Culture and Civilisations

Is Magnus Carlsen following Bobby Fischer’s fatal example?

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Is Magnus Carlsen following Bobby Fischer’s fatal example?

The announcement of a new book by the Dutch Grandmaster and world title aspirant, Jan Timman, is always a cause for celebration. One of the sharpest and most literate of chess playing and writing brains, Timman s new book  The Unstoppable American reminds me that the fiftieth anniversary of Bobby Fischer becoming World Champion falls due this coming September 3, with the most palpable hit in his  campai gn having been fired on July 23, 1972, exactly half a century ago today. This perfect game, following just one opening inexactitude by Spassky, is  a victory so sublime  it caused seasoned Grandmasters such as Miguel Najdorf and Harry Golombek to compare it to a symphony by Mozart. 

While awaiting delivery of Timman’s new magnum opus for a detailed review, I shall content myself this week with drawing together various strands and thoughts about Bobby Fischer, which have been scattered in previous columns for TheArticle . I shall also take this opportunity to comment on the sensational news that Magnus Carlsen (above) this week announced that he will not defend his world title against the renewed challenge from the winner of the FIDÉ qualifying tournament, Ian Nepomniachtchi. Magnus thus joins that brief list of champions, official and unofficial, who failed to face up to subsequent challengers.    

The 19th century American meteor, Paul Morphy, has been described as the pride and sorrow of chess. Having demolished the world‘s best, Morphy simply renounced the game at which he excelled and ignored the rise of his natural challenger — the one year older Wilhelm Steinitz.  

Passing swiftly over the case of Alexander Alekhine, who missed a challenge by dying in 1946, while in possession of the title, the meteor description applies equally to the 11th World Champion, Bobby Fischer (9 March 1943 – 17 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 Championship from Spassky in 1972. Inexplicably, the hitherto unstoppable American grandmaster renounced chess totally. From that day, he did not play a single competitive game until, 20 years later, Fischer emerged temporarily from hibernation to engage for a second time with his ancient foe, Boris Spassky.

Fischer, like the Abominable Snowman, 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, exactly a century after Morphy’s similar feat. Fischer died 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-tongued oratory 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, this clash between representatives of the Soviet Union and America became overladen with symbolic and political overtones, which attracted the intrusive gaze of the world.  Perhaps the western media exposure — to which Spassky, being a Russian, was quite unaccustomed — helped to knock the stuffing out of him. After 1972, apart from a striking triumph in the super-strong 1973 USSR championship, chess enthusiasts witnessed an amazing and unexpectedly permanent decline in Spassky’s 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. Only one exceptional year remained for the former champion. In 1992, as if in anticipation at meeting the exiled Fischer King once again, he overcame his previous loss of hunger with results that soared,  and he reached up towards the world’s elite for one last time.

Strangely, the 1972 match had exerted 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, volatile yet brilliant star that chess had ever known.

On the plus side, Fischer’s apparently endless stream of 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 bespectacled intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain, which had (however unjustly) 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.  

In my experience, chess has moved front and centre in public perception on a limited number of notable occasions. The first was that legendary match in 1972, between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, widely seen as an archetypal battle between American capitalism and Soviet communism.

Fischer reminded me of some western frontier hero, like Clint Eastwood in “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, who, to the accompaniment of a soundtrack by the chess-loving composer Ennio Morricone, regularly outwits and outguns the vast forces arrayed against him. In Eastwood’s case: ruthless assassins, unscrupulous bandits, unyielding, waterless desert wastes and both the Union and Confederate armies. In Fischer’s apotheosis, such grandmasters as Bent Larsen, Mark Taimanov and Tigran Petrosian, plus the serried ranks of analysts, seconds and sheer physical resources, which the USSR Chess Federation could bring to bear against the lone American star.

