Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bobby Fischer - Greatest Chess Player of All Time?

By Errol Tiwari, Stabroek News

The debate was already raging when I joined the small group downtown, well-wishers of chess who enjoy discussing the literature of the game, and the people who play it. The question was: Who is the greatest chess player of all time?

I could not answer the question then and I cannot do so now. The argument is futile. Some would say Fischer, some would say Kasparov. Before Fischer, the last supermaster was Alekhine. Preceding him, in reverse order, were Capablanca, Lasker and Steintz, all world champions who comprised a magic circle of greatness. Players like Tal and Spassky have touched the perimeters of the circle and even entered it on occasion, but were never card-carrying members. Bobby Fischer is.

There is a mystique about Fischer which continues to fascinate people who are not even remotely connected to chess. No other chess player alive or dead has succeeded in capturing the imagination of people around the world like Fischer did.

He did more to popularise chess than any other player who has ever lived. His tantrums and inexplicable actions were front-page news wherever he went. Bobby Fischer the eccentric, the rebel against authority, the monomaniac, the enfant terrible, the ego-crushing titan of chess whose intransigence approached sublimity, the brilliant, temperamental, self-centred genius from Brooklyn who singlehandedly broke the Soviet hegemony on chess -- he was already a legend before he even played for the World Championship.

US champion at 14; Grandmaster at 15, at the time the youngest in the history of the game; US champion eight times; winner of tournament after tournament; and, finally, chess champion of the world after beating Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, 1972. In his march to secure the World Championship title, Fischer lost five games,(one of them a forfeit because playing conditions did not suit him), out of sixty-five.

At the rigorous Interzonal tournament at Palma de Majorca, where the strongest Grandmasters in the world were present with the exception of the World Champion, Fischer crushed the opposition with 15 wins, seven draws and one loss--to Bent Larsen. Russia's Yefim Geller was 3/½ points behind in second place. Then Fischer started his series of candidates' matches. He had to play the three top finishers of the Interzonal. The rest is history. Fischer mauled the opposition in an unprecedented manner. In Vancouver he blanked Russia's Mark Taimanov 6 to 0. In Denver, Fischer shut out the Dane Bent Larsen who had beaten him in the Interzonal, 6 to 0. Even the Russians at the time hailed the feat as a miracle. Fischer had accumulated a streak of nineteen consecutive victories in Grandmaster play. This was unheard of in the history of chess.

The Fischer-Petrosian Match was held in Buenos Aires in 1971. Tigran Petrosian was arguably the best defensive player in the world at the time and was known as 'The Rock.' Fischer smashed the rock in the first game taking his tally to 20 consecutive victories. But Petrosian, the immovable object, retaliated in the second game and claimed victory giving Fischer his first loss since the Interzonal. He had accomplished what the finest players in the world had been unable to do on twenty occasions in the previous nine months: he had won a game from Bobby Fischer. Three draws followed. Then the mighty Fischer struck back. He took the next four games and won the match handsomely at 6/½ to 2/½. His next stop was Boris Spassky and the World Championship. Did Fischer falter against Petrosian by losing a game and drawing three in the light of his shut-outs over Taimanov and Larsen? Maybe if he had succeeded in winning all his games against Petrosian, his match with Spassky would have been easy to predict. If the tightrope walker slips just a little, it makes his performance that much more believable.

The commotion generated over Fischer's conquest of the awesome Soviet chess machine was unprecedented. A genuine chess renaissance occured practically overnight. Sales of chess sets increased. Virtually every major newspaper and magazine at the time carried a story about Fischer. The New York Times published a news story on its front page the day after the match ended complete with a diagram of Fischer's final position against Petrosian. Chess had rarely been so honoured. Besides becoming a national hero in his country, Bobby Fischer had become a household name.

For over a decade, even longer, Fischer, like another American original, Mohammad Ali, had boasted that he was the "greatest." Fischer told the world the Russians had his title and he wanted it back. People were amused. Imagine a 28-year-old chess upstart from Brooklyn challenging the awesome Soviet empire. But still, the whole world, not only the chess world, was eager to see if he could beat the Russians, especially against such a formidable opponent as Boris Spassky.

