With the conquest of the world championship Bobby Fischer
has deservedly staked out a place for himself as one of
chessdom's immortals. Apart from his genius at chess he is
also such a colorful and temperamental man that he has done
more to advance the popularity of the game than any
previous champion. His victory marks an important turning
point in the history of the game.
Nothing in his early life could have led anyone to predict
his great future. Born in Chicago on March 9, 1943, of a
German born physicist and a Swiss mother (Regina, a nurse,
teacher, later physician), his childhood years were full of
sorrow. The parents broke up when he was two. His father
has never been heard from, even now when Bobby is at the
height of his fame. Nor will Bobby or his mother talk about
him. No one even knows whether he is dead or alive.
His mother, Regina, is a colorful determined person in her
own right. Born in Switzerland, she was brought up in St.
Louis, where her father was a dress cutter. From 1933 to
1938 she studied medicine at the First Moscow Medical
Institute in the Soviet Union, but did not receive a degree
that was valid in the United States. She and Bobby's father
met while she was on holiday in Germany in 1938. They were
divorced in 1945 after two children were born, Bobby and
his sister Joan, who is five years older.
When Bobby first became famous, his mother supported his
efforts in every conceivable way. She picketed the White
House, appeared on TV shows, manufactured trinkets with her
son's name, all to cover the meager, expenses for his trips
Then a serious rift between mother and son developed in
1961. In that year she participated in a much publicized
peace march from San Francisco to Moscow. After that she
remained in Europe, where she married her second husband,
Cyril Pustan, a college English teacher, and resumed her
medical studies. In 1968, at the age of 55, she received
her medical degree from the Friedrich Schiller University
in Jena, East Germany. Evidently, like Bobby she persists
until she reaches her goal.
Her present husband is about 16 or 17 years younger, more
or less Bobby's age when the permanent break between mother
and son occurred. In an interview with The New York Times,
she commented that her marriage was "like robbing the
cradle" but that he had made her an offer that she
could not refuse.
What led to the battle between her and Bobby no one knows;
neither one is in any way communicative. But sometime in
his adolescence there was a terrible fight, and since then
the two have allegedly not spoken to one another. Even when
Bobby won the world championship, his lifelong dream, his
mother was not present to congratulate him.
After the divorce Mrs. Fischer moved around to several
American cities, finally settling in Brooklyn. Both
children and the mother had emotional problems, and there
were constant serious strains throughout the years, which
evidently erupted openly only when Bobby reached
Some time around his sixth birthday Bobby acquired a chess
set. Almost immediately chess became the essence of life
for him, replacing school, friends, family and even other
games. At seven he played against the late Dr. Max Pavey in
a simultaneous exhibition, his first public appearance. He
lost mercilessly, but this did not prevent him from feeling
that he should have won. Apparently even at that age he was
cherishing the hope of becoming world champion.
Left very much to his own resources by his working mother,
Bobby seems to have done little else besides play chess
from the age of six. This accounts for the obvious
eccentricities in his character, which led Euwe to remark
during the match that "Bobby lives in another
world." No one knows what he could do if he devoted
his mind to anything else besides chess, but he never has,
and shows no inclination to do so now.
His single-minded devotion to chess led to a constant
increase in his playing strength. In 1956, when he was only
thirteen years old, he won the junior championship of the
United States. Since the junior championship included all
players under twenty-one, this already marked him out as a
player of great promise.
Apparently, though, this success dismayed his mother, who
shortly thereafter came to consult me about what could be
done to dissuade her son from devoting all his time to
chess. At that time I sent him copies of my books, and bad
a few talks with him, almost entirely limited to chess.
In retrospect, it becomes one of the ironic twists of
history that of the two leading American chess masters of
the twentieth century one almost became the psychoanalyst
of the other. But Bobby was not receptive to the idea of
any kind of help. He came to see me about half-a-dozen
times. Each time we played chess for an hour or two. In
order to maintain a relationship with him I had to win,
which I did. Evidently at that point he was not yet up to
his later strength. I do not recall the games, but I do
remember that he was not yet strong opposition. My family
remembers how furious he was after each encounter,
muttering that I was "lucky."
Hopeful that I might help him to develop in other
directions, I started a conversation at one point about
what he was doing in school. As soon as school was
mentioned, he became furious, screamed "You have
tricked me" and promptly walked out. For years
afterwards, whenever I met him in clubs or tournaments be
gave me angry looks, as though I had done him some
immeasurable harm by trying to get a little closer to him.
By now he may well have forgotten the whole experience.
In the summer of 1956, during a visit to England, I
discussed Bobby with Ernest Jones, the famous analyst who
wrote the classic paper on Paul Morphy. This was before I
had any really personal knowledge of the boy. Jones replied
with almost prophetic insight: "Leave him alone; he'll
become a second Paul Morphy."
For many years afterwards, chess players approached me with
the request to try to help Bobby out of his obvious
personal problems. In spite of his genius, he was socially
awkward, provocative, argumentative and unhappy.. But in
the end his extraordinary self-limitation to chess won out.
Chess seems to have been the best therapy in the world for
For a number of years Bobby's progress in the chess world
was directly upwards. Although he was already sure that he
would be world champion some day, indeed he frankly
conceded that he was the greatest player who had ever
lived, he still had to fight his way through on the chess
board. Some of his performances were indifferent, merely
indicating that he was a player of great promise, but chess
history is full of young players of great promise who strut
their brief hour on the stage, moving quietly on into
oblivion. Even great masters, like Tal and Keres in this
generation, have hit high-water marks, only to decline into
the general ranks of leading grandmasters, on a par with
many others. On top of that, Bobby's boasting at this
tender age, before he had done anything really remarkable
in the adult world, led everybody to complain about his
"colossal egotism." Later many came to secretly
or openly admire him for the same trait.
In 1957 came his first big chance: he was invited to play
in the U.S. championship, which was also the qualifying
tournament for the Interzonal step on the ladder for the
world championship. Reshevsky was the strong favorite, but
all the other active American masters were also present. To
everybody's surprise but his own, Bobby won first prize in
January 1958, shortly before his fifteenth birthday. And
without losing a game! And his chess was of a remarkably
mature caliber: thorough knowledge of the openings, solid
in the middle game, technically perfect in the endgame.
Here was an authentic genius, the second such to appear
after World War II, the first having been the Russian
Not yet fifteen, Bobby was already ranked as one of the
leading grandmasters in the world. The troubled little boy
had suddenly metamorphosed into a candidate for the world
championship. In his own mind he was already world
champion, but to others he had yet to demonstrate this by
the hard logic of the score.
