The return of Bobby
Fischer, the biggest comeback since Napoleon sailed a single-masted
flat-bottom out of Elba (on his way, mind you, to Waterloo), has been
widely noted but quite misunderstood. After 20 years of self-imposed
seclusion, the greatest chess player of his time returns to life by
way of a rematch with Boris Spassky (the man from whom he took the
world championship in 1972) in, of all places, Yugoslavia. The
picture flashed around the world is that of Fischer spitting on a
U.S. government order charging him with violating the U.N. embargo on
Yugoslavia. The papers are full of Fischer's ravings about a world
This is all very
colorful. And quite beside the point. Mozart has returned. This age
is quite consumed with Wolfgang Amadeus' table manners and toilet
practices. But the point is the music. Can he still compose? Do the
gods still sing to him?
politics, indeed his thoughts on anything other than chess, are of no
interest. One does not learn asceticism from Elvis. One does not
learn social etiquette from Howard Hughes. One does not learn
politics from Bobby Fischer. Fischer once said, "Chess is life." We
should take him at his word. There is no more to his life than chess.
Those unprepared to
indulge Fischer for his monomaniacal genius should at least indulge
him for his looniness. Someone seized with his hallucinatory visions
may be playing in embargoed Yugoslavia but is living on the moon.
Fischer is no more situated in this world than was another world
champion, Alexander Alekhine, who, when apprehended at the Polish
frontier for lack of papers, retorted, "I am Alekhine, chess champion
of the world. This is my cat. Her name is Chess. I need no passport."
Fischer the person is a
mere study in pathology, a sad but unremarkable story. The remarkable
story, the mythic story, is Fischer the player. His drama is the
drama of the Return, of the god who risks immortality to reassume
Muhammad Ali returned and
added to his legend. So did Ted Williams. But Ali, gone only four
years, made his comeback at 30. Williams came back, once (from World
War II) at 27, then again (from Korea) at a still vigorous 35. Those
who came back past their prime -- Bjorn Borg, Mark Spitz, Joe Louis
-- merely embarrassed themselves.
There are, of course,
other ways of coming back. The crew of the starship Enterprise came
back to make millions at the box office, but at the price of self-
parody. Crosby, Stills and Nash came back, but at the price of
cacophony. They could no longer sing harmony.
The Fischer phenomenon is
more poignant still. He never was the Crosby, Stills and Nash of
chess. He was the Beatles -- the greatest player of his age, probably
the greatest player ever. Wayne Gretzky once won the scoring
championship of the National Hockey League, with 205 points. The
runner-up had 126. There was once that much distance between Fischer
and the world. His play was incandescent. Moreover, his mysterious
exile, his 20-year disappearance into a netherworld of shabby
Pasadena hotels, only added to the legend.
And then one day he
returns. After 20 years, one finally sees his face. Nelson Mandela's
face too was hidden from the world for decades. When finally
revealed, it had the grace, the radiance that fit the legend.
Fischer? The face that 20 years ago was lean and sharp and taut is
now merely gnarled. His manner, once simply eccentric, is wild and
And his play? He returned
to play a man ranked 101st in the world and, except for a couple of
games in which Spassky was frankly inept, their play has been roughly
even. By world championship standards, Fischer's game has been
inferior -- some flashes of brilliance, but some appallingly weak
play as well.
Grand masters who 20
years ago would not have dared carry his coat -- the younger ones
would not have been tall enough -- now publicly call his play aimless
and amateurish. One Russian grand master advises patronizingly that
Fischer must "realize that chess has changed in the past 20 years."
World champion Garry Kasparov notes the "low level" of play in the
match. "Incredibly low," says international master Alex Sherzer, with
more than a trace of disgust.
In Game 5, for example,
Fischer was adrift, wandering eyeless about the board. His rook moves
two squares -- then, on the next move, back one. (Like gaining 8 yds.
on first down, then voluntarily taking a 4-yd. loss on second.) A
bishop thrusts sharply across the board -- to a useless perch at the
edge of play. "What was his (bishop) supposed to be aiming for?"
asked a bewildered Robert Byrne in the New York Times. A good
question made poignant by the source. Thirty years ago, Fischer
defeated Byrne in a win so beautiful it was once described as "more
witchcraft than chess."
Game 5 ended in pathos.
Fischer's position became hopeless. Ten moves after he should have
resigned, he moved his queen -- proud, powerful, the lion of the
chessboard -- and retreated it to a corner where it cowered for
protection behind three lowly pawns. As Jose Zalaquett, a top Chilean
amateur player, put it, it was an almost physical retreat, a folding
back into the fetal position, awaiting the final blow.
There are still many
games to go in this match. Maybe Fischer will astonish us again.
Maybe he will shake off the years and, magically, become great again,
young again. But if he continues on this trajectory of mediocrity, he
will have addressed a warning to all the gods living and dead: Never