The interest of people who knew nothing of chess rose to such an extent that they made efforts to learn the game, perhaps to better understand Fischer. They were impressed by his pure individualism, fascinated by his charisma and attracted by his vitality. Those who did not know the difference between a pawn and a ping-pong ball felt impelled to appreciate fully the artistic expression of the young genius from Brooklyn.

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was the location for the encounter between Fischer and Spassky. For over two months the attention of the world was focused on that tiny city in that island. Reykjavik had suddenly become the capital of the world. Termke Poisoned Pawn, the Sicilian Defence, and the Queen's Gambit entered the international consciousness. All over the world moves were relayed by the wire services and through the air to radio and television stations. In Guyana we got results and details of the games from the radio and newspapers.

As the match was being played, the Guyana Chess Federation was established. The year was 1972. Fischer had brought the match to fever pitch and made of it a thrilling drama that far transcended a mere chess match, first by not showing up in Reykjavik; then by appearing and starting his usual round of demands (he wanted sole use of his hotel's swimming pool in Reykjavik), threats and complaints; by being party to the most hysterical theatrics ever witnessed in a sporting event; and by losing the first two games (the second on a forfeit), yet coming from behind and completely smashing the champion. Of such deeds are legends made.

For a delirious period of time, chess was front-page news in the civilized countries of the world. People sat entranced while two great players fought each other, tried to outmanoeuvre each other, tried to dominate and psychically destroy each other. The match between Fischer of the United States and Spassky of the Soviet Union became much more than a match between two players. It became an international incident, a struggle between two societies, a symbol of confrontation between East and West. Both players denied any political implications. But the world ignored their remarks. America and Russia were facing each other in the persons of the two players.

More than anybody else Fischer seemed to know what he represented in relation to the spirit of the time. No one paid attention to chess before Fischer. When Spassky won the World Championship title in 1969, he received US$1400 as his prize money. Before his match with Spassky, Fischer let it be known that he would not play unless the purse was at least US$50,000. There was tolerant laughter. Everybody thought Fischer was out of his mind. US$50,000 for a chess match? Who on earth would be willing to put up that sum?

But when it was all over and he was declared chess champion of the world, Fischer walked away with the winner's share of a purse of US$250,000. It was, prizefight purses excepted, the largest single purse for a sporting event ever recorded. For the first time in the 2,000-year history of the game, chess had entered the Age of Opulence.

Fischer's 21 games that he played with Spassky to this day are beauties to behold. Fischer played the Queen's Gambit Declined as White in Round Six of the championship for the first time in his life. Fischer had senselessly wandered into Spassky's milieu. But the result was a total defeat for the Russian. Experts felt Fischer kept the improvements he worked out in this game for 10 years to unleash it at the right moment and at the right time. Harry Golombeck, covering the match for the Times of London likened the game to a "Mozart Symphony," so perfect was it in its execution.

Fischer possessed an extraordinary memory. It is said he has never forgotten a game he has played or an analysis he has read. He had the ability to merely glance at a chess position and grasp its nuances and difficulties. In a flash he knew what was true and should be absorbed, and what was false and should be ruthlessly discarded. Frank Brady told a story of Fischer's extraordinary mental capacity.

In 1963, at age 20, Fischer won the New York Open State Championship. Fischer glanced momentarily, Brady said, for about five seconds at a difficult ending he was playing with Frank Meyer. Months later Fischer met Brady in his office and inquired how the game turned out. Brady said he won but with difficulty. Then Fischer asked if he had played Q-B5. Quite frankly, Brady said, he could not remember what he had played. Fischer immediately set up the exact position to 'help' Brady remember and demonstrated the variation he should have played to gain the most economical win.

Fischer could also recall most of his speed games in which both players are limited to five minutes to make all the moves. After the World Speed Chess Championship at Yugoslavia in 1970, which he won, Fischer replayed all 22 of his games which he had played in the tournament from memory. Not only did he remember speed games directly after a match, he remembered them for years and could replay a particular game at a moment's notice. Fischer met the Russian chess player Vasiukov and showed him a speed game that the two had played in Moscow 15 years before. Fischer recalled the game move by move.

