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The Trouble with Genius

WRITING THE LIFE of a genius can make someone feel like a fool. After being absorbed by Isaac Newton for twenty years, his biographer Richard S. Westfall confessed that he understood him less well than before he started. The problem was that he and Newton had almost nothing in common. Westfall could not measure himself against such a genius, a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow beings. Newton was wholly other; he did not think the way most people do, nor did he leave a model to follow. Moreover, he knew he was different. People seldom mattered to Newton, and often he treated them as if he wished they had never existed. But when he cared about something, he saw it with incredible, unshakable clarity: the world became transparent to him. Such clarity can seem more than human—at once inspiring and monstrous. Meanwhile the biographer plods along in the cloudy world where most of us live.

As a type of genius, Bobby Fischer had much in common with Newton. Both grew into their gifts in a brown study of intense isolation, while they played games with themselves; and they liked to imagine that they could make their own rules. Both were ruthlessly competitive, so convinced of their superiority that they were reluctant to acknowledge that anyone could rival them except by cheating. And therefore a shadow of fear hung over each of them, the threat of losing a game or making a mistake and being exposed as mortal. Both shrank from the public eye and from publication, though they expected to be idolized and often were. They subscribed alike to outlandish conspiracy theories, and succumbed to the illusion that their genius at chess or mathematics extended to fields like politics and religion, whose secrets only they could decode. No one really knew either of them. Occasionally patrons and friends stepped in to shelter them from harm, but even benefactors had to be on guard lest they be suspected of taking advantage or cashing in on the acquaintance. Late in life, despite their self-sufficiency, Newton and Fischer each became attached to an attractive young person, and each was crushed when the relationship fell apart. And ultimately, though others cared for them at times (and Fischer found a wife), they lived and died alone.

Yet still that peerless, eerie clarity shone through. On one occasion when Fischer was in his prime, I was part of a circle that formed around him while he analyzed an endgame. His fingers flew over the pieces; he crowed over his moves. I was by far the weakest player in that group, which included some world-class grandmasters, yet Fischer gleefully bossed us all as if we were children. Perhaps bravado and arrogance drove the display. But the overwhelming impression it left was of an effortless simplicity. While the spell lasted, the pieces fell naturally into their places, destined to follow the one true path to an end that seemed, in retrospect, inevitable. Hence a complicated position, whose many forking and difficult choices would require any ordinary master to sink into deep thought, resolved into elemental, self-evident logic. Let there be light.

If Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess player of all time (which might be disputed by Garry Kasparov), the reason was not only that he saw further than others or that he worked harder or that he was more relentless. Most of all, it was his ability to see more clearly. Although he made a host of brilliant moves, the ones I could never predict often shocked me by simplifying the game. He would swiftly trade off powerful pieces that most players love to fondle—a dominant bishop, or a knight that commanded key squares—in order to convert his advantage to something neat and direct. The truth of a position energized him.

During the World Championship match in Reykjavik in 1972, which put chess on the map in this country and everywhere else, Boris Spassky gradually gained some ground by steering into lines that resisted precise calculation. Sometimes he would sacrifice a pawn for no clear reason, except to make the game into a labyrinth or a muddle. In the long run this strategy did not work; Fischer was just too strong to be confused. But the plan cleverly struck at the source of his strength. Newton proved his genius by showing that light is a compound of heterogeneous rays, and that white light is not the absence of color but a mixture of all sorts of colors. At its best, Fischer’s genius reduced the nearly infinite complexities of chess, its dark materials and mysteries, to combinations as clear and bright as white light.

Then, in life, the darkness got him. After he won the championship at the age of twenty-nine, Fischer seemed on top of the world. President Nixon sent his congratulations (though Fischer resented not being asked to the White House), Mayor Lindsay proposed a ticker-tape parade on Broadway (which Fischer turned down), Warner Bros. offered a million dollars for recording a series on chess (but Fischer did not like the sound of his own voice), and Zaire, fresh from the Ali-Foreman Rumble-in-the-Jungle, bid five million dollars for a match against the young Russian contender Anatoly Karpov (Fischer was insulted; Muhammad Ali had gotten double that, and had also stolen Fischer’s rightful title, The Greatest). None of the overtures seemed stupendous enough. Finally, in 1975, Bobby refused to defend his title against Karpov unless FIDE, the World Chess Federation, accepted his demands to change its rules for matches. Negotiations failed; Fischer self-righteously gave up his title; Karpov was declared the new World Champion.           

