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  • The Chess of Bobby Fischer

    Fischer's games are so full of ideas, from opening adventures to the themes of composed endings, that they are in themselves the best introduction to the pleasures of the game. In the arduous path to chess mastery, enjoyment is the surest driving force. In the words of Bobby Fischer, "You can get good only if you love the game."

    So much has been written about Fischer as a personality that the general public, including the chess fraternity, has been blinded to his chess. His games have been analyzed over and over in the chess journals. He has published three books himself, with varying degrees of help from other authors. Yet his winning methods, his unique contributions to the larger body of chess knowledge, and his rightful place in the history of the game have been overshadowed by all the publicity.

    A study of Fischer's 750 known clock games shows that he has no "chess secrets." He is alert and accurate. He takes each game seriously, even when the outcome may not have any effect on his tournament standing. He is persistent and not easily discouraged. Such qualities are more a matter of character than of talent. In this sense his real strength is as a man, not as a player. How different is the image which the press has seized upon in its search for the "angle" on the man!

    Fischer must be considered the most successful player the game has ever known. He has lost about 10 percent of his games and drawn about 30 percent, for a batting average of .750. It is true that Capablanca lost only thirty-five games out of the seven hundred he played in a thirty- year career. But Fischer has never been willing to concede the restful draw, or to play to the score. And his competition over the twenty-year career he has now enjoyed has been intense.

    Among the Russians, several still hold a plus score against him as a result of his early games. On the other hand, he has lopsided margins against many fine players: Reshevsky 9-4, Petrosian 8-4, Taimanov 7-0, Saidy 6-0, Sherwin 7-0, Bisguier 13-1, and Larsen 10-2.

    In trying to give an adequate account of the massive body of Fischer's "works," I have carefully combed all of his published games for what might be interesting to the complete player. I have chosen the key positions in his games that illustrate or relate to a wide variety of chess stratagems, combinations, endgame subtleties, even chess problems and studies. In this sense, this book is a horizontal rather than a vertical view of the game. It is not merely about a player's games, or about the middle game, or about combinations, but about chess.

    The reader may start almost anywhere without missing part of the plot. He can browse without having to set up the pieces; but he is not surfeited with diagrams at every other move. A basic skill the player must learn is to analyze without "tickling the pieces," to visualize the topography of future positions without having to see them anywhere but in his mind's eye.

    When Bobby Fischer lost his historic Olympics game to Spassky (Siegen, 1970), the score sheet recorded the event in more ways than one. As his game became shaky, and finally deteriorated, Fischer's rough penmanship collapsed into a drunken scrawl. At the "Resigns" line one could not determine what move it was. Yet here again was Fischer uniqueness: What other score sheet in all of chess history has merited any attention at all?

    The ability to replay a game, move by move, nowadays often with clock recordings, has no parallel in any other "spectator" sport. We have films of great athletic events, instant replays of television presentations, and excellent reportage of the local football or soccer matches. But no aficionado can as easily dip into the history of his avocation as the chess player.

    When Fischer summed up the contribution of America's finest player up to his time, Paul Morphy, he startled the traditionalists. He called Morphy the most accurate player of all time, although everyone had heard from the analysts that Morphy either was the most brilliant (Sergeant), or the best equipped in modem strategic ideas (Fine), or simply the first man to understand the virtues of rapid development. This was not an argument over whether a Joe Louis could beat a Jack Dempsey; the scores were there for all to examine. Perhaps Morphy's opposition was not as strong as twentieth-century opposition. But when it was, it was not a matter of conjecture: the game could be replayed at will.

    The content recorded on score sheets is so complete, so irrefutable, that it seems trivial when an argument erupts over the algebraic versus the descriptive notation. There is a certain parallel here between the metric versus the "English" system of measurement. Symbolism can be refined for efficiency, for ease of conversion, for space. Descriptive notation is used in this book for the simple reason that it is currently the most widely understood system in English publishing.

    (There are excellent reasons why algebraic notation works better for problems and studies, where reference points to the starting positions of the pieces seem particularly out of place. There are also good reasons for resisting uniformity in this as in many other enterprises.)

    Styles change, too, with the times. Fifteenth-century manuscripts are cryptic and virtually modern in their notation. In a more leisurely age, the early nineteenth century, a score sheet was almost a scenario. A correspondence game played in 1828 in England was recorded as follows:

    No. 1 Commences by advancing King's Pawn to King's 4th square.

    No. 1 The same.

    As detailed as the notation was, however, the first player succeeded in making a mistake in the score on his fifth move. As the game went on into 1829, the first player began to let his feelings about the course of the game creep into the score. In retaking after just losing the exchange, he records:

    No. 31 King murders Queen's Knight.

    Four moves later, he is reduced to an abject Pawn move:

    No. 35 Queen's Bishop's Pawn crawls one square forward.

    Fischer has been most precise about keeping score, no matter what his handwriting at the time. Contrary to popular opinion - which is generally synonymous with newspaper accounts - Bobby is not litigious. He knows the rules about repetitions of positions (which most players, even grandmasters, often confuse with repetitions of moves). And he doesn't argue about them, he uses them. He saved a crucial game against Petrosian in the final Candidates match in 1971, and probably two games in the World Championship match with Spassky, 1072, by alert reference to this rule. He was apologetic, even embarrassed, with Petrosian in an improper offer of a draw at Curacao, 1962. He has never been involved in a dispute over score sheets and time control - probably because he is seldom in time trouble.

    As traditional as it may seem, the English-speaking world has generally made one giant concession to simplification, which this writer abhors. This is the prevalent practice of abbreviating "Knight" with "N" - on the presumption that "Kt" is either too long or too easily confused with "K." No other language makes such a gauche assumption.

    Robert E. Burger
    Berkeley, California, 1975

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