Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer - In Memoriam

Bobby Fischer died recently in Reykjavik, Iceland, after a long illness. He was 64. His later years were marked by his reclusiveness, and his anti-American and anti-Semitic rants. His biographer, Frank Brady, described Fischer as the "pride and the sorrow of American chess", and that seems to capture him in a line. When he was on, he was brilliant, maybe the best ever. When he was 13 years old, he played a game against Donald Byrne in a tournament in 1956. That game became known as the "Game of the Century", and it is recognized today as one of the greatest games ever played. Fisher made a play with his knight on move 14 that Reuben Fine gave three exclamation points in his review, and sacrificed his Queen on the 17th move (Fine gave that move 4 exclamation points, Flohr gave it 3). That victory put Fischer on the chess map and destined him for greatness.

I remember how excited I was when Fischer played for the world championship in 1972. Bobby was a solitary figure, the lone American competing against the powerful and entrenched Soviet chess machine. I purchased a world championship program and followed all the games throughout the match. Distressingly, much of Fischer's conduct was more akin to a professional wrestling match than it was to championship chess. Fischer prevailed, however, and he beat Boris Spassky for the title. Chess aficionados around the country now eagerly awaited the new flowering of American chess. We were sure that Fischer would be a great ambassador for the game, that he would travel and give simultaneous exhibitions and take on all comers. Instead of ushering in a new era, he retreated from chess and the public view. The flower wilted, and the new appreciation for chess in America that Fischer had been so instrumental in establishing wilted as well. In the years following that match, I played chess in the local chess clubs, and I competed in tournaments at the local community college. But I, too, drifted away from the game.

Bobby Fischer was not the first American chess genius who failed to reach his true potential. There was the great Paul Morphy, who died at 47 after having abandoned chess. Morphy declared he would play anyone in the world and that he would give odds of a pawn and a move. With no challengers forthcoming, he retired from chess. Harry Nelson Pillsbury, at the age of 22, placed first in one of the strongest chess tournaments ever held, the Hastings Tournament of 1895. He went from unknown to a star in the chess firmament overnight. Pillsbury had an incredible mind, he could play chess, checkers and whist at the same time while blindfolded (without sight of boards or cards), playing everything in his mind as the moves were told to him. It was Pillsbury who put the Queen’s Gambit Declined opening in the grandmaster toolbox. Sadly, Pillsbury's health was never robust, and he succumbed to syphilis and died at the age of 33. Now it was Bobby's turn, and he slowly and inexorably slid further into darkness to join the ranks of the unfulfilled American genius.

Occasionally, over the years, Fischer's name would appear in the news, but never in a positive manner. He railed against Jews and America, and showed the world that he was losing his attachment with humanity in general. In 2001, he praised the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States. Garry Kasparov, the great Russian grandmaster, said Fischer had become, "a prisoner of chess who got lost in its depths and could not find his bearings in the real world outside." The organizer of the 1972 championship match noted in 2005 that Fischer occupied, "a gray area between a genius and someone who is insane."

But when he was young, he was a force to be reckoned with, and he stood up for what he believed. Fischer's great legacy, other than the collection of his finest games, might be the way international tournaments are conducted today. For years, he complained bitterly that the Russians played for meaningless draws amongst themselves, and played all-out against non-Soviets. In this way, Russia orchestrated who would hold the title of world champion. Rules governing drawn games and the conduct of matches were slowly instituted by FIDE, the governing body of chess.

Whatever he was, he is now gone. He was a boor and a lout, but there was a brief period when the candle that was Fischer shone brighter than all the others combined. Harold Schonberg, in his 1973 work 'Grandmasters of Chess', characterized the importance of Fischer this way. "It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity. If for no other reason, Bobby Fischer was and would be the greatest chess champion who ever lived."

The light that was the genius of Fischer is now extinguished; gone with it are the pain and torment that were part of the man as well. Today, I remember the young man, full of promise and greatness, who stood alone against the Russians, without an Army of seconds and advisors to assist him, and knocked the chess world on its ear.

