Archive for the ‘Bobby Fischer’ Category

Brain Freeze at the Chessboard

February 20, 2009

Only two Americans have ever made it to the very pinnacle of championship chess, and both of them were crazy.

[So starts my NPR piece, which continues at]

My Moment with Bobby Fischer

January 22, 2008

In the late 1960s, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I was playing in the novice section of one of my first weekend chess tournaments at the now-defunct Hotel McAlpin near Penn Station in Manhattan. After one of the rounds, my opponent and I retired to the skittles room for a post-mortem discussion of our game. Other neophytes were doing the same thing, when Bobby Fischer, who was in his mid twenties then, entered the room, pulled up a chair, and joined our spirited discussion and suggested alternative moves. He seemed to enjoy analyzing our game, even though we were complete beginners. His explanations were clear and not at all condescending.

When I thought about this years later, I was impressed by how he had treated us as chess brethren.


64 Years for 64 Squares

January 18, 2008

Perhaps there is cosmic consolation that Bobby Fischer, a man who once said “chess is life” and devoted much of his to unraveling the mysteries of 64 squares, died at the age of 64.

Bobby Fischer is Dead

January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer, the great pride of American chess and a poster child for paranoia, died yesterday of kidney failure in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was 64.

Fischer was a Cold War hero, and an international celebrity, when he became the world chess champion in 1972 by beating Boris Spassky and ending the Soviet domination of chess. He was the only American player in my lifetime to be a household name. I was in high school in 1972, and I watched his match with Spassky on public television along with millions of others. I remember two girls I knew who were glued to the televised coverage day after day, even though they didn’t know how a bishop or knight moved. They were fascinated by two grown men huddled over little figurines for hours in a grand cerebral battle.

Fischer’s moody behavior added high drama. He complained about the playing conditions—the presence of TV cameras, the height of his chair, noise from the audience—and for awhile it wasn’t clear that he was going to play at all. Henry Kissinger had to get involved and urge him to show up at the chessboard and fight on behalf of his country.

Fischer was once asked in a television interview what his interests were besides chess. “What else is there?” he innocently replied. And yet he dropped out of chess and the public eye soon after beating Spassky. He lost the world title in 1975 when he refused to defend it in a match. He joined a fundamentalist religious sect in California and had various run-ins with the law. Fischer, whose mother was Jewish, believed there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to destroy him. He reportedly had the fillings in his teeth removed because he feared that they were antennas receiving radio messages beamed by his enemies. The chess world waited for him to return, or at least to publish his favorite games, but all they got was a candycane-colored booklet called I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse, an incoherent diatribe about his brief incarceration after being mistakenly arrested for a bank robber.

In 1992, Fischer was back in the spotlight, playing a $3-million rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, in violation of the State Department’s ban on American’s conducting commerce there. The games showed little of his earlier brilliance. Fat and slovenly, Fischer himself was also unrecognizable. The Cold War hero now spat on a letter from the State Department that protested his play and he uttered a bunch of obscenities. Again he vanished, only to emerge occasionally as a call-in guest on talk radio venting about Jews. He praised 9/11 because of the number of Jews who were killed in the World Trade Center.

In July 2004, Fischer was arrested by Japanese immigration agents in Tokyo’s Narita airport on the grounds of being illegally in the country with a revoked U.S. passport. Washington pressed for his extradition but Fischer was one move ahead of the American authorities and persuaded the Icelandic parliament, which fondly remembered the attention he brought to Reykjavik in 1972, to grant him Icelandic citizenship and a passport. After nine months in a Japanese detention center, Fischer boarded a plane to Reykjavik with his new fiancée, the head of the Japanese Chess Association, and went into hiding yet again.

Two World Chess Champions Face Confinement

November 26, 2007

Two former world chess champions were in the news this week, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the royal game.

Garry Kasparov was arrested on Saturday in Moscow for leading an anti-Putin rally. He was sentenced to five days in prison and is now confined to “Petrovka 38,” a criminal facility in Moscow. He has not been allowed visitors since his imprisonment and has been prohibited from speaking on the phone. The rally was peaceful.

His arrest—only a week before parliamentary elections—was planned in advance by the authorities. “Of course we are very worried,” Kasparov’s wife, Dasha, told the press, “especially after hearing the police at the court say they had been ordered in advance to arrest Garry specifically. Who knows what they have planned for him? And why can’t we visit him? We are asking everyone to get this story out and to let Putin know that the world is watching and that he will be responsible if any further harm comes to Garry.” The Web site of Other Russia, the pro-democracy movement that Kasparov leads, will have updates on his situation as news becomes available.

The word is out that Bobby Fischer, the pride and embarrassment of American chess, has been hospitalized in Iceland for kidney and perhaps mental problems. The details in the press and blogosphere are frustratingly scarce. Mig Greengard’s Daily Dirt gives the best summary of what’s known about Fischer’s condition.

Isn’t It Lovely

September 27, 2007

Well, I have not heard back from the casting agent who dropped by the Marshall in search of two male chess players, one young and one old, for a TV commercial for medical insurance. (“At the chessboard, you must protect yourself against unforeseen dangers like a sudden attack on your king. In life, too, you must guard against the unexpected. Fischer Health Insurance can help you do just that.”) Drats, maybe I should have gone for the part of the older woodpusher.

My favorite TV ad that involves chess is a milk commercial in which the histrionic grandmaster Victor Korchnoi (a Soviet defector who played for the world championship) faced a placid opponent named Lovely.

Chess Lies

August 23, 2007

Yesterday I watched a loud dispute between two woodpushers in Washington Square Park. Neither in fact was a particularly good player, but each was obnoxiously insisting that he had mastered the deepest secrets of the game. (Which was a ridiculous claim, and would have been unbelievable even if the players had been much more accomplished; Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess talent ever, once told me that there are still things about the game that even he does not understand.)