Fischer's IQ was in the range of 180, genius level. But this is not exceptional to Fischer alone. Brilliant chess players have been known to have high IQ's. However, there is probably no topic that intrigues chess players as much as the inner machinations of the mind of Bobby Fischer. Chess players universally feel they can improve their own game by understanding how Fischer's mind operated.

But Fischer's enormous memory, and his incredible retention was not limited to chess alone. One day when he was in Iceland, Fischer called Frederick Olaffson, Iceland's only Grandmaster. Olaffson's Icelandic-speaking daughter answered the phone and explained her parents were out and would return at suppertime. Fischer understood nothing that was said because he did not know the language. But he listened, apologized and hung up. Later that day Fischer met with another Icelandic player who spoke English. He explained what had happened and repeated every Icelandic word he had heard on the phone, imitating the sounds with perfect inflection. The Icelandic player translated the message word for word for Fischer.

Following his match with Spassky, Fischer had achieved the highest rating of any player in history. Professor Arpad Elo's International Rating System, a thoroughly reliable system that is used to this day, rated Fischer at 2810. He was the only player in the history of the game to have reached the magic 2800 mark. Rating points are given for wins against strong Grandmasters and are taken away for draws and losses. Fischer's record remained unbroken for twenty years. And to this day only two players have succeeded in reaching 2800--Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov. Although he is the current world champion, Vladimir Kramnik is rated at 2750 and Viswanathan Anand is rated number two in the world at 2779. Kasparov has retired from chess and is not active so he is currently not rated. And by the way, Professor Elo had correctly predicted that Fischer would beat Spassky by a 12/½ to 8/½ margin and the contest would end on the twenty-first game.

Fischer had produced an energy on the chess board that apparently disturbed his opponents. Some people called it the Fischer "aura," implying that, like Tal, Capablanca and Alekhine before him, he virtually hypnotized his opponents by striking fear into their hearts, thus making them play below their usual standard.

It is hard to describe the Fischer aura. Harold Schonberg described it in the New York Times: "…the Fischer aura is the will to dominate, to humiliate, to take over an opponent's mind." When the Fischer aura enveloped an opponent terrible things happened. Combinations turned out faulty. Exchanges were lost. Players ended up in Zugzwang (chess term for a hopeless position). Well tested openings developed flaws and outright blunders were made.

No one really knew what the Fischer aura was but it terrified seasoned Grandmasters. It was relentless, merciless and pitiless. It was the aura of a killer. Some accused him of psychic murder. He took the Alekhine Defence as Black in Game 13 of his championship match against Sapssky, chess champion of the world, the player supposedly without nerves, the suave gentleman admired by all who came into contact with him, and destroyed him. The Alekhine Defence was unplayed in World Championship matches and was considered a weak defence against the White King Pawn. The loss of that game produced a psychological shock from which Spassky never recovered. He was finished forever, psychologically ground down by a deadly ego-crusher from Brooklyn.

In 1992, Fischer violated a US ban to play chess in Yugoslavia. It was reported he was offered a US$5 million purse to play a return match with Spassky which he won again. After the match he took up residence outside the US. In 2004 he was detained in Japan. He currently resides in Iceland.

Fischer refused to defend his title against Anotoly Karpov in 1975. He had become a recluse. If he had continued to play, chess, I believe, would have remained a glamorous, intoxicating, internationally publicized sport/art/science/game.

It was Bobby Fischer who had singlehandedly made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as soccer, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, and as intellectually demanding as any other form of human activity. It was Fischer and Fischer alone.

When Fischer disappeared in the seventies, people were devastated. Some cried openly when they spoke of him. He lost his title by default after refuting the playing conditions set out by FIDE. There was something ignoble about his refusal to play and something pathetic about it. Slowly, sadly, people came to the realization that he would never play again. Fischer, possibly the greatest chess player who has ever lived, had retired not only from chess. The Prince had retired from the human race.

