Bobby Fischer – The Career and Complete Games

1/21/2010 – Many books have been written about the American chess genius and world champion Bobby Fischer. But now there is a remarkable new one, by German GM Karsten Müller, whom you will know from his articles and multimedia lectures in ChessBase Magazine. This book contains almost 1000 Fischer games, all of them annotated by GM Müller – a monumental task. Interview with the author.

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Karsten Müller: Bobby Fischer –
The Career and Complete Games of the American World Chess Champion

The years after the Second World War saw international chess dominated by the Soviets Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian and then Spassky held the world crown, treating it as if it were almost an integral part of their country's heritage. Then, in the mid-1950s, a lone genius from Brooklyn emerged. Obsessed with chess, all his waking hours became devoted to finding truth on the 64 squares. It was an unrelenting, sometimes frustrating quest, but he persevered, eventually emerging as perhaps the greatest natural chess talent ever: Bobby Fischer.

Now, for the first time, every single one of his tournament and match games is presented with insightful explanations and analysis. German GM Karsten Müller annotates each game – almost 1,000 of them – supplemented by crosstables of every major tournament and match in which Fischer participated, dozens of archival photographs, along with brief comments and observations putting the play of the great champion into historical perspective.

Karsten Müller: Bobby Fischer – The Games and Career of the American World Chess Champion, Russell Enterprises 2009, 408 pages. You can buy the book from Chess Cafe, New in Chess, or order it from Amazon.

An interview with the author

By Johannes Fischer

Johannes Fischer: Hello Karsten. You have just published a new book about Bobby Fischer. Bobby Fischer: The Career and Complete Games of the American World Chess Champion. The book traces Fischer’s career and contains all known games by Fischer – all of them annotated by you. The book has a fine design and a pleasant layout, it contains a lot of nice, partly unknown, pictures. But still: do we need another book about Fischer – after Agur’s book about Fischer’s style, Hübner’s ChessBase DVDs and Kasparov’s book, not to mention all the other works about Fischer?

GM Karsten Müller: The publisher Hanon W. Russell convinced me that after Fischer’s death a book with all his tournament and match games was due. He provided a lot of photos and won Larry Evans to write the foreword and Andy Soltis to discuss Fischer’s contributions to opening theory.

GM Carsten Müller, endgame expert and ChessBase Magazine commentator

What distinguishes your book from all the others about Fischer?

My book looks at really all known tournament games, which leads to a comprehensive picture of Fischer’s chess. It allows us to follow Fischer’s entire career from Wunderkind to World Champion.

You played through and annotated all games of Fischer. I could imagine that doing the same with some of today’s leading players might be rather boring. How about Fischer?

Well, it was definitely not boring, because there are virtually no short draws or games without content. What made things even more interesting was to compare the analyses of Fischer, Hübner and Kasparow. Their views often differed and I had to take sides.

Fischer was a “Wunderkind”: at 14 he became the US Champion, at 15 the youngest grandmaster ever, a record that lasted 34 years. At 15 he was already one of the world’s best players, but it took him twelve more years to become World Champion. Where do you see the crucial moments in Fischer’s career? And was he really that much better in the beginning of the 70s than in the beginning of and in the mid-60s – and if so, why?

One could briefly sketch Fischer’s chess career as follows: from 1955 to 1962 first the rise from Wunderkind to extended world class. That was followed by the setback at the Candidates tournament in Curacao, where he was one of the top favorites but only finished in the middle of the field. As a result he played much less and mainly in the US. He did not play in the Interzonal in Amsterdam 1964 and he left the Interzonal in Sousse 1967 prematurely even though he was clearly in the lead – one of the most mysterious moments in his entire chess career.

Because of heightened political cold war tension, Fischer was unable to obtain a visa to participate in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial. He played by telex from the Marshall Chess Club in New York.

In this photograph, the tournament referee in New York, J.F. Reinhardt, makes White's second move in the Lehmann-Fischer game. [Photo: Al Lawrence]

He again goes into reclusion and does not play a single tournament game in 1969. In hindsight this phase seems to be crucial. He trains intensively and in 1970 he returns with added strength to the tournament arena to take part in the match USSR against the Rest of the World and to begin the strongest phase of his career. From 1970-1972 he achieved one of the best, if not the best, result that has ever been achieved. He lost only 5 of 102 games, won two candidate matches (against Taimanov and Larsen) 6-0, and before the match in Reykjavik he led World Champion Spassky by 125 Elo points on the world ranking list, making him the clear number one. In this phase he was stronger than before: his chess was more mature, he played the openings more flexibly and his opponents had developed a kind of Fischer-fear. Before the match in Reykjavik even Spassky was not sure whether he was better than Fischer.

Fischer brought many people to chess. What is fascinating about his play and what fascinates you about it?

Clarity and fighting spirit.

What distinguishes his play, what are his strengths, what are his weaknesses?

As far as strength is concerned, his endurance and his will to fight down to the bare king and to subordinate everything to chess. Moreover, he was particularly strong in endgames, in which he had a slight initiative, and when transforming advantages. In matches he was often able to seize the psychological initiative and to impose his will on the opponent. Naming weaknesses is much more difficult. In the beginning sticking stubbornly to certain openings was a weakness, but he managed to overcome that almost completely in the period 1970-1972. His desire to keep things under control made him sometimes shy away from risks. However, due to his enormous fighting spirit this did not lead to many draws. Further weaknesses lie certainly more in the realm of psychology. Such problems led to his departure in Sousse, but between 1970 and 1972 they did not affect his chess very much. Afterwards they arguably became more intensive.

