Over the years, I have watched the cover of Chess Life featuring a parade of new grandmasters, of whom a surprising number hailed from a land known at that time as Yugoslavia. For years, I had wondered how such a small country could mint grandmasters at about the same rate as the vastly larger land then known as the Soviet Union, where chess was proclaimed to be the national sport. In those days, most of my friends in the chess world made it a point to pay close attention to every word of advice from the “Russian school of chess.” So how did the Yugoslavs produce so many GMs?
Yugoslavia’s Secret Ingredient
The answer was fairly simple, in that the former Yugoslavia had the highest proportion of chess players per capita of any country in the world. Later, I learned that most of those “Yugoslavs” were actually Serbs. However, a high percentage of Bosnian “Muslims” also enjoy the game. I have added the quotation marks, because few of these chess players seem very “Muslim” from the religious or cultural standpoint.
In Chicago, where both Serbs and Bosnian Muslims have large immigrant communities, there is no shortage of either in local tournament play. So, upon reflection, what better venue than Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia, could have been chosen for former world champion/U.S. expatriate Bobby Fischer, and former world champion/Soviet expatriate Boris Spassky, to meet in 1992 for their second world championship match?
Of course, most of the world did not view this as a match for the world championship of chess. Fischer had been stripped of his title years earlier, although even that penalty did not satisfy the arbitrary quirks of the leaders of organized chess. Amid the growing chaos, two rival chess organizations each recognized its own respective “world champion.” Thus, in a way, Bobby Fischer may have had as much right to call himself “world champion” as either Anatoly Karpov or Garry Kasparov.
America’s Chess Darling in 1972
It was a different world when Bobby Fischer boarded a plane to Reykjavik, Iceland, to meet the then-youngest world chess champion ever, Boris Spassky, of Russia. Of course, in those days, Russia was part of the Soviet Union, America’s enemy in the Cold War.
A war continued to rage in southeast Asia, in spite of three and a half years of implementing what was known as President Nixon’s “secret plan to end the war.” Wages and prices had been frozen in a futile attempt to curb inflation. Yet, that summer, Nixon’s reelection seemed all but certain.
The U.S. had gotten used to the idea that our Cold War enemy was bristling with intercontinental ballistic missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, and capable of incinerating our major cities in minutes—not hours—from launch time. The Soviets had gotten used to the idea that whatever might be left of their part of the world after the initial exchange of ICBMs would be annihilated by the American submarines that patrolled the seas, and the American bombers that were always airborne.
Sports were one of the few areas where the U.S. and the USSR could compete without much danger to the population of the world. By fair means or foul, the USSR and other Communist-bloc countries certainly fielded impressive Olympic teams in those days.
When the American press finally figured out that, through Bobby Fischer, the U.S. might literally beat the USSR at its own game, Bobby entered the limelight. Of course, chess had never been America’s game. Chess had been viewed as part of a package of games that aunts and uncles could give as Christmas gift to their nieces and nephews, hoping they would find something of interest. It had often been confused with checkers. Then as now, most Americans have never heard of Paul Morphy, the nineteenth-century genius, whom even Fischer considers America’s all-time greatest chess player.
In America, the image of a chess player had been that of an overachieving “brainiac” who played for recreation when he was not interpreting the Theory of Relativity, composing a symphony, or memorizing Shakespeare. Alternatively, chess had been an old man’s game to be played in the park with other old men whose time was no longer of any value, who could spend hours thinking of each move.
Bobby fit neither image. He was a high school dropout and former child chess prodigy. Now he was the youngest contestant ever to play for the world championship, breaking the record of his opponent.
Fischer Beats Spassky!
To me, the 1972 Championship seemed more like a poker game than a chess match. Fischer was off to a very bad start. He considered the country of Iceland to be an unsatisfactory venue, as it had no bowling alleys. He complained about the chess equipment. He objected to the television cameras. He lost a game early on, and also forfeited one.
It looked as though Bobby might go home empty-handed. It seemed that, after all the hype, America would be embarrassed. Suddenly, America’s newfound fascination with chess began to wane.
