The Wonder Match
Before he was secretly buried on a dark winter morning in a lonely Icelandic churchyard at the age of 64 (there were only four people in attendance at the hastily arranged funeral) . . . before his last ailing days of bad kidneys and rotting teeth (he had all of his fillings removed, convinced that U.S. and Russian agents would otherwise send radio signals to his brain) . . . before the long hours whiled away at a Reykjavik bookstore, a place that vaguely reminded him of one from his Brooklyn youth (in both, he read comic books and studied chess) . . . and before his decades of ghostly peregrinations through the world, like a profane monk or an idiot savant searching for perfect exile (from Pasadena to Hungary to the Philippines, where he supposedly had a child, and on to Japan, where he supposedly married and was arrested and imprisoned for a passport violation) . . . before his bizarre eruptions (he applauded the events of 9/11 as “wonderful news” and believed, among other defamations, that the Jews wanted to eradicate the African elephant because its trunk was a reminder of an uncircumcised penis) . . . and before the spectacle of meeting his one-time nemesis, the former world-champion chess player Boris Spassky, for an anticlimactic 1992 rematch in war-torn Yugoslavia despite U.N. sanctions against it (in front of whirring cameras, he spat on the U.S. order forbidding him to play) . . . even way back before their original 1972 meeting, called the Match of the Century, when the eyes of the world were riveted on him as a shining emblem of American will, innovation and brilliance (the match in which he took on the Soviet chess machine and single-handedly crushed it, but not before the fabled call from Henry Kissinger, urging him to put aside his jumbled demands and just play) . . . even before his brazen, almost obnoxious deconstruction of a cavalcade of grandmasters who stood in his path to Spassky (he won 20 games in a row, the longest winning streak in modern chess) . . . before he traded the rags of his youth for his new wardrobe of expensive suits . . . before his mind slowly unhinged and he became a walking paradox (the anti-Semitic Jew; the anti-American national hero, the wastrel-wizard of his craft) . . . yes, before the whole circus of his life unfolded, he was a 13-year-old kid in the first flush of the thing he most loved in the world: chess.
So, on an October day in 1956, Bobby Fischer eagerly took his seat at the Marshall Chess Club in the West Village. All gangly arms and legs, he’d been invited to compete with the country’s 11 best players in the Rosenwald Memorial. In a way, it was his coming-out party. With his supposedly preternaturally high I.Q. (181, higher than Einstein’s) and capacious memory (where he stored the positions, annotations and analysis of a century’s worth of games, many played out while sitting at school), it was said that the child prodigy loathed losing and had just learned to do so without crying. Among the erudite, gentleman competitors in dapper suits and thin ties, he wore a striped, collarless, short-sleeve shirt, hair cut short and neat, a true boy among men. He looked as if he had a stickball game to get to.
The opponent on the other side of the board that day was a future international master named Donald Byrne, who was 26 and whose aggressive, no-draw style made him one of the country’s most dangerous players. Bobby, playing black, quickly assumed the Grünfeld Defense, turning over the middle of the board to Byrne’s pawns, which then became targets of attack from the edges. Byrne, meanwhile, was quick to release his queen, seemingly eager to dispose of the boy. And yet by the 11th move, Bobby had not only exposed Byrne’s queen in an uncomfortable position but had also sent his knight down the board, which required Byrne’s queen to give awkward chase.
Bobby had a habit of leaning over the board and biting his nails nervously, which at first made his moves seem all the more provisional, even touching. Byrne certainly still had good options, but failing to spirit his king from the center to the shelter of a castle, he unwittingly opened a door to the boy. Bobby traded his knight for Byrne’s knight, undermining Byrne’s pawn cluster and his control of the center. And then: what was this? The kid suddenly unveiled an all-knowing Panzer division on attack. As one of the legions of bloggers who still analyze the game put it, “the will to win, the deep tactics” all would have contributed to “the sense White [Byrne] must have had of being faced by a monster with a hundred eyes, who’d seen everything.”
Four moves later, in what he himself came to regard as one of the best chess moves of his career, Bobby offered the strongest piece on the board — his queen — for a bishop. The audacity of such a move, especially coming from a 13-year-old, and one that was met with murmurs by onlookers that day, seemed to signal the beginning of something very unexpected to the world, and something terribly amiss for Byrne. Even if he was a kid, he wouldn’t just give away his queen, would he?
When Byrne took it, hoping he’d prevail in the complications that ensued, he sealed his own fate. By trading power for position, Bobby unleashed his lesser pieces in precise, cyclonic movements — a knight, a bishop and then two rooks — opening files and sending Byrne into a windmill of discovered checks, while leaving his queen virtually shunted to the side. And this was the beauty of Bobby Fischer’s mind, even then. The boy made very clean, simple lines out of very complex problems, and when the trap was sprung, his style of chess became so transparent you could instantly recognize its brilliance: efficient, organic, wildly responsive and creative.
“Bobby just drops the pieces and they land on the right square,” a later opponent said.
“It is difficult to play against Einstein’s theory,” said the world champion Mikhail Tal after his first loss to Fischer.
“He plays like a child,” said Spassky, offering the highest compliment he could think of.
It was over by the 41st move, Byrne hunted the whole way like a possum. Later, with the hindsight of history and computer input, sacrificing the queen appears to have been the strongest move anyway, despite the obvious cognitive and symbolic prohibition against giving up your most powerful piece for seemingly nothing. But the computer probably would have never put the queen in such jeopardy in the first place.
The move, of course, made Bobby a myth. One chess magazine breathlessly called the Byrne-Fischer donnybrook “the game of the century.” And at the time perhaps it was, but more than anything it announced Bobby Fischer’s arrival, as well as his new way of playing chess, new for that era at least, defined by a more rigorous memorization of complete games — of openings and even of middle games — and then the creative synthesis of those to meet the vicissitudes of the game on the board at that moment, resulting in the almost-vicious endgames that became his signature.
On Bobby’s scorecard that day, it all looked so simple, so preordained. When it was over, in his typically illegible hand, he scrawled “Mate” (it looked like “Mute”) — and then put on his jacket and left with his mom. In the next year he would win the U.S. championship, and the year after that, become a grandmaster — a mindboggling, meteoric rise. He would leave behind dozens of other crystalline scorecards, inventions of their particular moments, scribbled with what appeared to be the word “Mute,” which may be the best way to remember the man.
That day in Manhattan, a lifetime away from the wild-haired, spewing oxymoron he became, the unraveled Lear of chess on his desolate heath, the boy Bobby Fischer walked out onto the sidewalk of West 10th Street, beautiful and alive, heading under the streetlights to a restaurant for dinner. There was already a fan in tow, a potential hanger-on, and undoubtedly, the talk was chess, chess, chess. In that caesura before he sacrificed his own mother (they split five years later when Bobby was 18, reconciling only a few years before her death in 1997) . . . and before he burned through legions of intimates and admirers . . . Bobby Fischer couldn’t have realized how far his 13-year-old self had just come at the Marshall Chess Club. Or how far he had left to go. Naïve and insatiable, in thrall to the game he so loved, he just needed to eat so he could play again.