Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer 1943-2008

Bobby Fischer, who was world chess champion between 1972 and 1975, has died from kidney failure in a Reykjavík hospital. He was 64.

For a couple of months in 1972 Fischer's match against the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky, the defending world champion, put chess on to the front page of every newspaper. It was seen by many as an allegory for the Cold War, with the individualist American triumphing over the representative of the Soviet machine (though in truth it was unfair to cast the semi-detached Spassky in this role). It also led to a boom in chess in the West - in Britain in particular.

Fischer had swept all before him on the way to the match, but his victory - or at least the 12.5 - 8.5 margin - was still something of a surprise. He had failed to beat Spassky in any of their previous meetings. Not only that: Fischer lost the first game after a blunder in a level ending and defaulted the second after a dispute over playing conditions.

But then Fischer always been a difficult and demanding competitor, even if his accusations that the leading Soviet players colluded amongst themselves probably had some truth to them. He almost defaulted himself from the qualifying process for the 1972 world championship match, only getting into it because another American player gave up his place. And a less gentlemanly opponent than Spassky might well have encouraged Fischer to walk out of the match. Or perhaps this was a sign of overconfidence on the part of the Soviet authorities?

Once Fischer got going in the match he all but blew Spassky away. In particular, he bypassed the Russian's preparation by employing openings that he had never played before.

After 1972 it was all downhill. Fischer refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 even though the chess world had gone a long way to meeting his inevitable demands over the match regulations. He lived a vagrant life in several countries, indulged in antisemitic rantings (Fischer was from a Jewish background himself) and did not play a serious game of chess until 1992, when he beat Spassky in a return match.

This match added to Fischer's troubles as it was staged in the former Yugoslavia at a time when their were United Nations sanctions against the country, which included sporting events. The USA issued a warrant for his arrest and he was imprisoned in Japan before Iceland - the scene of his triumph over Spassky in 1972 - offered him asylum. At the end he was a bearded, dishevelled figure, almost unrecognisable as the lean young man who had captured the world title.

Dryden said "Great wits are sure to madness near allied". I am reminded of the comment by the former British champion Bill Hartston to the effect that chess does not drive people mad but keeps mad people sane.

There are parallels to be drawn between the life of Fischer and that of Paul Morphy - "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess". This young American master came over to Europe in 1858, defeated everyone but failed in his ambition to play a match against the Englishman Howard Staunton, who was the unofficial world champion. He returned to America, gave up the game and died aged only 47.

For a recent account of the Fischer-Spassky match see Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. See also my recent posting on Boris Spassky.


Tom Barney said...

"Great wits are sure to madness near allied" - and it's Dryden not Pope

Haribo said...

Good post, I didn't know that he'd passed away. As a decent child-player who gave up during adolescence, I find it rather sad news.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks, Tom. I have corrected the posting.