8 comments:

transformation said...

nice post! thank you! david

ShakhMat said...

Wonderful story about Robert James ! I allways read your blog. Please continue to post this way.

cpacook said...

Stupendous!! Breathtaking!! Thank you so much for sharing your time, knowledge, and writing talent with the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention his anti-Semitic tirades. That has tarnished his otherwise glorious accomplishments on the chessboard.

Mark said...

Mr. Anon -

I clearly did not write this piece and you might have noticed if you were not so fast to criticize.

Also, his 'anti-semitic tirades' have NEVER had anything to do with his chess abilities, and I consider them alone and separate. It is the ONLY reason I placed this article on my blog - it lacked any of that non-chess nonsense.

Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

"First of all, I'll make a tour of the whole world, giving exhibitions. I'll charge unprecedented prices. I'll set new standards. I'll make them pay thousands. Then I'll come home on a luxury liner. First-class. I'll have a tuxedo made for me in England to wear to dinner. When I come home I'll write a couple chess books and start to reorganize the whole game. I'll have my own club. The Bobby Fischer ... uh, the Robert J. Fischer Chess Club. It'll be class. Tournaments in full dress. No bums in there. You're gonna have to be over eighteen to get in, unless like you have special permission because you have like special talent. It'll be in a part of the city that's still decent, like the Upper East Side. And I'll hold big international tournaments in my club with big cash prizes. And I'm going to kick all the millionaires out of chess unless they kick in more money. Then I'll buy a car so I don't have to take the subway any more. That subway makes me sick. It'll be a Mercedes-Benz. Better, a Rolls Royce, one of those fifty-thousand-dollar custom jobs, made to my own measure. Maybe I'll buy one of those jets they advertise for businessmen. And a yacht. Flynn had a yacht. Then I'll have some more suits made. I'd like to be one of the Ten Best-dressed Men. That would really be something. I read that Duke Snyder made the list. Then I'll build me a house. I don't know where but it won't be in Greenwich Village. They're all dirty, filthy animals down there - lower than cats and dogs. Maybe I'll build it in Hong Kong. Everybody who's been there says it's great. Art Linkletter said so on the radio. And they've got suits there, beauties, for only twenty dollars. Or maybe I'll build it in Beverly Hills. The people there are sort of square, but like the climate is nice and it's close to Vegas, Mexico, Hawaii, and those places. I got strong ideas about my house. I'm going to hire the best architect and have him build it in the shape of a rook. Yeah, that's for me. Class. Spiral staircases, parapets, everything. I want to live the rest of my life in a house built exactly like a rook"(Bobby Fischer)...read more

Trapp said...

Wonderful sort of a precis on Fischer's career and his effect on chess and all of us!
Was just reading an article on Capablanca and it referred to his extraordinary speed chess abilities,e.g., as a youngster he made a comment about Nimzovich's move in a speed game and Nimzovitch told him to remain silent in front of his betters. Capa beat him with "ridiculous ease". Referring to speed chess here: Reuben Fine says that at a time (around 1931, I believe) when he was just about able to hold his own with Alekhine, Capa would beat him "mercilessly". I recall a game from Chernev's 1,000 Best Short Games of Chess which was one of four that Fine was playing blindfold at ten seconds a move that was brilliant! Wonder what the results of a speed tournament with all the world champions in their prime would be? My guess: Fischer followed by Capablanca and then maybe Kasparov, etc. Whaddya all think?

armtwister said...

My Top 16 best chess players of all time.
1.Robert James Fischer
2.Garry Kimovich Kasparov
3.Jose Raul Capablanca
4.Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine
5.Anatoly Yevegenavich Karpov
6.Micheal Tal
7.Emmanuel Lasker
8.Micheal Bottvinnik
9.Boris Veselevich Spassky
10.Tigren Varatanovich Petrosian
11.Vishwanathan Anand
12.Vesely Veselevich Smyslov
13.Vladimir Borisovich Kramnik
14.Paul Charles Morphy
15.William Stanitz
16.Max Euwe