The death of former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer last week in Iceland, brought back a range of emotions and memories of how I began my love of chess. Fischer’s meteoric rise captured my imagination and those of my fellow school chums in when he played for the title 1972. Listening to New York commentators like Shelby Lyman, Jimmy Sherwin and Edmar Mednis on the fledging PBS television network; Dispatches from the NY Times columnist Robert Byrne; Kissinger and Nixon pleading with Fischer to continue the match after going down 0-2 and culminating with his eventual victory over the Soviet champion Boris Spassky. The excitement we felt seeing NY mayor John Lindsay bestowing the keys to the city on Fischer was a joy to behold; even the Russians grudgingly applauded him… And then he was gone.
Fischer’s mysterious disappearance was followed by the inevitable default of his title to the young Anatoly Karpov in 1975 and a myriad of bizarre sightings; An arrest for vagrancy once landed him in a Pasedena jail; He defeated MIT’s Greenblatt computer chess program in 1978; Suddenly surfacing in a parking lot during the final rounds of a U.S. Chess Championship, to the shock of all; Charges of tax evasion and the subsequent State Department sanctions for playing a rematch with Spassky in war-torn Yugoslavia. These tales and many more have been well documented, yet it was his brand of chess, a captivating, attacking, neo-classical, take-no-prisoner approach that gripped and fascinated the entire world and one hopes, how he will best be remembered.
In the years that followed Fischer’s victory, chess in the U.S. blossomed and my interest was no different. My good friend and future chess master Vincent Moore ran a local chess shop in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown. I served as a punching bag for most of the players there, until the drubbings finally sunk in and I began to understand why I was losing. Undaunted, I took it upon myself to study and memorize Fischer’s seminal book, “My 60 Memorable Games”. Clearly one of the best chess books ever written, reading it was almost like Bobby himself was talking to me. On taking on the fearsome Dragon variation of the Sicilian Defense, Bobby wrote, “Pry open the kingside, then sac, sac, sac!” For those of us who have played against it, he spoke volumes with that phase and gave Dragon players reason to cringe.
His records were truly unbelievable: At 14, the youngest Grandmaster ever at the time, youngest U.S. Champion at 15, ripping through the tournaments and Candidate/World Championship qualifying matches virtually undefeated and the list goes on. I was hooked. In 1979 while attending the Corcoran School of Art, I would often play on the chess tables at Dupont Circle and in front of the White House in Lafayette Square Park. So much so that fearing my grades would suffer, my professor instructed me to do a paper on Marcel Duchamp, where learned he was not only an incredible artist, but chess fanatic and captain of the French Olympic Chess team in 1933, drawing U.S. champion Frank Marshall. Duchamp would continue to play in South America and design chess stamps with freinds Max Ernst and Man Ray!
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