Culture and Civilisations

American chess meteors

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American chess meteors

Spassky and Fischer (PA Images).

The names of Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer have appeared prominently in many of my columns for TheArticle. Both are legendary figures in the annals of chess, whom numerous fans would doubtless vote in as number one, in any list of the all time greats. Yet these titans of the game share one curious characteristic: having scaled the heights of chess Olympus, the two American genii paradoxically opted to abandon chess and withdraw themselves entirely from competition against other giants of their day.

Paul Morphy (22nd June 1837 – 10th July 1884), in particular, having challenged anyone in the world to take him on at odds of pawn and move, engaged in no further significant games. In contrast, Bobby Fischer waited for twenty years after conquering the title, before re-entering the fray, for a three million dollar prize purse, but then he selected his old sparring partner, Boris Spassky, as his intended victim, bypassing more dangerous younger contenders, such as the son of Lenin, Anatoly Karpov, the Azeri, Garry Kasparov, our own Nigel Short or the Dutch Grandmaster, Jan Timman. All of these more youthful Matadors of the Mind would surely have put up more fight than did the ageing Spassky and, Heaven forfend, any one of them in 1992 might even have defeated an out-of-practice Fischer.

In my column of June 13 last year, What the thunder said , I quoted some observations from the perceptive Dutch writer and Grandmaster Jan Hein Donner, explaining why the American duo might have isolated themselves from the one activity at which they supremely excelled.

Indeed, Donner’s general attitude to the US was tinged with the belief that American society was profoundly anti-intellectual. A typical Donner comment would be: “The game of chess has never been held in great esteem by the North Americans. Their culture is steeped in deeply anti-intellectual tendencies. They pride themselves in having created the game of poker. It is their national game, springing from a tradition of westward expansion… they distrust chess as a game of Central European immigrants with a homesick longing for clandestine conspiracies in quiet coffee houses. Their deepest conviction is that bluff and escalation will achieve more than scheming and patience (witness their foreign policy).

What about Morphy and Fischer, one might object, two of the greatest chess geniuses of all time? Yet both were meteors, blazing with an all too brief incandescence, before being extinguished. Both were clearly alienated, deracinated even, from mainstream American culture. Neither felt comfortable with what should have been their home.

After winning the US Championship in 1857, Morphy sailed for Europe, where he conducted a triumphant tour of London and Paris, during which he annihilated the luminaries of European chess. While cutting a swathe through the established lions of the game, he also entranced spectators with his virtuoso play at blindfold chess, facing up to eight opponents at one and the same time, without being able to see the boards and chessmen. 

In a sequence of set matches, Johann Jacob Löwenthal, Daniel Harrwitz, and Adolf Anderssen (the regnant champion from Staunton’s tournament of London 1851) suffered dramatic, even humiliating, defeats at Morphy’s hands. The American‘s superiority was astounding. Against Anderssen he lost two games, drew two games, but won 17. Morphy’s sole disappointment was his failure to contest a match against Howard Staunton, who was still the world‘s most celebrated player, if no longer the strongest. Staunton had retired from chess to pursue his Shakespearean studies, and two debacles, in consultation games against the Transatlantic prodigy (Morphy plus partner against Staunton plus partner, the closest chess comes to emulating the game of Bridge), were sufficient to convince the English veteran that further resistance would have been futile. Had the official “World Champion” title then existed, Morphy would certainly have been declared the first incumbent.

Morphy spent the rest of his life in increasing seclusion. His attempt to set up a legal practice failed and the American Civil War damaged the personal fortunes of his family. In later life Morphy sadly developed paranoid delusions and refused even to talk about his former chess triumphs. He died in 1884 after suffering a stroke. As with Bobby Fischer, Morphy‘s vanishing act at the very height of his powers created a myth of superhuman power in the public mind. He had played a mere 75 competitive games, but the belief persisted that he was the greatest natural genius chess had ever seen.

As an illustration, I present Morphy’s most coruscating game against Louis Paulsen from the first American Congress in 1857. Paulsen was a distinguished tournament player in the 1860s and 1870s. He was abstemious in the extreme, drinking only water: no tea, coffee, or hard liquor passed his lips. He never smoked. He invented the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defence and his Paulsen System in the same opening has become deservedly popular in modern times. He died (ironically, given his strict diet) from complications of diabetes in 1891. The game which follows at the end of this column illustrates with crystal clarity the overwhelming impact that Morphy’s play had on the international chess community of his age.

At this time, before the Staunton pattern chess sets had become widely adopted, the more ornate barleycorn pattern of chess set was in general use. It is interesting that the pieces, then, tended to be red and white not black and white, as is now the case. Some feel that these old-style bone pieces are more beautiful than the Staunton design, but they are certainly a lot less functional. The barleycorn pieces were those depicted in Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s chessboard fantasy, Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Morphy has been described as the pride and sorrow of chess. Those words apply equally to the 11th World Champion, Bobby Fischer (9th March 1943 – 17th January 2008). The story of the brash, unschooled teenager from Brooklyn, who toppled the might of the Soviet chess system before his 30th birthday, epitomised the self-reliant, frontier ideals of modern America and provided the inspiration for the Tim Rice/Abba musical “Chess”. 