It would require a most extraordinary school to offer
anything to such a youngster. Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn,
which he attended, was not extraordinary; many questioned
whether it was even ordinary. Small wonder that Bobby
dropped out shortly thereafter, with the acid comment,
similar to many that followed, that "teachers are all
In later years, Erasmus Hall gave him a special gold medal,
while Brooklyn established a special commemorative exhibit
at the Brooklyn Museum during the 1972 match. But it does
no good to reconstruct history. At that time he simply
dropped out, ignored by the authorities, bewildered and
uncertain about his future.
At fifteen he was launched on a lifetime chess career. Yet
American chess is a particularly unrewarding field in which
to become a professional. No American master since Frank
Marshall had succeeded in making a living at it for any
length of time, and Frank was helped by a fortunate gift of
a house from a wealthy patron. No doubt at fifteen the
matter of making a living, when he was still living at home
with his mother, did not concern Bobby; later it did. Yet
he persisted. Not only was he to make a living at it, he
was destined to change the nature of the sport in the
Besides scoring an outstanding victory, he had also played
a game against Donald Byrne which has gone down in history
as an immortal masterpiece. It may well be, as some claim,
the game of the century. Since his victory qualified him
for the Interzonal the next year at Portoroz in Yugoslavia,
he was already an international celebrity. The Russians
showed their concern in the usual way by disparaging his
achievement. Botvinnik, who made himself look silly for
propagandistic reasons by writing about the "Soviet
school of chess," commented quite inappropriately:
"Both Fischer's strong and weak point lies in that he
is always true to himself and plays the same way regardless
of his opponents or any external factor:" This comment
is much more true of Botvinnik than of Fischer.
After some publicity stunting by his mother, who thereby
managed to raise the expense money for his trip, Bobby
played in the Interzonal that year (1958) at Portoroz,
Yugoslavia. Before the tournament he announced his scheme
for qualifying to the Yugoslavian journalist Radojcic:
"I can draw with the grandmasters, and there are half-a-dozen
Patzer in the tournament I reckon to beat."
As it turned. out, the scheme worked by the narrowest of
margins. After an uncertain start, he pulled himself
together to carry out his plan. Drawing with the
grandmasters proved easier than expected, while beating the
"Patzer" proved much harder. His fellow-American
Sherwin, not really in Bobby's class, lasted 90 moves. Even
the Filipino Cardoso, whom he had demolished in a set match
the year before, put up such stiff opposition that the game
lasted 62 moves before Bobby scored. At the end Bobby had
squeaked through by a narrow margin, tying for fifth and
sixth places, and thereby qualifying for the Candidates'
tournament the next year.
Impressive as it was to the chess world, Bobby's score left
him deeply disappointed. He determined to do better the
Between Portoroz and the Candidates' tournament in 1959
Bobby participated in four tournaments. In the U.S.
championship he won with great ease again, with a score of
six wins and five draws. But the international scene was
different. At Mar del Plata he finished 3-4, Santiago 4-7
and Zurich 3-4. Clearly his "colossal egotism" at
this point was justified only by his age, not by his
results. On the international scene the masters and
grandmasters were a far cry from the pushovers the
Americans seemed to be for him.
My feeling, however, is that even at that time his results
were not commensurate with his abilities. The foreign
masters, with the exception of a few top Russian stars,
were not so much stronger than the Americans. It was
probably the apprehensions and excitement about being in
strange countries, without friends, or even a knowledge of
the language, as well as the usual adolescent conflicts,
which accounted for his poor scores.
Then came the great test in Yugoslavia, in the Candidates'
tournament. All the best players in the world were there,
except for the world champion himself, who was scheduled to
play the winner. Bobby, overconfident as usual, suffered a
severe setback: he finished tied for fifth-sixth in a field
of eight. Although still the youngest Grandmaster in the
history of the game, twice U.S. champion, and now clearly
the best player in the world outside the U.S.S.R., he
considered it a defeat rather than a victory. And defeat
has always been a bitter pill for Bobby to swallow, from
the time that he played his first game of chess to the
The winner of that tournament, Mikhail Tal, went on to best
Botvinnik the next year, thereby becoming the youngest
world champion since Paul Morphy.* In my opinion, Tal is
the only true genius Soviet chess has produced since
Botvinnik, in spite of the claims made for the others. The
Russian strength historically has resided in the large
number of fast-class grandmasters whom they can field in
any tournament, rather than creative genius at the very
top. Like Fischer, Tal is a creative genius. But his
superiority did not last long. The next year he lost the
return match to Botvinnik, and since then he has merely
been one of many also-rans. His decline has been attributed
to poor health, but there may well be deeper reasons, which
will be discussed in the chapter on Spassky and Russian
* Morphy was the strongest player in the world at age 22,
although an official world championship did not yet exist.
In 1959 came his third try in the U.S. championship, now
known also as the Rosenwald tournament. Before this contest
the other side of his personality came to the fore publicly
for the first time, the eccentric and the prima donna. He
demanded that the pairings for the tournament be drawn
publicly, according to an obscure FIDE ruling. Actually,
unless someone is trying to cheat (and it is impossible to
see how he would so in such a tournament) it does not make
the slightest bit of difference whether the drawings are
done publicly or privately. Bobby even went so far as to
allow the committee to choose a substitute before he
finally consented to play. This was the first of many
incidents that helped to shape the image that has since
become a legend.
Needless to say, he again won the U.S. championship with
ridiculous ease. In American tournaments, except for the
match with Reshevsky, he was henceforth without peer. He
won eight times running, every time he participated. In the
1963-64 event he won every game, something which had
happened only half-a-dozen times before in the history of
* In 1940 at Dallas and in 1941 at St. Louis I won every
game in the U.S. Open, while in 1939 in the North American
Championship in New York I won with a score of 10½
out of 11, qualitatively perhaps the equal of Fischer's
Nevertheless, the idiosyncrasies and the eccentricities
remained, primarily against the top opposition. In one game
against Reshevsky Bobby had his lawyer on the podium to
make sure that nothing untoward occurred. A peculiar phobia
about lighting developed, which made him state that the
lighting was never quite right for his taste.
Since Reshevsky had been the dominant figure in American
chess after my retirement, a match between Reshevsky and
Fischer seemed a natural. One was finally arranged in 1961,
by the wife of the well-known cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
Here for the first time Fischer could not demonstrate his
superiority to his leading American opponent. Although he
had come ahead of Reshevsky in tournaments, match play
turned out to be quite a different story. After eleven
games the score stood two wins, two losses and seven draws
even. Bobby had failed to prove that he was the top
American player in match competition.
Then came one of those incidents that has helped to make
Bobby famous. Because of another engagement Mrs.
Piatigorsky asked Bobby to rearrange his game one Sunday.
When he refused he was forfeited. No doubt this would have
been lifted --but Bobby walked out. He quit the match*
entirely. The winner's share of the prize money was awarded
to Reshevsky. Technically therefore Bobby lost the match.
