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.

Where is Boris Spassky?


“I’m eating my damn breakfast. Leave me alone!”
(Actually, I’d be delighted to get that response)

OK, so this isn’t a current story at all. Or is it? I pose this question as a followup to reports from September 2010, which indicated that Spassky had suffered a stroke in Moscow. The last I read, he was receiving physical therapy in France. Details were sketchy at best, and it wasn’t clear where information was coming from.

So.. maybe someone who knows something will run across this and give me an update?

It never hurts to ask. I hope he is well.

Boris Spassky: Following stroke, “some paralysis”

I had read that Boris Spassky suffered a life-threatening stroke last month, but I hadn’t been able to find any updates. This is all I know:

Boris Spassky, 75, former world champion and longtime adversary of Bobby Fischer, suffered a stroke in Moscow, while visiting as a guest at the Women’s Blitz championship. Although his life was in danger, latest reports are that he is in stable condition, can eat and move around, though he has suffered some paralysis on one side.

“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

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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