description of the decline into paranoia (whether clinical
or not) of Bobby Fischer ("Bobby Fischer's Pathetic
Endgame," December Atlantic) offers a deeply saddening coda
to Marjorie Garber's analysis of "genius" in the same
issue. Unfortunately, Chun's discussion of Fischer's chess
career contains several inaccuracies.
The "Game of the
Century," played by Fischer against Donald Byrne in 1956,
did indeed garner great admiration. However, the British
master David Levy observed that the game's fame was caused
by the youth of its winner, and that "had it been played in
the Barnet league between two sixty-year-old men it is
doubtful whether it would have been considered worthy of
publication." The Brilliancy Prize that the game won was
only for the best game of the tournament and not an annual
award, and the exclamation mark is a standard annotation of
a good move, not (as Chun implies) an extremely rare
addendum to a commentary.
Chun goes on to
criticize modern chess for the incredible level of
preparation put in by top players that makes "the first
twenty moves unfold like a stale sitcom plot." But he fails
to note that Fischer himself, more than any other person,
was responsible for this development. Fischer's chess
monomania led to his victory over the Hungarian grandmaster
Istvan Bilek in 1962, when Bilek used up his allotted two
and a half hours of thinking time and thereby forfeited,
having made only twenty-seven of the required forty moves.
Fischer used exactly two minutes for the whole game, simply
because he had prepared it all at home. Fischer's
ascendance to the throne demonstrated to the chess world
that a contender had to be a full-time competitor.
description of the Reykjavik match against Boris Spassky is
intriguing. He correctly notes Fischer's superlative
comeback from his poor start, but makes the rather odd
claim that Fischer's play grew stronger throughout the
match while Spassky "began ... to crack." This corresponds
neither to the factual record (Spassky lost only one of the
final eight games) nor to the subjective consensus on the
match, which is that Spassky, but not Fischer, played his
best chess during these games.
Bobby Fischer is
clearly not an admirable human being, and many chess
players find that this taints the beauty of his games.
Nevertheless, they deserve to be accurately described.
Your table of
contents refers to Bobby Fischer as "the greatest chess
player ever." This idea will get you laughed at by pretty
much every serious chess player in the world. Even at his
absolute peak Fischer was not nearly as great as Garry
Kasparov, and probably not as good as Anatoli Karpov
Joshua B. Lilly
former Hungarian girlfriend, Zita Rajcsanyi, may well have
written a book about her relationship with the former chess
champion, as reported by Rene Chun in the December
Atlantic. If so, that would make two such books, because an
earlier girlfriend, the German Petra Dautov, also wrote and
published a memoir of her time with Fischer. I wonder if
Chun mistakenly attributed Dautov's work to Rajcsanyi?
Rene Chun replies:
Brilliancy Prize was awarded for the best game of the
tournament and is not, as Matt Guthrie notes, an annual
prize. My mistake. I also regret making an error concerning
the use of exclamation points in chess analysis. The
exclamation point is standard annotation for a good move.
Although Bobby Fischer obviously put an emphasis on
studying opening theory, he was by no means the pioneer in
that field. The Soviets made it a science long before
Fischer came on the scene. Fischer just put in more hours.
As for Boris Spassky's succumbing to the pressure of the
Reykjavik match, this much is known: After the eighth game
Spassky "sensed" that Bobby was hypnotizing him. After the
fourteenth game Spassky called a meeting with his entourage
of advisers and announced, "An attempt is being made to
control my mind!" After the fifteenth game Spassky accused
Fischer of using electronic devices and chemical substances
to make him "lose [his] fighting spirit." Spassky's camp
then insisted that the playing hall be searched for hidden
electronic devices. "Spassky's snapped!" The New York Times
wrote. "Now they're both crazy!"
By the standard
of longevity alone, an argument could be made for Garry
Kasparov's being the greatest chess player ever. But
without Bobby Fischer there would be no million-dollar
purses or televised matches. And victory in the 1972 world-
championship match alone earns Fischer the title
"greatest." This is not purely an American bias. When the
international magazine Chess Informant asked its readers to
pick the best chess player of the twentieth century, Robert
James Fischer came out on top. Even Kasparov has called him
"the greatest world champion."
Petra Dautov was
indeed the woman who published a memoir chronicling her
relationship with Bobby Fischer. I stand corrected.