At that time, I myself had been seeing a silver lining to a Spassky victory. Fischer had played so well in the qualifying matches that it seemed that no one else in the world would have any real chance of defeating him three years later, when the qualifying matches for the opportunity to contend for the championship would again arise.
Moreover, I must confess that I was somewhat of a Spassky fan in those days. Spassky played many of the same openings that I liked to play. He was known as an attack player, which has always been my style. True, I did want Fischer to win, but I would have been just as happy to have him wait until 1975 to see that happen.
So, when Bobby started winning, I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions. When he came home victorious, the American chess world was transformed.
Bobby the Celebrity
Bobby Fischer continued to be the focus of public attention for some time after his return. He appeared on television shows and his books sold well. America took pride in this victory over its Soviet rival, as an American had decisively beaten the Russians at their own game.
Chess popularity rose sharply, in what became known as the “Bobby Boom.” Even though chess is still not a major American pastime, the purses at American chess tournaments have grown significantly. Some tournaments now offer several thousand dollars in prizes in their lowest rated sections. At the other end of the scale, a few of the country’s top masters can actually make a living playing chess. Of course, this is a much more Spartan living than that earned by many professional golfers
America Lets Its Hero “Twist in the Wind”
It is hard to understand—much less explain—why Fischer refused to play Karpov to defend his championship in 1975. Suffice it to say that Fischer did have some legitimate reasons to object to the terms of the match. He certainly had grounds to claim that the penalty imposed upon him—forfeiture of his title—was not justified.
Given the history of the world chess championship, Fischer had been treated with less respect than any of title’s earlier holders. For example, Jose Capablanca, who had not lost a game to anyone in years, had to negotiate the terms of the title match for years before he received his opportunity to play. Unfortunately, Capablanca’s reign as world champion was relatively short-lived, as Alexander Alekhine defeated him in one of the biggest upsets in the history of chess.
So what did the U.S. do to help Bobby defend his title against Soviet challengers on terms that he considered to be fair? Nothing! (Or so close to nothing, it hardly counted.)
When an American Olympic athlete’s metal is challenged, American appeals. But for Bobby, the man who defeated the Soviet world champion with his own resources, America does nothing, while the Soviets used their influence in the chess world to force Fischer to play to retain his title under conditions that Fischer perceived to be a serious handicap.
Fischer’s Down Side
Fischer has indeed made some offensive anti-Semitic remarks. We ourselves find those remarks to be repugnant. However, in view of the fact that Fischer himself is Jewish, and in view of his long history of eccentric and reclusive behavior, we can only conclude that he is suffering from a mental disorder. But is that any justification for locking him up?
In mosques and other venues all over the world, as well as on the Internet, not only do genuine terrorists spew anti-Semitic tirades that are far worse than those of Fischer, but also recruit, train, equip, and coordinate those individuals who do indeed go out and commit large-scale acts of violence. Bobby Fischer, on the other hand, has no involvement with terrorist activities, and is not a threat to anyone. Why, then, is the U.S. government foolishly wasting resources and angering its allies by pursuing Bobby Fischer, while allowing terrorist recruitment to continue virtually unabated on American soil?
Fischer’s Enduring Chess Legacy
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Fischer was nowhere to be found. I can remember only one occasion when he surfaced for an interview. Even so, his influence on chess is everywhere.
For those who do not play chess, a chess clock is an unfamiliar piece of equipment; suffice it to say that a chess clock is a device that insures that each player has the same amount of time to think about his moves. Bobby complained that the clocks then in use were compromising the quality of play by making time pressure too big a factor in the game. The Fischer Clock combats this problem by adding a small time bonus after each move. This helps players to concentrate more on their chess game than on the amount of time they have left.
In the past, Bobby had claimed that women and girls were incapable of learning to play good chess. He once offered to play any woman alive, while giving her a large handicap. Today, there are many excellent female chess players, including several grandmasters. Three of them, Judith, Susan, and Sofia Polgar, all sisters, attained much of their chess acumen under the guidance of Bobby Fischer.