Nevertheless most people continued to rank him as better
than Reshevsky, even though Sammy, a master since the age
of six, was in his declining years while Bobby still had
far to go.
* In writing this book many memories of my own chess career
have come back, and I am amused to see how history can
repeat itself. In my second game with Reshevsky at Pasadena
in 1932, we adjourned in a position which was a clear win
for me. The adjourned time fell on a Jewish holiday and was
therefore postponed, over my objections. For the second
adjournment the game was rearranged for an early time,
which I failed to keep. This time I was forfeited, in spite
of my objections. The tournament director, a Dr. Griffith,
took me into the men's room and consoled me with a
medicinal shot of Scotch (those were still the days of
Prohibition). I was then 17 years old, about the same age
as Bobby in his match with Reshevsky.
In international competition, as a close study of his
record shows, Bobby also behaved in a rather peculiar way.
After his defeat (self-judged) in the Candidates'
tournament in 1959, he played in two Argentine tournaments
in 1960. In the first, at Mar del Plata, he shared first
prize with Spassky, a forerunner of things to come. But in
the second, three months later at Buenos Aires, he finished
thirteenth, the worst result of his life. In their early
years Alekhine and Keres had similar swings.
But to Bobby a defeat at the chess board is more than a
game lost, it implies a virtual destruction of his way of
life. Except for the Interzonals, where he had to
participate if he was to play for the world championship,
he did not trust himself to play in a really big
international tournament outside the U.S. again for ten
years, until Buenos Aires in 1970, where he did finish
first with a magnificent score of thirteen wins and four
draws, although here too the bottom five players were local
Although Fischer demanded a match for the world
championship in the early sixties, Botvinnik, or rather the
Soviet hierarchy, refused to allow it. As I indicated in
the first chapter, the present FIDE set-up was designed to
prevent the champion from dodging an able challenger on
either financial or ideological grounds. After the
Yugoslavian tournament in 1959, when Fischer had
demonstrated his superiority over all others in the Western
world, a match with Botvinnik would have been the logical
next step. But the American Chess Federation, which has
never treated its masters kindly, did not have the courage
to press for it, while Bobby alone could not do it. In one
sense it is all for the better, since in 1959 or 1960 the
odds would have been heavily in Botvinnik's favor, or
Tal's; Tal had won every game against Fischer in the
In any case it was clear to Bobby that to play for the
world title he would have to follow the FIDE rules. So he
did go to the Interzonal in Stockholm in 1962. Here he
finished first with the astounding score of thirteen wins
and nine draws. The stage was set for the next step on the
ladder towards the world championship, the Candidates'
tournament, at Curacao.
Up to this point Bobby's rise had been virtually straight
upwards. A few setbacks, such as the inability to beat
Reshevsky, or the poor form at Buenos Aires, were
inevitable. Clearly he was marked out as the chess
phenomenon of the sixties.
At the West Indies island, which to most Americans is known
as a warm hospitable tourist resort, Bobby was faced by
five Soviet grandmasters and one Czech, with his only ally
the naturalized American (formerly Hungarian) Pal Benko.
Petrosian won first prize, primarily by not losing, drawing
nineteen games out of a total of twenty-seven played. Tal
became ill and had to withdraw. Bobby finished fourth, with
eight wins, seven losses and twelve draws, behind
Petrosian, Keres and Geller. It was a bad blow to his
ambitions, since he would now have to repeat the entire
procedure of qualifying, waiting at least three years for a
match for the world title.
Bobby's reaction was a strong one. "The Russians have
fixed world chess" was his sensational accusation, in
one of the few articles he has ever written. He claimed
that they had conspired with one another to let a Russian
win, and that world chess was so rigged by the Russians
that no non-Russian could ever get through.
This had been my feeling in 1946-1948, and one reason for
my withdrawal from the world championship tournament at
that time. Others had made similar charges. Just around
that time the bridge expert Tobias Stone, who had started
life as a chess player, accused his English opponents of
cheating, which earned him a suspension for one year from
international bridge competition.
Bobby charged not only that the Russians arranged the
results of games in advance, in accordance with a master
plan dictated from above, but that they actually consulted
during the game with one another. Since there were no
American observers on the scene who knew Russian (under
similar circumstances the Russians usually put observers on
the scene who understood English, to prevent American
players from consulting with one another), there is no way
of knowing whether this charge is true or not.
It might however be interesting to recall several incidents
from my own experience. At the international tournament in
Folkestone in 1933, the Americans were fighting for first
place with the Czechs, who were headed by Salo Flohr, then
the strongest candidate for the world championship.
Alekhine, who was about to go off on an American tour,
headed the French team; apart from Alekhine they were all
terrible Patzer. Instead of playing against the Czechs,
Alekhine took a bye, saying that he had to prepare for his
American trip. But he remained in the playing room during
the entire match, and the French players could all be seen
going up to him, and engaging in animated conversation.
"Surprisingly" the Czech team lost to the French
in a terrible upset. And at the Nottingham tournament in
1936, when I was playing Euwe, then world champion after
his defeat of Alekhine in 1935, both Alekhine and
Capablanca spontaneously came up to me during the game to
suggest moves, even though I had not asked them to do so.
Thus cheating at chess matches is by no means unknown,
motivated either by politics or passion. Whether Bobby's
charges about Curacao are true or not, they did have a
strong impact on the chess world. Keres was given the
assignment of replying by the Russian press. In itself this
was a surprising choice, since Keres, as an Estonian who
had seen his country ravaged by the Soviets after World War
II, was almost rabidly anti-Soviet. By rights Keres should
have been permitted to play a match for the title with
Botvinnik in 1948, but was denied the chance partly for
political reasons. His article carried the hidden
implication that he had not been discriminated against by
the Russians either, so therefore Fischer had no cause for
Nevertheless, the protests did continue. The logic of the
situation was too compelling, in addition to which the
Soviet Union was in the post-Stalin thaw. On top of
everything after Botvinnik lost the tide to Petrosian in
1963, he was denied a chance for a return match himself,
which led him to retreat from active chess at the
relatively early age of 52. He too objected to the arduous
task of climbing up the FIDE ladder all over again.
In spite of all the political machinations involved,
eventually the FIDE did change its system to allow more
latitude to nonRussians, and to make it impossible for the
Soviet players to engage in any kind of collusion beyond
the Interzonal level. Set matches among the leading players
replaced the older tournament system.
However, this did not satisfy Bobby. Loudly he had cried
that he would never again play in a FIDE tournament, that
he was the best player in the world, and that a title match
should be arranged where he could prove it. When his
demands were refused, he retired from FIDE tournaments,
sticking to his word. At the Interzonal in Amsterdam in
1964 he just did not show up, in spite of several
attractive offers. At the Olympiad in Tel Aviv in 1964 he
demanded a fee of $5000 for playing, knowing that this
would be refused, so again he did not go.
