Many years ago, while on vacation in Mallorca, I bought a chessboard, an inlaid mahogany slate with tournament-caliber playing pieces. The purchase was impulsive, and a nostalgic salute to my adolescent fervor for the royal game – along with an attempt to motivate myself back to regular play.
While the latter never transpired, recently I came back to chess. After making it through just one minute on a news report on how the 2016 election campaign is already in full swing, I turned off the TV and reached for a magazine to find a retrospective on the late American chess great, Bobby Fischer.
The article brought back memories, and mercifully delivered me from civic frustration.
Arguably history’s greatest chess player – easily one of the most eccentric – Fischer died in exile in 2008 at the age of 64. After reading the piece, I sauntered over to the mantle where the chessboard now sits and recalled how Fischer affected my youth, and in what current context I found his demise.
Fischer’s rise from a fatherless childhood to the pinnacle of chess mastery was Hollywood fodder. Dropping out of high school at age 16 to haunt the Manhattan and Marshal Chess Clubs, he then steadily rose in global chess prowess, and collided with destiny in the summer of 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland.
There, in one of the most dramatic World Chess Championship matches, Fischer dismantled Boris Spassky, the first and only American to topple the dynasty of Russian-born grandmasters.
Overnight, chess left the realm of nerds and became cool. Despite our other emerging interests, my friends and I were sucked into that vortex. Chess kept us off the sandlot, much to our parents’ bewilderment.
We held epic matches, and neighborhood tourneys sprung with each passing day of the two-month Fischer-Spassky marathon. The guys flipped coins for the honor of being Fischer. We used official clocks to time our moves and documented every game in classical and algebraic notation.
When we ran out of permutations of the rivalry in Iceland, we would play by labeling ourselves after historic grandmasters: Morphy, Botvinnik, Capablanca, Smyslov and Vidmar, to name a few.
Following Fischer’s triumph, we continued for the next few summers. Some players moved away and we recruited replacements. Chess was everywhere – print, radio and TV – and Fischer had become a Cold War Caesar who dared to cross the Rubicon and conquer the Soviet bear.
Eventually, with Fischer’s evolving quirkiness, our idol worship waned. We still enjoyed chess and played the occasional lunchtime game at school on portable boards. Yet as our voices grew deeper and our whiskers darker, it was never the same.
Fischer’s checkered life involved, among other things, a renunciation of the U.S., intense anti-Semitism, and paranoia of conspiracies that at best was clinical. He forfeited his title, spurned generous offers to return to competition, and invented a revolutionary form of chess he claimed superior to the original.
In 1992, Fischer resurfaced in Yugoslavia to defeat Spassky in a reprise of their original contest; that move violated the U.S. Balkan embargo. Fischer became an international fugitive until Iceland, the site of his tour de force, granted him asylum and citizenship.
His end was ailing and lonely.
One of the article photos showed Fischer just before he died. I was shocked at his deterioration from the ruggedly handsome Brooklyn boy who once turned the world on its ear with intelligence and style. Yet like Hamlet watching a kingdom collapse around him, we stood witness to the public implosion of one of the 20th century’s great, but complicated intellects.
Even as I returned the last chess piece to the board, I couldn’t help but feel that in these seemingly insane times, somehow, we’re all still searching for Bobby Fischer.
In our civic leaders, Americans are yearning for the type of gift Fischer once had cornered: bold vision that rises above all and changes everything for the better: audacity and follow-through with brilliance, élan, and yes, results.
Instead, we remain disappointed by settling for broken promises, half-truths and tolerating the fog in which pretenders hide – while losing ourselves in the process.
But in the summer of 1972, none of that mattered. My friends and I were schoolboys who were thrilled to add a champion of the mind to our Pantheon.
And Fischer, to echo the poet Wallace Stevens, was only a figure half-seen, or seen for a moment: a phantom so veiled in his own torment that a turn of his shoulder and quickly – too quickly – he was gone.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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