As a challenger, Fischer was supreme. However, as champion, his achievements were a void. Without doubt, his record as champion was, and will remain, the most dismal in the entire Pantheon of the chess Olympus. From 1972, when he defeated Boris Spassky to seize the title, until 1975, when Fischer forfeited the championship, without a shot being fired, to his Soviet rival Anatoly Karpov, Fischer did not play one single game of competitive chess. This represented a curious echo of Paul Morphy’s retirement from chess in 1859. Having crushed the world’s best, the New Orleans genius challenged the entire planet to take him on at odds of pawn and move, received no takers and promptly abandoned chess.

How can Fischer’s behaviour be explained? Having scaled the chess Everest, was Fischer disturbed by the fact that even risking one more move might somehow endanger the mythic nimbus of invincibility that had swirled up around him? Or was there a deeper, darker reason, which caused Fischer to disappoint and shatter the dreams of his millions of fans? Was it this that caused him to shun the glory of future chess conquests and to spurn the millions of dollars on offer, in terms of the commercial endorsements, which inevitably attended the newly won status of World Champion in the planet’s most illustrious thinking sport?

The story of Bobby Fischer and his decline from resplendent champion to twice-jailed fugitive, via a spell of utter penury, reminds me also of a modern Greek tragedy.  

I never actually played against Bobby Fischer, who would undoubtedly have crushed me, but I did encounter, and defeat, a number of players who in their turn had beaten Fischer in individual games. These included Edmar Medina, Jan Hein Donner, Svetozar Gligoric, Efim Geller,  Victor Ciocaltea  and Vladimir Kovacevic, the last player to inflict defeat on Fischer before his victorious run in the 1971-1972 World Championship Series. I also attended one event, the 1968 Olympiad at Lugano, Switzerland, which Fischer was meant to grace with his presence, but which turned out to be symptomatic of what I shall term his tragic flaw.

 I formed part of the English team at the Olympiad of Lugano in 1968, where Fischer was present and seemingly prepared to represent the US team on board one. Lo and behold, within a trice, he was gone, abruptly walking out on the event and also his team, and not for the first time. He had declined to play in the Piatigorsky Cup of 1963, the most important international chess competition in America for thirty-six years. He had abandoned a previous match against fellow American Sammy Reshevsky in mid-stream, defaulted against the USSR in their team match at Havana 1966, walked out of the 1967 Sousse World qualifier, when overall victory was already almost assured, while, as we have seen, in the 1972 World Championship against Spassky, only the interventions of Henry Kissinger and Jim Slater induced him to play.

Even then, Fischer defaulted game two. His forfeit against Karpov in 1975 was, therefore, entirely predictable. Indeed, I had personally predicted it, even before a single pawn had been moved in 1972. Among all these refusals, Fischer was fortunate that the chivalrous Spassky not only agreed to replay the defaulted game from 1966, but also refrained from claiming the entire match, after Fischer’s no show in game two of their 1972 World Title clash in Reykjavik.

Fischer’s tragic flaw was an integral part of his personality. It was Fischer’s bane that the one particular activity, at which he excelled like no other before him, both attracted and repelled him with equal force. Eventually, repulsion gained the upper hand and Bobby Fischer became the perfect example of a modern chess tragedy, the Oedipus Rex of the sixty-four squares.  

Having won a heroic World Championship, placed chess at the forefront of world attention, by virtue of an American beating a Soviet in the Russian national game at the height of the Cold War, Fischer descended into virtual destitution. He had propelled chess to new heights of popularity, but was equally responsible for a drastic reversal of interest, by avoiding the challenge from Karpov. 

When Fischer did re-emerge two decades later to play Spassky again the world had passed them both by. This was now the era of Garry Kasparov, of Nigel Short, Jan Timman, and more ominously, that of Deep Blue and the neural-networked processors, which were to prove superior in chessboard skills to even the best of human minds. 

