Fischers of Men (or, a Chessay)

Bobby scanned the board one last time, drew in a breath, and gently grabbed a […]

August Smith / 6.26.19

Bobby scanned the board one last time, drew in a breath, and gently grabbed a black bishop that looked slightly unnatural in his small hand, moving it three squares to e6. A huddled group of spectators suppressed a gasp. Journalists began to quietly scribble notes while onlookers cast skeptical glances at each other. Was it a blunder? Did he just forget about his queen? What was he doing?

Fischer vs. Byrne, 1956

Bobby Fischer nondescriptly recorded the move on an adjacent sheet. His opponent, Donald Byrne, looked at Fischer, who appeared nonchalant and unaffected, if not somewhat nervous. Byrne, who was twice Fischer’s age and a top-10 U.S. player in 1956, considered the position for a couple minutes, carefully weighing possible moves. Finally, he played the only move that made sense: capturing Bobby’s queen on b6, ostensibly providing him a huge advantage. His teenage opponent’s most valuable piece sat uselessly next to the board—the game was doubtlessly decided. Merely ten moves later, a quietly triumphant Bobby played rook to c2, checkmate. The game was decided, and Bobby Fischer—a 13-year-old Jewish-American boy raised by a single mother—was the winner of what would be dubbed “the game of the century.”

Yet this stunning display of creativity and guile would be far from his last. A nascent Fischer continued to have a prolific and decorated career in international play, proving an indispensable source of pride for Cold-War Americans (whose chess players up to then had been rather consistently pulverized by the Russians). The boy who taught himself to play chess with a $1 plastic chess set from a candy store in Brooklyn would eventually be heralded by all as a top and many as the greatest to ever play the game.

Chess is beautiful enough to waste your life for.

– Hans Ree

When I was 13, I was most likely wrestling with my brothers and convincing my parents that, yes, I really was old enough for a Facebook. Although my father taught me the rules of chess at some point, I never played the game more than a few times (and even then, disinterestedly), and didn’t encounter it again for almost nine years. When I came across Fischer’s perennial game by chance last winter, I didn’t immediately grasp its significance. However, I was captivated by this almost mythical tale—a David and Goliath in the intellectual Valley of Elah. The more I read, the more I realized the almost incomprehensible extent of the kid’s genius. I became enraptured with chess—an unmitigated clash between two minds exclusively devoting every noetic resource to outwit their opponent.

Chess, inasmuch, is a ruthless game. Two players face each other, eyes locked onto a 64-tiled board populated by hefty wooden figures, occasionally casting a furtive glance at their opponent’s face. Two pairs of eyes dart across the mahogany like moths around a streetlight, gracefully tracing every possible sequence of moves. Extensive calculations are mentally scrutinized, rehearsed dozens of times to ensure proper computation of dreadfully complicated lines—all this simply to garner the slightest edge over your opponent, catch one thing that she missed. A symphony of mathematical intricacy is composed and performed simultaneously in the methodical harmony of wooden pieces.

Contained within this beautiful complexity is its most agonizing part: knowing that your opponent is doing the same thing, and maybe (for me, almost certainly) better than you. You are both trying to pry open the other’s head and glimpse a fleeting scheme that will provide an advantage. Each player is both prosecutor and defendant in a court of the intellect, simultaneously judging and being judged. This is where Bobby Fischer was remarkably adept. (His contemporaries described his style as a sort of “dark, mysterious, insidious force” that “undermined one’s intellectual powers.”) The 13-year old kid from Brooklyn had morphed into a machine, a scarily powerful but largely indifferent mind capable of handling any Spassky or Karpov the Communists could throw his way.

After studying Fischer for a while, I began to fervently practice chess. Every day after class I would play a game or two, hoping to catch even a glimpse of what Fischer saw. I learned the tactics and strategy and innumerable principles: never move a piece more than once in the opening, always push passed pawns, trade when up material. Every day I improved marginally, but with my skill grew my resentment. I should be better by now—why am I still missing these obvious lines? Playing a game of chess every day became a burden, a sort of odious compulsion. Despite my knowledge of the game I continued to lose.

Those who say they understand chess, understand nothing.

– Robert Heubner

Fischer in 1972

The moves you play are somehow you. They are the sum of your creative intuition, your most valiant attempt to overcome your opponent’s deductive rationality. This explains why losing at chess is so crushing (and why many people are afraid to get into the game—David Foster Wallace quit chess, lamenting how “frustrating it was to get just good enough to know what getting really good at it would be like but not being able to get that good”); your best attempt, your most thorough reasoning and rigorous scrutinization simply weren’t enough. Your knowledge of the game was inadequate. You didn’t see the lines you needed to. Your unwitting mistakes cost you the game. One bad move nullified forty good ones.

