CHESS VOICE (Vol. 8, No. 3) August-September 1975
Bobby Fischer: Superhero?
by John Larkins
Like it or not, the fortunes of American chess are tied to the coat tails of Bobby Fischer. Example: during the height of the Fischer-Spassky excitement of three years ago a number of book publishers commissioned chess books scheduled to hit the market three years later during Fischer's first defense of his championship. But now chess books are appearing at the same time in a limited market, and the publishers are expected to take a beating.
Another example: local chess officers and tournament directors, remembering the doubling of their membership that occurred during the Fischer-Spassky match, looked for another batch of new members to be drawn in by the Fischer-Karpov match. Instead they face the usual summer doldrums with membership rosters getting smaller instead of larger.
A third example: at the national level, the USCF also anticipated increased membership from Fischer-Karpov publicity and they invested an unusual amount of money in a recruiting program which now appears to be undermined.
When Bobby Fischer was World Champion, American chess organizers were happy that American chess could ride on his coat tails. Now that he has stopped playing, a number of them are having second thoughts.
Before attending the FIDE meetings that had to decide on the rules to be used for the Fischer-Karpov match, then USCF-Vice-President George Koltanowski publicly stated that whatever position Fischer took, the U.S. delegation would back him - since they could not afford to have him refuse to play. Now, however, Kolty feels that "a Federation cannot be built around one man". (July, 1975 CL&R, p 421.)
In a similar way average chess club members and casual players all over the country are trying to make up their minds about the whole Fischer phenomenon.
Crazy Like a Fox?
Is Fischer a genius at the chessboard but unpredictably neurotic when he steps away from it? Or is he "crazy like a fox", shrewdly escalating his demands for the laudatory purpose of improving playing conditions and increasing the monetary rewards of Grandmaster chess (just as many super-stars have done in other sports)?
Is Fischer's failure to play a single public game of chess since he won the world championship a calculated plan to prevent any challenger for his title from guessing what prepared variations he is cooking up in his solitude? Or has he withdrawn from reality into another period of regressive isolation?
Is he just waiting for the right conditions to be proposed so that he can regain his championship? Or is he himself unable to predict or control what he will or will not do from month to month?
These questions are not easy to answer. And entirely opposite opinions can be found among almost any group of chess players. Like Howard Hughes, Fischer is a public figure who has gone out of his way to prevent the details of his private life from becoming public knowledge. Most of us are aware that trying to psychoanalyze someone at a distance is a dangerous and usually unproductive game. Still, since Fischer is having an effect on all of us, we have the right to make what sense we can out of his behavior.
The one aspect of the Fischer phenomenon that is not subject to controversy is the excellence of his play. Most of those in a position to know agree that Fischer is probably the greatest chess player who ever lived. (His prime contender for that exalted title would be Alexander Alekhine - another amazing mixture of chess genius and self-destructive behavior.) But it is very important to understand that just because Fischer is so wise at the chessboard does not necessarily mean he is equally wise away from it.
Fischer is a complicated person and questions about him demand complicated answers. One can stand in awe of his chess genius without feeling it necessary to justify his every whim.
Bobby vs. the Rest of the World
An important book to read while making up your mind about Fischer is Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World by Brad Darrach (Stein and Day, 1974, $7.95).
This is a very controversial book. Check your May, 1975 issue of Chess Life & Review for a sample. Editor Burt Hochberg calls it "a hatchet job" while Larry Evans says "it gives a better picture of what Bobby is really like than anything else ever written."
CL&R Editor Hochberg claims that no one can really understand Fischer who does not understand chess: "In Fischer's case, his unpleasantness is obvious to journalists because they know nothing about chess and are incapable of correctly interpreting anything Fischer says or does."
More specifically, Hochberg says that Darrach knew Fischer only during "that neurotic period of crises (attendant upon the World Championship match), not before and not since." Yet he goes on to say that the period of crises began "very much earlier" than 13 months before the match and that "its effects are still being strongly felt" in May, 1975, more than three years later.
According to that logic, Fischer - as world champion or contender for the championship - is in a perpetual "neurotic period of crises." And that is precisely Darrach's point. In any case, since grandmaster Evans is generally conceded to know something about chess and also to know Fischer better than any other chess player, and since Evans supports Darrach's view, apparently Bobby can be understood without a special background in chess.
Instead of being shunned, the views of "outsiders" to chess should be welcomed. Indeed, they are absolutely necessary to offset the special pleading of the "insiders." Hochberg may see Darrach's book as "a hatchet job" but it is important to realize that a number of people writing about Fischer have axes to grind.
For example, the sole coverage given in Chess Life & Review to the Fischer-Karpov rules controversy (until the current issue) was written by Fred Cramer - Bobby's personal representative. Cramer presented a brief for the case that all of Fischer's demands were rationally - grounded and historically sound while the views of the opposition were based on irrational, anti-Fischer, anti-American biases.
Deplorably one-sided coverage? Of course, but then CL&R is the official publication of the USCF which was pre-committed to whatever position Fischer took.
Another example: Colonel E. B. Edmundson is the Executive Director of the USCF and an internationally known representative of American chess. But when FIDE took away Fischer's title and gave it to Karpov, Col. Edmundson could not restrain himself from making public statements that Karpov was a cowardly mouse trying to kick Bobby when he was down because he had no chance of beating him in a real match.
Were these childish statements those of a responsible spokesman for American chess? Or those of an understandably bitter man who has spent years of time, effort and money smoothing Fischer's path to the world championship and who considers Bobby to be his protégé? (For another reaction to Edmundson's remarks, see Jude Acers letter on page 10.)
It is just because of the pre-committed loyalties of chess "insiders" that a special value must be attached to the views of "outsiders" like Darrach, who have no ties to the organizational structure of chess.
Darrach sees Fischer as an immature lop-sided personality whose behavior is as unpredictable to himself as to those around him. He portrays Bobby as a man saturated with fear and anger - useful emotions at the chessboard but self-destructive if applied unmodified to the rest of life.
This picture does not put Bobby Fischer in a favorable light. And Darrach's style of writing is such that he is willing to exaggerate some details and omit others in order to make a point. But his book as a whole has the ring of truth about it. And if that's the way Fischer is, it's time we stopped pretending otherwise.
It is largely due to Fischer that the world chess championship has moved out of the pages of monthly chess magazines into the mass media. But, that being the case, it is time for American chess writers to drop the protective attitude that had publicity about Fischer is bad for American chess and let him be treated by the media in the same way they would cover any other prominent figure.
Ironically, it is probably the "bad" publicity about Fischer that has led to the recent growth of American chess. Fischer the mad genius is news; Fischer the misunderstood genius is not.
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