FISCHING for GREATNESS
(Investigator 27, 1992 November)
"So up he pops while the world watches." These words aptly describe the surprise felt when the greatest prodigy in chess returned.
I, however, wasn't surprised. When Robert J Fischer didn't "pop up" 7, 10 or 12 years after becoming world champion in 1972 I expected it in 20 years!
Baseball hero Ted Williams (b.1918) made two comebacks – in 1946 and 1953. Muhammed Ali (b.1942) regained the world heavyweight title twice. Successful comebacks do occur after 2 or 5 or even 10 years – when the person is still in his prime. Others like Joe Louis and Mark Spitz failed.
Can the greatest legend in chess beat the years and play like in his youth? There are New Age groups which claim to possess "physical immortality". Occasionally one reads about a "white powder" which "rejuvenates". And the Bible says: "The righteous...bring forth fruit in old age, they are full of sap and green." (Psalm 72)
But none of this seems to apply to Fischer.
After defeating Boris Spassky in 1972 "Bobby" Fischer donated his winnings to Herbert Armstrong's World Wide Church of God. In 1975 he forfeited his title to Anatoly Karpov (b.1951) of the Soviet Union and vanished into a world of shabby hotels.
Recent Time magazine articles call Fischer "boarish", "offensive", "eccentric" and "pathological". Indeed Fischer had a knack for offending people. During a disagreement in the 1972 world championship match in Iceland, for example, he yelled out: "I'm not going to be dictated to by little Icelanders!"
An interview for Harper's Magazine in 1961 was full of lovely quips such as: "They're all weak, all women. They're stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play chess, you know."
Bobby was born in 1943, learned chess at 6, became the US champ at 14 and a "grandmaster" at 15. He then left school to play in chess tournament after tournament. In 1961 Fischer walked out on a match with former child prodigy Samuel Reshevsky in protest when sponsors rescheduled a game. Fischer has often sacrificed personal interests when he believed himself to be right.
In 1964 Fischer played in the Candidates tournament (for deciding the challenger to the world champion) and accused Soviet players of arranging short draws with each other to conserve their strength for him. He then retired from chess for 2 years.
In 1967 Fischer restarted his climb to the top but retired again when he had to play on the Sabbath. He had joined the Herbert Armstrong (1892-1986) sabbath-keeping cult in 1963.
In 1970 Fischer returned, stronger than ever. His results in the elimination matches included an unprecedented string of 18 consecutive victories against world-class opponents.
The 1972 world championship match was unrivalled for arguments, acrimony and even tantrums. At one stage Spassky declared his desire to kick Bobby in the backside!
A news article of July 12 said: "He is a loudmouth … humorless, with an ego on the brink of mania."
Alexander Cockburn in Idle Passion (1974) wrote: "Bobby Fischer, unpredictable, moody, erratic, childish, childlike, sulky, overweening, arrogant, boastful, nose picking, ear-gouging, sleepless, neurotic, obsessed, driven, monstrous challenger." (p. 165)
Fischer lost the first game and forfeited the second for not showing up, but agreed to go on when the prize money was doubled. He went on to win seemingly effortlessly.
Again Fischer retired! A news headline read: "Fischer Shuns World Chess".
In 1975, amidst heated dispute, Fischer refused to defend his title and forfeited to Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov (b.1951). Headlines included "Mud-slinging on in Chess" and "Fischer mortally feared defeat". The publicised reason was disagreement over the rules but another reason might be that his sect was awaiting the "great tribulation" and return of Jesus in the mid-1970s.
Some compared Fischer with Paul Morphy (1837-1884) who beat the world's top players in one frantic year (1859) and then retired from the game for good. Or with Carlos Torre (1904-1978) of Mexico, a world contender in the 1920s, who one day stripped naked on a bus, was hospitalised for a year, and never returned to competitive chess.
In 1976 the International Chess Federation invited Fischer to challenge Karpov. No response. "Angry Bobby Is In Hiding" read a headline of December 1977. Speculation of yet another comeback surfaced from time to time. "Fischer Back in Chess World" – 1978. "Former World Chess Champion Planning a Comeback" – 1981.
Allowing a year for preparation these dates are 7 and 10 years as measured from 1972.
Meanwhile Fischer deserted his religion. "They cleaned out my pockets, frankly" he said in 1977. "The real proof for me was those false prophecies."
The false prophecies referred to a whole series of prophecies, supposedly derived from the Bible for such dates as 1972, 1975 and 1978. For example The Plain Truth magazine of June 1968 had predicted "universal peace IS coming in our time - and not later than the decade of the 1970s." (p. 23)
Fischer could have been a millionaire a dozen times over. President Marcos, for example, offered $5 million in 1975. But Fischer stayed hidden. In 1985 Gary Kasparov (b.1963) defeated Karpov and became world champion.
