Friday, August 31, 2012

The Fischer Phenomenon

My father was a college professor — and when your father is a college professor, it's almost a given that he will teach you how to play chess.

Well, that's how it was in my case, anyway. Perhaps the risk of that decreases, depending on the subject your father teaches — and my father taught religion and philosophy.

It was in the stars for me, I suppose.

Most of my other friends had fathers who taught them the finer points of hitting and throwing baseballs, shooting basketballs and kicking footballs. Mine taught me to play chess.

That's nothing against my father. He was — still is — a wonderful father in many respects.

But chess wasn't cool when I learned to play. It became a little cooler because of Bobby Fischer.

I already knew how to play chess when Fischer won the world chess championship on this day in 1972. I don't remember how old I was when Dad taught me to play, but it seems to me that I must have known how to play for a year, maybe two, by the time that Fischer took the world chess championship from Russian Boris Spassky.

I always heard that cameras were on hand, but perhaps they provided closed–circuit coverage (the predecessor to pay–per–view) or filmed sequences for a movie.

I don't have any recollection of commercial TV providing coverage of any of the chess games, and my guess is that wouldn't have bothered me. I do recall seeing news accounts, with brief clips of Fischer and Spassky walking to the venue where the games were played, but, at the time, I probably couldn't have imagined anything less interesting than watching two people play a board game.

(I'm much older now, but I still can't see the appeal in something like watching people play poker. Poker isn't a board game, of course, but I was no more interested in watching people play cards.)

But the media of 1972 followed the championship, which was played in Reykjavík, Iceland, and Fischer's triumph over the supposedly unbeatable Spassky virtually made him the Tiger Woods of his day.

True, being a chess player did not make one an athlete like Woods. But Fischer's victory set off a wave of chess hysteria in the United States — not unlike the mini–explosion of interest in golf after Tiger won his first Masters.

Chess probably was more accessible to most people than golf. To play golf, one needs special clothes and a set of clubs, but all chess required was a chess set, no matter how small. My father gave me a small chess set with magnetized pieces that I carried with me everywhere, always prepared for a game.

Until Fischer came along, I guess I sort of thought I was the only one in my grade at school — except, of course, for anyone else whose father was a college professor (and there were a few of those) — who played chess.

But, astonishingly, when Fischer beat Spassky, many of my friends in school suddenly learned how to play the game, even the ones whose fathers were not professors, and some began carrying around small sets like mine.

They may have already known how to play long before Fischer's showdown with Spassky, but, like me, they remained in the closet until Fischer made chess cool.

For much of the next year, we played chess during our lunch breaks and whenever the weather was too nasty for us to play in the schoolyard at recess.

One of the best–selling books of that time was a kind of a chess workbook called "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess."

Looking back on it, it was a kind of elementary book designed to teach beginners how to play chess and provide some rudimentary instruction in strategy. Fischer apparently allowed his name to be on the book, but, from what I have heard, he had very little to do with its authorship.

That wasn't known at the time, of course. I had a copy of that book, as did most of my friends, and I was proud of it. That book was one of my most prized possessions — until I learned a ghost writer had written most of it.

I really felt let down by that. I believed Fischer was sharing strategic secrets that helped him win the chess championship. Imagine!

Even so, his victory over Spassky really was a sincere — and unique — moment of great national pride.

I wouldn't necessarily rule out the influence of the Cold War — and the sometimes friendly but mostly deadly serious rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union — nor would I overlook the Russians' basketball victory over the Americans in the 1972 Summer Olympics, even though that actually happened after Fischer wrapped up the chess title.

The competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was constant in those days, and nationalism always played a role in it.

It was really unavoidable. But, somehow, it seemed there was more to it.

As Stephen Carter writes for Bloomberg, "the story of Fischer and Spassky ... captured our attention in a way that no struggle of intellect has since."