Jonathan Safran Foer on Bobby Fischer, From Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

The stadium scene.
Oct. 24 2012 8:00 AM

The Unnatural

Bobby Fischer (1943–2008), from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.

Chess legend Bobby Fischer.
Chess legend Bobby Fischer at New Tokyo International Airport in 2005

Photograph by Junko Kimura/Getty Images.

This piece comes from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, and published this week by Twelve.

A Jew wrote The Natural, but has there ever been a natural Jew? Free-spiritedness, joie de vivre, ease in the world—these are not what we do. We do scrappiness, resilience, hard work, self-questioning, self-consciousness, self-destruction, and unflappable will. This applies especially to our athletes, many of whom were not given the best of genetic toolboxes. Most great Jewish athletes have at least this in common: they overcome God’s gifts.

Not a jock, and not a Jew by any definition richer than heredity, Bobby Fischer was the quintessential Jewish Jock. He worked harder than any of his peers. He attempted to conceal his insecurity behind an ego built for 20, and his self-love behind self-hatred behind self-love. And perhaps more than any human who has ever lived, he kvetched: The board is too reflective, the presence of breathing humans too distracting, the high-frequency sounds—which only he and Pomeranians could detect—made game play utterly impossible. Some loved him for his loony obstinacy. Most didn’t.

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Contrary to our notions of a chess prodigy and the accepted version of Bobby Fischer’s biography, he was not magnificent from the start. He had to learn, practice, and mature. As an adolescent in Brooklyn, he developed an unusually strong passion for a game that he was not unusually good at. (Children his age regularly beat him.) While he did clearly come into some innate prodigious talent—hard work might unleash genius, but it never creates it—what distinguished him, both in his formative years and through his career, was his single-minded, obsessive devotion to the game. He was known to practice 14 hours a day, and fall asleep with one of his several hundred chess books and journals on his chest. (“I give 98 percent of my mental energy to chess,” he once said. “Others give only 2 percent.”) Like a good Jewish boy, he outworked his peers and brought the A home to Mama. And like a good Jewish boy, he couldn’t stand Mama—her politics, priorities, relationship to money, or religion.

He got better. And better. Before 1956, Fischer was an excellent, if not particularly remarkable, chess player. His talents were real and evident, but no one would have picked him as a future world champ. But then, at the age of 13—in lieu of a bar mitzvah, one might say—he made a quantum leap, becoming not only the youngest person ever to win the U.S. Junior Championship, but one of the fiercest, most aggressive, and punishing chess players in history. The gangly, all-arms-and-legs Jewish boy didn’t simply defeat or even crush his opponents, he circumcised them. (They were all men.)

While he became known for his increasingly outlandish demands—especially sums of money that didn’t correspond to the world of chess—what he actually wanted held constant through his life: an ego fortified by the destruction of all other egos. In his own words, “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”

One of the most remarkable things about Fischer’s chess in those early years was how often he won. For the last century, as chess has become more and more a study of past games—rather than a honing of strategies in preparation for a unique, unwinding story—the rote openings have become longer and longer, and more games end with draws. Each move sets into motion an eventuality, which is why so many players resign when they are 10 or even 20 moves from a likely loss. Fischer played a different game, the long game that left room for chance and intuition.

And rather than play for match victories—which would involve the marshaling of mental resources, and taking fewer risks—he only played for game victories.

How did he become so strong so quickly? Of course no one will ever know, but the thrill of his accelerated talent is comparable to anything any artist or scientist accomplished. Those lucky enough to witness and understand it knew the historical significance. Fischer’s own explanation for his radical development: “I just got good.” A year after becoming U.S. Junior Champion, he was the youngest U.S. master, then the youngest International Grandmaster. Then he beat just about everybody just about always.

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