The Mind of Bobby Fischer

There is probably no other topic that intrigues chessplayers as much as the inner machinations of the mind of Bobby Fischer. Among world chess champions of the past, there has always been a strong equation between their demonstrable talents in other intellectual areas and their supreme proficiency in chess - despite attempts by the general press to depict them as bizarre, egotistical, single-minded renegades from society. Emanuel Lasker was a noted mathematician, philosopher, and friend of Albert Einstein. Alexander Alekhine paused in the middle of his pursuit of the championship to take a law degree at the Sorbonne and was a prolific writer in several languages. Mikhail Botvinnik has been highly decorated by the Soviet Union for his work as an engineer and has done pioneer work in the field of computer chess. Capablanca was a diplomat - honorary, it is true, but effective nevertheless. Euwe has been a professor of mathematics and is currently the president of FIDE, the world chess organization. And I could go on down the list of other great players.

At first glance, however, it seems that Bobby Fischer has few other skills than his ability to play chess. Since he is possessed of the most significant chess talent of this era, Fischer therefore represents a break with the pattern of the past. We are faced with a paradox. How can he play so consistently with such brilliance? Is his intelligence really as high as it has been reported to be? Is his memory as gigantic as it appears? How many moves can he see ahead? Do his mental processes function in a way that is somehow unique to the ability to play chess?

The speculation seems endless, and replete with contradictions. Chessplayers feel that if they can discern specifically how Fischer's mind operates, they can apply what they learn to their own approach to the game, and improve by emulation and application. Yet in his interviews and books, Fischer exhibits nothing more unusual in his thinking than the tendency to be down-to-earth to the point of being untactful, and precise to the point of being paranoid about mistakes.

Until such improbable time as Fischer subjects himself to further interviews, examinations, and extensive testing by psychologists and educational experts, we are left with only fragments as the key to his mental faculties. What really goes on inside the mind of Bobby Fischer - or anybody's mind, for that matter - when he studies the thirty-two not-so-inanimate pieces for hours at a time probably can never be properly documented and analyzed. Let's examine, however, the evidence we do have.

In previous writings I have cited Fischer's I.Q. as in the range of 180, a very high genius. My source of information is impeccable: a highly regarded political scientist who coincidentally happened to be working in the grade adviser's office at Erasmus Hall - Bobby Fischer's high school in Brooklyn - at the time Fischer was a student there. He had the opportunity to study Fischer's personal records and there is no reason to believe his figure is inaccurate. Some critics have claimed that other teachers at Erasmus Hall at that time remember the figure to be much lower; but who the teachers are and what figures they remember have never been made clear.

It is probably a reflection of the "chess-champion paradox" that the 180 figure is considered unrealistic. Fischer's apparent lack of intellectual attainments, in contrast to the champions of the past, would seem to make a high I.Q. unbelievable. He is considered by many to be almost an idiot savant. Perhaps some of the following anecdotes will dispel the doubts of the unbelieving.

Before playing the match with Spassky in Reykjavik, in 1972, Fischer toured Iceland for a few days to get the feel of the land. One morning he telephoned his old friend Frederick Olaffson, Iceland's only grandmaster. Both Olaffson and his wife were out of the house, and a little girl answered the phone. Fischer said, "Mr. Olaffson, please." Olaffson's daughter explained, in her native Icelandic, that both her mother and father were out of the house and would return in the early evening for dinner. Fischer does not know a word of Icelandic and had to hang up with an apology. Later that day, talking to another Icelandic chessplayer (who did speak English), Fischer remarked that he had tried to reach Olaffson. "It sounded like a little girl on the phone," he said. He then repeated every Icelandic word he had heard over the telephone, imitating the sounds with perfect inflection, so well, as a matter of fact, that the Icelander translated the message word for word.

In 1963 Fischer played in and won the New York State Open Championship at Poughkeepsie, New York. During the last round I was involved in a complicated ending with Frank S. Meyer, the late senior editor of National Review. Fischer, on his way to the washroom, briefly paused at my board - for perhaps five seconds - and then walked on. A few months later, he visited me at my office, then located at the Marshall Chess Club. "How did that last round game turn out?" he inquired. I told him I had won, but with difficulty. "Did you play Q-B5?" he asked. I told him quite frankly I couldn't remember what I had played. He immediately set up the exact position to "help" me remember, and then demonstrated the variation I should have played to have secured a much more economical win. The main point is that he did not simply remember the position, then analyze it in front of me; he remembered not only the position but also his fleeting analysis as he had passed my board months previously.

Anecdotes like this lead to speculation of how many moves Fischer sees ahead, and in what period of time. Masters who have traded Pawns with him in speed chess (usually five minutes for the entire game for each player) claim that postmortem analysis shows Fischer sees three or four moves ahead in any position, with a glance of a second or two. If he studies the position for all of five seconds, he can see five or six moves ahead, sometimes more. Occasionally for fun, against strong players, Fischer will place the hands at one minute on his clock and give his opponent ten minutes. Invariably he will win with time to spare.

Even more remarkable is the fact that Fischer can remember most of his speed games. At the conclusion of the unofficial Speed Championship of the World at Hercegnovi, Yugoslavia, in 1970, Fischer rattled off the scores of all his twenty-two games, involving more than 1,000 moves, from memory! And just prior to his historic match with Taimanov, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Fischer met the Russian player Vasiukov and showed him a speed game that the two had played in Moscow fifteen years before. Fischer recalled the game move by move.

Whatever his degree of intelligence or memory facility may be, it is an unimportant question in appraising Fischer's contribution to chess. We do know that he has an eidetic memory when it comes to remembering positions and moves; we do know that he can move with rapid-fire precision that is phenomenally superior to his contemporaries' ability. Since chess is Bobby Fischer's profession, his business, and his art, is it really germane to try to evaluate his prowess in other fields, or can we finally begin to take his acknowledged chess ability as evidence enough of his remarkable intelligence?

The discussion of Fischer's mental qualities is an embarrassment to him personally. He claims not to know what his I.Q. is. It is a wise policy of school boards, indeed, not to reveal actual figures to the student. In the spring of 1974, Fischer castigated his friend Bernard Zuckerman for reporting to a Soviet chess weekly that Fischer's I.Q. was "astronomical."

Fischer believes that his statement, as an artist and as a man, lies in his chess. That is what this volume is all about; accordingly, The Chess of Bobby Fischer is a ground-floor approach to the workings of Fischer's brain. Though the speculation about his intelligence and memory is fascinating, it will be by his games that he will be remembered. They are the true testament, perhaps the only one possible, to his mind.

The Chess of Bobby Fischer
(c) 1975 by Frank Brady

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