I’ve never been great at chess. I like it well enough. I enjoy the strategy, the cool-headed combat. The potential moveset feels both limitless and incredibly specific. Then there’s the aesthetic, the trappings of the Renaissance - when kings and queens did more than give speeches and get married.
I’ve just never been able to think sufficiently in advance. I can’t retain a strategy once I’m in the thick of battle. Put bluntly: I’m no Bobby Fischer.
Bobby Fischer, the chess star of the twentieth century, shone incredibly bright as a prodigy before burning out amid paranoia and disillusionment. The United States wielded him like a weapon in the Cold War, fighting the Soviets on the chess board rather than across the globe. Fischer would later come to despise the United States, even calling into a radio show post-9/11 to say that “what goes around, comes around.”
Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fischer Against The World (recently on HBO) chronicles Fischer’s ascent and decline. In an interview with Paste, Garbus spoke about what the crucible of success in the spotlight can do:
“You see that in other disciplines as well, great artists who go crazy, or composers, or child actors today. I think we see it across disciplines, and it’s not unique to chess, but that expertise and mastery, and especially from such an early age that mono-focus on your chosen field, can be tough on people. Especially people that have heightened sensitivities or tendencies toward mental illness. Not developing those other parts of yourself can be dangerous. And Bobby himself says when he gets to Iceland, "I thought maybe I could write songs, but then I realized I had nothing to say because I haven’t lived." Bobby himself was aware of the fact that he had no other life outside chess. So when he reached his life’s ambition, he had nowhere to go.”
Garbus set out to make her film after reading Fischer’s obituary, and it sounds like she’s done everything she could to paint a fair portrait of a man who left this world an angry, unlikable ex-pat. All this Fischer talk may even make me try chess again.