Saturday, February 16, 2008

We can all stop searching now

In my intro to this site, I said that I’d blog on chess if I thought anybody was interested.

I never thought I’d get the opportunity so soon.

Bobby Fischer passed away last month in Reykjavik, Iceland, the town where his legend reached its peak. It may sound strange to call him a sports legend, or to even call chess a sport, nowadays—but for a brief period in the 1970s, both were true.

It goes without saying that Fischer was to chess what Babe Ruth was to baseball, or Michael Jordan to basketball—but he may have been even more important, as chess was made and broken by his place in the spotlight. Interest in baseball did not plummet the day the Babe retired, but when Fischer was stripped of his chess title in 1975 in a dispute over issues that wouldn’t have made Terrell Owens blink, people, at least in the U.S., stopped trumpeting chess as “the sport of the mind,” and it returned to what it was before Fischer won the title—a pastime for high school nerds.

It was the chess world’s misfortune that its destiny laid in the hands of a stark, raving loon. This was borne out by the obituary story done by ESPN on "SportsCenter." While the story did show a montage of Fischer’s extraordinary rise to the top, the most lasting images were a sound bite from a Filipino radio station in which Fischer praised the 9/11 attacks, and an anti-Semitic rant at a news conference in which Fischer vehemently denied his own Jewish lineage.

Not that Fischer was the first chess champion to suffer from mental illness. Paul Morphy, the first American chess champion, stopped playing in his twenties and became a recluse who passed his time arranging women’s shoes on the floor and dancing around them. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion, once challenged God to a game—and offered him a pawn. Steinitz eventually died in a mental hospital.

Does the intense concentration and need to anticipate an opponent’s moves at such a high level lead to mental illness, or does the game’s nature attract the unstable? A lot of bandwidth could be eaten making chicken-or-egg arguments about that question.

Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games opens with an epigram from champion Dr. Emanuel Lasker that speaks to the game’s enduring appeal:

“On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."

Other games have some element of chance, such as dice or cards. Even in Scrabble™, you have to draw the letters before you can play them. But not chess. In chess, it’s just you and your ability. That’s why many have considered it an ultimate test of intellect, if there is such a thing.
But what happens when the intellect fails—when a player reaches an opponent or position that just can’t be beaten? What does that say about a player? Maybe it wasn’t mere hyperbole when Pravda published news reports after the Fischer-Spassky match saying that Boris Spassky “would never recover” from losing the match, as if he had contracted some terminal illness. (Although Spassky has not only continued to play topflight chess for many years, but has now outlived Fischer.)

Maybe that’s why so many chess grandmasters fall apart.

Or, at the very least, maybe that’s why I don’t play chess much anymore.

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