By the time I started playing, Bobby Fischer was long gone from the American chess scene. We know today that he was still around, giving the occasional interview or lesson, but before the internet it was remarkably difficult to track such appearances, and it seemed to almost everyone that he had simply vanished from the face of the earth. Of course, just because he was gone didn’t mean that he was gone; his ghost hovered over the game of chess, both for the public-at-large and for the serious player. For the public, he was the only recognizable American chess player, and his life lent an aura of the bizarre to what really wasn’t all that bizarre of a game. For the serious player Fischer was a bit more difficult, because the absence of the greatest player meant that the rest of what was going on in American chess felt like kind of a sideshow. People wondered what would happen when He returned, and what it would mean for chess if He never returned, and about what He meant for the game, and so forth and so on.
I started playing chess “seriously” in the 10th grade. I played for the Oregon City High School chess team, but also in various tournaments around Portland and in a couple of the local chess clubs. The questions about Fischer had, in an important sense, played themselves out by 1990. The larger world of chess was represented by the 1990 Karpov-Kasparov match, which had its own post-Cold War overtones. While I cheered for Kasparov, I felt that my style of play more closely matched Karpov, to the extent that it makes sense to think about similarities between the game of a grandmaster and a D level player. Fischer was always around, though. A few times each year we’d have a conversation about Fischer during chess practice, wondering where he was, what he was doing, and whether or not he could beat Kasparov. I believed that he could; Kasparov had come to prominence in the absence of the best player that the world had ever seen, and thus his success was suspect. All of the American champions, too, seemed to be playing for runner up, second to the ghost of Fischer. In any case, I had enough talent and patience to rise to low class C, which made me by far the best player in my high school and in the top ten of state high school players. If I had committed myself to chess I might eventually have gotten to class A, just below Expert but far short of Master, but it was enough simply to be the best at OCHS and to be competitive on a state level.
What chess did for me was help to achieve a certain level of notoriety, to set me apart from the common nerd, and to get my name in the announcements now and again. None of these are particularly laudable goals, but they meant a lot at age 16. To this goal, Fischer was a better model than either Karpov or Kasparov. Karpov and Kasparov have very different personalities (and political outlooks) from one another, but are both notable for being, in their own ways, quite normal. They both belie the notion that there’s a connection between the chess and the crazy; this belief appears, largely but not entirely because of Fischer, to be particularly American. But of course, to the nerd seeking notoriety, Karpov and Kasparov were entirely useless. If I could have been normal and cool and good at chess I would have been, but this was simply not to be. Fischer was a much more compelling role model for a young man who made the terrible mistake of putting chess at the front of his social resume. Now, this isn’t to say that I threatened to drop out, or started doing poorly in classes, or started dressing like Fischer, but I did learn as much about his life as I could (remember again that this was pre-internet), became familiar with the “where is he now?” debates, and developed a capability for holding forth on the question of whether he could beat Kasparov. I also took a certain pleasure in noting that Bobby and I shared initials.
Of course, high school ends and no one wants to start school at a big state university with “chess nerd” as his primary identity. But then Fischer came back, a month before classes were supposed to start, and I felt I owed him something. Fall 1992 was my first semester at the University of Oregon, and the second class on my first day was Political Science 225: Political Ideologies. While the listed professor was George Zaninovich, it was actually taught by a graduate student named Joshua Gold. It appears that he now works at Salt Lake Community College; if you have a chance, take a course from him. It was reasonably demanding for a freshman/sophomore course, as in addition to the Ball and Dagger Political Ideologies Gold also assigned Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, and Carol Pateman’s Participation and Democratic Theory. The course ended with a novel assignment; produce your own internally coherent political ideology. I wrote a paper called “Chess as Ideology”; it was written as a Trotsky-esque recapitulation of a revolution led by Bobby Fischer that overthrew the government of New Zealand and established a society based on chess. The ideology wasn’t terribly attractive, as it could best be described as internally oriented fascism with a substantial dose of Indian caste system. That made some sense, though, as it was becoming clear by that point that Bobby hadn’t come back quite right. As I mentioned the internet was in its infancy, so news of Fischer’s behavior during the 1980s and even during the 1992 match with Spassky was pretty limited, but it still seemed that he was more than a little off.
After that I left chess behind. I watched a couple films that featured Fischer, including the remarkably powerful Fresh, and the awfully bad Searching for Bobby Fischer, and vaguely followed his career, but as the chess connection waned I came to evaluate him on his merits as a celebrity. I didn’t take any joy in his difficulties, but didn’t feel that they were particularly undeserved. What bothered me most, I suppose, was his contempt for Garry Kasparov. Kasparov may have been a product of the same Soviet chess system that Fischer legitimately deplored, but he is now and was then both an admirable figure and a fantastic chess player. To attack Kasparov, it seemed to me, both denigrated the game and foreclosed the possibilities that it had produced. Kasparov, in short, was an amazing former world chess champion, while Fischer was a waste of oxygen.
On the whole “crazy” thing, I really don’t know what to think about Fischer’s mental state. It has become clear enough that whatever issues he had after the return were simply amplifications of issues that had been present before 1972, and not behavior qualitatively different. While on one hand I kind of want to believe that he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, I’m also wary of diagnosing mental illness from political belief. It’s possible that he was just a pretty awful human being, in the way that lots of people are awful human beings, although perhaps in a way that was enhanced by his particular celebrity and experience.
So, I feel like I should mourn Bobby Fischer, but I’m not sure how. Unlike Chris, I can’t mourn the Fischer of 1972, because I never experienced that. Fischer to me was a ghost, but an important and meaningful ghost. I can’t excuse the late Fischer in favor of the young, because all the bad that was present in the late was also there in the young. I can mourn the ghost, but I feel kind of bad about that because it seems to celebrate Fischer’s death (his return to “ghost” status) more than remember it. And so I find myself in a bit of a quandry regarding Bobby.
Still, I can say that there are very few to whom I can more sincerely say “Rest in Peace,” than Bobby Fischer.