But the dream evaporated after Fischer stormed Soviet chess domination and took the World Title from Spassky in 1972. Inexplicably he renounced chess totally and from that day, did not play a single competitive game, until he emerged temporarily from hibernation to engage for a second time with his ancient foe, Boris Spassky. 

Fischer, like the Loch Ness Monster, was often sighted, but never seen. He did not even visit a chess club or chess event as a spectator. Having reached the pinnacle of achievement perhaps he had nothing more to prove to himself or to the world. In Fischer’s own mind the victory against Spassky would have assured him of a nimbate wreath of eternal effulgence, whereas in reality vox populi condemned his fading laurels to be seen as withered leaves on his increasingly furrowed brow. Numerology also figures strangely in Fischer’s career. He first won the USA Championship in 1957, a century after Morphy’s similar feat. Fischer died iconically at the age of 64, the number of squares of the chessboard.  

His 1972 match against Spassky, sometimes described as “the match of the century”, was characterised by the American’s detailed demands and his near refusal to play before the match was even underway. Spassky had never previously lost a game to his antagonist and his meticulous pre-match preparation, both mental and physical (Spassky enjoyed playing tennis to keep fit), was well known. Spassky won the first game and was awarded the second by default, when Fischer failed to put in an appearance at the board.

However, once Fischer had condescended to play, encouraged by the silver tongue of Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, and the even more persuasive gold of the British financier, Jim Slater, he employed a vast battery of psychological pressures, protesting about both the playing conditions and the boards. He demanded the exclusive use of his hotel swimming pool and insisted that the chess board be reduced in size by three millimetres. In retaliation the Soviet delegation alleged that Spassky was being distracted by electronic or chemical equipment and demanded a thorough search of the playing hall, including an X-ray of the players’ chairs, which revealed that they contained nothing more sinister than two dead flies. The circus ended with Fischer taking the title by the convincing score of 12½–8½.

Inevitably a clash between representatives of Russia and America became overladen with symbolic and political overtones, which attracted the glare of the world media. Perhaps the western media exposure — to which Spassky, being a Russian, was quite unaccustomed — helped to knock the stuffing out of him. After 1972 chess enthusiasts witnessed an amazing and unexpectedly permanent decline in his morale. He never staged a comeback and his reputation was rapidly eclipsed by that of his younger compatriot, Anatoly Karpov. 

Spassky had previously conformed to the Soviet ideal of a sportsman, but now he found the restrictions of Soviet life tedious and applied for permission to emigrate. This was at a time when the Soviet authorities were tentatively relaxing restrictions on artistic figures, such as the great cellist Rostropovich, who were allowed to settle in the West. Spassky, too, was granted permission to represent Soviet culture abroad and he chose to join his French-born third wife, Marina, in her homeland and settled in Paris. He then represented his adopted country in team events. However, Spassky’s tournament results were hampered by strings of featureless games, agreed drawn without any real struggle.

Strangely, the 1972 match had an even more disastrous impact, in chess terms, on its victor. Fischer’s self-imposed exile angered and exasperated both chess enthusiasts and the general public alike. It seemed just one more capricious exploit by the most demanding and volatile star that chess had ever known.

Yet Fischer’s apparently endless demands acted as a major catalyst in improving the lot of the professional chess player. In 1969 Spassky’s World Championship prize fund had been $1,600. In 1972 the prize fund had been boosted to an unprecedented $250,000. In 1987, the prize fund for the Seville Kasparov-Karpov match was no less than £1.2 million. This was a development that came from Fischer’s insistence that he should be remunerated on the same scale as other international celebrity sportsmen. As noted above, when those two ageing Matadors, Bobby and Boris, briefly re-enacted their glory days in 1992, the prize fund was a colossal $3 million.

Fischer demonstrated, almost overnight, that chess was not just a cerebral activity for intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain, which had appeared to be the case from 1948 to 1969. He endowed the game with the mass appeal in the West that it had always enjoyed in the Soviet Union. Moreover, he showed that chess players could make headline news and that the game could reward individual effort. There was a huge upsurge in the popularity of chess, which still reverberated some five decades later, now refuelled and reinvigorated by the explosion of online chess and The Queen’s Gambit TV series, reimagining Bobby Fischer as the female champion Beth Harmon.

This week’s games are the aforementioned Morphy victory against Paulsen, a spectacular demolition of Anderssen, and a masterpiece by Bobby Fischer. To continue my military analogies with land battles, first introduced last week, I would compare this trio with the following battles:

1) Louis Paulsen vs Paul Morphy 1857 – Battle of Vienna (1683, Die Schlacht am Kahlenberg) where the forces of the Polish King Jan Sobieski III landed a sudden and crushing lightning stroke against the besieging hordes of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha; 

2) Paul Morphy vs Adolf Anderssen 1857 – Siege of Yorktown  (1781), where the continuous persistent pressure of General George Washington’s artillery persuaded the British General Charles Cornwallis to surrender, in what emerged as the final conflict of the American War of Independence; and 

3) finally Robert Byrne vs Robert James Fischer} 1963 – the Napoleonic victory at Jena (Battle of Jena-Auerstadt, 1806) where Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry dealt the death blow to the Prussian army.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 98%
54 ratings - view all

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