Bobby had become not just an Oedipus, but a post-Cretaceous remnant of the great saurian carnivores, Piscatorsaurus Rex, blinking impotently in the sun of a new era. His tragic future, after the second Spassky match, was to involve a spell in a Japanese prison, a desperate rescue by the Icelandic government and death: alone, friendless, paranoid and unloved, in a snow-bound suburb of Ultima Thule. When the Grim Reaper ultimately exacted his toll, having deliberately removed all of his own teeth on the basis that enemies had bugged them, Fischer, as we have seen, was sixty four years old, the iconic number of squares on the chessboard, which at his brilliant best he had simultaneously so loved and in his darkest moments, so feared.

It was no doubt fitting that Fischer’s swan song was his  final match game  in that renegade 1992 match against Spassky.

Now Magnus Carlsen has disappointingly joined that trio of former champions who missed their final challenge.  Earlier this week, as intimated at the start of this column, the World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen confirmed in a public statement his intention to decline the defence of his title in 2023. FIDÉ (the world governing body) understands that this decision is final. In view of that, its Russian President Arkady Dvorkovich has issued the following statement:

“Magnus Carlsen deserves nothing but respect from FIDE, and from the whole chess community, in whatever decision he makes regarding his career. Only a handful of people in history can understand and assess the tremendous toll that it takes playing five matches for the title.

Many other great champions, in other sports, have experienced something similar: with the passing of the years, it is more difficult to find the motivation to train and compete at the highest level, while the reward for the victory never feels as intense as the first day.

We had hoped that after some deserved rest, Magnus would look at this differently. Sports legends like him always strive for goals and records. He is still young and could possibly have added more classical titles to his already outstanding career, as he will surely try in the Rapid and Blitz modalities, which he favours.

Since he first expressed his doubts publicly, FIDE has been open to dialogue and to consider specific proposals to change the format of the World Championship. Some of these ideas were discussed in May with Carlsen and other top players, and in Madrid, we had a meeting where all the concerns were discussed openly and in detail. Alas, it did not change his mind.

His decision not to defend his title is undoubtedly a disappointment for the fans, and bad news for the spectacle. It leaves a big void. But chess is now stronger than ever —in part, thanks to Magnus— and the World Championship Match, one of the longest and most respected traditions in the world of sports, will go on.”  

Magnus revealed the clear answer with a definite no. It is correct that I was in Madrid and met with the FIDÉ management in connection with the end of the Candidates tournament,” Carlsen said. I had no demands, nor did I have any suggestions – I was there to tell them that I would not be defending the title in the next world championship.” This is a truly monumental decision for someone who has won five world championship matches and who has held the title since 2013. We did have a small discussion. They came with a few suggestions – some of them I liked, some of them I didn t,” he added. However, my decision stands. This is a conclusion I am comfortable with, and a decision that I have thought a lot about for a long time, for more than a year and a half. I ve spoken with people from the team, I ve spoken with FIDÉ, and I ve spoken with Ian, and I have told them that I am not motivated to play yet another world championship game.” 

I might normally offer up as this week’s closing game, Carlsen’s last win against his most recent challenger and current finalist, Ian Nepomniachtchi. But the 136 moves are not worthy of the ascendency that Carlsen both has had and has demonstrated, throughout an exemplary decade of dominance. His penultimate win against the same opponent was a crushing game where Magnus amply trashed Black’s weapon of choice:  the Russian Game.

The fly in the ointment of Carlsen s withdrawal is his insisted that he will carry on playing, but not in the world cycle. This raises obvious problems. The respected senior British grandmaster Jonathan Levitt summed them up with this pithy comment:

Retiring is one thing. Continuing to play but not fitting in with the World Championship system, supposedly the highest level of chess, is disrespectful to the tradition of chess. Magnus totally has the right to be disrespectful, but it will not go down well with the chess world.”

If Magnus had taken a bazooka to the standing of the hallowed World Chess Championship, he could not have finished it off more effectively. With Carlsen on the sidelines, a match between Ian Nepomniachtchi and the qualifier runner-up, Ding Liren, is virtually pointless, but still otherwise fully active. As Cassius states in Shakespeare s Julius Caesar : Why, man he doth bestride the narrow world, / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about, / To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”

Raymond Keene s latest book Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Blackwells .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 93%
46 ratings - view all

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