Piscator Rex: the chess tragedy of Bobby Fischer
The name of Bobby Fischer, like that of his American predecessor, Paul Morphy, still has an iconic status among all chess enthusiasts. Fischer swept to the world chess crown by singlehandedly overthrowing the mighty Soviet chess imperium. En route to world victory, Fischer displayed a profundity of innovation, clarity of vision, unrivalled technical accuracy and determination, which should have marked him out as one of the greatest of champions and the grandest of Grandmasters.
Fischer reminds 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. Indeed, a musical has already been based loosely on the Fischer legend, “Chess: The Musical” by Sir Tim Rice and the male half of ABBA.
As a challenger, Fischer was supreme. However, as champion, his achievements were zero. Without doubt, his record as champion was, and will remain, the most dismal in the entire Pantheon of 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 competition 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, 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 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 Jan Hein Donner, Svetozar Gligoric, Efim Geller 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.
Tragedy has its root in the Ancient Greek words for “goat” and “song”, possibly related to the concept of a dithyrambic Satyr play, given in honour of the savage god Dionysus. By the time of Pericles (495-429 BC) from its bucolic origins, tragedy in Athens had evolved into a highly sophisticated art form. The philosopher, Aristotle established the benchmarks for both subject matter and quality of Tragedy, in his Poetics.
Aristotle’s reputation in the ancient world was immense: imbibing knowledge at the feet of Plato, tutoring Alexander the Great, spanning logic, biology, memory, politics and rhetoric in his works. In short, he was the commanding intellect of his own era, and his fame was to persist throughout the ages, as shown in Dante’s description: “il maestro di color che sanno” (“the master of those who know”). Significantly, the Divine Comedy did not even need to name Aristotle — all Dante’s readers knew whom he meant; the superlative description was more than sufficient identification. It can be said that western philosophy, and science, became one long infatuation with Aristotle’s quest for truth, as with Isaac Newton, who famously described his chief loves as “amicus Plato, amicus Aristoteles, magis amica veritas” (“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is the truth”.)
Although The Poetics survives only in fragmentary form, Aristotle comments in detail about Tragedy and defines its specifics. He explains the elements of Tragedy, its aims and which tragedies are excellent. He comments on how tragedies, via the means of “ἐλέου καὶ φόβου” (Pity and Fear) should bring about the effect of Catharsis. Fear and pity, he continues, are best excited by the structure of the action, not just by the spectacle. Another important poetic device to be included in Tragedy is a reversal, a change from one state to its opposite, since, in the best tragedies, a good or noble man falls into ill-fortune, usually as the result of some tragic flaw in his character.
Aristotle further notes that every tragedy consists of definable elements, the most basic being character, plot, then thought, spectacle, diction and language. Of course, the best plots must be well constructed, each section following naturally, where nothing is forced and a unified whole results. If the effects of fear and pity are occasioned by events which are logical, although unexpected, they are accentuated and more praiseworthy, than if they had arisen at random.
The greater the ineluctability of the plot, and the reversal, the more effective the tragedy. An element that Aristotle also recommends is the revelation ultimately of self-knowledge, the discovery of one’s true identity. In the tragedy of Bobby Fischer, this element is missing. As Shakespeare said of king Lear, “yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” This applied to Fischer from the start and persisted to the end of his days.
Evocation of fear and pity is the key Aristotelian thought behind his theory of Tragedy. Achieving this produces the best Tragedy. Euripides’s Helen, in contrast, ends happily; she and Menelaus trick the Egyptians and sail off into the sunset. There is no catharsis, and although it might pander to the audience’s taste, it is not tragic. In fact it almost has a comedic ending.
No, the greatest pity and fear, and hence the greatest spectacle, with most outstanding effects, are evoked in Sophocles’s Oedipus, retribution being out of proportion to the protagonist’s culpability. Oedipus, unknowingly, is his own nemesis, as indeed was Bobby Fischer.
