I’ve always been fascinated by Bobby Fischer. He was never actually the worst person in the world – there are too many political leaders competing for that title – but he was pretty darned hard to take: virulently anti-Semitic, self-absorbed, unkind to anyone who tried to be kind to him, all that.
And, of course, a chess genius, which is why anyone bothered with him at all. Maybe if he hadn’t been a chess genius, he would have been a better person. That’s one of the reasons I was fascinated by him.
There’s a new book out about Fischer, “Endgame” by Frank Brady, a man who knew Fischer well through most of his life. (Fischer died in 2008.) I have not read the book, but I did read the review, which is just like reading the book except less time consuming – I read the review three times, so that counts double – and I wondered again what about Fischer had so gripped me.
I do not play chess. I tried, oh, how I tried, but my brain is not equipped to see into the positions of the pieces, see four or five moves ahead, analyze all the useful permutations and select the right move. The best players see the most deeply, which is why they are always one move ahead, no matter how many moves that may be.
A good chess player once told me that he saw a chessboard in terms of bands of power, like flashlights shining down the rows and files. All he needed to do was unblock the lines and bathe the chessboard in his light. I had to take his word for it. I’m more of the “If I do this, then you’ll do that, and then I can do this, wait, no, I can do …” school of game analysis.
For years, at this very newspaper, George Koltanowski, assisted by Steve Rubenstein (whose prose is much missed around here), wrote a chess column. Every day a new puzzle – “White to play and mate in three moves” was the inevitable instruction – every day a chance for me to stare endlessly at a tiny chessboard. I hardly ever got it right.
Once, Steve invited me and a few other Chronicle types over to Koltanowski’s apartment to play chess. We formed a committee in one room that debated over the next move; Koltanowski sat on the couch in the other room reading a book, no board in front of him. We’d bring in our move, he’d reply instantly. Blindfold chess without the blindfold. He made us look silly.
Fischer could undoubtedly do stuff like that, but he didn’t choose to. He was not a collegial sort of fellow, and certainly not interested in being playful about chess. He got crazier and crazier over the years, believing in all sorts of plots to assassinate him or destroy his brain, blaming Jews, blaming Americans (he was himself an American Jew – see how it all fits together?), running out of countries to reject or be rejected by. The people of Iceland finally granted him a home; he was rude to them too.
Of course, there’s quite a history of nutcase grand masters, suicides and paranoids and at least one other Jewish anti-Semite. There are, as far as I know, no theories about why chess should be associated with madness, although it’s a popular trope in cheap thrillers. Once someone is discovered playing chess, you can be pretty sure he’s the bad guy.
I suppose partly it’s like the old Penn Jillette remark, which he said while juggling chain saws or something else equally improbable. “Can you imagine how many hours alone in your room it takes to get good at this?” The same is true of chess; it takes a lot of hours indoors, not being particularly well socialized, convinced that someone is plotting against you because someone always is, that diabolical, relentless enemy called Black.
White to play and mate in three moves. White to stay alive in three moves. Cut the red wire. No, cut the green wire. God, you’d go nuts yourself.
Writers are another class of people who spend a fair amount of time in their rooms. (Although, it must be said, writers can often find flimsy excuses to leave their rooms and still remain good writers; chess players, not so much.) Maybe that’s why I was fascinated. Fischer and I were born in the same year. He played with chess pieces; I played with baseball cards. If I’d stuck with it, I could have become a powerfully boring baseball geek. Ah well.
One plays chess very well, the other very badly – plus, they never met each other. What a tale!
FOOL: Nuncle Lear, nuncle Lear, tarry and take the fool with thee. A fox, when one has caught her, and such a daughter, should sure to the slaughter, if my cap would buy a halter; so the fool follows firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E – 10 of the SanÂ FranciscoÂ Chronicle