Sleep well, young prince. Be at peace.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Out of Africa - Kenya and Democracy

In the movie 'Out of Africa', Karen Blixen struggles to find a home for her beloved Kikuyu tribe after she loses her farm. But today, the Kikuyu are Kenya's majority ethnic group, and the images from Kenya captured during the recent rioting after a disputed election are not pretty. Reports of killings, maimings, sexual atrocities, and more come to us through the wire services. Churches filled with women and children seeking sanctuary are burned to the ground. Multi-ethnic families are torn apart from every side. The frightening image of a seemingly ignorant man wielding a machete seems to be everywhere.

How depressing, this explosion of ethnic hatred. Africa is closer to its dark past than we have realized. The world seems a mean place today, and we in the US can certainly bear some of the responsibility for that, as we talk statesmanship but act with arrogance. But that does not mean we should interfere in the affairs of Africa; it is too big and too complex for the US to think it could succeed in the affairs of so many countries, each with a great diversity of ethnic influence.

We can only wonder how this will end. Let's hope the UN can broker some kind of cessation to the wanton mayhem sweeping the country, before more of the great continent is swept into unrest.

Celebrating the BCS.....Not

On January 7, 2008, the BCS Championship Football Game between LSU and Ohio State was played to determine the national collegiate champion. The next morning, the headlines on my Yahoo home page blared, ”Who is number 1 next season?” and “LSU won this year's title, but is not a favorite to repeat.”

These statements are so indicative of the quality and pace of life in general today, here in these United States of America. It makes me wonder what success really is, and who can achieve it. How about a congratulatory story, or a few kind words about the hard work and the sacrifices required to become a champion, and perhaps a nod to the young men who had struggled so hard to achieve their goal.

The answer to that question is obviously, “No!”

Celebrating a championship was so clearly last night’s story. Let us cut right to the chase and start the arguing and bickering over the unknown teams that will play in the BCS next year, because we are clearly not happy unless we are arguing and squabbling over poll results or rankings, or some other minutiae in the politics or religion of Sports. Today, there is no time for reflection or for celebration; let’s just keep the meat grinder turning.

Say, I wonder what the early line on next years BCS game is, or what is the over/under?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Prediction: 'Global Warming' and 'Carbon Footprint'

Prediction: The terms 'Global Warming' and 'Carbon Footprint' will be the new subterranean raison d'etre for an assault on personal freedoms and liberty, and will be used by a variety of liberal and conservative pundits to push their private agendas. The Government will use these buzz words to ratchet down a more stringent control over the movement and activities of the governed, who will be fed a steady diet of fear and loathing to make them get in line. As if the world would be a better place if we all just stayed home and tuned into the media for the latest update. What is the origin of this bleak prediction and assertion? Yesterday on a talk radio program, I heard the following statement, "The upcoming Super Bowl has a large Carbon Footprint." And? So? One can follow that statement to a variety of conclusions, and easily find something there to dislike.

Ignorance and Want

The term 'Global Warming' distracts us from the really salient issues of the day, population and education. And when I mention education, I do not include what is taught to youngsters in the Islamic madrasses of Pakistan, nor in the Creation Museum of Kentucky. In his classic work, 'A Christmas Carol', Charles Dickens penned the following lines about the 'offspring' of mankind.

“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

I don't think that those words have ever been more true than they are today. In its own way, both at home and abroad, the modern assault on rationalism and science is underway, promulgated by those representing a new radicalism within various religious movements around the globe. This is making the world of today a meaner and more dangerous place to live. It's true that science does not possess the answers to all of the daunting problems facing mankind today, but the answers are not to be found in dogma, either. At least science is an international language of discovery and collaboration, where the process itself goes beyond the old beliefs of the past, and lays a foundation where the discoveries of the future can bear fruit. The fact that sea levels are going to rise in the coming years is not the most worrisome issue facing a troubled world today.