Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Blaming Bobby

Yes, they once showed chess matches on TV in America. And I watched. So did Leonard Cassuto, who actually went on to get good at chess, unlike me. Reading Cassuto's appreciation of Bobby Fischer, and the brief history of chess theory encapsulated in it, I realize why I sucked:

The first era of organized tournament chess, beginning in the mid-19th century, was the game's romantic period. It featured lots of pyrotechnic sacrifices: giving the queen away, for example, in order to deliver an unexpected and aesthetically pleasing checkmate. Romantic chess, one might say, privileged the search for beauty in the game.

Priorities changed in the 20th century, overturned by a group of players who prized strategy and technique, and honed a set of principles to govern the play. They were the engineers of chess, disdaining flash in favor of direct, logical demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of a position. In bringing empirical, scientific reasoning to chess, these players sought truth over beauty. Generations of theorists (yes, chess has theorists) have built on their findings.

Yes, I was a romantic born too late. I loved gambits where I gave away half a dozen pieces or some obvious positional advantage, in exchange for some unexpected sweeping pounce on the other player's king. But the other players were dull technicians who either declined the gambits or blocked the counter-moves. I played Napoleonic tactics in a game that had become trench warfare.

Which is why nobody wanted to watch me play chess on TV. Fischer, though ...

Bobby Fischer melded the phases of chess history into a universal style. He synthesized the romantic quest for beauty with the technical search for truth at the chessboard. Reviving discarded romantic concepts with added modern strategic nuances was one of many ways Fischer honored the game's past. He is exalted by chess players around the world because his play rendered intricately beautiful conceptions with elegant lucidity, combining the art and the science of chess like no one before him. The result was innovative, rigorously logical art on a 64-square canvas.

Cassuto finds that Fischer's "searching dedication to chess ideas, executed with supreme discipline, separated him from his peers and gave his best games a crystalline beauty and a majestic clarity." And it came at a price:

That is, Bobby Fischer's chess embodied qualities that he never showed anywhere else in his life. There lies the great irony of his life and work: This eccentric man showed a surpassing sanity when he sat down to play. His chess was not only uniquely creative, but also relentlessly clear and truth seeking. Bobby Fischer at the board was everything he wasn't when he was away from it: honest, deep, respectful, and even philosophical.

But that is not so strange to anyone who has loved any artist, either intimately or from afar. Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Mozart -- their personal lives were Vaudeville comical or tragically incompetent, but the art was a pure spring only occasionally troubled by the mass mess going on all around it.