Feb 19 2011

Bobby Fischer’s Defence


Bobby Fischer  was aged six in 1949 when he and his sister Joan bought  a chess set from the candy store beneath their Brooklyn apartment. They taught themselves to play from the instructions on the box. From that day the game defined his life.

Soon after learning the game, he found a book of old chess games and studied it intensely. His sister must have become sick of being beaten, as the following year his mother asked the local paper to find other boys of his age (7!) who might be interested in playing. Instead, the paper referred him to a visiting chess master who was playing an exhibition of simultaneous games. Bobby, still 7, played him and lost – but his play brought him to the attention of the president of the local chess club, and he subsequently was mentored by a number of Manhattans finest masters.

He was a prodigy. At the age of 13 he played a ‘brilliancy’ against DonaldcByrne which is still referred to as ‘the game of the century’. 

He won the first of eight consecutive US championships the following year – aged 14. He became a grandmaster at age 15, and in 1963 won the US championships 11-0, which remains the only perfect score in the history of the championships.

Fischer dropped out  of Erasmus Hall High School as soon as he legally could at age 16. His classmates had included Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. That same year his mother moved out of their apartment to pursue a career in medicine, leaving him to his own devices. Still aged 16, he published his first book ‘Bobby Fischer’s Games of Chess.’

Fischer had not competed or had withdrawn from the World Championships in the 1960’s, but became determined to win the 1970 – 1972 round  (World Championships being held over a three year period.)  It was the height of the Cold War, and chess was dominated by Russian grandmasters.  Fischer systematically began to beat them all, and gained the world number one ranking in 1971. However,  he had not yet beaten the reigning champion, Russia’s Boris Spassky. His chance came in the finals of the World Championships in 1972.

Appropriately an exotic venue was chosen for this cold war battle. The most anticipated chess match of all time took place in Reykjavík, in Iceland, from July to September 1972. Fischer had a lifelong stubbornness about playing conditions for tournaments – and he refused to play at all until the prize money was fixed at an unprecedented $250,000.

The championship match was decided over 21 games. Fisher lost the first when he tried a surprising pawn sacrifice in the end game – and he forfeited the second as he was annoyed by the cameras. Spassky agreed to play the third game in a private back room, and the subsequent games returned to the main stage.

Of the final 19 games, Fischer won nine, drew ten, and lost only 1. Therefore, he won the championship 12 and half to 8 and a half. He was an instant celebrity, and at age 29 returned home to a hero’s welcome. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He never defended his title, and in fact never played a proper chess tournament again. It was 20 years before he played in public for one last time.

Fischer was an eccentric even by the standards of the eccentric world of chess. His life became increasingly shambolic. In 1992 he played in an unofficial rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia against UN sanctions.(he won this rematch), He was unable to return to the USA. He lived in Hungary, Germany, the Philipines, and spent some years in jail in detention in Japan before being taken in by Iceland, who made him a citizen to obtain his release. He died there in January 2008. He had been undefeated in a Chess match from the age of 23.

The brilliant 23 year old Anatoly Karpov placed Fischer as World Chess Champion when he refused to defend his title in 1975, and Garry Kasparov eventually replaced Karpov as World Chess Champion in 1985. Kasparov had been brought up on Fishers ’60 Memorable Games’. Although he never played him, the question of ‘How would you have gone against Bobby Fischer’ was the dominant question he faced throughout his career.  Kasparov wrote that Fischer “became the detonator of an avalanche of new chess ideas, a revolutionary whose revolution is still in progress.” Experts say that Kasparov is the only person who might rival Fischer as the greatest chess player ever.

In the latest NY times Review of Books, Kasparov tells the Shakesperean story of Bobby Fischer’s life in a fascinating personal review of a new biography of the American grandmaster.

Thanks to Mike for the tip about the article.













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