Finally at Sousse, in Tunisia, in 1967, he broke his vow
and participated. Although he was leading by a wide margin,
and was almost certain of first prize, after some ten
rounds a dispute erupted about his religious observances,
somewhat similar to the fight with Reshevsky in 1961. When
he did not appear he was forfeited. Efforts to solve the
situation were reportedly blocked by the committee of the
FIDE, which at that time was still headed by a Swedish
lawyer who was purportedly pro-Soviet.
Once more Bobby walked out of a tournament as his only
solution, a senseless one, since even if he had accepted
the forfeits he would have ended in first place. Something
of the same kind happened in the Spassky match, but
fortunately there at the last minute he decided to stay on
By 1962 Bobby was already an international celebrity. That
year an article about him by the well-known writer Ralph
Ginzburg appeared in Harper's, which drew a lot of
attention because it cast more light on his personality
than anything that had ever appeared before.
Ginzburg, stating that never before had a chess champion
aroused either so much admiration or so much antipathy,
reported Bobby's constant boast: "I know that I
deserve to be World Champion and I know I can beat
Botvinnik. There's no one alive I can't beat."
The interview on which Ginzburg's article was based was
arranged for three o'clock. At four Bobby phoned that he
didn't feel like coming. When he did appear he was again an
hour late (shades of the Spassky match, where he came late
for almost every game).
Bobby was remarkably candid with Ginzburg, who included
numerous quotes from the interview (the last one Bobby has
ever given to any serious reporter).
Ginzburg told Bobby that Lisa Lane considered him the
greatest chess player alive. "That statement is
accurate," replied Bobby, "but Lisa Lane really
wouldn't be in a position to know. They're all weak, all
women. They're stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play
chess, you know. They're like beginners. They lose every
single game against a man. There isn't a woman player in
the world I can't give Knight-odds to and still beat."*
* Incidentally an incorrect statement, but the spirit is
When asked whether he considered himself the greatest
player that ever lived Bobby said: "Well, I don't like
to put things like that in print, it sounds so egotistical.
But to answer your question, Yes."
In response to a question about how he made a living, then
estimated at about $5000 per year, Bobby uttered his
grievances against other chess players. "It's the
fault of the chess players themselves [for the lack of
support by millionaires]. I don't know what they used to be
but now they're not the most gentlemanly group. When it was
a game played by the aristocrats it had more like you know
dignity to it. When they used to have the clubs, like no
women were allowed and everybody went in dressed in a suit,
a tie, like gentlemen, you know. Now, kids come running in
in their sneakers--even in the best chess club--and they
got women in there. It's a social place and people are
making noise, it's a madhouse." Even Jews angered him,
although he is half Jewish, half unknown. "Yeh, there
are too many Jews in chess. They seem to have taken away
the class of the game. They don't seem to dress so nicely,
you know. That's what I don't like."
After relating how he had broken up with his mother the
previous year by having her move out of the Brooklyn
apartment, Bobby described a typical day in his life.
"Lots of the time I'm travelling around, Europe, South
America, Iceland. But when I'm home, I don't know, I don't
do much. I get up eleven o'clock maybe. I'll get dressed
and all, look at some chess books, go downstairs and eat. I
never cook my own meals. I don't believe in that stuff. I
don't eat in Automats or luncheonettes, either. I like a
waiter to wait on me. Good restaurants. After I eat I
usually call up some of my chess friends, go over and
analyze a game or something. Maybe I'll go to a chess club.
Then maybe I'll see a movie or something. There's really
nothing for me to do. Maybe I'll study some chess
book." In re[sponse to] the subways he said: "
Unfortunately, [I do travel on them]. It's dirty-kids there
see I have nice shoes on so they try to step on them on
purpose. People come in there in their work clothes and
all, people come charging in like animals, it's terrible.
People sitting and staring directly across the aisles at
you, it's barbaric." (The same fear of being looked at
led to the difficulties with the cameras at Iceland,
On the subject of clothes Bobby said: "Yeh, I used to
dress badly until I was about sixteen. But people just
didn't seem to have enough respect for me, you know? They
were sort of priding themselves. They would say he beat us
at chess, but he's still an uncouth kid. So I decided to
dress up." He commented that he had all his clothes
made to order, that he had seventeen suits, all hand-made,
five pairs of Hungarian shoes made to order at $100 a pair,
not counting ready-made shoes, shirts at $25 each, and so
on. "I like to dress classy," he explained.
Asked if he had any interests outside of chess and clothes,
he said no. A short time before he had dabbled in judo,
then gave it up. He regarded palmistry as a definite
science, stating that his own palms show a flexible mind
and a soul that has been calloused by the hard knocks of
At that time he did not believe in God. He agreed with
Nietzsche that religion is there to dull the senses of the
people (later this was to change).
Since he had so many obvious dislikes, Ginzburg inquired
whether there was any group that he admired without
qualification. After a short pause Bobby replied: "
Well, I ... gee ... I don't know. Wait! There is: the
aristocrats! I admire the aristocrats. You know, the
millionaires, except they're millionaires the way
millionaires should be, not the way millionaires are.
They're the European millionaires. The French people, you
know. Not like the American millionaires. Here you can't
tell them apart from the other people. Some of them even
drive Chevrolets. They dress casually and all, like they're
afraid to be looked at. They should be setting the
standards for other people. Instead, they dress like slobs,
you know." He admitted that he had never met any such
people, only read about them in books like Dickens'
Tale of Two Cities.
On the way back from Ginzburg's office the two stopped at
an espresso coffee house for a bite to eat. Bobby ordered a
slice of pecan cream pie, a side order of butter cookies,
and an elaborate frozen pineapple drink. When he had
finished his pie, Ginzburg mentioned that the place was
reputed to be owned and operated by homosexuals. This
aroused great consternation in Bobby. He said of his drink:
"Maybe they put something here. I better not drink
it" He refused to eat or drink anything else in the
Just before they parted Bobby was asked what he would do if
he became world champion. This led to a series of
"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 Snider 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. 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. Yeh, 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."
The period from 1962, after the Curacao tournament, to
1970, when he began his present comeback, actually
represents a partial withdrawal from competitive chess in
Bobby's career. He seemed reluctant to play outside the
U.S., where however he continued to win every U.S.
championship, though another match with Reshevsky was never
His public utterances merely reflected his grandiose
opinion of himself. When in 1964 he picked a list of the
ten greatest players of all time he omitted the previous
world champion Botvinnik, as well as Emanuel Lasker and a
host of other great names. Naturally he waxed enthusiastic
about Morphy, adding that he could beat Morphy, thus making
him the greatest player of all time. At that time Bobby was
merely one of perhaps a dozen international grandmasters of
whom any one might win the world title.
