “Real Housewives” than in the great intellectual challenges (except of course those intellectual challenges that yield a great deal of money, such as those on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley). Those who deploy their extraordinary mental gifts to do a difficult thing extremely well for a modest reward somehow cannot hold our attention…

…The great Ray Bradbury, who died this year, used to say that simplicity was the great enemy against which we should be doing battle — that theme is the subtext of “Fahrenheit 451” — but we are a long way from heeding the call to arms…

When Fischer died in 2008, his passing went scarcely noticed. He was never an admirable man, but he performed an admirable service. By his brilliance and his antics he focused our attention, in that shining summer 40 years ago, on the life of the mind. He made an enormously difficult intellectual pursuit so alluring that, for a brief moment, everybody wanted to be a part of it.

We could use another moment like that. Bradbury was right: Simplicity is the enemy of democracy. Yet our images and arguments get simpler, and sillier, by the day. Unless we can become freshly excited about stretching our minds, the rest of the world — much of which still values complexity — may leave us in its dust.

Bobby Fischer’s personal politics were easily as contemptible as, say, Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Todd Akins – both of whom hold elective office in the United States. Less fashionable, though.

His erratic behavior and egregious self-concern never eclipsed his brilliance – most of the time – at the chessboard. I doubt Americans have the attention span anymore to grow that kind of focus.

Bobby Fischer’s widow may have his money. Well, that took long enough.


“Does this mean I get to stay buried– finally?”

A long fight over the estate of the chess champion Bobby Fischer appears to have reached its endgame, with a court ruling that a Japanese woman is indeed his widow and heir.

A district court in Iceland, where Mr. Fischer spent the last years of his life, ruled Wednesday that Miyoko Watai, a pharmacist and the president of the Japan Chess Association, had been married to Mr. Fischer and was therefore entitled to inherit his estate. Mr. Fischer, who died in January 2008, left no will; his estate is said to be worth about $2 million.

Mr. Fischer’s nephews, Alexander and Nicholas Targ, who also filed a claim to the estate, plan to appeal the ruling….

After Mr. Fischer’s death, a protracted legal battle erupted over his estate. In addition to Ms. Watai and the Targ brothers, a Filipino woman named Marilyn Young also laid claim to the estate, saying that her daughter, Jinky, was Mr. Fischer’s child.

To test that claim, last summer Mr. Fischer’s body was exhumed and a paternity test conducted. It came back negative.

Ms. Watai seems to me actually to have had Fischer’s interest at heart. She understood that it is humane to make allowances for a precariously balanced genius, and proper considering his many contributions to a multitude of people all over the world.

Garry Kasparov on Bobby Fischer, and Frank Brady’s new biography

A long and detailed article on Bobby Fischer, with a review of Brady’s new Fischer bio in the mix.

If you have even a smattering of interest in the topic, I encourage you to read the full piece. If you prefer a black-and-white understanding of Bobby Fischer, you need read nothing. Over the coming weeks and months, there will be plenty of opinion pieces to satisfy your needs. As Kasparov points out, there have always been “starry-eyed sycophants”, as well as “spiteful critics” whose need for facts will never extend beyond listening to his lunatic rants in his later years.

The sycophants you can easily ignore. The critics less so. But as you encounter one or another writer who portrays Fischer simply as a man with no principles, understand that that is not the opinion of many– I think most– Grandmasters. On the contrary, as Kasparov reminds us:

Fischer returned from beating Spassky in Reykjavík—the Match of the Century—a world champion, a media star, and a decorated cold warrior. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. With a few minor exceptions, he turned it all down.

Keep in mind that the chess world of the pre-Fischer era was laughably impoverished even by today’s modest standards. The Soviet stars were subsidized by the state, but elsewhere the idea of making a living solely from playing chess was a dream. When Fischer dominated the Stockholm tournament of 1962, a grueling five-week qualifier for the world championship cycle, his prize was $750.