And so Fischer entered his wilderness years, shuffling from one retreat to another and habitually hiding. (Perhaps he feared that the KGB would assassinate him.) For twenty years after his triumph, until he briefly reemerged in 1992 for a diminished rematch with Spassky, in which occasional flashes of brilliance gleamed through the rust, he did not play a game in public. Nor did he play one afterwards. Slowly his genius flickered and went out. A fugitive from the United States, where he was wanted for tax evasion and for violating sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro (the site of his reprise with Spassky), he pitched his tent in Hungary, the Philippines, Japan, and finally Iceland. From time to time he surfaced long enough to rant about authorities or former friends, about Russian machinations or American abominations, and most of all about the Jews (though he himself had been born Jewish). On September 11, 2001, he gave a radio interview to greet the wonderful news: Fuck the United States! Fuck the Jews! ... Cry, you crybabies! Whine, you bastards! Now your time is coming. When Bobby Fischer died in 2008, he left two images behind: the shining star who had inspired so many followers, and the pathetic, deluded, and hateful has-been.

What happened? That question has haunted millions of fans, and it provides a biographer with a great opportunity and a curse. The opportunity is to answer the question at last. The curse is the lack of any rational answer. Frank Brady is better prepared than anyone else to solve these puzzles. He spent a great deal of time with Bobby, played hundreds of games with him, observed his triumphs, and for a long while considered himself his friend. As early as 1965 he published Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, and subsequently his research has unearthed a massive store of letters and documents, including KGB and FBI files and an autobiographical essay that Fischer wrote in his teens.

Endgame, the new biography, clears away many myths. Bobby’s mother Regina has often been accused of neglecting him to pursue left-wing causes; her daughter called her a professional protester. In this book, however, she figures as a heroine who struggled in poverty to raise two children by herself, worked hard at various jobs and medical studies, always loved and supported her son, tried to coax him out of his obsessions, and amazingly, for many years when she was barely scraping by and he was rejecting all offers, signed over her Social Security checks to him. Brady sets the record straight at last. On other matters, where the evidence seems equivocal—just who was Bobby’s biological father?—he summarizes what is known but reaches no conclusion. This is a balanced, fair-minded book about an unbalanced life.

Yet Endgame will leave many readers hungry for answers. At the heart of the story, something essential seems missing. A part of the problem must be the absence of chess. No one can understand Fischer’s genius without playing over his games, the only thing he did or left that is worth remembering. Genius is as genius does; perhaps the best record of Newton’s life is contained not in biographies, not even in Westfall’s fine Never at Rest, and not in accounts of alchemy, theology, psychology, and the apple, but in D. T. Whiteside’s great eight-volume edition of the Mathematical Papers. The bona fide Newton is there. Similarly, the best introduction to Fischer remains his masterpiece, My 60 Memorable Games, which appeared in 1969. He originally meant to call it My Life in Chess.

Fischer’s book does not tell us everything we need to know. Many of his memorable games had not yet been played, and he omitted his breakthrough against Donald Byrne, the Game of the Century that made Bobby famous at thirteen. Moreover, the book does not yield all his secrets. Larry Evans, a gifted grandmaster and writer who supplied brief introductions to the games, later disclosed that he had wrestled the volume into print, often against Bobby’s will because of his misgivings about opening his mind (and variations he had prepared) to the public and possible rivals. Still, the book is a feast for any chess-playing reader: it takes us into the heat of battle, with frank and lucid notes that reveal what Bobby was thinking (including some overconfidence and mistakes). In these pages the game seems enough to sustain a rewarding life.

Unfortunately there was much more to Fischer. Brady fills in many missing pieces. Although Bobby never finished high school, he was a voracious reader throughout his life, not only of chess books and hate literature but also of history and philosophy, including Gibbon and Nietzsche. (Bobby identified with the Superman, of course.) He also tried on a variety of religions. When, as a teenager, he embraced Herbert W. Armstrong’s Radio Church of God—previously he had been devoted to the Jean Shepherd Show—cynics attributed his new faith to competitive zeal. Samuel Reshevsky, who had long dominated American chess, was an Orthodox Jew and would not play on the Sabbath; but since the Worldwide Church of God also observed the Sabbath, Fischer could also force others to schedule games on his terms. Eventually he broke with Armstrong when a promised apocalypse failed to arrive.

But as Brady demonstrates, Fischer’s search for something he could believe in was far from tactical; it drove much of his life. When fundamentalism failed him and atheism left questions unanswered, he took to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which explained why the world was so evil and who was to blame, and later he flirted with other dogmas and cults; he may even have died a Catholic. There was only one consistent thread to these makeovers: whatever he might believe in, he was sure he was right.