Somehow he eked out a living, probably only because he was
a bachelor and his needs were minimal. His private life was
shrouded in mystery; after the famous interview with
Ginzburg he had the sense not to talk to reporters any
more. Some time in his teens he had a fight with his
mother, who thereupon moved to England; some of her life is
Bobby's aversion to girls became legendary. He even refused
to participate in one tournament because the woman's
champion Lisa Lane was allowed in. The only woman who has
ever been connected with his name is an intriguing Mrs.
Grumette from Los Angeles, who is old enough to be his
mother. Indeed, if, as in Bobby's case, the mother marries
a man young enough to be her son, and the son consorts only
with a woman old enough to be his mother, one does not have
to be a Greek to recognize a marked Oedipus complex.
In the late sixties he suddenly experienced a religious
conversion, joining a sect known as the Worldwide Church of
God. This sect, founded in Oregon 40 years ago, is a blend
of Old Testament Judaism and fundamental New Testament
Adventism. It imposes Hebrew dietary and Sabbath
proscriptions and preaches the imminent return of Jesus
Christ to set up a superorganized world government. It is
said that he lives up faithfully to the rules of his
church, and that he contributes twenty per cent of his
income to it.
Sudden religious conversions have been a subject of
psychological investigation for a long time. Generally they
are seen as part of the search for a father. Since Bobby
never knew his own father, apparently never even seems to
have met him after the divorce, his yearning for a father
through a religious group becomes understandable. On top of
that since chess competition involves a constant attack on
the father-figure, both realistically and symbolically, it
must have been important for him to find some father whom
he could not destroy.
My contacts with Bobby were rare and superficial. Once we
met by accident in a chess club, and played some offhand
games. To my surprise they were recorded by someone
present, and Bobby even reprinted one in his book My Sixty
Memorable Games. To record offhand games is unheard-of in
modern times; the last one who did so, significantly, was
Morphy. In the official record of all his games, recently
published, this game was not included. To the best of my
memory the over-all score was slightly in his favor.
In the middle sixties Bobby once approached me with an
offer to co-author a book. He had many new variations in
the openings, and wanted them incorporated in print. I knew
how to write; he offered to revise my Practical Chess
Openings. The extent of his erudition and research were
indeed amazing. Even the Austrian Gruenfeld, whom we used
to refer to as the card index of the chess openings, did
not come up to him. Bobby seemed to have analyzed in depth
every opening in the books. I urged him to put the moves
together, while I would write the introductions; my
professional commitments did not allow me more time. "
Why don't you give them up?" was his only comment. He
declined to undertake the job of putting the moves down; if
I did not write the book with him, the deal was off.
At that time, curious how he made a living, I asked him how
much he was paid for a simultaneous exhibition.
"$500," he said. "And do you give many at
that fee?" "No," he replied, "that's
too high, so nobody ever asks me. And that's just as
By 1970, somehow he got over the feeling about the Curacao
defeat, and decided to try it the FIDE way. It became clear
to him that his stubborn refusal to compromise his demands
was getting him nowhere. Although he had not taken part in
the previous U.S. championship because of a senseless
demand that it be turned into a double-round affair, the
participants graciously permitted him to play as a
qualifier in the Interzonal at Palma de Majorca anyhow. But
this time it became clear that Bobby had finally moved up
another step beyond his competitors. In the last six rounds
he won every game. The rest is history: the two six-zero
victories against Taimanov and Larsen, and the 12½
to 8½ win against Spassky.
In evaluating a personality and situation as complex as
Fischer and the chess world, we can consider Fischer as a
chess master, as a champion, as a human being, as a symbol
and as a sportsman.
FISCHER AS A CHESS MASTER
Now that Bobby is champion, the question arises: how does
he compare with the great names of the past?
Although the world championship has officially been in
existence since 1866, or one hundred and six years, it has
largely been dominated by five players in that period:
Steinitz for 28 years (1866-1894), Lasker for the next
twenty-seven (1894-1921), Alekhine for nineteen (1927-1946,
except for the brief period 1935-37 when Euwe was
champion), Capablanca for six and Botvinnik for fifteen
(1948-1963 with several brief exceptions for Smyslov and
Tal).* Certainly in terms of technical skill Fischer should
be classed among these giants. That he is better than they
were at their best there is no reason to believe as yet.
That he may advance again in the future, as he has in his
unbelievable spurt of 1970-1972, is quite possible.
* It is best to leave out the pre-Steinitz era. Morphy e.g.
could give some of his strongest opponents the handicap of
Pawn and move, and even average opponents Knight odds,
something which has never been possible since.
What has always been most striking about Fischer is the
maturity of his play, even when he was only fifteen. He was
a past master of the openings, an expert tactician in the
middle game, and sharp as a razor in the endgame. He seemed
to have no obvious weaknesses, except for his emotional
instability, but that has cost him many a point including
some in the current match.
His attitude to chess can best be compared with that of
Lasker, who viewed life as a struggle, of which chess was
one aspect. And Fischer has said: "I would compare
chess to basketball. Basketball players pass the ball
around until they get an opening. Like chess, like a mating
attack." You play until you find an opening, then you
hit him with all you've got. This was obviously his
strategy in the present match, a strategy which earned him
a well-deserved victory.
On the other hand, if he is compared with the other five
champions, there are noticeable differences. Steinitz lived
in an era when chess was still poorly understood; he made
it his life work to establish its basic principles, and
show how they should be applied. Lasker was an intellectual
more than a sportsman, regarding chess as but one of many
interests in his life.
Alekhine is perhaps most comparable to Fischer. After the
1917 revolution and his departure from the Soviet Union he
made chess his life career. Like Fischer he trained for
years to beat a dangerous opponent, Capablanca. But there
was the difference that Alekhine's primary goal was as a
rule to play beautiful chess rather than merely winning
chess; Bobby is satisfied to win, though in the process he
produces beautiful games.
Capablanca lost interest in chess when he became champion.
This is not likely to happen to Bobby. For Botvinnik chess
was always secondary to his major interest in electrical
engineering. It is no accident that he has devised a system
for computer chess. Further, he had to see himself as a
product of the Soviet system, which prompted him at one
time to write a pointless article on "The Soviet
School of Chess."
Fischer stands out because he has been more devoted to
chess than any of his predecessors. He eats, thinks and
breathes the game. Hence his total absorption, which has
led him to contribute so much to opening theory, but above
all led him to make the extra push needed to become world
champion. Indeed, one can only admire the dogged
persistence with which he has pushed himself to the top. On
the other hand Fischer comes at a point in history when the
amount of novelty that is involved is highly limited.