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex is the classically pure instance. Oedipus’s parents, the rulers of Thebes, hear that their child will kill his father. To avoid this, the son is left for dead, but Oedipus is rescued by the rulers of Corinth. On learning the prophecy that he will marry his mother and murder his father, Oedipus flees Corinth only to encounter a man at a forking of three paths, whom he kills, unaware that the victim is king Laius of Thebes, his natural father. Thence Oedipus solves the famous riddle of the Sphinx, is rewarded with the kingship of Thebes, and unwittingly marries his own mother, Jocasta, the widowed queen of king Laius.
Oedipus finally discovers his identity and learns that Jocasta is both his wife and mother. His reversal from a confident, incisive monarch, to a blinded, indigent outcast, explains why his fall is so effective. The reversal is heightened because the Messenger, who came hotfoot from the Delphic Oracle to relieve Oedipus of all worries, in fact reveals the devastating truth of his origins. The abominable discoveries about Oedipus render the depth of his fall yet more appalling.
Aristotle was a scientist who might not have approved of the gods brazenly intervening in mortal affairs. For Aristotle, great Tragedy is a closed circle of human action, preferably not adulterated by divine intervention. This is exactly what happens in Oedipus. There is no deus ex machina to resolve the situation, just as there was none for Bobby Fischer, unless one casts Dr. Henry Kissinger in that role. With Oedipus physically shattered and mentally traumatised, pity and fear attain greater heights in Oedipus than in any other tragedy, for the catastrophe which overcame Oedipus would make even a stone bleed with cathartic emotion.
Oedipus does not immediately die but, arguably, suffers a far worse fate. Everyone and everything must eventually perish: people, planetary systems, universes even. Death is the necessary outcome of the precondition of existence. If we exist, a state determined by the past, then ineluctably we must die. One might describe this as the Second Law of Thermodynamics applied to literature. This Law enshrines the necessity of entropy — everything must eventually run down and exhaust its life force.
We might, therefore, define Oedipus as the only tragedy with built-in inevitability. All other tragedies, within the action of the plays themselves, involve choice and free will. Orestes decides to avenge Agamemnon’s death; Jason decides to desert Medea; Medea decides to slaughter her children; Theseus decides to summon Poseidon; Macbeth decides to assassinate Duncan; Lear decides to divide his kingdom; Othello decides to strangle Desdemona, while Hamlet (in spite of many past provocations) decides not to act. Even king Pentheus consciously rejects Dionysus and is consequently torn apart and devoured by the demented Bacchanalian Maenads, led by his own mother.
Only Oedipus has no choice: like us, like all life which already exists, like the universe itself. Death is built into existence and Oedipus is the only tragedy to demonstrate this. It is profoundly existential and thus unique. Indeed, the French dramatist Cocteau reworked Oedipus, naming his play La Machine Infernale. This phrase neatly captures the inevitability of the myth and the phrase “Infernal Machine” is now accepted as encapsulating the inevitable clockwork precision of the Oedipus-plot, in that the mere fact of such existence brings with it the inevitability of dissolution and extinction.
And what of Bobby Fischer? 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 in the 1972 World Championship against Spassky, only the intervention of Dr. Henry Kissinger and the all-persuading gold of Britain’s 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, like that of Oedipus, was an integral part of him. It was Fischer’s bane that the one particular activity at which he excelled, like no other before him, playing superlative chess, 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, with three million dollars as the lure, the world had passed them both by. This was now the era of Garry Kasparov, of Nigel Short and soon ominously, that of Deep Blue and the mentation machines.
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 second law of thermodynamics ultimately exacted its toll, having deliberately removed all of his own teeth on the basis that enemies had bugged them, Fischer was sixty four years old, iconically the number of squares on the chessboard, which he had simultaneously so loved and so feared.
This week’s game starts with my win vs. Fischer slayer, Vladimir Kovacevic (1973). I was delighted when a Twitter poll of July 2020 voted my move 22 Ra7 as one of the top ten most spectacular rook moves of all time.
Second is Judit Polgár’s win vs. Ennio Morricone in 2004. And last, but certainly not least, here is Bobby Fischer’s win in game six from the 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky. This is possibly the most technically perfect game ever played in a World Chess Championship.