That self-centered certainty also destroyed his career. Bobby would not play along with anyone else’s proposals, and finally he would not play at all. Enraged when people tried to manipulate him, he had an uncanny ability to sniff out plots (whether real or imagined) and banish the false friend forever. Andrei Lilienthal, an octogenarian grandmaster who hosted him for years in Budapest, could not be a Jew, according to Bobby, because he was a good person. But after Lilienthal signed his guest’s name to a letter to FIDE, which resulted in a $100,000 payoff to Fischer, he became an old Jewish scoundrel. Above all, Fischer needed to be in control, no matter what the cost. From this point of view, his savage turn against any authority that might bind him, against country and kin and police and taxes and the rulers of chess, seems to make perfect sense. Bobby always had reasons.

Although Brady is well aware that most of those reasons were absurd and many were vile, his fair-minded treatment tries to give each due weight. An unacknowledged comedy and horror run through these balanced accounts. Refuting the urban legend that Bobby had the fillings in his teeth extracted because he thought the Soviets might transmit radio signals through them, Brady gives a better reason: fear of mercury poisoning. Maybe, but Bobby’s stubborn theory still cost him most of his teeth. Another theory (mercifully unmentioned by Brady) held that the Jews want to drive the elephants to extinction because the trunk of an elephant reminds them of an uncircumcised penis. I’m absolutely serious about that. (Fischer, who never had a bris, accused the Jews of mutilating their children.)

Meshugge, of course. Yet no one seems to have dared to laugh at these follies, and many felt compassion, as well as repulsion, for the once brilliant man who was imprisoned in them. When Newton suffered a mental breakdown in 1693, his friends John Locke and Samuel Pepys protected him, responding to his attacks with pity and kindness, and keeping the story secret. (Curiously, his delusions may have been symptoms of mercury poisoning.) Similarly, those who remembered Fischer’s greatness rallied around him and forgave his eccentric behavior and awful opinions. That is the decent human response, which Brady reliably provides. But mere humanity can hardly find the key to what was going on in Bobby’s mind.

Perhaps that key does not and cannot exist. All the standard, plausible, rational answers are trotted out by Brady. Nature and nurture, the small, confining world of chess, American culture and the Cold War, a paranoia excited by real enemies, a series of injustices, the stalking by celebrity hounds, extreme isolation and alienation, physical ailments, and in his later years perhaps a fear that he was nothing without chess—all put a face of reason on Fischer’s demons. Cumulatively, however, they tend to flatten the ups and downs of a weird and wandering psyche. In the absence of any strong psychological insight or clinical diagnosis, Brady’s focus on Bobby’s own point of view, or on what can be reconstructed of it, seems to rationalize but not to explain how he strayed. Sometimes the book resorts to little vignettes. It begins in 2004, for example, with Bobby’s arrest and jailing in Japan; on this occasion some real brutality confirmed his persecution complex. But action like this does not tell us what made him tick.

Worse yet, it shapes the central figure into a kind of hero, as in an action movie where many extras die and no one cares. The legend swells and dominates the life. A similar effect runs through Bobby Fischer Against the World, the recent biopic on HBO, in which clips and interviews and headlines recreate the star on whom all eyes are turned, a flawed but unbeatable American hero. The camera cherishes Bobby while he romps with dogs. All the while he fights alone against the world, like Rambo or Ajax. This story generates enormous popular appeal, enhanced by the mystique of a rebel and the tragic dimensions of a battle that no one can win in the end. How could poor Boris Spassky compete? Nobody roots for the world against the hero! Yet Spassky was a person, too—a kind-hearted and generous person. In real life Fischer hurt lots of people, but they hardly count here. The king is a privileged piece; as long as it can keep moving, the game continues. Nor can anyone outside the game begin to justify or throw light on its motives. The myth of Bobby Fischer blots out the world.

Another all-purpose answer might try to fill the hole in this book. When the great Newtonian I. Bernard Cohen asked Frances Yates how Newton could have kept the Principia free from his deep studies of occult ideas, she replied simply but very profoundly that, after all, ‘Newton was a genius.’ Who would not agree! We cannot expect a person of such creative genius to behave in an ordinary fashion. The magical word, like abracadabra, resolves all difficulties. The problem is that it also brushes off the possibility of any real understanding. Newton, from this point of view, was a sport of nature, as Fischer would be, and geniuses have to be cut some slack. Indeed, the more inexplicable someone might be, the more he qualifies as a genius (Yates might have been countering Kant, who ingeniously argued that Newton was not a genius precisely because he followed rules and did not create or break them).

This lets the analyst off the hook: true genius demands a response of hero-worship and awe, not any semblance of human nature. In the end, like another Newton, Fischer seems wholly other to his biographer, who cannot measure himself against his subject. Brady enters the book in person only once: as he watches the teenaged Fischer smiling and talking to himself while analyzing game after game from memory, aware of nothing but the pocket set in his hand, the vision of genius so overcomes the onlooker that he quietly weeps. We never come closer than that.