Steinitz revolutionized all the openings in order to place
chess on a scientific footing. Lasker cared nothing about
the openings; he just played the board. Alekhine, who once
told me that he spent four hours a day studying the game,
was full of amazing and ingenious innovations. Capa
switched from chess to women. Botvinnik introduced a number
of important new lines, though he was not completely
rounded in all the openings.
In the meantime, however, a host of masters and home
analysts, many of them top-flight, have combed every
opening in creation. The game has been pretty thoroughly
analyzed up to the twentieth move. To introduce new ideas
and new lines becomes increasingly difficult. Fischer stars
by correcting old errors. Yet, as this match shows, his
repertoire of innovations is also limited by reality. It is
not enough to introduce a new move; it must also be good.
Actually, careful examination of this match shows that
Spassky demonstrated more originality in the openings than
Fischer, only to throw away his win at one weak moment or
another. Fischer won primarily because of his superb
tactical ability. As he put it, you toss the basketball
around until you find an opening.
Fischer has had the intuition to realize that it is not
enough to have an encyclopedia which describes the best
moves; the practical player also has to find those moves
over the board. And so he has studied and restudied the
openings until they have become second nature to him.
Herein lies one of his weaknesses which was exploited by
Spassky, and could be exploited by some future opponent: he
can be drawn into a prepared variation which has been
hitherto thought sound, but one in which the opponent has
saved up a resounding refutation.
Among the many myths spread about Fischer is the one that
he never plays for a draw. Careful analysis of his style
shows that almost the opposite is true. He always chooses
openings, or tries to choose them, in which he has at least
easy equality. Once the game is on an even keel, he begins
to toss the basketball around, giving his opponents a
chance to make a mistake, which they do often enough. One
of the most characteristic features of his style is
precisely that he takes so few chances. In this respect he
stands in marked contrast to Alekhine, Keres, and, of his
contemporaries, Tal. He has developed a knack for choosing
openings which will give him some winning chances, but
where the risks are minimal, e.g. the ninth game of the
Perhaps his greatest strength lies in the rapidity and
ferocity with which he punishes any mistake. Once in the
saddle he pushes home with a vengeance. Apparently this
also gives him the greatest personal pleasure. As he told
the TV personality Dick Cavett: "I like to see 'em
Yet, with all due respect to Fischer's genius, it would be
a serious mistake to regard him as in a superclass, with no
competition. Chess just is not made that way any more. Even
in the present encounter, in the first ten games Spassky
scored only 3½ points, one by forfeit. But in the
next ten he played even: one win, one loss and eight draws.
With a little luck and fewer errors, as in the fourteenth
game, for example, where he threw away an elementary win,
or in the tenth game where he discarded an elementary draw,
he might well have won.
The psychology of the challenger is quite different from
that of the titleholder. As challenger, he is the son
tackling the father. Once in the title seat, he becomes the
father. How Bobby will handle that nobody knows. He is not
the only man in the world who is out to get to the top, nor
the only genius around. Chess masters have a way of gunning
for a world champion. It remains to be seen how he will
fare against the younger generation.
It is intriguing to speculate on how long Fischer will
remain champion. First of all, the historical record shows
that shortly after a new champion wins the title, some
unknown rises to the top who becomes the main challenger
and eventually champion. When Anderssen won first prize at
London in 1851, in effect defeating Staunton for the world
title, Morphy was unknown. When Morphy beat Anderssen in
1858, Steinitz was unknown. When Steinitz beat Anderssen in
1866, the next challenger Zukertort was unknown. When
Steinitz played Zukertort in the 1880's, Lasker was
unknown. When Lasker beat Steinitz, Capablanca was unknown.
And so on down to Fischer. When Botvinnik won the title in
1948, Fischer, his real successor in a certain sense, was
unknown. Certainly someone new will show up to challenge
Fischer in the next five to ten years, but who it will be
no one can tell.
Apart from the unknown of the future, Fischer's superiority
over his present-day rivals is none too secure. As a
careful study of his career shows, it is only in the last
two years that he has moved ahead of his competitors. They
too might decide to study harder and forge ahead further.
That was how Alekhine defeated Capablanca after inferior
results for many years, as did Euwe with Alekhine, and Tal
and Smyslov with Botvinnik.
Conceivably Spassky, if given a chance at a return match
(which seems unlikely) might reverse the score, just as in
the present match he held his own in the second ten games
after a disastrous start in the first ten.
Throughout his life Fischer has been his own worst enemy.
It is little short of miraculous that his antics did not
lead to a cancellation of the present match. His chess was
by no means of the highest order. In another match his
opponent might easily take better advantage of his numerous
mistakes. Like Muhammad Ali, who is somewhat similar to him
in personality, towards the end he seemed to take some
pleasure in taunting Spassky. That can become dangerous on
the chess board, as the eleventh game shows. And again some
other challenger might punish him for his audacities. Yet
it is equally possible that Bobby will move ahead even
further, overcoming the weaknesses shown in the present
match. Only time will tell. Since I do not share Bobby's
belief in the occult, I will leave aside further
FISCHER AS CHAMPION
From now on and for an indefinite future, this period in
chess history will be known as the Fischer Era. His
personality, his achievements and even his idiosyncrasies
will dominate the game in the same way that previous
champions ruled in their day.
The match has already set off a chess craze the like of
which has never been seen before in the Western world.
Sales of sets, books and other chess equipment have been
soaring. The membership of the U.S. Chess Federation has
increased astronomically. Chess has become a big-time
Certainly Fischer's personality has contributed enormously
to this trend. He is, despite his difficulties, an easy
person to identify with. Play chess and win--what else is
there to life? There is even a Horatio Alger twist to his
life story which makes him all the more interesting. A kind
of childlike simplicity makes him easy to understand, even
if some do not sympathize with some of the devices he has
Still, his behavior to date creates a certain uneasiness
about future world championship matches. Certainly Fischer
will never retire from chess, as Lasker did for many years.
But it is possible that he will set such extraordinary
conditions for any future challenger that it will be
impossible to meet them. He may not even realize himself
that they are impossible, much as he seems to have been
unaware of the nature of some of his actions in the present
match. If that does happen, the official world body will
have to decide whether he really wants something or whether
he is dodging a challenge. It certainly seems desirable to
clarify the conditions surrounding a title match before any
FISCHER AS A HUMAN BEING
Some of Bobby's behavior is so strange, unpredictable, odd
and bizarre that even his most ardent apologists have had a
hard time explaining what makes him tick. Apart from the
interest in chess which he helped to spark he has therefore
also sparked an interest in the psychology of chess.