It’s understandably easy to obsess over chess. The game is practically synonymous with “performance,” and the arrival fallacy ensures that one will never be quite content with their own play. Thinking I was chasing after Fischer, I was actually chasing a ephemeral and grandiose vision of myself. Undoubtedly, one must at least partially succumb to this sort of superciliousness to become one of the greats. After his glorious career, Fischer himself fell into quasi-insanity, joining a cultish church for a while, moving to Iceland, and becoming engrossed with antisemitism (somewhat ironically, as he was Jewish-American). He openly denied the Holocaust, vociferously supported Hitler, and called the U.S. “a farce controlled by dirty, hook-nosed, circumcised Jew bastards.” In 2001 Fischer “applauded” the September 11 attacks, calling for a coup d’état in Washington and an organized extermination of the ever-conniving “Jewish ringleaders.”

Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.

– G.K. Chesterton

While there is question of causation regarding Fischer’s derangement (some speculate he had schizophrenia), the relentless pursuit of perfection undoubtedly took its toll, at least in part. The calculating mind needed to become as good as Fischer can often prove fatal to feeling, poisonous to empathy. Chess is a beautiful but remorseless game; it doesn’t care how much you prepared or practiced—you either play well enough, or you lose. Calculate or die. The cold logic behind each move can slowly chip away at one’s soul in the same way that the rapacious pursuit of success in any field will. Saint Dave once wrote that “I seemed always to have had this fraudulent, calculating part of my brain firing away all the time, as if I were constantly playing chess with everybody and figuring out that if I wanted them to move a certain way I had to move in such a way as to induce them to move that way.” As in chess, so in life.

Life and Law present us the same dilemma: we must perform, we must play the game well enough or risk eternal loss. And so we try—we play every day hoping to improve yet never see significant progress. We might learn the principles and strive to adhere to them, but we still continue to lose. One careless word or flagrant thought amid a litany of good ones is sufficient to nullify them all, to forfeit your life. One mistake will cost you the game.

Chess tells us that we must avoid moving a piece more than once in the opening and to push passed pawns and if we don’t, we will lose. The Law tells us that we must love our neighbor perfectly and revere God in all we do and if (and inevitably when) we don’t, we should lose—we certainly deserve it. But someone else has already played the game, followed the principles, made the best moves, and won for us.

A relatively common stalemate: black cannot make any legal moves.

Chess then is not merely a type of the Law; it is also a herald of grace in surprising ways, two of which I will mention here. The first is the relatively abstruse and uncommon stalemate. This occurs when the game is firmly in one player’s hand—he has clearly earned his victory. However, this player may unwittingly enter a position in which the opposing player has no legal moves. This often occurs when one player attacks all possible squares to which the solitary king might travel, except the one he currently inhabits—a suffocating and impossible position. This means that the hopeless player has not technically lost but cannot make a legal move, as you may not relocate the king to an attacked square. When a stalemate occurs, the game is declared a draw, and (in tournament play) both players are awarded half a point. This obscure rule is often criticized for unfairness—after all, one player is dominating, and thus deserves to win. (There is a long, convoluted history of proposed rule changes regarding stalemates.) Nonetheless, both players are apportioned the same reward.

Jesus spoke of a similar situation in a parable, explaining that certain laborers were hired at different points throughout the workday. At the end of the day, the workers approached the owner of the vineyard, expecting graduated wages:

Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

“Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” – Rembrandt, 1637

In the same way, a stalemate is not agreed upon by the players; rather, it is imposed from outside in the same way that grace is imparted in the parable. Neither the tardy workers nor the losing player deserve their reward, yet the generosity of something higher bestows it notwithstanding. So the last will be first, and the first last.

Secondly, the trope of our pawn-ness to life’s chess-ness, though trite, is regrettably too apt to disregard. The remarkable thing is that despite how high we proudly ascend past pawn-hood (becoming a bishop or rook, let’s say), we are still returned to the bag when the game is over. (“For dust you are…”) No matter our aptitude for navigating the board or capturing pieces, we still will never be able to transcend our futility and actually control the moves. We can never win life.

But the most ridiculous part of it all is that the one who does have his hands on the pieces became one of them, entering into the game in the form of a queen (is this heresy?) only to sacrifice himself to win the game. Fischer gave up his queen to win the game of the century; God gave up his son to redeem time itself. The Law and chess demand everything, a perfection that no amount of practice or preparation can endure. A despondent resignation is tempting, as there is seemingly no way for us to win. But the triumph of chess is not victory. Chess is not for anything, except itself and for those who play it. It does not depend, then, on how well I play to play chess well. In the same way, the glory of life is not winning—it’s that it’s been won for us. The fate of my life does not depend on my living. And I can think of no better news than that.

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