The reasons I believed Fischer would return were (1) He'd eventually need money, (2) To prove himself again and add to his legend. After all chess is all he's good at.
The expectation of 7, 10, 12 or 20 years was based on Fischer's religion. These numbers (especially 7, 10 and 12) are often used with a favorable connotation in the Bible. The number "20" is common in the Law of Moses and in the measurements of the Jewish temple. Also Samson judged Israel for 20 years (Judges 15:20) and the Ark of the Covenant was once in the care of Eleazar for 20 years. (I Samuel 7:2)
A millionaire puts up $5 million. Romance with a 19-year-old Hungarian chess player, Zita Reichany, with rumors of marriage. A chance to snub government by violating the UN embargo on Serbia. And "up he pops" this "Rip Van Winkle of chess" publicly spitting on a U.S. Government order. Twenty years to the day after defeating Spassky a return match with Spassky starts.
Fischer is showing his years but, at 49, is not an old man. Yet a comeback – in any sport – after 20 years to face the next generation of professionals is unprecedented!
In chess the usual pattern for a grandmaster who plays regularly is to reach his peak at 30 or 35, stay near it for 5 years and then slowly decline.
The decline, therefore starts at about the same time as other signs of aging:"In young adult life, the functional capacity of human organs is four to 10 times that required to sustain life... Measurement of organ reserve over time shows an almost linear decline beginning at about the age of 30… The inevitable result is natural death, even without disease." (The New England Journal of Medicine 1980 July 17 p.130)In the more vigorous sports, peak performance is sometimes maintained up to one's mid 50s by continuous training. John A Kelly (b.1908) ran in his 39th Boston Marathon in 1970 but won only in 1935 and 1945. Clarence De Mar (1898-1958) ran 34 times in the Boston Marathon (his last in 1954) but his 7th and last victory was in 1930. In something more-mild such as golf a professional who keeps in training may maintain peak performance into his 50s.
Reports of rejuvenation of wonder powders, of elixirs of youth and of the wonders of gingseng roots are fictions. Prime Time magazine of 1983 for example reported on a Russian scientist and his "elixir of life":"My subjects…have seemingly stopped aging." (June, p.9) New Idea magazine of 1980 said: "Dr W. Donner Denckla…claims to have discovered a compound secreted in the pituitary gland which, if ‘reprogrammed', could technically immortalise man." (January 26 p.29)
These claims were silly. However, some delay in the breakdown of bodily mechanisms follows from exercise, low calory diets, antioxidants (vitamin E, C, etc), avoidance of drugs, and having positive attitudes and goals. A common slogan now is: "Don't use it and you'll lose it." In other wards you'll maintain your abilities and faculties near their peak longer if you exercise them regularly.
Fischer, except for chess, is unimpressive. His return has been compared to the drama of a god who risks his immortality by assuming human form.
To add to his legendary status Fischer will need to beat Spassky in the current return match. Afterwards he might, I'd suggest, take on the world's best chess computer or the world's best female player or perhaps play a simultaneous match against a score or more of leading players. These, I think, would be fairly safe decisions.
All tournament players have a rating calculated from tournament results, Fischer in 1972 was 2,780; Kasparov currently has 2,800; Nigel Short (b. 1965), current challenger to Kasparov, has 2,730.
Unanswerd questions include:
"Did Fischer reach his peak by 1972?"
"Has he kept up with all the published chess analysis and done his own analysis as well?"
Subject to the answers Fischer might still be able to rival the top three. In the current match with Spassky (rating 2,550 and now ranked 100th in the world) Fischer is winning twice as many games as Spassky. By referring to published tables of statistics we can estimate Fischer's margin of superiority as indicating a rating of 2,650.
Fischer, therefore, could no longer beat the best. He should avoid a one to one confrontation with them if he wishes to maintain his "immortality". If the purse is big enough, however, perhaps he'll think the loss worthwhile! A match with Kasparov, it's rumoured, might be worth $30,000,000!
Incidentally, the World Wide Church of God had major membership losses as prophetic dates failed one after another.
Its magazine The Plain Truth plummeted down, down, down from a peak circulation (in early 1986) of 8,000,000. Garner Ted Armstrong, the son of the founder, was accused of seducing 300 girls in the cult's college – Ambassador College. Breakaway groups circulated a pamphlet called In Bed With Garner Ted. Ted Armstrong himself started a breakaway cult called The Church of God International. It publishes a magazine called Twentieth Century Watch.