When I wrote my book The Psychology of the Chess Player
almost twenty years ago the chess world paid little
attention to it; they were much more interested in my
technical writings. But in the past four or five years
there has been a considerable change. No doubt part of this
is due to the vastly increased interest in psychology. But
part of it is also due to the attempt to grasp what Bobby
Fischer is up to.
During the match I was approached by a variety of
journalists who had read my book and wanted to ask some
questions about Bobby. The range of persons eager to find
out more was amazing: from the Wall Street Journal to the
Bobby is a completely one-sided genius, with everything in
his life devoted to chess. At one time Tal recommended that
he expand his education, to which Bobby replied with some
disparaging remarks about Tal's intellectual pretensions.
Since the age of six chess has been the be-all and end-all
of his existence, the final goal being what he has now
achieved: the world championship.
Deserted by his father when he was two, and by his mother
when he was in his teens, Bobby has for much of his life
been parentless. No doubt hurt by these rejections, he has
retaliated by becoming a social isolate. It has generally
been very difficult even to communicate with him. He has
lived in hotels, shifting from room to room and from hotel
to hotel, receiving his mail at the Manhattan Chess Club or
some other public locale. Even people who have been ready
to offer him money have had a hard time getting through to
The social isolate necessarily is turned in upon himself.
He does not develop the skills and graces with which to
handle other people. Frequently he builds up grandiose
notions about his own abilities or future, which he is
reluctant to put to the test. He becomes all the more
cautious and suspicious about future social contacts, since
any further rejection is all the more painful.
All of this certainly holds for Bobby. Throughout the years
he has had extreme difficulties in handling human beings.
These have been publicly commented upon by scores of
people, many of whom have excoriated him unmercifully.
Contrary to expectations the social isolate suffers from
terrible anxieties. He feels lonely wrapped up in his own
cocoon, yet to approach others means to court a rejection
similar to the awful ones that have occurred in the past.
So he is caught up in endless conflict and in reassurance
which does not reassure.
Few people realize how insecure Bobby really is; he may
very well deny it to himself. His boasting, arrogance,
disparagement of others are typical ways of covering up his
deep inner insecurities. They jar others only because they
do not realize how much he is on the defensive.
Chess is almost his only way of making contact with people,
yet by beating them he destroys the contact. In his younger
days, when he was still coming up in the world, he
frequented the chess clubs and coffee houses where he could
find opponents. When he got to be too good for that, he
spent many long hours alone in his room.
Let it be clear that none of this explains his genius.
There are many such social isolates in the world, but few
become chess masters. What it does explain however is the
persistence with which he pours everything into the game.
For months before the present match Bobby retreated to
Grossinger's, allegedly absorbed in the big book of
Spassky's games, with few if any friends, little if any
female companionship and almost incommunicado. Presumably
he was preparing himself thoroughly.
Yet a close review of the match reveals little of his
innovative genius in the openings. Quite the contrary:
almost all the innovations, as for instance in the 4th,
5th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 15th and 16th games, came from
Spassky, who seemed to be thoroughly familiar with
Fischer's opening style. One gets the impression in fact
that Bobby hardly prepared at all, relying only on his
fantastic ability in across-the-board play. In public
pictures of what he was doing at Grossinger's he was more
often seen with a punching bag than with a chess board.
It could also explain his peculiar behavior before the
match and in the first two games. Had Jim Slater not come
through with the additional $125,000, Bobby stood to
forfeit not only the match but his entire chess future,
since no matter how much of a genius a man is, if you
cannot deal with him you sidestep him. There is a saying in
chess that when a move is unclear you wait until the end of
the game. If you win it was a sacrifice, if you lose it was
a blunder. Bobby won, so many people think that he was
engaged in a brilliant maneuver to bring chess into the
realm of big-time sports.
This explanation does not seem plausible. It seems more
likely that Bobby was enormously apprehensive about the
match. For his opponent not too much was at stake. He had
lost to Petrosian in 1966, he had won in 1969. Nothing
threatened his life of ease in the Soviet Union; he would
remain a popular hero as long as he lived. But for Bobby it
was almost literally a matter of life or death. So his
great anxiety is understandable.
It is in fact a minor miracle that Bobby did get away with
what might well have been a bluff. With much less
provocation the Soviets had walked out of tournaments and
matches before. Had they insisted on the forfeit of the
first game, demanding that Euwe either forfeit Bobby or
call off the match, it might indeed never have taken place,
and this time they would seem to have had some
justification for their actions.
Perhaps fortune favors the fearless. Perhaps it was a
result of Nixon's visit to Moscow and the apparent thaw
that has developed in U.S.-Soviet relations. Or perhaps the
Russians, used to a quarter of a century of easy victories,
simply underestimated their opponent and overestimated
their own strength. Nobody will ever know. At any rate the
Fischer Gambit succeeded.
On the other hand, Bobby's forfeit in the second game is in
an entirely different category.. No chess player likes to
lose, Bobby least of all. The loss in the first game must
have been a bitter blow. Enter the usual string of alibis
about noise, TV, cameras, etc. His behavior in the second
game has all the earmarks of an attack of panic. He stayed
alone in his room, talking to nobody, tore the telephone
out of the wall, was reported to be very agitated, and
forfeited the game.
His recovery after that was all the more remarkable,
revealing the deep strengths in his character and his
capacity to spring back from defeat. But his recovery
should not blind one to the abyss in to which he had sunk
Primarily Bobby has found his adjustment as a sportsman. It
can be seen that in the few contacts he makes apart from
chess he tries to engage in a game with somebody: tennis,
ping pong, skiing. Much less is involved for him in these
other games, still they are his preferred means of dealing
with other people.
Apart from the inner insecurities, the main external
problem in the isolated man comes up in his relations with
women. Everybody has agreed that there is much amiss for
Bobby in this area The only woman mentioned in his life is
the mysterious Mrs. Grumette, apparently more of a
substitute mother figure than anything else. As Bobby gets
older the pressure to form a satisfactory love relationship
with a woman is bound to become increasingly acute.
Because of his well-known antipathy to girls, every time
Bobby has a date it becomes almost front-page news. Larry
Evans got him a girl in Argentina; he got married in
Yugoslavia; he danced with a girl in Iceland; the rumors
are both silly and frequent. None of his predecessor hero-
champions, whom he resembles most closely, had a
particularly happy time with women. Bobby has a long way to
go in this variation.
On the surface Bobby may now seem like an ebullient boyish
young man who is enjoying the greatness which he has
deservedly earned. Yet he now remains a troubled human
being. Whether the world championship will mellow him, or
whether he will at some point need professional help only
time can tell.
