Sunday, May 6, 2012

Desperately Searched: Bobby Fischer

We are told that Bobby Fischer ("Where is he? I don't know! I don't know!" Such sentiments are all the more true now) died an insane, ravenously angry man that had traded his homeland citizenry for asylum on an island nation. We are told he was a hater of Jews, convinced that various schemes were in place putting an elite squad of international Jewry as harbingers of worldwide power and control. This delusion is made all the more head-scratching by the reality that Fischer himself was Jewish.

He died in 2008 in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Let us not concern ourselves with the darker seams of Mr. Fischer's character. The HBO documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World focuses our attention on the screws of his clock -- the bristles of his broom. Let us concern ourselves not with the 'whys', not with question of what made this one man tick and sweep in the manner he chose, for there lies no answers this side of heaven. Men and women will always be shrouded in the tomb of history. Motive (including subconscious motive) can never be determined with assurance.

What Fischer brought us was a genius mind -- an acute rationale for conquering a simple game of wit and wisdom.

Fischer almost always started with the same first move. Even from early on in his career he complained of the limits of the beginning moves of the mind sport. In chess, there are precisely twenty first moves that can be made. Twenty. That's mere pittance for the genius, you see. Pittance. Nevertheless, out of the twenty choices, Fischer was renown for relegating himself to the same choice.

1972: Bobby Fischer faced off against the best of the Soviet regime. Boris Spassky was the reigning Grandmaster of the Universe ("of the Universe" my addition), and the lone, rising star American, Bobby Fischer was to rival his dominance. Fischer, the finicky mental titan and consummation of American uber-independence, chose to not show up for the first match of gameplay. The second game, in which he nearly walked out on, also ended in a Fischer loss. He made a rather startlingly brazen error. He would claim that the noise from the television cameras squelched his ability to concentrate. As it goes, the competition ended when one player arrived at 12 wins against the other. In this score count, Fischer still had nine games he could not show up for before admitting defeat. That would not happen. 

After the second game, Fischer would not lose another game.

Spassky himself admitted later that the turning point of the match occurred in game six. That's the game in which Fischer broke tradition. He changed his first move. The ever constant one-in-twenty was challenged. Spassky had prepared for the tournament based on the foreknowledge that Fischer always chose the same first play. Chess, being a game of possibilities contingent upon previous decision points, became suddenly unexplorable for the communist nation's hero. From that move forward, Fischer's moves were shrouded in mystery for Spassky.

Fischer won handily. He was world champion. He was the grand master.

Three years later, in 1975, another, stronger, faster, meaner Commie had been born and was a means by which Fischer was to be threatened anew for empirical grand-leadership. The threat of extinction was too grand. Fischer never showed.

Another twenty years later, in 1992, Fischer and Spassky rematched. This was the first (and last) competition since the 72 championship that Fischer took on.

And this is where my interest is peaked. The two men fought. Fischer again won without much wonder. I suspect Bobby Fischer saw the event as just the thing that would swell his name back into the limelight of the big boys of chess. It didn't have this effect. 

The general consensus was that the two former grandmasters were dueling in the manner that a present day George Foreman would face off against a latter day Mohammad Ali. The show was, in a word: pathetic.

But why? Chess is not a game of carnal strength. These were not old-timers in the sense of mental ward scrubbers. Fischer and Spassky were surely still quick witted, what was the problem? Kasparov, the grandmaster of the nineties, replied, when asked about Fischer's game play, was a polite, "He did okay."

The problem was not their minds... at least, not in the traditional sense. The problem lay in evolution. General consensus agreed that the foremost problem of the duel was that the players built their artworked gameplans off of byzantine ideas. Chess for maniacs and historians is a game wedged in history; it never stops building upon itself. As a player, you always must build upon the shoulders of your forefathers. In this way, the turns that Spassky and Fischer took in 92 worked well and good for players in 72, but all their style and class had been observed and pondered over in the twenty years since, and henceforth had become inadequate and effectively mute in regards to productive game play strategery.

There are two ways to react to this situation. The first and obvious route is to say that Fischer and Spassky, being the old dogs that they were, failed to adapt to the ever changing architecture of the sport. Fischer, however, saw a different path. It was not his lack of expertise, not his twenty years of virtual escape from the ungulating sport that was the culprit, nay, it was the sport itself. It was flawed.

Fischer's conviction was that chess was not in fact, the game of intellectual championship. He declared rather, that the game had descended into mere formulaic memorization. His standpoint was that chess had become a game of facing not an opponent, but a list of pre-memorized positions, flanks, and 6 or 7 move set-ups. Whoever could remember best was crowned king. For Fischer, this was a banal madness of conceit.

The solution was to change the game. Fischer yearned for a chess that was built off of facing individuals; that was a game of creativity and art. So, in 1996 he created a construct to the set-up of chess that would come to be called Chess960. The idea was to maximize the number of first possible moves, so that no formulas could be reasonably learned and spewed out as memorized regurgitation. Chess960 has a starting board where the back row of rooks, knights, bishops, king and queen, are assembled (to some degree) at random. The outpouring of this small change is that the number of potential first moves expands from the pre-noted 20 moves up to 960, hence the name.

I'm choosing to note Bobby Fischer here in this series because of some deep desire within him to keep imagination alive. His Chess960 tries, as best as he could fathom, to do away with route memory and expand the plane of possibility beyond human comprehension. Too many choices means that not all options can be analyzed. Fischer saw that a place that allowed for uncertainty was a place that breathed creativity.

Bobby Fischer's illustrious star is noted here for seeing beauty, art, and the essence of creativity itself being a spring whose existence is predicated by a lack of foreknowledge. 

To apply that statement to God is hazardous at best and automatically cause for blasphemous leaps of hypothesis. I shan't make such claims here. 

I only mean to marvel.


  1. decent article...

    peaked...mute...route --> piqued...moot...rote

  2. After the second game, Fischer would not lose another game.

    So what was game eleven then?