My mother taught me to play chess when I was eight years old. She wasn’t a player, together we read the rules printed inside the box top. Mom lost interest, but I never did. Soon I was playing chess for hours under Ralphy Barrosi’s cherry tree, and later, on the picnic tables in the school yard of PS 14. There must have been a chess-head working at the playground because they had a few chess clocks.
There were more kids who wanted to play than there were boards. We used the clocks to play "lighting" chess. Each player got two minutes on his clock. Your clock ran down during your turn. If you ran out of time before your opponent or before you won or lost, you lost, even if you were way ahead.
It taught the value of thinking clearly and quickly. It also taught the value mastering a self-serving line of bogus chess patter to demoralize and distract an opponent. Though I’m sure my mother had other benefits in mind, the lessons of PS 14 served me well years later as I squandered valuable college time on games of dollar-a-point chess, schnapps-shooter chess and, my favorite, coed-strip chess. I’ve enjoyed the game for nearly 50 years.
Two years before I learned to play, chess prodigy Robert J. Fisher had, at the age of 13, played and won what has come to be known as The Game of the Century. It was 1956. He beat a grand master named Donald Byrne who, rather than resign when he realized he was doomed, graciously allowed the masterpiece to be played out to it’s crisp, elegant checkmate. To have done otherwise would have been like leaving two minutes before the end of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony because you recognized the tune.
Chess isn’t a spectator sport like ice hockey or basketball. It’s more like a walk through an art museum than a boxing match. But it has it’s moments.
Important games are recorded using a shorthand code. The code uses the exclamation point to highlight exceptional moves. If a move is particularly elegant, brilliant, or subtle, it may, on rare occasions, get two exclamation points. This would be a Grand Master’s idea of hollering "YOU DA MAN!"
Various grand masters and big brains who analyze chess games have inserted as many as four "exclams" after several of Fisher’s moves in that 1956 game. The notation looks like a comic strip shouting match, so heavily punctuated are Fisher’s moves. The 1956 game and many others he has played are masterpieces the equal of the finest works of art.
To the average player Fisher’s most brilliant moves often look like mistakes because they anticipate unavoidable, winning combinations six, eight and ten moves in the future. Bobby Fisher could be the greatest chess player to have ever lived.
Confirming extraordinary intelligence, Fisher dropped out of high school at 16, declaring it a complete waste of time. He followed his obsessive genius full-time from then on.
An eccentric, antisocial Fisher brought chess onto the world stage in 1972. He played the Russian world champion, Boris Spassky. Their match became a metaphor for the Cold War, a contest between freedom and tyranny, capitalist liberty and socialist oppression.
Fisher won the match and became the first and only American to hold the world title. He never defended it. It passed back to another Russian in 1975 and has remained in Russia ever since. Fisher was capitalism’s only chess hero. One of the few things Communist dictatorships do well it is develop sports programs. Chess is no exception. But even though it may take a village to develop child chess champs, it took a wacky, obsessive New York chess genius to make money at it.
Fisher was the first champ to make chess pay. He won $3.5 million in his rematch against Boris Spassky in 1992. Unfortunately, as if to emphasize that political tyranny is uniquely suited to the ancient, elegant game of chess, the U.S. government became the bogey man in Fisher’s life after that match. To play it Fisher had to defy a State Department ban on travel to Yugoslavia. Naturally, the attack dogs at the IRS got involved. Thereafter, U.S. government hounded Fisher globally and relentlessly, as only a mindless bureaucracy can.
Mr. Fisher’s insolent belief that a free citizen of a free country could travel where he liked put him in lifelong trouble with his government. He was understandably confused about which country, the U.S. or Yugoslavia, was the liberty loving republic and which the totalitarian tyranny. The U.S. government did much to blur the distinction.
In his later years he became wildly paranoid about U.S. government persecution and a rabid anti-Semite. He was mocked, harassed, and hounded around the world. Exiled from his home country he accepted what amounted to political asylum in tiny, chess-loving Iceland.
Despite an eccentricity that bordered on madness and a nasty streak of anti-Semitism, I will always admire Fisher’s stance against the self-important drones at the State Department. He paid dearly for his defiance, living scared, frail and crazy in a foreign land.
He died a few weeks ago in Iceland, an old man at 64, the ancient game’s greatest artist and its greatest victim. Though his eccentricity both helped and hurt the game, Bobby Fisher’s inspired, obsessive, beautiful chess will live for as long as the game is played.