Incidentally, it is not at all unusual for men with great
achievements to suffer from serious neurotic or even
psychotic difficulties. Isaac Newton is a prime example. He
was a depressed, paranoid man who never managed to relate
to women. After the epoch-making discoveries of his early
years (theory of gravitation and the calculus) he really
never did anything else of scientific value in his life,
wasting his time in useless quarrels with the Royal
Astronomer Flarnsteed and in exploring obscure religious
questions which have long since been forgotten.
FISCHER AS A SYMBOL
In the current chess craze which Fischer has set off he
seems to have acquired symbolic value for many people. He
belongs to the "hero" group of world champions,
in which I include Morphy, Steinitz, Capablanca and
Alekhine, as contrasted with the non-hero group which would
include all the others.
Heroes are created, in a sense, by their admirers. Morphy
is popularly looked upon as "the greatest chess player
of all time." Steinitz as "the father of modern
chess." Capablanca was known as "the chess
machine" and publicly announced that he bad mastered
the game once and for all, advising the world to move on to
another game. Alekhine came to be talked about as "the
greatest attacking player of all time."
Needless to say, all these superlatives derive from the
chess player's need to find some hero whom he can worship.
But the champions themselves played into the hands of their
worshipers and derived great satisfaction from the
idolatrous groups which grew up around them.
Fischer is well on his way to becoming one of the folk
heroes of our time, if that has not already happened.
Technically, the claim that he is "the greatest player
of all time" does not stand up to serious scrutiny as
yet; the same applies to Morphy. But there is a deep need
on the part of many people to project their own grandiose
ambitions on to him.
Certain external facts lend themselves to his symbolic
value. For a quarter of a century the Russians have
dominated the chess world; champion and challengers have
all been Russian. Perhaps half the chess players in the
world live in the U.S.S.R. They mount tournaments with a
million players, print books with first editions of
hundreds of thousands of copies (although the Russian chess
literature is surprisingly skimpy). To beat the Russian
champion thus acquires the symbolic meaning of defeating
Bobby is a man who is devoted heart and soul to chess.
Experts may see in this some kind of neurotic
maladjustment, but to the average person the fact is more
important than its motivation. There are hardly any other
professional chess players in the U.S., nobody really who
makes a living at playing chess, as golf, tennis,
basketball and other champions live from their sport. The
few Americans who are professionals make money by writing
about the game, not by playing.
Since the champion thinks about almost nothing but chess,
the hero- worshiper in turn can by identification devote
all of his energies to chess, forgetting the cares of wife,
children, work, health and everything else.
Chess is an outlet for aggression, like all sports. It
differs from other sports in that it is an intellectual
outlet, involving, as a rule, no physical violence. In a
war-weary world, millions hope for a peaceful resolution of
all the pent-up aggressions in the world, rather than a
military one. Legend has it that chess started out as a
substitute for war, and many people see it that way. A
peaceful battle between an American and a Russian, rather
than the bloody one which has been a nightmare since World
War II, is especially symbolic of this hope.
The entrance of high political figures at certain stages
lent added meaning to the symbolic interpretation of the
match. Brezhnev was personally in contact with Spassky, it
was said; Kissinger was coaching Bobby. In fact, it was
even announced during the match that Nixon had invited
Bobby to visit him at the White House.
Money played a role as well in the symbolism. Who cares
about a sport in which the first prize is $100 (as it was
in my first tournament forty years ago)? But push it up to
a quarter of a million, or even a million, as the talk is
now,* and matters look different. At the moment these vast
sums have to come from individual patrons. But once the
possibility of TV transmission of games is worked out, they
may well come from the general public, as is the case in
* A Las Vegas hotel reportedly offered $1.4 million for a
return match with Spassky, which Fischer refused, demanding
$10 million. I have also challenged Fischer to a match for
a purse of $1 million. Some are now openly wondering
whether Fischer will ever play again.
My feeling is that the chess craze now going on is due
partly to Fischer, and partly to a social revolution which
results from changing world conditions. Sports generally
have become much more popular, and the rewards for the top
players have skyrocketed. Chess is the universal game of
the Western world. It is played all over Europe, the U.S.,
Canada and Latin America, but not in Asia or Africa (except
for small groups). It thus serves as a symbol of the unity
of Western civilization.
Previous champions have largely been intellectuals, which
led to the idea that chess is a "smart man's"
game. They have been plagued with doubts about whether to
play chess or not. Chess, they felt, was too hard to be a
game, and too easy to be a science.
Not so with Fischer. He has discarded all intellectual
pretensions. Chess is a sport, like basketball, like
tennis. You toss the ball around until you make your point.
You move the pieces around until you find a weak spot.
Fischer's anti-intellectual stance is incredibly
pronounced. One newspaper report bad him to the right of
the John Birch society politically. After centuries of
religious freedom he reverts to a Bible-thumping revivalist
sect. In an age of sexual revolution he looks for a virgin.
He seems to be almost illiterate in world affairs.
So it becomes easy for Fischer to symbolize a shift from
chess as a pastime for intellectuals to chess as a popular
sport which anybody can play. Nor is this particularly to
be deplored. Whatever its intellectual merits or demerits,
chess is after all a sport in which two men fight it out,
and let the best man win.
It is in this sense that Fischer's victory marks a turning
point in the history of chess. The codification of the
openings does not have far to go before it is complete; the
middle game is well understood, the endgame is a matter of
precise analysis. With the theoretical problems of the game
resolved, what remains is how well the individual can
handle himself over the board.
The "pure player" which Fischer is, almost the
purest in chess history, lends himself readily to the
identification with sport. He is in the style of other
sports figures, like Bo Belinsky, Joe Namath, Lee Trevino
and Muhammad Ali. A recent article in The New York Times
about the Rumanian tennis star Ilie Nastase compares him to
Bobby Fischer, ranking him as a close second to the chess
champion in freelance, full-tilt gamesmanship. Like Bobby,
"Nasty" is a combination of notorious bad manners
and magnificent reflexes.
As chess becomes big-time sport, the kinds of people who
are attracted to it will necessarily undergo some change.
There will no longer be any reason for making it the only
game permitted in the British Parliament or referring to it
as the game of kings. Bobby seems to have some kind of
nostalgic longing, as the interview with Ginzburg shows,
for the old days when it was literally true that only
aristocrats played chess. His own example proves better
than anything else that commoners can enter the game as
well, and that where the next genius will come from is
It is precisely this fact, that the chances of becoming a
chess champion are much greater than anyone had thought,
which Fischer symbolizes, that is so essential to the
widespread adoption of the game.
In addition, chess readily lends itself to all kinds of
variations. Already a dozen new ones have appeared on the
market: larger boards, smaller boards, circular boards,
three-dimensional boards, and so on. These too are easily
learned, and can become the basis for wide-ranging
contests. Yet no doubt chess proper will remain the core of
the sport for a long time to come.