Searching for Bobby Fischer (July 1972)

Bobby Fischer, The Queen's Gambit, and the strange journey of chess in America

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I.

In the summer of 1972, Bobby Fischer played Russian Boris Spassky in a series of games for the world chess championship in Rekjavik, Iceland. If you know only one thing about competitive chess, it is probably this; it was the only moment in modern American history that a wide swath of the general public came to care about chess all at once. The Fischer-Spassky matches became front page news in America, broadcast on public television. Fischer appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Life, Time and Newsweek. Mothers swept their children out of piano lessons and into chess lessons; the fever carried across social and racial lines, drawing young and old to the game.

The moment was fleeting, both for chess and for Fischer, who descended slowly and then suddenly into an inexplicable madness, marked by paranoid xenophobia and antisemitism, before he died in 2008. Eventually, the game of chess retreated back into its niche—often relegated, through the lens of Fischer, into the realm of ineffable genius and unhealthy obsession. It requires the sort of immersion that most of us either don’t have the ability or the patience to comprehend, especially as we grow older; to those of us on the outside, watching people plow through speed-chess games in the park, it can almost feel like a kind of black magic.

Maybe chess tends to draw in peculiar characters like Fischer by its very nature—another 19th-century American champion, Paul Morphy, died at age 47 in a bathtub surrounded by women’s shoes—but I also wonder if chess players, particularly young prodigies, are more given embrace their oddities because that’s how those of us on the outside tend to see them. Either way, chess remains an outlier, continually resisting all efforts to drag it into mass culture in this country in the years since Fischer played Spassky. When it does occur, it is often by mere happenstance.

And so, in this quiet and bleak and often terrifying 2020 in America—at a time when so many of us are given to obsession over health and politics and an increasingly uncertain future—it is only appropriate that the best television series of the year happens to be centered around a sport that we’ve long viewed as something entirely inscrutable.


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II.

There’s a scene in the fifth episode The Queen’s Gambit, the seven-part Netflix miniseries about a world-class mid-century female chess player (and based on the novel by Walter Tevis), where the protagonist, Beth Harmon, and her friend/lover/competitor, Benny Watts, survey the crowd at a national chess tournament. They’re on the campus of a small and unnamed Ohio college that Benny refers to as “second-rate.” With the exception of a few stragglers and a ragtag group of competitors, they are essentially alone. Imagine, Benny wonders, if they were golfers or tennis players competing for a national championship. Imagine how they might be swarmed by reporters and admirers, if only anyone cared about chess the way they care about other sports in America.

I have heard these laments before, in real life, in the carpeted ballroom of an aging Times Square hotel, and in the the cavernous hangar-like conference room of a massive hotel in Nashville, and in too many other places for me to recall. I have heard it from adults and teenagers; I have, in fact, uttered similar words myself. For over two years in the early to mid 2000s, I immersed myself in the world of competitive chess, to write a book that was originally titled The Kings of New York, at least until the publisher inexplicably decided to change the title in paperback to Game of Kings, because it was clear they had absolutely no idea how to go about selling a book about competitive chess—even if, at heart, I’d like to think the book was less about chess and more about adolescence and assimilation and opportunity and the price of obsession, all viewed through the lens of the culturally and racial diverse national championship chess team at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn.

Those, too, are some of the themes of The Queen’s Gambit: It is ultimately a story about the cost of genius, according to co-creator Scott Frank. Over the course of the story, Beth is both enchanted by chess and repelled by what it does to her psyche. At its heart, as revealed in the seventh and final episode, The Queen’s Gambit is an elongated (and very good) sports film, just like the perpetually underrated Searching for Bobby Fischer (based on the extraordinary memoir by Fred Waitzkin) was before it. The underlying question is whether it’s worth it to pursue an obsession that will likely get you nowhere, financially or professionally or even psychically, and that will eventually break your heart.


III.

Not only did The Queen’s Gambit get the historical and technical details right; it got that feeling right, the underlying sense of isolation and estrangement that defined nearly every chess tournament I attended over the course of my time parachuting into a subculture I knew almost nothing about before I began researching my book. All these years later, I’m still not sure I entirely understand what I saw over the course of those two years, but maybe that was kind of the point—you had to break through to the other side in order to fully understand it.

People used to ask me why I wrote a book about something as esoteric as chess, and I usually tell them that I didn’t write a book about chess, but a book about fascinating people who happened to play chess. People also used to ask me if I thought chess was a sport; I wanted to tell them that this really didn’t matter, but that of course it was, because any competitive pursuit had certain things in common. The best chess players I met during my time immersed in that subculture shared certain traits with Beth Harmon: Many of them wished they could make a living playing this game that they loved, but at the same time, they often lacked the patience to explain things to novices like me. I would speak to some experts, like the Hungarian-American Susan Polgar, who have made it their mission to bring chess to the masses; I would speak to others who viewed people like Polgar as charlatans who were determined to ruin the one thing they loved.

Bobby Fischer once said that they only things he cared about were chess and money. This is the great paradox of the game in America—those two elements rarely converge. Even in The Queen’s Gambit, Beth never feels fully comfortable with the publicity she does get for being the highest-profile woman in a sport that’s long been dominated by men. Here is where The Queen’s Gambit veers into fiction—because there has never been a young female chess player who has received that kind of mainstream attention in the modern history of this country. (Some of that is no doubt grounded in sexism.) There has only been Bobby Fischer, an unapproachable genius who, nearly fifty years later, remains the kind of enigmatic figure we associate with the sport.

In a year where we’ve all been forced to confront the demons in our head—where we’ve all felt a little bit like we’re losing our minds—The Queen’s Gambit captured the feeling of a subculture that veers between being instinctively protective and insular, and a yearning for wider acceptance. It is a show about genius and obsession and staving off madness, and for many Americans, this is the only chess story they’ve ever known.


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