March 17, 2014

Good Mon. Looks to be a pleasant day here today. -6 degrees presently.

We watched an interesting documentary about Bobby Fischer the chess prodigy who won the US Chess championship at age 14 and went on to beat the Russian Boris Spassky, the world champion, in a 24 game match in Iceland in 1972. The match was held at the height of the Cold War and the Russians were our national enemies, so there was a great deal of interest in the match. The TV news, then available on three national channels only, led with updates from the match, which was televised live world wide. Fischer, 29, was noted for his brilliant play and for his eccentric, not to say erratic, behavior. As the match’s opening day approached Fischer demanded more prize money for the winner. In those days, chess masters basically played for free. The figure agreed on was $130,000, a large sum in those days, probably worth a million today.

Fischer almost missed the start of the match while he was holed up in seclusion first in Pasadena and then in New York. The first match began with Spassky’s first move and Fischer, who had not arrived at the match site, had one hour to make his first move. He arrived in the hall with about 15 minutes remaining and moved his piece to join the competition. He blundered on a move mid-game and lost that game to Spassky. The scoring was 1 for a win and ½ point for a tie. Spassky, the reigning world champion, was up 1-0, with 12 points needed for him to win the match. Fischer as challenger needed 12 ½ points. The next day Fischer forfeited game 2 by not showing up. Most knowledgeable observers believed it would be impossible for Fischer to catch up. He complained about TV cameras whirring in the background. They moved the match into a smaller room and had the cameras film through holes in the wall.

Fischer won two of the next three games and the third was a tie, making the score Fischer 2 ½ to Spassky 2. The Russians complained that the US had wired Spassky’s chair and were electronically annoying him. Inspection of the chair revealed two dead flies but no electronics. In game 6 Fischer destroyed Spassky so effectively that the audience burst into appreciative applause and Spassky himself applauded Fischer’s play. Fischer went on to clinch the title in the 21st of a possible 24 games to become the World Chess Champion.

But then something happened. Fischer was required to defend his title at least every three years to retain it, but he never played in an internationally sanctioned match again, though he lived another 35 years. He grew increasingly paranoid and secretive, and ended his days as a mentally unbalanced person who talked only of paranoid fantasies. The documentary explains Fischer’s strange childhood, living with his mother but not knowing who his father was. He started playing chess at age 6 and lost interest in anything else. His mother was constantly off at demonstrations for world peace and Bobby played chess at local clubs under the tutelage of a series of father figures. Somehow he never went to school or played with other children.

His mother was suspected by the FBI of being a Russian spy (her mother was Russian), but she was actually a bit out there herself. So Bobby put all his effort into chess and developed an intuitive grasp of the game that astonished the best players in the game. Many of Fischer’s tournament games are studied today as classics of chess, and his book for beginning chess players is the best-selling chess book of all time. The film features interviews with a number of chess masters who knew Fischer and mentored him. Interesting film.

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) DVD Cover

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