Credit: Chris Lott
Robert J. Fischer has died, apparently of kidney failure, in Reykjavik, Iceland. This is the city where he had won fame in 1972 by defeating Boris Spassky to become World Chess Champion, the only American to do so in modern times. Three years later, Fischer refused to defend his title and became a recluse. He emerged only in 1992 to win a return match against Spassky, then long past his prime.
Because Fischer played that match in war-torn Yugoslavia, in defiance of a U.S. economic embargo, and because he refused to pay income taxes on the money heâ¿¿d won, he became a man without a country, sojourning in Hungary, the Philippines, Japan and other places. After September 11, 2001, he added insult to injury by cheering on al Qaeda, a move that may have induced U.S. diplomats to intensify their pursuit of him. He was run to ground in Japan in 2004, where he eluded extradition to the U.S. only at the last minute, when Iceland granted him citizenship and thus the right of domicile.
Many former fans, seeking to retain a shred of their image of Bobby, as he was universally known, excused his behavior on the ground heâ¿¿d lost his mind. The cited his frequent anti-Semitic outbursts, made though Fischerâ¿¿s late mother (and perhaps his father, as well) were themselves Jews. On the other hand, Fischer had been giving vent to such opinions since his adolescence. Also, although he had always shown signs of paranoia (which is not uncommon among grandmasters), his mind remained clear on the things that mattered to him.
Readers of this blog will be interested to know that in 1989 Fischer took out the patent for a computerized device, called the Fischer Clock, that has since changed the way the game is played. With each move completed, the clock adds a designated number of seconds to a playerâ¿¿s allotted thinking time, ensuring that no one need lose a clearly drawn position for sheer lack of time to physically make the moves. Fischer also patented FischerRandom chess, in which a computer sets up the initial position randomly (albeit under certain constraints). That way, no player can derive unfair advantage from pre-game opening preparation.
Both innovations were meant, in part, to counter the influence of computers on human players. Interestingly, the remedies themselves depend on computers. Spectrum has chronicled both the success of computer chess programs versus Gary Kasparov and what human players can do to try to fight back.
So much for his life. (It's also worth checking out Paul Hoffman's take on the chess hero) Now let me tell you what it meant to players like me. I got into the game as a freshman in high school, in 1969. That was just before Bobby, as he was universally known, had begun his final ascent to the championship. Suddenly, it was cool to play chess.
We players were proud that Fischer had won the respect of millions of non-players, from with President Nixon on down, and that his example had converted tens of thousands of people to the game. Such newbies swelled the tournament halls, raising prize funds to Las Vegas standards and enriching formerly threadbare masters. The â¿¿Fischer Boomâ¿¿ had begun.
I well remember the transformation of the chess club in my hometown of Chicago. When I first attended it, it was a second-floor dive in a dicey part of the Loop, defined by the curving route of the cityâ¿¿s elevated train, whose ear-splitting screech did not so much as register with the 50-odd men bending over their chessboards. After Fischerâ¿¿s success, the club removed to far plusher digs, in the LaSalle Hotel, where the resident masters at last began to eat and dress like human beings.
Then Bobby turned his back on the game, and the club faded again. When I visited it last, in 1978, it was in accommodations even worse than those it had started in. The few masters who still visited there looked hungry. Although the rest of the world continued to play chess, but in America it suffered a decline from which it is only now emerging.
It had all happened before, in the 1850s, when a 21-year-old Louisianian named Paul Morphy went to Europe and crushed its best players. Like Fischer, Morphy was without peer; he developed in isolation from the best players; he had an encyclopedic â¿¿bookâ¿¿ knowledge of the game; he was feted by the press and by the grandees of the day; he quit at the height of his fame; he exhibited signs of eccentricity verging on madness. Morphy, though trained as a lawyer, never practiced, but lived out his bachelor existence on an inheritance, refusing ever to speak of chess.
No such towering player can ever come again, for chess is no longer what it was. Fischer is part of the reason for the change, because he set a new standard that all serious players thenceforth had to meet. It was an inhuman regimen of work, which he began at the age of seven at the cost of school, family and friends. He would not allow himself even the smallest luxury if it interfered with his goals. Once, when a tournament sponsor offered him the hotel room with the best view, Fischer refused it in favor of a windowless cell.
â¿¿All I want to do, ever,â¿¿ he had said as a child, â¿¿is play chess.â¿¿ Gary Kasparov, todayâ¿¿s leading player, has called him â¿¿a centaur if you will, a synthesis between man and chess.â¿¿
Before Fischer, many world-class players had followed a professionâ¿¿Mikhail Botvinnik, world champion in the 1950s, was an electrical engineer; Max Euwe, champion in the late 1930s, was a mathematician. Todayâ¿¿s top players are players for as long as they hope to competeâ¿¿and nothing more.
A few years ago, Fischer derided todayâ¿¿s young grandmasters for their excessive reliance on computer chess programs and game databases, which allow a player to keep up with millions of games, including those played this morning in another part of the world. He joked that they all had to wear glasses because theyâ¿¿d spent so much time staring at computer screens. But Fischer would have done the same, only more so. As it was, he had one of the largest private chess libraries, and he subscribed to scores of chess journals in many languages, Russian above all.
Fischer did face a computer once. He played a Kingâ¿¿s Gambit against the MIT program and defeated it with ease; afterwards, he said computer chess would never get anywhere until chess masters began to work on the programs, alongside engineers. That was in 1978. Nineteen years later, Gary Kasparov lost a match against IBMâ¿¿s chess machine, Deep Blue, the first such machine to have been exhaustively tunedâ¿¿or trained?â¿¿by grandmasters.
Fischer was aged 64â¿¿the number of squares on a chessboard.
For other Spectrum articles about game-playing machines, see:
â¿¿Cracking Goâ¿¿ on efforts to defeat a still more complex game, from Asia.
â¿¿Checkers, Solved!â¿¿ on the proof that checkers, properly played, must always end in a draw,