Game of Life: Kasparov on Fischer - in full

7/20/2004 – The news of Fischer's arrest in Japan came as a shock to Garry Kasparov, who was in a holiday camp working intensely on the games of his greatest American predecessor. In today's issue of The Wall Street Journal Kasparov assesses Fischer's chess career – for a public that was being exposed to his current situation. We now bring you Kasparov's full article.

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In the prestigious Wall Street Journal Kasparov has paused to assess Fischer's chess career – for a public that is exposed only to his current unfortunate situation. The article is a must-read for Fischer fans and foes – a succinctly argued summary of the fate of the great chess hero. It also bodes well for the fourth of his six-volume series on the game's great players, a volume that, as Kasparov tells us, will contain 55 Fischer games discussed on 250 pages.

Our thanks to The Wall Street Journal for giving us permission to reprint this article in full.

Fischer's Price

By Garry Kasparov - The Wall Street Journal
July 19, 2004; Page A10

The stunning news of Bobby Fischer's detention in Japan came at a moment in which the American former world chess champion was already very much on my mind. I am currently finishing the fourth of my six-volume series on the game's great players and it is precisely this volume of which Robert James Fischer, forever known as Bobby, is the star.

This project has involved going over hundreds of Fischer's chess games in minute detail. It also means trying to understand the man behind the moves and the era in which he made them.

Despite his short stay at the top there is little to debate about the chess of Bobby Fischer. He changed the game in a way that hadn't been seen since the late 19th century. The gap between Mr. Fischer and his contemporaries was the largest ever. He singlehandedly revitalized a game that had been stagnating under the control of the Communists of the Soviet sports hierarchy.

When Bobby Fischer rocketed to the top of the chess world in the early 1970s he was a fine wine in a flawed vessel. His contributions to the game, both at the board and from a commercial perspective, were nothing short of a revolution in the chess world. At the same time, his brittle and abusive character showed cracks that deepened with his every step toward the highest title.

Today, it is hard to imagine the sensation of Mr. Fischer's success when he wrested the world championship away from Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972. In the middle of the Cold War, the Brooklyn-raised iconoclast took the crown from the well-oiled Soviet machine that had dominated the chess world for decades. And this after he barely showed up for the match at all, and then lost the first game and forfeited the second!

Partially due to Mr. Fischer's outrageous behavior leading up to and during the "match of the century," the international media coverage was incredible. The games were shown live around the world. I was nine years old and already a strong club player when the Fischer-Spassky match took place, and I followed the games avidly. Fischer, who had crushed two other Soviet grandmasters on his march to the title match, nonetheless had many fans in the Soviet Union. They respected his chess, of course, but many quietly enjoyed his individuality and independence.

After the match ended in a convincing victory for the American, the world was at his feet. Chess was on the cusp of becoming a commercially successful sport for the first time. Mr. Fischer's play, nationality and natural charisma created a unique opportunity. He was a national hero whose popularity rivaled that of Muhammad Ali. (Would the secretary of state have called Ali before a fight the way Henry Kissinger called Mr. Fischer?) Sales of chess sets and books boomed, and tournament prize funds soared. With Bobby Fischer in the lead, chess was headed for the popularity of golf and tennis.

With glory, however, comes responsibility and tremendous pressure. Mr. Fischer couldn't bring himself to play again. He spent three years away from the board before the precious title he had worked his entire life for was forfeited without the push of a pawn in 1975.

Astronomical amounts of money were offered to lure him back. He could have played a match against the new champion, Anatoly Karpov, for an unheard of $5 million. Opportunities abounded, but Mr. Fischer's was a purely destructive force. He demolished the Soviet chess machine but could build nothing in its place. He was the ideal challenger -- but a disastrous champion.

The conventional wisdom says that Bobby Fischer was a guileless and petulant child who just wanted his own way. I believe he was conscious of all his actions and the psychological effect his behavior had on his opponents. The gentlemanly Mr. Spassky was ill-prepared to deal with the belligerent American in Reykjavik. In 1975, Mr. Fischer's challenger was the young Mr. Karpov, whom I would later meet in five consecutive world championship matches.

Unable to even contemplate defeat, Mr. Fischer left chess. Bereft of the only thing he had ever wanted to do in his life, he turned his destructive energies inward, espousing a virulent anti-Semitism -- despite his own Jewish heritage.

The Fischer drama had a final act in 1992, when, almost 50 years old, he was brought out of seclusion by the lure of millions to play a rematch against Mr. Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. The chess was predictably rusty, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. His mental stability, however, had atrophied even more during the 20 years of solitude. Later, Mr. Fischer's profane remarks would span from accusations of Jewish conspiracies to a welcoming of the events of 9/11.

Despite the ugliness of his decline, Bobby Fischer deserves to be remembered for the great things he did for chess and for his immortal games. I would prefer to focus on not letting his personal tragedy become a tragedy for chess.

An entire generation of top American players learned the game as kids thanks to Mr. Fischer. Today's flourishing scholastic chess movement could be harmed as his woes and beliefs make headlines around the world. People may believe that this is what happens when a genius plays chess -- instead of what happens when a fragile mind leaves his life's work behind.

Mr. Kasparov, the world's top-ranked chess player, is a contributing editor at the Journal.


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