Awe was always a fitting response to the sight of Bobby at play. Yet that picture leaves something out; it misrepresents not only the nature of genius, but also the nature of chess. For Fischer was not alone that evening. He was conversing not with Brady but with the players whose games he remembered and entered and challenged. Chess has a history; great players build on the ideas and plans of those who have gone before. Whether or not Newton’s modesty was sincere when he told his rival Robert Hooke that If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants, the concession rings true. Even the loneliest and most independent genius depends on other people, living and dead, against and with whom he competes.

Fischer certainly knew this, at least when his mind was right. He was remarkably well versed in games from earlier eras, and loved to surprise his opponents with innovations he rejuvenated from Steinitz and other legendary giants. Chess geniuses take their place in a pecking order centuries old. Garry Kasparov, after retiring from active play, has gone on to publish a series on My Great Predecessors. Though he pays tribute to Fischer, he also puts him in context, observing that chess has made progress in the last forty years (partly because of computers) and that many of Bobby’s ideas are now outmoded. Perhaps a sense of competition fuels this verdict; Kasparov does not like to play second fiddle. But the basic insight is valid. As Fischer recedes into history, it becomes more and more clear that he belongs to a cohort of giants whose individual feats of genius support and enable each other.

Such a context might put a different spin on Fischer’s rise and fall. Much as he wanted to be alone, he could never be alone enough. Even the blinding clarity that he sought and so often achieved at the board was constantly threatened by other people’s moves. Reuben Fine, among the best players in the world in the 1930s and 1940s, and later a psychoanalyst who tried and failed to analyze Fischer, called him perhaps the purest player of all times, and Kasparov agrees. But pure is a double-edged word. Immersed in the game, the player becomes as hard and clear as a crystal, or as a computer programmed to do one thing superlatively well. But people who strive for purity usually crack.

The pure products of America, William Carlos Williams famously wrote, go crazy; and Bobby Fischer, however much he came to hate America, was nonetheless one of its purest products—self-reliant, obstinate, suspicious of any attempt to constrain his freedom, and fiercely opposed to taxes. At times he looked like a derelict, or like a fanatical prophet. Sometimes such outlaws attract disciples; more often they are locked up or shot down. But generally their obsessions and grievances eat up their lives. That might be one way to make sense of what happened to him.

Yet no chess-playing genius remains wholly pure. A winner needs losers to test him, to fall into his traps, to make him sweat, to validate him, and sometimes even to beat him, if only to show how unpredictable the game can be. An everlasting tension plagues the solitary genius, who must expose himself in order to find the recognition he craves. Newton was shy of the one group he had to impress and convince, the Royal Society, because it embroiled him in skeptical challenges of his ideas as well as in the politics of forging a scientific consensus. But eventually Newton learned that other people could serve and gratify him, and he was elected President of the Royal Society. Hence England accepted him as its national genius.

But no society ever attracted Bobby Fischer. Teamwork, cooperation, and networking usually struck him as diabolical plots. Not long after Iceland rescued him by granting him citizenship and a home, he turned against that God-forsaken country. Even chess games began to look like conspiracies. One idée fixe of his later years was that Karpov and Kasparov had faked the games of their match in 1985, prearranging the moves—though Bobby could never explain why they would have done it. Whenever two people got together, outside the pure sphere of his ego, they seemed to be swindling him. 

In retrospect, however, other players had cause to be grateful to Bobby. His tantrums and ultimatums, his infuriating and non-negotiable demands for more money and better playing conditions, helped bring about a revolution in the highest levels of chess. Cash prizes are much larger now; the best grandmasters can earn a good living; and a new internationalism has undermined the hegemony of Russia and the Eastern bloc. The current world champion, Vishy Anand, comes from India, and his foremost rival, Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, and each seems to be a sane and decent human being. Paradoxically, the advantages that Fischer sought for himself, and never managed to get, were passed on to others. The individual lost, the collective won. That is the worldly moral of this story.

Yet Bobby himself could not tease any meaning out of his life. Even the meaning of genius baffled him, except as a mechanical way of keeping score. Genius. It’s a word, he once said. What does it really mean? If I win I’m a genius. If I don’t, I’m not. What was he, then, when he refused to play? A loaded gun that could not fire; an empty church in which bats flew around; the ghost of wonderful combinations that never would happen; a series of zeros; or maybe nothing at all. The life leaks out of his pointless wanderings, as out of this book. But in the end, for other people, Bobby Fischer’s genius was more than a word. We still have the games.

Lawrence Lipking is writing a book that reimagines the Scientific Revolution. He won the New York State Open Chess Tournament in 1966, three years after Bobby Fischer won it.