More on Fischer

by admin on January 19, 2008

What can I say about Bobby Fischer that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Well, I can start by correcting a mistake that is made in the wire service articles on his death and even on the USCF website: Bobby Fischer was not the first American world chess champion. He’s the first (official) American-born world champion. The first American world champion was actually the first world champion, period: Wilhelm Steinitz, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1888 and was world champion from 1886 to 1894. You don’t have to be born in America to be American. Just ask Gata Kamsky!

Anyway… On to the main topic. Fischer’s scorched-earth march to the world championship exactly coincided with the period when I was starting to play “serious” tournament chess. In fact, I played my very first rated game on the same day that the Fischer-Spassky match began! I didn’t even realize that fact until I looked back at my 1972 diary this morning.

So in some ways I am a product of the “Fischer boom” that hit American chess in 1971-2. I’ve never considered myself a “boomer,” though, because I would have started playing in tournaments, Fischer or no Fischer. The two things that really caused me to catch the chess bug were, first, the fact that my father liked the game and played with me often, and second, that I had a close circle of friends in the school chess club. It was through them that I first found out about organized chess tournaments.

I wonder whether the people who kept on playing chess after the Fischer boom was over (like me) are exactly the ones who would have gotten interested even if there had been no Fischer. If my theory is true, then Fischer did precisely nothing, in the long run, to advance American chess.

Having said that, though, I have to say also that tournament chess during the Fischer boom was like no time before or since. The first tournament I played in had four unrated prizes, twice as many as any other rating category. (I won the #4 unrated prize, which was, of course … the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.) It wasn’t unusual at that time for a third or a half of the players in a tournament to be unrated. Nowadays, that only happens in scholastic tournaments.

Even if Bobby Fischer had nothing to do with my starting to play tournament chess, there is no question that I followed the Fischer-Spassky match avidly. I remember spending hours with my father, going over the first game after it was adjourned, and thinking that we had found a way for Fischer to pull out a draw. As the match wore on I paid less and less attention to the individual games, but I still noted in my diary on several occasions what the current score of the match was. And here was my diary entry for the day Fischer won the match:

If you can’t read it, here’s what it says:

Bobby Fischer Is The World’s Best Chess Player!! After seven straight draws, he gained his seventh win in the twenty-first game to make the match score  12½-8½. So he won both “halves,” 6½-3½ and 6-5. Obviously, Spassky was playing a lot better as the match wore on. This morning Spassky telephoned his resignation after a night spent in analysis. This “red-letter” event obscured America’s worst day at the Olympics. Interestingly, … [after this I went on to write about the day’s results in the Olympics, which were going on at the same time].

What a strange, tainted summer that was. Four days later, nine Israeli athletes would be murdered at the Olympics. In U.S. politics, George McGovern, an anti-war candidate, was running for president… but later, Richard Nixon would crush him, thanks in part to the “dirty tricks” that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency two years later. And we all know what happened to Bobby Fischer after 1972.

But on September 1, 1972, the world was still innocent and all things still seemed to be possible. It seemed as if Bobby Fischer would be champion for years, and he would be the most active world champion ever. (He said so himself, in a jab at the Russians, like Botvinnik, who won the world championship and seldom played in tournaments again.) He would take his place in the pantheon of American heroes, and no one would ever be able to imagine a time when chess was just a game for nerds and weirdos.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dribbling January 20, 2008 at 1:30 am

One thing that is not often said is that Fischer was Fischer was Fischer. By that I mean that you cannot very well separate what he was as a person from what he was as a chess player. His behavior was, in my opinion, completely inexplicable, probably also unto himself. I believe that it is a cop out to say “I love his chess but I hate his political ranting”. Ecce Homo, take him or leave him. I’ll definitely take him, because while he may have meant to harm others – Jews in particular -he definitely did not succeed. However, if morality is seen as a matter of intention rather than result, then Bobby probably was a bad guy who unwillingly left us the monumental legacy of his games.

Dana is probably right in that the great majority of those that took up chess in 1972 abandoned not very long after. Bobby is credited with having done much to improve playing conditions for players, which is probably true to some extent.

As for chess being a game for nerds, if you play chess you’re a nerd, if you play basketball you’re a jock, if you’re an intellectual you live in an ivory tower detached from reality, if you’re pragmatic you’re unethical, if you’re ethical you’re a naive idealist and if you blow your nose you’re a terrorist engaging in germ warfare. The only solution to avoid this sort of thing is to be unborn again.

Cool diary! One can actually read the words! 🙂

How’s the tournament going, Andy?


Carina January 20, 2008 at 2:13 am

How can you judge people for anything but their actions? Words are wind. People who believe nice words indicate a nice character and that bad words indicate a bad person are really fooled. Fischer’s radio interviews doesn’t mean that much to me. He was mostly ranting at himself. It’s written on his webpage that Fischer doesn’t kill anybody, which is is an obvious but important point. He didn’t lack advice on what not to do/be, but it seems that he couldn’t figure out what to do – beyond the obvious of being a “chess player”. In Denmark, noone at work or school care about that he’s died, because noone even know who he is. 🙁


admin January 20, 2008 at 9:43 am


Thanks! When I sat down to write this post, I decided to look back at my 1972 diary to see if it had anything interesting about Fischer that I could mention. Then I got to the September 1 entry, and I said, “OMG! I’ve got to post this!”

If I had been just a few years older, I never would have written the diary entry this way because I wouldn’t have had the wide-eyed youthful enthusiasm. If I had been a few years younger, I would not have even been aware of the Fischer-Spassky match. So basically this entry could only have been written during a short window of time, maybe between the ages of 12 and 16. (I was 13, actually.) So for me, this entry really brings back the memory of that time.

By the way, I’ve always had good handwriting, but it’s gone downhill a little bit since 1972. 😎 Also, the right side of the image got cut off a little bit by the sidebar, but if you want to see the part that got cut off, you can just click on the image.


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