Of course it was Fischer himself who changed this situation, and every chess player since must thank him for his tireless efforts to get chess the respect and compensation he felt it deserved. He earned the nickname Spassky gave him, “the honorary chairman of our trade union.”…

It’s important to understand that Fischer turned down the huge advertising deals on principle. He didn’t feel that being a champion gave him any special perspective that should make someone else go out and buy a brand of sneakers that he endorsed. Maybe there are some American athletes who have displayed similar character regarding endorsements. Maybe you can name me one.

Brady does not, Kasparov tells us, spend much time trying to defend, explain, or judge Fischer’s bizarre side. Fischer was never medically diagnosed, so Brady’s– or your or my– analysis would be speculative and probably, for most of us, self-serving. In the end, Fischer’s failings are an important issue, but one outside of the questions that Fischer raised as a chess player. As Kasparov says:

Despite the ugliness of his decline, Fischer deserves to be remembered for his chess…. There is no moral at the end of the tragic fable, nothing contagious in need of quarantine. Bobby Fischer was one of a kind, his failings as banal as his chess was brilliant.

Fischer’s decline was a sad thing. Personally, I can leave it at that. As can also, apparently, Garry Kasparov.

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Related Link:
Above, one of a number of previously unseen portraits of Bobby Fischer

“World Tournament Champion” Bent Larsen dies at 75


Bent Larsen: 1935-2010

Jack Peters [LA Times]:
Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen died Sept. 9 at age 75 in Buenos Aires, his home since the 1970s. Larsen was the most successful tournament player of the late 1960s, when he rose to third in the world behind Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Only losses to those two stars in Candidates matches kept him from playing for the world championship…

Larsen visited [the U.S.] frequently, taking first prize in the 1968 U.S. Open in Aspen, Colorado, and the 1974 World Open in New York. The most successful of his four appearances in California was his 71/2-11/2 performance in Lone Pine in 1978, the highest score in that tournament’s history.

Jack Peters includes several annotated Larsen games, featuring victories over Petrosian, Gligoric, Fischer, and Karpov.

Related Links:
New York Times on Larsen’s career
Leonard Barden Tribute

Bobby Fischer’s last laugh… Now leave him the f*ck alone


“Hello again…”

A DNA test has determined that the late chess champion Bobby Fischer is not the father of a nine-year-old Filipino girl, her lawyer has said.

The Supreme Court in Reykjavik had ordered Mr Fischer’s body exhumed to prove whether Jinky Young was Mr Fischer’s daughter.

However, lawyer Thordur Bogason said the report “excluded Bobby Fisher”.

The US-born chess player died in Iceland in 2008 but left no will. His estate is estimated at $2m (£1.4m).

“The DNA report excluded Bobby Fisher from being the father of Jinky Young, and therefore the case has come to a close,” said Mr Bogason.

Next on Days of Our Lives:
Jinky: “OK, mom, so just who the hell IS my father?”

SOLD! Bobby Fischer’s Chess Collection — $61,000

Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield have purchased the chess library of the legendary Bobby Fischer, including notebooks he prepared for his 1972 World Championship match with Boris Spassky. The Sinquefields acquired the collection through San Francisco-based auction house, Bonhams and Butterfields.

“I am thrilled to have this collection from arguably the greatest chess player in history,” said Rex Sinquefield, founder and board president of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. “I have been a lifelong fan of Bobby Fischer.”

The reclusive Fischer died in January 2008 at age 64. The collection purchased by the Sinquefields includes 320 books on chess; about 400 issues of chess-related periodicals; three sets of proofs for Fischer’s 1969 book, “My 60 Memorable Games”; and a number of bound volumes detailing the match histories of several chess masters, including Spassky.

The Spassky-related works centers on Fischer’s preparation for his historic 1972 match, won by Fischer. The victory ended 24 years of Soviet domination of the World Championship….

I, along with many others, have followed the tale of the Bekins storage debacle. If all the materials are in fact in order, this is a happy ending. Well, except that Fischer himself never got the stuff back. Details, details. I am happy for the buyers, and happy that the buyers turned out to be chess patrons who will understand the value and significance of what they have received.

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