Let’s assume you were coach and had to prepare one of your charges against Fischer: What would you recommend, which opening should he play, what should he aim for, what should he avoid?

Bobby always believed that staying physically fit was very
important to playing chess well. [Photo: Frank Brady]

Obviously this depends partly on the person who had to play against Fischer. With White one might try to attack aggressively in the Najdorf or one might play 1.d4 with the idea of keeping things under control, as Spassky often did in the return match in 1992. With Black, Caro-Kann is a serious option – Fischer tried a lot of things against this opening, but nothing could fully convince. One should definitely avoid positions, in which Fischer has things under control and a slight initiative.

And what do you have to do if you want to play chess like Fischer?

Subordinate everything in life to chess – but whatever its advantages, such an approach definitely also has disadvantages.

How current is Fischer’s way of playing chess nowadays? Which heritage did he leave?

As far as Fischer’s openings are concerned, the Najdorf and the King’s Indian in particular are as popular as ever. As far as his style is concerned, many players gained a lot from studying his games. Even in the Soviet Union Fischer’s masterpiece My 60 Memorable Games was very popular. In general his heritage is so large that I cannot comprehensively deal with it here.

The book contains a lot of nice photos and biographical sketches, but refrains from exploiting or evaluating the many controversial issues which mark Fischer’s career. Still, here’s a question about Fischer’s biography. As a person Fischer was difficult and eccentric, as a chessplayer he liked clarity and control. Do you have to separate Fischer’s chess and his biography or is Fischer’s dedication to chess a reaction to his emotional instability?

I am not the one to ask that question, and that is one reason why I try to avoid such questions in my book.

Your book is more or less neutral – controversial issues in Fischer’s career, such as his charge the Soviets had manipulated the tournament in Curacao are mentioned but not evaluated. Why?

If you start digging in that garden, you will never hit the bottom. At any rate, not within the scope of 400 pages and that’s how long the book was planned to be. I also believe that I am not the right author for such a topic. I therefore tried to focus almost exclusively on chess matters.

At the peak of his career Fischer withdrew from tournament chess and there has been lots of speculations about his reasons for doing so. What do you think?

Of course, I, too, can only speculate. After Fischer had reached the aim of his life, to become World Champion, he presumably fell into a hole and went into complete reclusion. Before the match against Karpov in 1975 he might have been afraid to lose and felt that he had nothing to win because the crucial step had already been taken in 1972. In 1992 he played again because he knew Spassky whereas Karpov in 1975 raised a lot of uncomfortable questions for Fischer. But the whole issue obviously remains a mystery.

Fischer was a self-taught person and had no trainer. He still developed into a universal player. Would he have been even better with a trainer?

I think from 1970 to 1972 he really played extremely well and it is unlikely that he could have been better in this time. However, after winning the title in 1972, things look differently. But presumably he would not have needed a chess trainer in the classical sense, just a good friend to work with, someone Fischer trusted and listened to.

Fischer’s fighting spirit is legendary. Is this a myth or do his games indeed reflect this will to win?

That is no myth and Fischer’s will to win can indeed be seen in his games. He almost never made quick draws but simply played on and continued to create pressure. Tal for example said that he would have agreed to a draw in the adjourned second game of the match against Taimanov. But Fischer just played on. And then the miracle occurred. With 81...Ke4? Taimanov went wrong and lost.

Fischer played many famous games. Which one do you consider to be particularly typical for his style?

Well, that’s difficult to say. For a start, I think his candidates match against Taimanov is quite characteristic. Here one can see a lot of Fischer’s strengths. Obviously, his weaknesses did not come much to the foreground in this match.

Fischer playing world champion Mikhail Tal at Leipzig 1960 [Photo: Frank Brady]

Do you have a favorite Fischer game?

That’s another difficult question. But his endgame with rook and bishop against rook and knight in the fourth game against Taimanov never fails to be instructive and impressive.

Occasionally it is said that Magnus Carlsen plays like Fischer. What do you think?

That’s an interesting thesis, which on first sight seems rather fitting. Magnus has a strong fighting spirit and only starts complications when he can control them. However, I haven’t thought much about the subject. Maybe I should tackle this question sometime...

Of course you knew Fischer and his games before starting to work on the book. How did your approach to Fischer change during writing?

I became even more aware what a feat it was to wrest the highest crown from the powerful Soviet chess empire. As far as chess is concerned my respect for Fischer became even greater. However, on the human side things look different. But as I said, I focused on chess in the book.

Was there anything particularly surprising for you in his games, did you have to correct prejudices or preconceived notions?

Yes, I had thought that Fischer had sacrificed more often and occasionally strived for unclear positions. However, I realized that he valued control quite highly.

Garry Kasparov wrote in his book about his predecessors that Fischer may well be the best player of all time. What do you think?

I agree – as I explain in the book. The main argument here is not his outstanding performance between 1970 and 1972, but the effect he had on the game at large. During the match against Spassky chess made headlines in the news and the mass media of the US and Western Europe. Fischer triggered a chess boom all over the world and the game was simply no longer the same. If you look at the effect of a World Champion in pure chess terms, Kasparov is obviously a hot candidate, who even surpasses Fischer in regard to this – and he still continues to work hard on chess. He is my number two choice.

Whose games will you analyze next?

I analyzed a couple of games by Lasker and Tal for book projects, but obviously only a selection. Fischer seems in fact to be the ideal World Champion for analyzing all games. The other champions simply played too many tournament games for a single book. Fischer’s clear style also lends itself to such a project because you need to give less variations, comments and analyzes.

Good luck for your next project and thank you for the interview!

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