Bobby Fischer and the Fool’s Move

I had heard of Bobby Fischer: the US chess world champion – still the only one – who defeated the Soviet master Boris Spassky in 1972, after at least thirty years of Russian predominance on the chessboard.
26 July 2022

However, I did not know the story in its details, and for this I have to thank a client of mine who recommended me this beautiful book by Alessandro Barbaglia entitled “The Fool’s Move”: the book tells precisely the life of Fischer but above all it offers a beautiful photograph of what was his mind, so brilliant and so tormented at the same time.

To get an idea of ​​Fischer’s extraordinary talent, just think that he learned to play chess at the age of six, by reading the instruction booklet.

The boy didn’t take long to get noticed: from the victories in the US junior championships, he soon came to victories in the international arena, up to the infamous match with the reigning Russian champion.

Unfortunately, as Fischer grinded victories and as his chess skill grew and was enriched by the experience of the games played, his mind began to creak, showing – between almost invisible cracks – the frailties of a man who grew up too fast and unable to handle his own emotions.

In the midst of the Cold War, the final match between Fischer and Spassky looked more like a prelude to World War III; the TV series recently broadcast by Netflix, “The Chess Queen”, is a clear reference to the sporting life of the great American champion.

During the course of the final there was no shortage of Fischer’s follies: until the last moment the organizers, pressed by continuous and absurd requests from the American, did not know if he would really show up for the match.

Indeed, during the meeting, Fischer threatens to leave due to the annoying buzz of the cameras (a lot, to tell the truth) which filmed the meeting; it took all the patience of the organizers (and of his opponent) to get the final going… in a secondary room, without an audience, in the building where the memorable match was taking place.

In a 2014 film in which Bobby Fischer is played by Tobey McGuire, Bill Lombardy’s character exclaims, “Fischer wasn’t afraid to lose, but he was afraid of what would happen if he won.”

When Fischer beat his opponent, his victory was obviously exploited by the US government. Chess, thanks to Fischer, who had by then become a celebrity, had a crazy surge in success, and enrollments in various American schools tripled their enrollments.

Yet, from that moment, Fischer was never the same: it was as if, once he had achieved the greatest victory, he no longer had a reason to go on. The world in his eyes was increasingly incomprehensible, he did not accept the idea of ​​having become a “symbol of American dominance”: he had a utopian idea of ​​the game of chess but no one seemed to understand it.

He began to refuse millionaire sponsorship contracts, continued with pressing requests for changes to the international regulations… and this cost him the renunciation of participation in the various championships until the consequent loss of the title.

His spasmodic search for perfection had gone too deep, the victory over Spassky became an earthquake of irreversible damage. The cracks turned into gashes and the abyss prevailed over rationality.

Suddenly it is as if chess were no longer there to save him: social relationships worsened, family, colleagues and sponsors abandoned him … in the meantime Fischer became increasingly paranoid and suspicious of everyone.

He was never officially diagnosed with any mental illness: his eccentric character, loneliness and difficulties in social relationships led to think that Fischer was suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome.

Among the many pseudo-diagnoses formulated on Fischer, the words spoken by one of his (rare) friends, the Icelandic psychiatrist Skùlason, shed light: “Fischer had a problematic mind, he was incapable of asking for help and therefore incapable of resolving previous traumas that they have provoked paraonias, fears and suspicions towards everything and everyone”.

In an interview on a television show, Fischer, in a moment of lucidity, once said, “What distinguishes truly great players is that they keep pushing until they reach their goal.”

Obsession is the final step, the last transformation, of what was once identifiable as passion.

This ability of man, to go beyond his own limits, up to self-destruction, has always scared and fascinated me, in equal measure.

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