News services round the world have been reporting the untimely death of Bobby Fischer, a.k.a. Robert James Fischer, the American-born chess genius.
Fischer’s match with Boris Spassky in 1972 had a huge influence on me, tempting me back to competitive chess, and over the years I studied most of his games in great detail. So I was definitely a fan.
But sadly much of the coverage has focused on some of the foul things that he said in his later years. It is particularly unfortunate because most of the reports failed to mention a number of other things about him.
I never met or examined Fischer and it is dangerous to diagnose people at long range. But there were multiple reports that made it very clear that he long ago crossed the line into mental illness.
He was always single-minded and cantankerous, and some of his allegations about cheating turned out to be correct. But when he began to believe that people could pick up or manipulate his thoughts through the fillings in his teeth, it was clear that something else was going wrong with him.
Some people have tried to link genius in chess and mental illness, but the link is at best tenuous, even though more than one very strong player has succumbed to mental illness. As we have discussed, there may be a link between creativity and schizotypal personality disorder, but the thing about chess is that high-level play requires enormous sustained concentration and motivation, to say nothing of the ability to withstand intensive mental stress. Thos are all things that become difficult as mental illness progresses.
One of the best ways of evaluating a culture is the way in which it treats its weakest members. So let us remember and celebrate Fischer’s genius and recognize that his later and ever darker life was driven by a terrible mental deterioration.
“The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the Universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us.”
--Thomas Henry Huxley (English Biologist and Educator, 1825-1895)
“Chess is the touchstone of intellect.”
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German Poet, Playwright and Philosopher, 1749-1832)