In the summer of 2000, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a famous master of endgame play who is also the creator of an opening that bears his name, Pal Benko. A life-long friend of Fischer, Benko mentioned that he still spoke with Fischer via telephone on a daily basis. Every chess player in the room seemed pleased to hear that Bobby was alive and well.
Is Fischer Any Danger?
This unseemly pursuit is evidently being carried out at the behest of the U.S. Justice Department and State Department. Unfortunately, American federal bureaucracies are like bureaucracies everywhere else. They are established, often with much fanfare, as a means of dealing with a specific set of problems. But they soon take on a life of their own, focusing more and more upon perpetuating themselves and expanding their own power, influence, and funding. While the heads of these bureaucracies may be replaced when a new president takes office, the rank and file generally remains in place for decades. These federal bureaucrats are seldom dismissed on account of their own poor performance, pusillanimous character, or lack of job qualifications suitable for the tasks at hand—but their positions could be eliminated by a budget cut. Why, then, would a bureaucracy jeopardize any of its budget by actually resolving the problems that are its sole reason for being?
The bottom line is that a bureaucracy can thrive by creating the appearance of progress in bringing such problems under control, but never by actually succeeding. Worse yet, whenever it becomes obvious that a bureaucracy has failed miserably, the “solution” is always the same, no matter which party is in office: establish yet another new bureaucracy—without eliminating the old one or dismissing its employees.
Thus, we see the government making an example of public figures of various political persuasions: suing Bill Gates, investigating Rush Limbaugh, and locking up the likes of Martha Stewart and Bobby Fischer. Regardless of the inevitable “collateral damage” to individuals and to the economy and the society, we are told that justice is being done and that the public is being protected.
One does not have to be much of a cynic to observe that the actions of the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, et. al., serve only to create a false sense of security that affords cover to America’s genuine enemies. Imagine, for a moment, that these huge bureaucracies had never been allowed to flourish in the first place. Suppose for a moment that, in keeping with the stated intention of the Founding Fathers, Americans understood that they had to rely on the Second Amendment, and on the cooperative efforts of the local, law-abiding citizenry, as their primary defense against foreign combatants on American soil. How much safer would we be, if we had never allowed ourselves to fall for all of the costly and counterproductive bureaucratic smoke and mirrors?
America Always Forgets Her Friends
Being a friend of the U.S. is about as unlucky as dating Henry VIII. Twelve years after the fact, the U.S. is still anxious to punish, its former hero for having visited Serbia and Montenegro to play chess in 1992! This allegedly violated the economic sanctions that were in effect against the Serbs at that time. Never mind the fact that these sanctions were based upon false accusations and staged incidents, and that the sanctions remained in effect long after this subterfuge became known. Never mind the fact that the U.S. government itself shamelessly flouted its own arms embargo by providing arms and assistance to enemies of the Serbs, including Muslim terrorists affiliated with Osama bin Laden. (http://www.tvweber.com/binLaden_KLA.htm)
Japan, still a puppet of the U.S. government nearly sixty years after its defeat in World War II, has been quick to fall into line. Why any nation would even consider deporting Bobby Fischer to the U.S., given its judicial system it duplicitous foreign policy, is beyond me.
If you doubt that accusation, how else would you characterize the country that allowed Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik fighters—who had saved the lives of over 500 American flyers—to be captured and executed by Tito?
What about a nation that stood by and did nothing in 1968, when the Soviet Union crushed the Czech reform movement known as “Prague Spring”? Does anyone remember those brave Czechs who, during the height of the Nazi occupation in World War II, assassinated Reinhardt Heydrich, an up-and-coming Nazi leader who might have made Hitler look like a Boy Scout? Yet, America barely paid lip service to the Czech reformers.
And what about the obscenity in 1999 of bombing the Serbs, who had been America’s staunch ally in both world wars, simply because President Clinton and his administration saw something to gain in supporting al-Qaeda? (http://www.tvweber.com/critclinton.htm) That really shows what kind of country the U.S. has become. So, Bobby, you are in good company, the Serbs love chess and, like you, have felt the steel of an American knife in their backs.
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