The Chessman

Yes, he had deep flaws. But Bobby Fischer should be remembered for his genius

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I.C. Rapoport / Camera Press / Retna

Kas-pa-rov, author of How Life Imitates Chess, was the world’s top-ranked player from 1985 until he retired from the game in 2005

It is hard to say exactly when I first heard the name Bobby Fischer, but it was quite early in my life. When he was battling Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, I was a 9-year-old club player in my native Baku in the Soviet Union. I followed the games avidly. The newspapers had extensive daily coverage of the match, although that waned as it became clear the Soviet champion was headed for defeat. Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games was one of my first chess books. (It had been translated into Russian and sold in the U.S.S.R. with no respect for copyright or royalties, infuriating its author.)

As I improved during the 1970s, my coach, Alexander Nikitin, made charts to track my progress and to set goals for me. A rating above 2500 was grand master; 2600 meant membership in the Top 10; 2700 was world-champion territory. And even above that was Bobby Fischer, at the very top with 2785. I became world champion in 1985, but true to Nikitin's vision, I had an even loftier goal; it took me four full years to surpass Fischer's rating record.

It was Fischer's attitude on and off the board that infused his play with unrivaled power. Before Fischer, no one was ready to fight to the death in every game. No one was willing to work around the clock to push chess to a new level. But Fischer was, and he became the detonator of an avalanche of new chess ideas, a revolutionary whose revolution is still in progress.

At Fischer's peak, even his adversaries had to admire his game. At the hallowed Moscow Central Chess Club, top Soviet players gathered to analyze Fischer's crushing 1971 match defeat of one of their colleagues, Mark Taimanov. Someone suggested that Taimanov could have gained the upper hand with a queen move, to which David Bronstein, a world-championship challenger in 1951, replied, "Ah, but we don't know what Fischer would have done."

Not long afterward, the grim Soviet sports authorities dragged in Taimanov and his peers to discuss Taimanov's inability to defeat the American. How had he failed? Was he not a worthy representative of the state? Spassky finally spoke up: "When we all lose to Fischer, will we be interrogated here as well?"

By World War II, the once strong U.S. chess tradition had largely faded. There was little chess culture, few schools to nurture and train young talent. So for an American player to reach world-championship level in the 1950s required an obsessive degree of personal dedication. Fischer's triumph over the Soviet chess machine, culminating in his 1972 victory over Spassky in ReykjavĂ­k, Iceland, demanded even more.

Fischer declined to defend his title in 1975, and by forfeit, it passed back into the embrace of the Soviets, in the person of Anatoly Karpov. According to all accounts, Fischer had descended into isolation and anger after winning that final match game against Spassky. Fischer didn't play again until a brief and disturbing reappearance in 1992, after which his genius never again touched a piece in public. Having conquered the chess Olympus, he was unable to find a new target for his power and passion.

I am often asked if I ever met or played Bobby Fischer. The answer is no, I never had that opportunity. But even though he saw me as a member of the evil chess establishment that he felt had robbed and cheated him, I am sorry I never had a chance to thank him personally for what he did for our sport.

Much has already been written about Fischer's disappearance and apparent mental instability. Some are quick to place the blame on chess itself for his decline, which would be a foolish blunder. Pushing too hard in any endeavor brings great risk. I prefer to remember his global achievements instead of his inner tragedies. It is with justice that Fischer spent his final days in Iceland, the place of his greatest triumph. There he was always loved and seen in the best possible way: as a chess player.

Kasparov, author of How Life Imitates Chess, was the world's top-ranked player from 1985 until he retired from the game in 2005