Boris Spassky

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I’m of two minds about Stephen L. Carter’s arguments in his new Bloomberg essay, “How Bobby Fischer (Briefly) Changed America.” Carter recalls the Fischer-Spassky chess matches of 1972, which became a national sensation, as the last time Americans were interested in complex ideas. There are by far more U.S. citizens right now than ever before who are interested in and capable of complicated thinking, though there are probably many more focused on the basic function of tools rather than challenging content they can deliver. The piece’s opening:

“This summer marks the anniversary of an extraordinary moment in U.S. history: the 1972 match in which the American genius Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet wizard Boris Spassky for the chess championship of the world.

The battle probably should have been just one more headline in an eventful three months that saw the Watergate burglary, the expulsion of the Soviet military from Egypt and the humiliating dismissal of vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket. Somehow the story of Fischer and Spassky and their epic match, which ended 40 years ago this month, captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since.

The two best players in the world were playing 24 games in Iceland, and everyone paid attention. Strangers who had never picked up a chess piece discussed the match on subway trains. Newspapers put out special editions announcing the results of the games, and vendors hawked them from the corners, shouting out the name of the winner. Book publishers were signing up chess writers by the dozens.

Chess is a very hard game, and what is most remarkable about that summer is that people wanted to play anyway. They wanted their minds stretched, and were willing to work for that reward. The brief period of Fischer’s ascendancy — he quit chess three years later — was perhaps the last era in our nation’s history when this could be said.”

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Mike Wallace’s excellent profile of Fischer in 1972, just prior to the showdown with Spassky. Lewis Cohen, the 12-year-old prodigy who loses a game of speed chess to Fischer, may be this guy.

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Video about the press conference to promote the 1992 rematch between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which was played for money, not glory. Fischer was far gone at this point, a sad spectacle overflowing with demons.

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The Cold War gave genuine reason to be paranoid, though Bobby Fischer didn’t need any help. During his world-stopping chess series with champion Boris Spassky in 1972, the challenger showed up late, protested camera positions, etc. And his mental problems only increased with age. It’s a shame that two of the great American heroes of the 20th century–Fischer and Charles Lindbergh–ended up so damaged, so disgraced. They each had the world and let it spin from their grasp.

From coverage of the torturous, tremendous event in the July 24, 1972 Sports Illustrated: “Once after a visit to Caracas, Bobby Fischer remarked on how the dictator of Venezuela had chickened out. ‘He won’t go any place unless he has about six cars in front of him and six cars behind,” said the chess star, ‘because he’s afraid of being assassinated.’

‘Well, he nearly was,’ a companion explained. ‘His car was blown up and some people were killed.’

‘Yeah,’ said Fischer, ‘but he wasn’t in it. And ever since he’s been chicken. What kind of dictator is that?’

A similar question piqued watchers of Fischer himself last week—including the champion, Boris Spassky, who must have felt as though, like Alice, he had fallen down a rabbit’s hole. The American challenger for the world chess title had as usual been throwing his weight around dictatorially in Reykjavik, Iceland, site of his match with Spassky. But Fischer had also lost two straight games—the first one by an utterly out-of-character blunder and the second one by forfeit when he refused to leave his hotel room. What kind of chess genius was that?

A doomed one, suggested Icelandic Grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson right after Thursday’s forfeit. Fischer’s whole life is based on the assumption that he is the most compelling figure in chess. He had confidently predicted that this match would make his preeminence official. But his resistance to the playing conditions—he had demanded the removal of all movie cameras covering the match, saying they disturbed him even if he could not see or hear them—might well have cost him any chance at the title. If his intransigence should scuttle this $300,000 showdown, predicted Olafsson, “it would not be forgotten for a long time. And by then I’m afraid Bobby will be destroyed.” It conjured up thoughts of Paul Morphy, the 19th century American chess genius, who quit playing seriously at age 22 on obscure grounds of injured pride.

The comparison with Morphy underestimates Fischer’s redoubtable conception of himself. But hardly anyone in Iceland, the U.S. or the rest of the world seemed to care much if Fischer came to such an end last week. The press and public opinion, which had previously celebrated his eccentricities, were fed up.

The week before, Fischer had arrived in Iceland at the eleventh hour, his holdout of that moment having ended when an English millionaire sweetened the pot by $125,000, but now he seemed lost once more. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had recently sent him a chess set with white-on-white squares, all white pieces and this inscription: ‘For playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are.’ But Fischer seemed to see nothing but black pieces. He feuded with his aides. He had committed the dictator’s cardinal sin—loss of control.

By Sunday Fischer had tickets on an afternoon plane to New York and the championships seemed doomed, but at the last moment a new accommodation brought him to, the chessboard once again.”

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Bobby Fischer as the smiling, chess-playing child.

Before he became an unstable, ranting anti-Semitic hermit, Bobby Fischer was one of the most revered people on the planet. His legendary chess matches with Russian champion Boris Spassky during the height of the Cold War were televised to a rapt audience of millions. Victory meant the world was at Fischer’s feet, but he punted and disappeared from the game for two decades. He emerged for a big-money rematch against Spassky in 1992 which had none of the gravitas of the original contest–it was merely a cash grab by two players past their prime who were trading on nostalgia. In a new article in the New York Review of Books, Garry Kasparov, an excellent writer as well as a former world chess champion, opines on Fischer’s sad tale of being moved from king to pawn by mental illness. An excerpt about Fischer’s uneasy return to the spotlight in the ’90s:

“It was therefore quite a shock to see the real live Bobby Fischer reappear in 1992, followed by the first Fischer chess game in twenty years, followed by twenty-nine more. Lured out of self-imposed isolation by a chance to face his old rival Spassky on the twentieth anniversary of their world championship match—and by a $5 million prize fund—a heavy and bearded Fischer appeared before the world in a resort in Yugoslavia, a nation in the process of being bloodily torn apart.

The circumstances were bizarre. The sudden return, the backdrop of war, a shady banker and arms dealer as a sponsor. But it was Fischer! One could not believe it. The chess displayed by Fischer and Spassky in Svefi Stefan and Belgrade was predictably sloppy, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. But was this really a return, or would he disappear just as quickly as he had appeared? And what to make of the strange things Fischer was doing at the press conferences? America’s great champion spitting on a cable from the US government? Saying he hadn’t played in twenty years because he had been ‘blacklisted…by world Jewry’? Accusing Karpov and me of prearranging all our games? You had to look away, but you could not.

Even in his prime there were concerns about Fischer’s stability, during a lifetime of outbursts and provocations. Then there were the tales from his two decades away from the board, rumors that made their way around the chess world. That he was impoverished, that he had become a religious fanatic, that he was handing out anti-Semitic literature in the streets of Los Angeles. It all seemed too fantastic, too much in line with all the stories of chess driving people mad—or mad people playing chess—that have found such a good home in literature.”

Dick Cavett interviews Fischer in 1971, before the shocking decline:

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