Rene Chun's description of the decline into paranoia (whether clinical or not) of Bobby Fischer ("Bobby Fischer's Pathetic Endgame," December Atlantic) offers a deeply saddening coda to Marjorie Garber's analysis of "genius" in the same issue. Unfortunately, Chun's discussion of Fischer's chess career contains several inaccuracies.
The "Game of the Century," played by Fischer against Donald Byrne in 1956, did indeed garner great admiration. However, the British master David Levy observed that the game's fame was caused by the youth of its winner, and that "had it been played in the Barnet league between two sixty-year-old men it is doubtful whether it would have been considered worthy of publication." The Brilliancy Prize that the game won was only for the best game of the tournament and not an annual award, and the exclamation mark is a standard annotation of a good move, not (as Chun implies) an extremely rare addendum to a commentary.
Chun goes on to criticize modern chess for the incredible level of preparation put in by top players that makes "the first twenty moves unfold like a stale sitcom plot." But he fails to note that Fischer himself, more than any other person, was responsible for this development. Fischer's chess monomania led to his victory over the Hungarian grandmaster Istvan Bilek in 1962, when Bilek used up his allotted two and a half hours of thinking time and thereby forfeited, having made only twenty-seven of the required forty moves. Fischer used exactly two minutes for the whole game, simply because he had prepared it all at home. Fischer's ascendance to the throne demonstrated to the chess world that a contender had to be a full-time competitor.
Chun's description of the Reykjavik match against Boris Spassky is intriguing. He correctly notes Fischer's superlative comeback from his poor start, but makes the rather odd claim that Fischer's play grew stronger throughout the match while Spassky "began ... to crack." This corresponds neither to the factual record (Spassky lost only one of the final eight games) nor to the subjective consensus on the match, which is that Spassky, but not Fischer, played his best chess during these games.
Bobby Fischer is clearly not an admirable human being, and many chess players find that this taints the beauty of his games. Nevertheless, they deserve to be accurately described.
Your table of contents refers to Bobby Fischer as "the greatest chess player ever." This idea will get you laughed at by pretty much every serious chess player in the world. Even at his absolute peak Fischer was not nearly as great as Garry Kasparov, and probably not as good as Anatoli Karpov either.
Joshua B. Lilly
Bobby Fischer's former Hungarian girlfriend, Zita Rajcsanyi, may well have written a book about her relationship with the former chess champion, as reported by Rene Chun in the December Atlantic. If so, that would make two such books, because an earlier girlfriend, the German Petra Dautov, also wrote and published a memoir of her time with Fischer. I wonder if Chun mistakenly attributed Dautov's work to Rajcsanyi?
Rene Chun replies:
Brilliancy Prize was awarded for the best game of the
tournament and is not, as Matt Guthrie notes, an annual
prize. My mistake. I also regret making an error concerning
the use of exclamation points in chess analysis. The
exclamation point is standard annotation for a good move.
Although Bobby Fischer obviously put an emphasis on
studying opening theory, he was by no means the pioneer in
that field. The Soviets made it a science long before
Fischer came on the scene. Fischer just put in more hours.
As for Boris Spassky's succumbing to the pressure of the
Reykjavik match, this much is known: After the eighth game
Spassky "sensed" that Bobby was hypnotizing him. After the
fourteenth game Spassky called a meeting with his entourage
of advisers and announced, "An attempt is being made to
control my mind!" After the fifteenth game Spassky accused
Fischer of using electronic devices and chemical substances
to make him "lose [his] fighting spirit." Spassky's camp
then insisted that the playing hall be searched for hidden
electronic devices. "Spassky's snapped!" The New York Times
wrote. "Now they're both crazy!"
By the standard
of longevity alone, an argument could be made for Garry
Kasparov's being the greatest chess player ever. But
without Bobby Fischer there would be no million-dollar
purses or televised matches. And victory in the 1972 world-
championship match alone earns Fischer the title
"greatest." This is not purely an American bias. When the
international magazine Chess Informant asked its readers to
pick the best chess player of the twentieth century, Robert
James Fischer came out on top. Even Kasparov has called him
"the greatest world champion."
Petra Dautov was
indeed the woman who published a memoir chronicling her
relationship with Bobby Fischer. I stand corrected.
By the standard of longevity alone, an argument could be made for Garry Kasparov's being the greatest chess player ever. But without Bobby Fischer there would be no million-dollar purses or televised matches. And victory in the 1972 world- championship match alone earns Fischer the title "greatest." This is not purely an American bias. When the international magazine Chess Informant asked its readers to pick the best chess player of the twentieth century, Robert James Fischer came out on top. Even Kasparov has called him "the greatest world champion."
Petra Dautov was indeed the woman who published a memoir chronicling her relationship with Bobby Fischer. I stand corrected.