Why is it that chess players are so prone to exaggerate their prowess at the 64 squares? In my youth, when I frequented the nineteen stone chess tables in Washington Square Park (which would figure in movies like “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), I often faced patzers who fabricated stories about how they’d once trounced the great Bobby Fischer at blitz. They’d even point to the exact table on which the purported victory took place, and some would show me the moves of these alleged miniatures. If Fischer had lost that many games back then, he would have given up chess long before he famously won the world championship from the Russian standout Borris Spassky.

I’ve noticed that when chess amateurs describe their ability, they are prone to add a couple of hundred points to their peak rating. And when they tell you the score of a lengthy blitz match against a stronger player, the score tends to shift in their favor with each telling.

Are chess nuts more likely to bend the truth than people who don’t know how a knight moves? Or is mild résumé inflation part of the human condition?

Chess and the Spiritual World

August 10, 2007

Bobby Fischer once said, “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners. They lose every single game against a man.”

The anthropologist Margaret Mead disagreed: “Women could be just as good at chess, but why would they want to be?”

Irina Krush, the newly crowned 2007 U.S. Women’s Champion, has a good answer: “I believe chess can bring me closer to the spiritual part of this world in a way that simple material stuff can’t.”

Let Me Dream: King’s Gambit the Movie

July 26, 2007

My over-active imagination has been fueled by a caller from Hollywood who inquired about film rights to my book.  And so I’ve come up with a fantasy cast for King’s Gambit the movie:

The Cast (in order of appearance)

Johnny Depp as Paul Morphy

Rosie O’Donnell as Morphy’s mother

James Gandolfini as my father (because Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Gleason, John Belushi, and John Candy are unfortunately unavailable)

George Clooney as me

Angela Landsbury as Mrs. Perrutz (my kindly therapist when I was three)

Jake Gyllenhaal as Pascal Charbonneau

Natalie Portman as Irina Krush

David Blaine as David Blaine

Scarlett Johanssen as Jennifer Shahade

Reese Witherspoon as Susan Polgar

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Garry Kasparov

Jim Carey as Nigel Short

Ben Kingsley as Bruce Pandolfini

Anthony Hopkins as Claude Bloodggod

Mel Gibson (behaving like he did when he encountered the trooper) as Bobby Fischer

Windows Expert Needed in Bulgaria

May 19, 2007

Mig Greengard’s Daily Dirt blog at, which has the superb tag-line “Because losing sucks,” is a must read for chess professionals and their fans.  On Wednesday, May 16, a curious posting stream appeared called “Help Wanted! Elista or Bust”—a general plea for assistance in replacing grandmaster Gata Kamsky’s malfunctioning laptop in Bulgaria—and then curiously disappeared.  Kamsky, a Siberian turned New Yorker who graduated from law school, is America’s best hope since Bobby Fischer for winning the world chess championship.  To play for the world title in September in Mexico City, he must first do well in a qualifying tournament that starts in a week in Elista “help-me-Map-Quest” Kalmykia.  

Kamksy is now warming up in the M-Tel Masters tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria, and can’t use his computer, which houses his all-important chess-opening preparation and a database of his past games as well as his opponents’.  Hence the Daily Dirt plea, which suggested that Kamsky faced the same dilemma as a working mom: he could not shop for a computer in Bulgaria because he had to play chess during the hours when the stores were normally open. 

The fact that the No. 1 ranked U.S. player and his supporters have to scramble for a computer on the eve of his representing our country in a world-championship-qualifying match says something very pathetic about the state of American chess.  Can you imagine Tiger Woods or his manager having to post an ad on Craigslist because the champ misplaced his clubs?  Or Lance Armstrong, because he couldn’t find his bicycle? 

Doesn’t Kamsky have a back-up of his preparation on hand? 

In 2004, I accompanied Pascal Charbonneau to the world championship in Tripoli, and the Canadian Champion installed a copy of his opening preparation on my PC—and he almost needed it after he plugged his laptop into an outlet in the hotel room and the outlet kind of exploded and the electricity in the entire wall blew out!  (I could have provided Pascal with more support in Libya if I hadn’t been taken into custody and harassed on suspicion of being CIA, but that’s a long harrowing story, which will have to wait until the publication of King’s Gambit.)

Why can’t Kamsky just ask the  M-Tel organizers to help him get a new laptop? A world-class competitor like Kamsky customarily employs a “second”—a strong player to help him come up with opening-move novelties and lend moral support.  Can’t Kamsky’s sous-chef take an hour out from cooking up novelties in the Queen’s Indian Defense and go shopping in Sofia for a computer?  Or does Kamsky not have a second? 

And why doesn’t the United States Chess Federation, which has 80,000 dues-paying woodpushers like myself, just step in and buy him a new laptop or fix him up with someone who can reinstall Windows?  I can’t think of a better use for our dues than to support our very best player. 

After a few posters on ChessNinja ridiculed Kamsky because of the Help Wanted request (someone named Eoa slighted Bulgarian, perhaps?wrote, “Lets see a lawyer that can easily earn over a hundred thousand a year easily in the USA needs help from chess peasants laughable. If He is going to play pro let him act pro.”), Kamsky himself wrote to explain that the matter would be dealt with privately and that “Everything is fine:)”.  The Help Wanted thread subsequently came down. 

The latest Daily Dirt blog entry indicates that Kamsky now has a new laptop and new software because good Samaritans intervened and shipped them to him.

Mig’s site does a dynamite job of tracking Kamsky’s progress in Bulgaria (he’s now tied for second place).  News about the M-Tel tournament and his progress can also be found at ChessBase News and Chess Life Online.