Saturday, January 19, 2008

Remembering Bobby Fischer: 1 P-K4 (and the Cold War)

Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) passed away this week in Iceland (where he had emigrated) from End Stage Renal Disease. He was the same age as me, and in a sense a “role model” when I came of age and got started playing chess around 1964.

Fischer took the World Championship away from Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972. That was the year that Nixon visited Red China, and the year of the Watergate break-in. This would be a difficult time for the economy, with the international Arab oil embargo and shocks, followed by stagflation, as I started my work life, relatively insulated from this as a computer programmer. In retrospect, many people feel that Fischer helped contribute to a psychological environment that Ronald Reagan would use to totally defeat Communism during his term.

Fischer was known for his straightforward, open, sometimes dogmatic style of play, particularly with the opening and early middle game. For the early part of his career, he nearly always opened with the King’s Pawn (1 e4 or 1 P-K4), and played the openings as if they could be resolved to some kind of verdict in absolute truth. He made kingside attacks with minor pieces, especially against Sicilian defenses, look simpler than they were. Young players of high school and college age were influenced by his style. This was the pre-Internet era when chess players collected books on individual openings, international bulletins, annual game compendiums, and flagged magazine and newspaper articles for individual analyses. Fischer’s style seemed to challenge the “Soviet” style of play that in those days preferred positional maneuvering, queen-side openings, and placing pawns ahead of attacking pieces. (Tigran Petrosian was said to be “ultra-positional”; later the Soviet chess establishment would have notorious breaks over the privileged position within the Soviet Communist Party. Karpov would tend to remain team player, whereas Kasparov rebelled (leading to the latter’s battle with Putin today), a conflict that would parallel their matches. (See this review of Kasparov’s book "How Life Imitates Chess": also this. With Black, he particularly liked the Nadjorf Sicilian and the Kings Indian. For the 1972 match with Spassky, however, he sometimes switched to Queen Pawn openings (transposing from the English) as in a famous game where he found an innovation against the Tartakower Queen’s Gambit Declined. In those days, the “European” school of chess was also dogmatic, with beliefs (articulated by Hans Berliner) that something like the Exchange Variation of the Queens Gambit Declined could be a forced win for White. Over the years, such dogmatic thinking became discredited as practice showed that the choice of opening mattered less than the quality of middle game play. Fischer would repeat his performance against Spassky in 1992.

Fischer was physically a vigorous man in “youth,” but became disheveled and disgruntled in middle life, finally renouncing his United States citizenship in 2005 after an ongoing battle over his travel to blacklisted countries. Obviously, his health failed prematurely.

I played in tournaments a lot in certain periods, such as the late 60s, and then again in the early 80s. While in the Army, I played in the Armed Forces Championship at Fort Meade, MD (near the NSA) in 1969. I remember winning a game (and an endgame race) with Black where White played 7 Qg4 against the Winawer French, a controversial variation but the only time I ever got to play it with Black in a tournament. I also believe that every time anyone played the Exchange variation against the French, I won with Black. (Hint: don’t bother to occupy the one open file with rooks; there are no points of penetration.) In December 1969, just before getting out of the Army (from Fort Eustis – Fort Useless) I won, in Hampton, Va., a game with White (a classical King’s Indian – while actually wins these when forcing the exchange of light bishops, and it’s amazing how often Black players allow it) against the reigning Armed Forces champion Robert Powell.

Visitors may want to check out the Paramount film “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993, dir. Steven Zaillian).

The chess playing days, I do miss them. I could hardly be competitive now. It's important to note that chess can be a good way to bring intellectual skills to the inner city. The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC sponsored a metro-area chess tournament in 2005.

By the way, just the afternoon, AOL posted a story by Steve Gutterman, "Russia Says Nuke Strikes Possible," here.

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