Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Three weeks ago I decided to spend a day at the British Chess Championships rather than watch the film Bobby Fischer Against the World. But it won't be in cinemas much longer, so today I went down to London to see it. It was on at the Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square.

Bobby Fischer Against the World  is centred on the Fischer vs Spassky World Championship from 1972, but also tells the story of Fischer's boyhood and later descent into mania. The video above, part of which is used in the film, shows a 15-year-old Fischer appearing on I've Got a Secret. By coincidence, I posted another clip from this show recently - and it seems to have become the favourite programme of Moonlight Over Essex since then too.

The Fischer vs Spassky match was an extraordinary global news story: a lone Westerner taking on and defeating the mighty Soviet chess machine. There was great uncertainty over whether Fischer would turn up in Reykjavik to play the match - it took, amongst other things, an intervention from Henry Kissinger to persuade him to get on the plane - and once he had got there his success kept even news of Watergate off the top spot in television new bulletins.

Looking back on the games today, it has to be admitted that Spassky's play was uncharacteristically weak at first. He seemed to relax and play better once he had fallen decisively behind in the match. Some of Fischer's play was marvellous, but it ultimately what mattered was not the quality of the chess. The match had become a far bigger event than that.

Aimed at an American audience, the film emphasises how the Fischer vs Spassky match led to a boom in chess in the USA. But in Britain its effect was even more startling. In 1972 the Americans had other grandmaster besides Fischer: Britain had none, but 15 years later had surpassed the USA and every other chess-playing nation except the Soviet Union. (I have written a post on this British chess boom.)

Fischer comes across as a deeply wounded figure. His childhood was toxic and by the age of 16 he was living on his own among squalor and chess books. He seems to have internalised some of his mothers left-wing conspiracy politics - or even some of the right-wing conspiracy politics of 1950s America.

After he gave up chess, refusing to defend his title against the Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov in 1975 even though the chess authorities had gone a long way to meet his demands for the match, he descended into madness. After trying and rejecting a Christian sect he became a raving anti-Semite and gloried in the blow struck against the US on 9/11.

In 1992 he and Spassky staged a rematch, and Fischer won it despite having not played competitive chess for 20 years. However, both players were long past their best and the match was held in Yugoslavia during the civil war in defiance of international sanctions. Fischer was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if he ever returned to the US.

He was detained over immigration irregularities in Japan, but was offered sanctuary in Iceland, the scene of his greatest triumph, where he died in 2008.

The relation between chess genius and madness has long been discussed. The film retails stories of other great players who have shown symptoms, but I suspect most of these have grown in the telling. The wisest words on this question are those of Bill Hartston, journalist and former British champion.

Hartston said: "Chess does not drive people mad - it keeps mad people sane." Certainly, Fischer had far fewer problems during his active playing career and many remember him as personable, if a little odd. He was nothing like the bearded, shambling figure of his last years. He took part in a BBC consultation game in the 1960s because he had worked out that it would give him just enough time and money to get himself a Saville Row suit.

Besides, not all great chess players are strange, as the sane voice of Garry Kasparov in this film demonstrates.  I was fascinated by his comment that Fischer and Spassky were not just getting old in 1992 but that they were playing "seventies chess". So much so that I bought his book about Fischer. Looking through it on the train home, he means that things only Fischer knew in his prime are now known by every good player and the game has moved on.

There is another story that the film does not tell: that of Boris Spassky. He went back to Moscow as the man  who had lost the Soviet Union the world chess title - and proceeded to win the next Soviet Championship. This must have taken great courage. One of the Soviets who had lost to Fischer as he won the right to challenge Spassky, Mark Taimanov, had been turned over by customs on his return, got into a row and been forced to issue a public apology to "comrade customs official". The Solzhenitsyn novel found in his luggage didn't help either.

After winning the Soviet title, Spassky traded on his fame. He played in all the big tournaments (the organisers wanted him - he was one of the two chess players that everyone had heard of) but tended to settle for a quiet life and agreed a lot of draws. He also managed to become something of a dissident from the Soviet system without facing persecution. Perhaps his fame helped him in this too?

And Spassky was a gentleman. He probably disadvantaged himself by going too far to meet Fischer's demands. He could easily have claimed his rights, which would have led Fischer to default the match and allowed Spassky to keep his title for another three years.

Finally, a slight quibble. Interviewed after winning the world title, Fischer is asked what he would like to do next. He replies that he has not played enough chess. People in the cinema around me laughed, and I assume the makers meant this clip to display his monomania.

Yet the answer made perfect sense. Fischer, because of his unwillingness to play if the conditions did not meet his exacting demands, had not played that many games in his career. Having him as an active world champion through the 1970s and playing epic matches with Kasparov in the 1980s would have been wonderful for chess - and much better for Fischer. As it turned out, he hardly played again and we were robbed of his talent.

No comments: